Sunday, 21 May 2017

RIP Chris Cornell

Like most people of a certain age, I was shocked and saddened to hear of Chris Cornell's passing. Of all the alternative sounds that shaped the '90s (and thus a whole generation of malleable minds), the sound of Cornell's voice is one of the most prominent. It was phenomenal, soaring across four octaves like a stunt pilot. Cobain and Vedder were more influential as singers, but only because no one could do what Cornell did - Cornell was inimitable and untouchable. Vocally, he was one of a kind.

Seeing as how this is a movie blog and not a music one, I'm going to attempt to stay on track here and resist the urge to turn this into a blubbering eulogy where I just post my favourite Soundgarden/Temple Of The Dog/Audioslave/solo Cornell songs. 

So how does all this relate to movies? Bear with me as I pay tribute to Chris Cornell via his filmic connections.

Singles (1992)

IF you ever need to explain to someone what the early '90s, the Seattle sound and the whole Gen-X thing was all about, show them this film. It won't explain it definitively, but its rambling arty inclinations and alt-rock soundtrack captures the zeitgeist pretty well. Writer-director Cameron Crowe, who spent a lot of time in Seattle in the late '80s/early '90s, had the film in the can for nearly nine months while Warner Bros dithered about wondering what to do with it. Then boom - Nirvana's Nevermind blew-up and all of a sudden all these Seattle musos Crowe had roped in to star in the film and provide the soundtrack were megastars by association. Cornell and the recently formed Pearl Jam were heavily involved in the film (Cornell has a dorky wordless cameo and performs with Soundgarden in a live sequence), and they feature on the soundtrack alongside other Washington state heroes Mother Love Bone (which featured a couple of future Pearl Jam members), Mudhoney, Alice In Chains, Jimi Hendrix, the Wilson sisters, and Screaming Trees.

Cornell's acoustic contribution Seasons is beautiful (it would also later appear in the film Man Of Steel) and hints at the quieter stuff that would appear on Soundgarden's last pre-hiatus album Down On The Upside. The soundtrack (which was released a full three months before the film to cash in on the Seattle boom) also featured previously unreleased Soundgarden track Birth Ritual. But perhaps the greatest Cornell-related thing to emerge from the film was the song Spoonman. Pearl Jam's Jeff Ament was tasked with creating a fake tracklist for the film's faux band Citizen Dick, and Cornell saw the list and started writing songs to go with the made-up titles. One of them was Spoonman, and a demo of the song can be heard in Singles, almost fully formed in all its wonderful 7/4 rock glory. The tune would grow up to be a Soundgarden monster single. 

Hype! (1996)

But if you really want to understand the whole Seattle alt-rock explosion thing, check out Doug Pray's wonderfully insightful and hilariously cynical doco Hype!. Released a couple of years after the grunge bubble burst, it's a great ground-level insight into how and why Seattle became a global music epicentre. Nirvana isn't even mentioned until about the 35 minute mark, when they appear on screen in jittery fan-shot footage playing a little ditty called Smells Like Teen Spirit for the first time, but prior to that you get bits and grabs from a host of other Seattle bands, including Soundgarden. The film is populated with every band that did and didn't make it, and the soundtrack is filled with about 20 of them. Soundgarden features prominently throughout the doco - Matt Cameron and Kim Thayil are interviewed and there's live footage of them playing Searching With My Good Eye Closed - and their contribution to the soundtrack is Nothing To Say, the band's first great song. In Hype!, producer Jack Endino calls it insanely heavy and he's right. It's a downtuned Sabbath-esque dirge with Cornell's phenomenal voice flying over the top of it. Damn that's high.

Feeling Minnesota (1996)

The influence of the alternative movement was so big in the '90s that you could name a crime-comedy starring Keanu Reeves and Cameron Diaz after an obscure lyric from a Soundgarden song and no one batted an eyelid. It's a great line - "I'm looking California, and feeling Minnesota". I'm not from America, but I get it (or at least I think I do). It's a great example of Cornell's way with words. But I always wondered how the line went down whenever Soundgarden played in Minnesota. Did the crowd take it badly or as some kind of compliment? Either way, Outshined is a great song, and aside from giving us the name of the long-forgotten film Feeling Minnesota, it also appeared on the soundtrack for True Romance.

