Chris Cornell’s talents transcend the grunge genre he helped create

Chris Cornell, who committed suicide after a concert yesterday, was at the heart of the change in rock in the 1990s

Earlier this year Chris Cornell released a new solo single, “The Promise,” which doubles as the theme song to the new Christian Bale movie of the same name. Although orchestras curl up around the song’s main acoustic guitar melody, Cornell’s singing takes center stage. His voice, weathered like aged leather but not raspy or faltering, defies categorization: Cornell exhibits the confidence of a pop balladeer, the vulnerability of a folk singer and the weariness of a rock ‘n’ roll icon who’s seen it all.

“The Promise” marked the latest sonic iteration for Cornell, who committed suicide after Soundgarden’s Wednesday night show in Detroit. But this soundtrack song was hardly a surprising departure. Cornell lived what felt like a million musical lifetimes in his 30-plus-year career because he possessed the kind of versatile voice that gave him musical options outside hard rock.

“My history of singing has always probably been closer to a David Bowie approach than, for example, an AC/DC approach,” Cornell told Spin in 2014. “I never thought of myself as being the singer that wanted to create an identity and then stick to that. As a child, I was this record collector/listener that would sit in a room and listen to the entire Beatles catalog alone, over and over and over again.”

He added, “I think that affected my vocal approach because there were four singers in that band, and I never knew who was singing what. I was a little kid; I didn’t really care. I thought that’s what rock music was and I thought that’s what making an album was: You sang in the style and with the feel that the song was asking for.”

Still, Cornell was one of the few hard-rock singers who didn’t need a Plan B. As the frontman of Soundgarden, he steered the band’s dense amalgamations of classic rock, heavy metal and psychedelic rock with fearless gravitas. He’d slide from feral yowls to somber intonations, often in the same song, capturing the band’s roiling disquiet. Soundgarden was lumped into the grunge movement almost by default, but the band transcended this niche in large part because Cornell pushed it into more classic territory.

If anything, Cornell felt like the glue that held together Soundgarden’s disparate sonic textures and personalities together. That was one of his strengths as a band frontman — a fact that became clear when he moved on to front Audioslave, a group comprised of Rage Against the Machine’s instrumentalists. Cornell corralled Audioslave’s towering hard rock into something both fresh and timeless, by being a typically expressive vocalist: passionate and wary, cathartic and subdued.

Unlike many of his peers who had to work around unique or unorthodox voices, Cornell was a naturally charismatic singer with acrobatic range. Although open about his influences — namely, he was an avowed acolyte of the Beatles and Led Zeppelin — Cornell absorbed what he learned from these greats and spun this into his own strengths. It’s difficult to call someone so popular underrated or underappreciated, but Cornell’s presence was easy to take for granted, since he was such an ingrained part of rock ‘n’ roll culture.

Yet Cornell’s studious, malleable approach to music also made him a natural for moving beyond pure hard rock and into movie soundtrack work. He showed off a stunning, blues-influenced delivery — a torch singer’s croon, really — on “Misery Chain,” a duet with Joy Williams on the “12 Years a Slave” soundtrack. Cornell brought a rugged touch to “You Know My Name,” the theme of the 2006 James Bond movie, “Casino Royale,” and turned in a dusky, haunted vocal performance on the Golden Globe-nominated “The Keeper.”

Best of all, however, is “Sunshower,” a lost classic on 1998’s “Great Expectations” soundtrack. The psychedelic-tinged acoustic pop song boasts one of Cornell’s most commanding and naked vocal performances:  “When you’re all in pain/ And you feel the rain come down,” he sings, his voice cracking with anguish. “Oh, it’s all right/ When you find your way/ Then you see it disappear/ Oh, it’s all right.” “Sunshower” is both comforting and despairing; Cornell gives into emotional pain, while also reminding himself that these feelings are temporary.

