Nirvana’s Nevermind is the album that’s often cited as the “year zero” moment of the 1990s: that album single-handedly seemed to destroy the careers of artists who seemed out-of-step and out of touch with the new rules of the zeitgeist. Hair metal bands? They all ditched their hairspray, and started citing punk rock bands as influences. Legacy acts who didn’t play loud rock seemed endangered: squeaky clean artists like Bryan Adams and Susanna Hoffs adopted edgier looks for a time. John Oates once told me that his famous duo weren’t sure where they fit in a post-Nirvana world. And Jay-Z himself has gone on record saying that that movement in music stalled the rise of hip-hop. “Hip-hop was becoming this force,” he recalled. “Then grunge music stopped it for one second, ya know? Those ‘hair bands’ were too easy for us to take out; when Kurt Cobain came with that statement it was like, ‘We got to wait awhile.'”
But for me, and many other longtime fans, that wave of punk rock and metal fusion began at least two years before the release of Nevermind, with Soundgarden’s major-label debut, Louder Than Love, released on A&M Records on September 5, 1989; its 30th anniversary passed with little fanfare earlier this year. It was a few months after Faith No More’s major-label debut, The Real Thing and a year after Jane’s Addiction’s major-label debut Nothing’s Shocking. Those bands seemed to simultaneously love and hate metal: they loved it for its volume and power, but hated it for its cliches. They all had a punk rock ethos, but clearly didn’t want to be confined by the genre’s strict rules. Clearly, none of these bands wanted to spend their lives in a van and staying in cheap motels. Faith No More had a huge hit with “Epic” that, shockingly, flung them onto top 40 radio. Jane’s Addiction was obviously shooting for arenas.
Soundgarden didn’t seem a likely candidate for stardom. Their music was more abrasive, creepier and weirder than that of FNM or Jane’s, and none of the songs on Louder Than Love really fit into most radio station or video show playlists. They had the power and foreboding vibe of vintage Ozzy-era Black Sabbath, the sense of danger that the Stooges had, the grit of Motorhead and the abrasiveness of some of their former SST Records labelmates, including Black Flag.
The first thing you hear is “Ugly Truth”: it starts with Matt Cameron’s thudding drums, followed by Kim Thayil’s dissonant hair-raising guitar riff, Hiro Yamamoto’s creepy bass and then Chris Cornell’s wail: “You hide your eyes/But the ugly truth/Just loves to give it away/You gave yourself/If you were mine to give/I might throw it away.” It was dark and desolate. “Hands All Over” actually scared you into worrying about the environment: “Hands all over the coastal waters/The crew men thank her/Then lay down their oily blanket/Hands all over the inland forest/In a striking motion trees fall down like dying soldiers/Got my arms around baby brother/Put your hands away/Your gonna kill your mother, gonna kill your mother.”
“Hands All Over” and “Loud Love” got some play on MTV a new (to the mainstream) band who looked and sounded scary and clearly weren’t looking to fit in with anything that was popular in the ’80s. It’s not a perfect album: “Big Dumb Sex” parodied hair metal but today, it’s like a joke about a reference which most people don’t remember. “Full On Kevin’s Mom” also seems like filler; had this album come out a few years earlier in the LP/cassette era, those songs wouldn’t have likely made the album.
The band would get more melodic with each of their subsequent albums, but Louder Than Love sees the band at a time that they were still as abrasive as they were during their SST and SubPop eras but they were getting a bit of the sheen that they’d need to conquer arenas and radio playlists in the ’90s.
Soundgarden’s members have yet to do a deluxe reissue of Louder Than Love (although it’s rumored to be in the works) and it recently passed its 30th anniversary without much fanfare.
Hopefully, they will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2020 — they should have been inducted before their peers in Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Green Day and Radiohead, as they pre-date all of those bands. And, hopefully, the band members (and Chris Cornell’s estate) will be inspired to go back to the vaults and re-release the album, as they’ve done excellent reissues of Badmotorfinger, Superunknown and their earlier albums. It’s an essential part of the legacy of one of the best bands of the last three decades, and it holds up remarkably well.
But even if they don’t reissue it — and even if Soundgarden don’t get voted into the Rock Hall this time around — Louder Than Love is a great album that paved the way for a decade of great music, both from Soundgarden, and every other loud guitar band who dominated the charts and the airwaves for the next few years.