Great Expectations (1998)

After Soundgarden's initial demise in 1997, Cornell set to work on his first (and best) solo album Euphoria Morning (apparently originally to be called Euphoria Mourning until a typo happened). The album emerged in 1999, but the first inkling of what it might sound like emerged the year before when a track called Sunshower turned up on the soundtrack for the Gwyneth Paltrow-starring Great Expectations (Sunshower ended up as a bonus track on some versions of Euphoria Morning). This under-rated track (which gets really great around the 3m30s mark) again demonstrates Cornell's knack for a Beatlesy chord change and a hint of melancholy psychedelia.

And while we're talking about Euphoria Morning, can we all please take a moment to appreciate how incredible this next song is? For most of us, it was the first post-Soundgarden thing we heard from Cornell. Suffice to say, we all knew he wasn't done yet. Can't Change Me is one of the best things he ever wrote.

Collateral (2004)

I had to find a way to get Audioslave in here, and it comes via Michael Mann, who must be a fan of Cornell's supergroup with three-quarters of Rage Against The Machine because Mann included Audioslave tracks in the excellent Collateral and the already-forgotten Miami Vice. Audioslave get a bit of a bad rap, typically from people who loved Soundgarden and RATM, but I'll be damned if that first Audioslave album isn't rad. What's not to love about Cornell's voice, Tom Morello's guitar craziness, and the RATM rhythm section working together to rock the house?

Casino Royale (2006)

Cornell was the first American man to sing a Bond theme, which is kind of a big deal. He co-wrote this with composer David Arnold and the result is one of the better 007 songs - easily top 10 - and certainly the best of the Daniel Craig era. Cornell said he was trying to sound vocally like Tom Jones' Thunderball, but musically like Paul McCartney's Live & Let Die. Not a bad aspiration.

The Avengers (2012)

After a decade and a half, Soundgarden reappeared, of all places, in the end credits of a Marvel movie. Despite being a Marvel fan and a Soundgarden fan, I didn't know this was coming and, at first, I was presently surprised. And then slightly underwhelmed. It's part-Soundgarden riffage of a classic vintage, and really kicks in with Thayil's idiosyncratic wah solo, but it's also part-average acoustic latter-career Cornell. The song has grown on me over the years though, but it's not one of Soundgarden's best tracks, let's be honest.

A Walk Among The Tombstones (2014)

Soundtracks to trailers go through phases, and there's been a trend over the past decade or more to "Mad World" a song for a film preview. You know, like Gary Jules did to the Tears For Fears track in Donnie Darko. Recent examples have included the school choir singing Radiohead's Creep for The Social Network, and Nouela's take on Black Hole Sun for A Walk Among The Tombstones. The latter is a beautiful cover, highlighting the complexity and beauty of the chords and melody.

And now that Cornell is sadly gone, this song will serve as his epitaph, and it's an incredible one. Dave Grohl called this song "the perfect meeting of The Beatles and Black Sabbath" and he's not wrong. It's darkly psychedelic thanks to those eerie watery guitars, and its hefty chorus is somehow sludgy and beautiful at the same time, partly because it's also unashamedly pop - the hook of the chorus is one for the ages. If there was such as thing as the quintessential grunge epic, it's probably this song.

If you get a chance, check out this amazing Aussie cover version by Katie Noonan and Little River Band's Glenn Shorrock, and this isolated vocal track to remember just how amazing Cornell's voice really was.

Bonus track

This song has never been used in a film, and has no cinematic connection I'm aware of, but screw it, I'm chucking it here because it's my favourite Soundgarden song. It's everything I love about them, crammed into one song - the kink in the timing, memorable rhythms, and a stomp-on-the-fuzz-pedal chorus, with Cornell soaring over the top of it with those incredible melodies and astonishing range. May he rest in peace.

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