In Soundgarden’s estimation, their debut LP was Ultramega OK, so how could any listener consider it a classic? Well, actually, the band thought their music was ultramega, but were hacked off by the mediocre mixing. “Production-wise, we left Seattle, and it showed. It wasn’t exactly what we were after,” said singer Chris Cornell. Thanks to the remastering wizardry of Seattle’s Jack Endino, we can all enjoy an ultramega slice of pioneering alternative metal.
Ultramega OK was Soundgarden’s debut long-playing album, following the previous year’s release of two EPs on Seattle’s fabled Sub Pop label. Major label scouts had already wooed the group, but after deciding that Sub Pop would struggle to find the funds to promote any further records adequately, they moved first to the foremost label in American indie rock, SST.
Several groups have moved between two or more indie labels in their career, often for humdrum reasons, but Soundgarden’s motives were distinct. As related in interviews by Chris Cornell and Kim Thayil, Soundgarden weren’t impressed by the carrots being dangled in front of their noses by the major labels. A likely relocation to Los Angeles, the epicentre of the corporate music business, would disrupt the relationship Soundgarden had in the communal Seattle scene. They had a strong but pragmatic spirit and, according to Cornell, “didn’t want to commit ourselves to someone else’s ballgame. We wanted to learn about the industry ourselves instead of being caught off-guard.” Soundgarden had respect for their audience, a motley band of “art students or punk rockers, and then skaters and metal kids and even some people with no particular haircut whatsoever”, who paid it back by making Ultramega OK a better seller than their eventual major label debut.
They also had a massive appreciation for the legacy of SST. SST was the home of the most dynamic and intelligent indie rock, like the Minutemen, Meat Puppets, and Hüsker Dü, and where bands like Dinosaur Jr., whose Bug record was released on the same day as Ultramega OK, had already started melding punk and indie rock attitude with the power of classic rock. Being on SST allowed Soundgarden to retain the influence of the noise-rock of SST groups like Sonic Youth whilst they continued to develop as writers and performers, incorporating further elements of classic rock and metal and “holding off on major label land for so long that by the time we actually signed a contract, the labels all understood where we were coming from.”
During the time Soundgarden spent on independent labels, guitarist Kim Thayil was the dominant force in the band, a situation that would reverse sharply in the major label years. Hearing the other side of Soundgarden’s character that Thayil brought to bear is a significant reason to invest time in listening to the group’s lesser-known records. In the 1990s, Thayil’s name would usually be found on a co-credit for several of Soundgarden’s heaviest yet most direct songs, such as “My Wave”, “Superunknown”, and “Birth Ritual”. On Ultramega OK, he wrote four similarly direct but fully-formed songs, which are all simple in structure and harmony, being based around repeating riffs almost entirely played in Drop D, a tuning he favoured because “the strings are looser and rubber band-like, so the guitars sound like a monster’s breath”. Despite their simplicity, the songs cover a lot of ground chartered by heavy rock bands from the 1970s and the 1980s while being filtered through a madcap punk lens.
“Flower” swaggers on a funky midtempo Led Zeppelin riff, while “Incessant Mace” lurches along a brooding Black Sabbath groove. Meanwhile, “All Your Lies” has both the energy and precision of thrash metal. Despite being a Thayil composition, it was the song Metallica chose to play at the posthumous Chris Cornell tribute concert. “Circle of Power”, on the other hand, is a similarly frenetic performance akin to hardcore punk, with a 7/4 riff that could as likely be the creation of someone who didn’t know the meaning of the term “time signature”, as it was of a progressive rock enthusiast. “Most guitarists worry whether or not they’re playing by the textbook,” Thayil once said. “I just worry if it’s loud enough.”
What Thayil’s songs lacked by way of harmonic variation, he made up for in the sort of sonic details which had characterised the best moments on Soundgarden’s Sub Pop EPs and hinted at the eccentric adventurousness which would continue to distinguish Soundgarden amidst the 1990s alternative metal pack. Thayil never liked solos, preferring what he referred to as “colour guitar” to conventional leads, and his idea of “a great guitar solo is Neil Young‘s on ‘Cinnamon Girl’, where he plays basically one note”. His standout moment is prominent; the very first thing one hears on the record is the sound of Kim blowing on his guitar strings, an appropriately serene emergence for a song entitled “Flower”.
