This is the second part of a three part story on Soundgarden’s experiences in Europe and England in the mid 1990’s. Click here to read part one.
By the beginning of 1994, every fan of 90’s rock music knew who Soundgarden were, but at the start of the decade this wasn’t the case. Their most recent studio album at the time, 1991’s Badmotorfinger, had received rave reviews and spawned instant classics like ‘Rusty Cage’, ‘Outshined’ and ‘Jesus Christ Pose’. MTV had helped gain the band popularity with constant rotation of their videos, and their legendary club shows were the talk of the hard rock world. It also helped that Guns N’ Roses frontman Axl Rose took a liking to the band, and when Axl went to see them in Seattle in 1989 he was hooked. On Guns N’ Roses’ tour to support their Use Your Illusion albums, they decided to take Soundgarden under their wing as an opening act across North America and Europe.
All of this attention propelled Soundgarden to newfound heights alongside their friends from Seattle, who had also made it huge: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains. In early 1994 Soundgarden were about to peak with the impending release of Superunknown. At the end of January ‘Spoonman’ was released as a single, and it was an instant hit complete with a catchy riff and soaring vocals. The anticipation for the album and a European tour had reached fever pitch.
A few weeks later on March 12, 1994, the band announced by radio that they would be playing in London, England at the Shepherds Bush Empire. Not only was this a huge surprise for UK fans, but it was also a very significant event for the venue itself. Built in 1903 to host various circus shows, the venue became the host building for many iconic BBC programmes which featured amongst others ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test,’ which had on many bands that Soundgarden themselves were influenced by in their teenage years. In playing at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, Soundgarden became the first band to hold a gig there. The band would return to the same venue some 19 years later to promote King Animal.
The setlist for the show omitted classics such as ‘Outshined’ and ‘Rusty Cage’, and naturally the set was made up of the new album Superunknown, which was released four days prior to this show. Opening up with the crushing and brutal ‘Let Me Drown’, Soundgarden felt confident enough to play their first six songs at the show from Superunknown. Make no mistake, this gig was all about promoting the new record and 13 tracks were played from it.
After the concert, the band toured the rest of Europe, and all was going great for Soundgarden until the crushing news hit that Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain had died at his Seattle home. 1994 was all set up for Soundgarden, Nirvana seemed like they would be either breaking up or going on hiatus before Cobain’s death, Pearl Jam had basically grounded to a halt from playing live shows as they began to take on Ticketmaster because of ticket fees, a battle they were never going to win, and Alice In Chains were on an extended break after singer Layne Staley’s drug problems led the band to dropping out of a tour with Metallica that summer. Soundgarden were refreshed and had none of these problems, and had their career defining record to promote.
Cobain’s suicide though had dealt a huge blow to the rock and roll industry that seemed at the time so big that it couldn’t be repaired. The news broke of Cobain’s passing on the morning of Friday, April 8th when electrician Gary Smith arrived to install a security system and found Cobain’s body, which had been lying there for an estimated 3 days. Soundgarden were in Paris, France and were due to play at the Elysee Montmartre, because of the time difference and in these pre internet days the band had no idea what had happened and went ahead and played their show. Opening up for them was Tad, a band also from Seattle.
The band were finishing off a fantastic set that had opened with ‘Jesus Christ Pose’, and had featured old classics such as ‘Mind Riot’ and ‘Room a Thousand Years Wide’. The Paris show was turning out to be one of the band’s best in a long while. Chris Cornell said goodnight to close the main set, although everyone knew it was a small break to lead into the encore as the venue turned its lights off and not back on. The band departed and the news that was about to hit them would be catastrophic.
Returning backstage all four members were ushered into a quiet part of their dressing room….something terrible had happened. Tad’s bassist Kurt Danielson was emotional, the band were worried as he told them to sit down, and he delivered the news that Kurt Cobain was dead. Kim Thayil was quoted in Greg Prato’s book Grunge is Dead that he had “never saw so many big, hairy, temperamental guys sitting around crying.” Cornell, speaking two decades later, said, “We all got very emotional, we weren’t at home, we weren’t around any people that we knew.”
The news had been delivered, but the show wasn’t done. Like the professional band that they had come to be, and hearing thunderous chants of their name, Soundgarden returned to the stage, and it was no surprise that Cornell decided to play an acoustic version of ‘Like Suicide’. The despair in Cornell’s voice and the sombre feeling from the stage was seen that night. Soundgarden were just being Soundgarden to any fan in attendance watching the show, who wouldn’t have known the news until after they had returned home from the gig. After the song, the band played ‘Somewhere’ from Badmotorfinger, and its lyrics resonated with the feeling within the band: “I wish to wish I dream to dream I try to try and I live to live” and I die to die and I cry to cry, but I know why.” The song was played just 34 times live and retired two months after this show. The night ended with ‘Head Down’, a song that Cornell would go on to say was his favorite Soundgarden effort.
Whilst the music world was in shock and Seattle mourned, Soundgarden could have been forgiven for cancelling the rest of their European tour, which was now about to hit England. Out in Europe they seemed lost at sea, but they made a decision to carry on and mourn Cobain’s passing once they got back home.
A week later the band played at London’s Brixton Academy, and it was one of the finest shows that the band would ever play in the UK. Full of their hits and new songs alike, oddly enough the band were not as down as you would have expected them to be. Cornell, in a white sleeveless t-shirt throughout, was on brilliant form, and at one point even gave the microphone over to the audience to request a song. Kim Thayil played snippets of Boston’s ‘More Than a Feeling’ to the stunned amusement of Cornell, and a fan was ejected for causing problems, and though it broke up the show for nearly 10 minutes, the band ended up playing for two hours.
Soundgarden returned to Seattle on April 24th and respectfully mourned Cobain’s death, catching up with friends and taking stock of what had happened, taking a month break before kicking off their summer US tour. The tour was a massive success, and the band rode the wave by the way of their biggest hit song ‘Black Hole Sun’, which ended up becoming the rock soundtrack to a very confused summer of 1994.
Soundgarden carried on because it was all they knew how to do, and the tour for Superunknown led them to be household names. Superunknown was arguably one of the finest rock records of the 1990’s, if not of all time.