As this song underscores, Cornell’s solo work was rewarding for listeners in entirely different ways — bare and vulnerable and often so intimate that it felt like an intrusion to listen. (His 1999 solo album, “Euphoria Mourning,” is a particularly underrated collection.) But Cornell flourished with this approach, especially when performing live. Like another one of his idols, Elvis Costello, he embarked on marathon solo shows, where he could cover favorite songs (John Lennon’s “Imagine,” Led Zeppelin’s “Thank You”), tell stories and dip into different corners of his catalog. For some artists, acoustic shows are a necessary evil; Cornell, however, was comfortable being alone.

About the only solo departure that didn’t work was “Scream,” a widely derided, electro-leaning 2009 album produced by Timbaland. The lukewarm reception had less to do with Cornell’s performances, however, and more to do with biases against rockers going pop. And this didn’t hurt his career: All told, Cornell dominated mainstream rock radio throughout the ’90s and well into the 2000s, making him as much the patriarch of modern heavy and hard rock as Eddie Vedder, and the late Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley.

In fact, as Salon’s Gabriel Bell pointed out, “Cornell’s death marks the passing of yet another voice and face familiar to those who grew up witnessing the profound changes rock music underwent in the early 1990s.” It’s shocking and jarring that another one of these familiar icons is gone, especially in the midst of what appeared to be a successful Soundgarden tour. The band was due to headline Friday night during the sold-out Rock on the Range festival in Columbus, Ohio.

On my Facebook page, no two people were posting the same Cornell-associated song, another testament to the breadth and depth of his career. Yet whether performing snarling hard rock or plaintive acoustic folk, Cornell exuded melancholy, anxiety and desolation via his voice. Even early on in Soundgarden’s career, when his fondness for Robert Plant was most evident, Cornell sounded like an old soul, his angst coming from a deep, unknown place. He was a great singer because of his empathy — an innate characteristic that can’t be taught, but something he possessed in spades.

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

“Sgt. Pepper’s” at 50: was it a concept album or an identity crisis?

The Beatles’ psych-rock opus, receiving a lavish reissue in May, isn’t what you think it is

"Sgt. Pepper's" at 50: was it a concept album or an identity crisis?
(Credit: Salon/Flora Thevoux)

Beatles fans, get your credit cards ready: On May 26, the Fab Four is unleashing a lavish revamp of 1967’s “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in honor of the landmark album’s 50th anniversary. Among the notable features of the reissue are outtakes and alternate versions of songs from the vaults — including the “Pepper”-era double-A-side single “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” — and a new stereo mix of the record that producers claim buffs up the painstaking vibe of the original mono mix.

“They were trying to create this immersive world that the stereo didn’t have,” Giles Martin, the man responsible for the new stereo mix (and, incidentally, the son of the late Beatles producer George Martin), recently told Rolling Stone about the original mono mixing sessions. “Nobody paid much attention to the stereo mix. What we did [today] was work out what they were doing in the mono mix and apply it to stereo.”

It’s a no-brainer that the Beatles team would choose to release a deluxe reissue of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” The LP has sold over 11 million copies in the U.S. alone and remains one of the band’s most beloved records.

From an artistic standpoint, the album ushered in the Beatles’ most expansive and experimental phase, and featured even more studio innovations. “On ‘Pepper,’ it was like starting over from scratch, getting down to the individual tonalities of the instruments and changing them,” engineer Geoff Emerick told Guitar World. “They didn’t want a guitar to sound like a guitar anymore. They didn’t want anything to sound like what it was.”

It’s almost impossible to calculate the influence “Sgt. Pepper’s” had on modern pop music. Perhaps it is better to just say that there is a “before,” and there is an “after.”

What’s more of a gray area: definitively calling “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” a concept album. The Beatles themselves have gone on record expressing skepticism over the label, although musicologists, die-hard fans and academic scholars beg to differ. This dissension arises partly because everybody has a different idea of what makes a concept album, well, a concept album — something I discovered after idly asking my Facebook friends how they defined the term.

To some, thematic continuity was the key factor; to others, a well-developed story arc was crucial. Other people felt a concept album should possess a common thread between lyrics, while musical connections — whether in the form of variations on melodies or chords, or related tropes and patterns — are salient characteristics. How a concept album differs from a “song cycle” or a “rock opera” also came up, although that’s a separate issue in and of itself.