The clear influence of heavy rock is an important part of Soundgarden’s legacy. As Cornell has said in interviews, they were greeted with some skepticism in the early Seattle club scene, with fans ultimately coming around to the idea that they sounded “like Zeppelin, but in a good way”, despite the band not necessarily wanting to be perceived that way. “We weren’t listening to Sabbath or Zeppelin or Deep Purple then, and we were a lot quicker. The rhythm changed a lot, as did the melodies. It was much more new wavy, less threatening. It became more fun to throb and thrash. It’s much more fun to play live – it’s more hypnotic.”
Along with a handful of other groups like Jane’s Addiction, they truly melded heavy and indie rock stylings to pave the way for the mainstream acceptance of alternative rock. The disintegration of another 1980s Seattle band, Green River, with two members forming Mother Love Bone, a conventional glam-rock band, and two forming Mudhoney, a carefree garage-punk band, shows how precarious this fusion was at that time. Soundgarden’s openness to influence was a galvanizing force toward the mainstream acceptance of the indie rock aesthetic. “We could have similar influences – we’ve listened to Sabbath and Zeppelin and grew up in the same era – but we’ve also listened to Butthole Surfers and Black Flag, and that’s evident in our music.”
Chris Cornell wrote three songs on the record. What these they demonstrate best is how rapidly Cornell’s skills progressed in the three years from this record to Badmotorfinger. It is hard to take “Head Injury” seriously as a composition, being based around a one-and-a-bit-chord riff that a stalwart punk might find embarrassingly rudimental. Compare this to any of a number of songs from Badmotorfinger where Cornell was utilising unusual tunings and unexpected chords.
“Beyond the Wheel” deservedly became a Soundgarden standard, a staple of live performances into the 1990s and the new century, showcasing Cornell’s immense vocal range. In one early review the band received, “Beyond the Wheel” was tipped as a single, but one “which would’ve really alienated their ‘alternative’ following”. However, despite the bombastic heaviness of the guitars, when intoning in his lowest range, Cornell, who had not yet developed the vocal muscularity that would be proudly displayed on Badmotorfinger, sounds comparable to alternative icon Nick Cave, an effect reinforced by his thunderous lyrics.
The third Cornell song, “Mood for Trouble”, cleverly marries raucous dual guitar runs to a lyric celebrating mischief and has an additional noteworthiness as an early example of Cornell’s guitar playing. The Ultramega OK reissue clarifies that Cornell played rhythm guitar on three tracks, but the telltale signs on Mood for Trouble are that the main riff uses two open chords, strummed on an acoustic guitar, two elementary aspects of guitar playing, which Kim Thayil nevertheless appeared to be allergic to throughout his career. Three years later, Cornell would be simultaneously singing and playing guitar on “Rusty Cage”, his song that had such a complicated rhythm that it took Kim Thayil several months to master its performance.
One gets the impression that the alternative rock press of the time could never accept the fact that Chris Cornell had good looks and a good voice, but, as with his songwriting and guitar playing, his voice was a rough diamond that he worked diligently to improve. While alternately wailing and crooning his way through the album, Chris makes the best use of an adolescent sneer on tracks like “Flower” and” All Your Lies”, the likes of which would not often resurface amidst the more earnest songs from Soundgarden’s 1990s records, but could occasionally be heard in the more mature, and more jaded observations of songs like “My Wave”.
It has come to light from interviews and other biographical material that Chris Cornell had a poor relationship with his father, who was emotionally distant and physically abusive, and several of the songs on Ultramega OK are poetic tirades against his father’s character and authority. Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello later described Cornell as being “as melodic as the Beatles, as rocking as Sabbath and as haunting as Edgar Allan Poe”, and this can be heard most elaborately in the lyrics of Incessant Mace.
In “Beyond the Wheel”, Cornell refers to his childhood experience in a gothic allegory: “Mother, who’s your man / Is he doing what he can / To make a proper home / Father, mighty man / Loves his little boys / Shows them how to kill / To save his precious stones.”
In “He Didn’t”, Cornell uses his perception of his father to illustrate the unfulfilled life of a mediocre man: “He did nothing perfectly / He did nothing quite well / He did nothing perfectly, much better than anyone I’ve ever seen.”
In “Head Injury”, Cornell rawly depicts emotional and physical abuse: “You got a kiss for me, it hits me hard / You got a fist for me, you love so hard / My hands on my head, your words are like arrows / My hands on my head, there’s permanent damage.”
In “Incessant Mace”, Cornell uses the language of Poe in a tale of feeling trapped by the circumstances of one’s upbringing: “So he’s afraid he’ll suffer his father’s fate / Two sets of silverware, cups, and plates / Two burning hands and bleeding hearts / Don’t feel it’s not too late to start.”
Because of Cornell’s typically oblique writing style, his songs could be read as attacks on many authority figures. Tracks addressing father figures were to feature amongst the iconic songs for the Big Four Seattle bands, with each writer addressing the subject with varying degrees of respect. This degree of intimacy and sensitivity was unprecedented in heavy rock music. With the advent of nu-metal, for better and worse, venting one’s demons and railing against domestic authority figures beat a path to commercial success in metal. Ultramega OK is a definitive starting point.
Drummer Matt Cameron has one composition on the record, “He Didn’t”, demonstrating some early adeptness with quirky time signatures more clearly than Kim Thayil’s “Circle of Power”. Unfortunately, the turbulent 10/4 riff doesn’t lead anywhere, charging unabated through the entire song.
Songwriting aside, Cameron deserves enormous credit for his role in Soundgarden’s earliest recordings. He was the most technically skilled member from the outset, and his dexterity elevated the murkiest experiments of Screaming Life and Ultramega OK, which might otherwise have drowned in a swamp of their own making. His standout moment is apparent on the reissue of Ultramega OK, which was remixed by Jack Endino, having been inaudible in the notoriously dull original mix. Opening Smokestack Lightning, Matt plays a relaxed groove bolstered with spine-tingling ghost notes, the likes of which would be a headphone Easter egg on many Soundgarden tracks.
Then there are plentiful jokes. To a casual 1990s rock listener, noting song titles like “Outshined” and “Fell on Black Days”, Soundgarden might have appeared as far from jocular as possible, but a fan of the band is likely to know better. When signed to a major label, Soundgarden managed to continue recording whacky classic rock covers, as well as novelty numbers with titles like “Jerry Garcia’s Finger”, whilst sneaking them onto B-Sides. Still, on this independent release, the in-jokes and cultural references take up fully half the record.
Bass player Hiro Yamamoto completed the early version of the band and contributed one song, “Nazi Driver”, which could have been intended as a very dark joke from an ethnically diverse band. According to Kim, “The song is about cutting up Nazis and making stew out of them. We used driver because it made a cool name.” With “665” and “667”, there are two fragments of jungle rhythms, guitar feedback, and backward vocals. Yamamoto brought the band their greatest amount of attention from controversy-hungry music critics. By Cornell’s recollection, “Kim had this crazy idea that if 666 is the number of the beast, then how all-encompassing the numbers on either side of it must be! He thought that once it was played, the Pentagon would actually levitate.” Kim shot back, “It was a little bit of studio wizardry, actually. We just think that whole idea of metal being obsessed with black magic is totally ridiculous.”
Yamamoto was a very punk rock bassist in that he was probing but technically limited. He also wrote lyrics which he caterwauls along to “Circle of Power”. His most memorable bass parts are on those moments of calm after the storm in songs such as “All Your Lies” and “Mood for Trouble”, where, with his bass turned up in the mix, Yamamoto wanders around the fingerboard, almost as if looking for the answers to Cornell’s most interrogative sets of lyrics.
Ultramega OK also features two very loose cover versions, one of the blues standard “Smokestack Lightning”, which Soundgarden play like a cover of a cover, a garage band rendition of a 1970s rock vamp on a Chicago blues standard. On the original releases of Ultramega OK, tacked onto the end of Smokestack Lightning was a sample of Sonic Youth’s “Death Valley 69”, a sort of prototypical have-their-cake-and-eat-it moment like Nirvana‘s “Endless Nameless”. There is also a cover of John Lennon‘s “Two Minutes of Silence”, which is, in fact, one minute of amplifier noise and muffled control room chatter, designed, according to band legend, to fill up the standard running time of a vinyl record.
Soundgarden were not satisfied with the production of Ultramega OK. The title refers to their underwhelmed response to hearing the final mix. Despite this, as a listener, I get the sense that being in the studio with the group would have been fun. Thayil’s songs are delivered with a levity throughout the album that was noticeably absent from the multiplatinum 1990s records and provide a cathartic setting for Cornell’s lyrics, which within his own compositions could become mired in self-pity. According to the tribal lore of the time, the mingling of alternative and classic rock was perilous. A band could not sound remotely Zeppelinesque and also be a garage band, but that is just what the performances of Ultramega OK sound like: the work of a garage band, having fun playing with loud abandon, not caring much if at all for the musical niceties of melody or arrangement.
Ultramega OK did not put Seattle on the map. The city already had a noted heavy metal scene, not that you’d necessarily have found out from speaking to Soundgarden. “We’re not Queensryche ya know! We’re not Sanctuary or Metal Church.” It also “had those jangly bands as well”. What Ultramega OK did was provide a convenient blueprint for Seattle’s breakthrough band, as can be heard on Nirvana’s 1989 debut Bleach. Kurt Cobain was clearly a tremendous talent, and one way in which he demonstrated this talent was as an emulator.
Bleach is most widely known for the song “About a Girl”, a three-minute pop song with Beatlesesque melodies and clean guitars. The rest of the record is a relentless onslaught of grind and sludge, sweetened with the occasional melody. From listening to where Nirvana were just two years later with Nevermind, it seems likely that Kurt Cobain didn’t particularly want to be playing this material. Nirvana was signed to Sub Pop, a label with a firm identity based on dirty grunge. It is likely that Cobain wrote the Bleach material inspired by, and with respect to, the music of Ultramega OK.
The resemblance between the two records, beyond being awash with guitar feedback, is uncanny. Lyrics on Bleach deal with contempt for conservative parents like “Mr. Moustache”, uppity authority figures like “Big Cheese”, and self-hating songwriters like “Negative Creep”. Both albums include covers that draw attention to their underlying ambitions whilst being cloaked in indie irony. While Soundgarden chose a Chicago blues cum hard-rock standard, Nirvana chose “Love Buzz”, a kitschy 1960s number by a Dutch power-pop band.
Influence in music is tricky to pin down. Looking beyond Seattle, the band that probably had the greatest influence on both Soundgarden and Nirvana collectively was Sonic Youth, whose connections to New York no-wave had brought a highbrow respectability to underground rock whilst flirting humorously with lowbrow iconography. In 1987, Sonic Youth made their most profound leap towards mainstream credibility with Sister, structuring their noisy experiments within concise arrangements. To Sister, Ultramega OK brought the rhythms and riffs of heavy metal. To Ultramega OK, Nirvana brought the melodies and hooks of power pop.
There were indie bands before Soundgarden who had signed major label deals but who, except R.E.M., would ever truly make it big. Both Nirvana and Soundgarden would continue to evolve their sound, but they made it big and stayed big. The fundamental building blocks of their sounds could be found on their debut LPs, which foreshadowed alternative rock’s commercial breakthrough.
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Greg Kot. “SEATTLE’S BIG NOISE SOUNDGARDEN LEADS A ROCK INVASION FROM THE NORTHWEST.” Chicago Tribune, 18 October 1989.
Lee Sherman. “SOUNDGARDEN, WHERE THE DOWN BOYS GROW.” Faces, December 1989.
Jeff Gilbert. “SOUNDGARDENING TIPS WITH KIM THAYIL.” Guitar World, December 1989.
Phil Alexander. “SOUNDGARDEN.” Raw, 1989.
Marc Maron. “WTF WITH MARC MARON EPISODE 502- CHRIS CORNELL.” 2 June 2014.