Of course, this debate rages with the benefit of having decades of concept albums to dissect. When “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” arrived, musicians were in the early stages of figuring out how the theme-heavy records favored by jazz artists and Frank Sinatra might be adapted for rock ‘n’ roll. In fact, the Mothers of Invention’s 1965 double album “Freak Out!” and the Beach Boys’ 1966 opus “Pet Sounds” are widely considered to be the first rock concept albums.

Not so coincidentally, Paul McCartney has gone on record as saying that both of these records were on his mind as “Sgt. Pepper” started coalescing. “I played [‘Pet Sounds’] to John [Lennon] so much that it would be difficult for him to escape the influence,” McCartney said in one 1990 interview. “If records had a director within a band, I sort of directed ‘Pepper.’ And my influence was basically the ‘Pet Sounds’ album. John was influenced by it, perhaps not as much as me. It was certainly a record we all played — it was the record of the time, you know?”

The overlapping harmonies of the “Sgt. Pepper” song “She’s Leaving Home” are certainly Beach Boys-indebted, although the buffalo stampede-caliber psych-rock of “Freak Out!” has a subtler influence. (It’ll be most interesting to see how or if the latter record’s DNA seeps into the “Sgt. Pepper” bonus tracks surfacing on the reissue.) And it’s possible there’s an element of suggestive thinking in play as well: McCartney likes two influential concept albums, and they informed his creative process, ergo “Sgt. Pepper” must also be a concept album.

What’s at least clear is that the freewheeling, free-spirited vibe of the Mothers of Invention made a deep impression on McCartney and his creative headspace. “We were fed up with being the Beatles,” he said in Barry Miles’ biography “Paul McCartney: Many Years from Now.” “We really hated that fucking four little mop-top boys approach. We were not boys, we were men. It was all gone, all that boy shit, all that screaming, we didn’t want any more. Plus, we’d now got turned on to pot and thought of ourselves as artists rather than just performers.”

In the book “Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties,” McCartney elaborated on the impetus for the record. “I thought it would be nice to lose our identities, to submerge ourselves in the persona of a fake group. We would make up all the culture around it and collect all our heroes in one place.”

Every Beatles record feels like it inhabits its own unique universe, but “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is shrouded in a particular kaleidoscopic mist tied to its time. That’s due to the studio techniques,  which, if anything, contribute the most to the record’s conceptual unity. But despite its reputation, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” doesn’t feel driven by any sort of formalized (or internal) rule or structure. Instead, the conceit is a broader, external one — an alternate-universe version of the Beatles, maybe, or a record where the band members are exploring different dimensions of their existing personas. It’s based around a defensive concept, one predicated on reacting to the past.

Of course, the rub is that the members of the Beatles evolved and experimented, but could never really run away from their strengths. Sure, the opening title track and closing reprise are unifying elements introducing an imaginary band, and both songs encourage fans to pretend like they aren’t going to be listening to the Beatles.

However, the sepia-toned “When I’m Sixty-Four” is easily identifiable as old-before-his-time, pure McCartney sentimentality; “Within You Without You” is unmistakably George Harrison sitar-driven mysticism; and “With a Little Help from My Friends,” sung by Ringo Starr in the guise of the Eeyore-like Billy Shears, is an inimitable mix of playful and droll. “Lovely Rita,” meanwhile, embodies the push and pull of influences that emerged when the four Beatles combined their individual strengths.

“‘Sgt. Pepper’ is called the first concept album, but it doesn’t go anywhere,” John Lennon told journalist David Sheff in 1980. “All my contributions to the album have absolutely nothing to do with the idea of Sgt. Pepper and his band, but it works ’cause we said it worked, and that’s how the album appeared. But it was not as put together as it sounds, except for Sgt. Pepper introducing Billy Shears and the so-called reprise. Every other song could have been on any other album.”

Speaking about “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in the book “Come Together: Lennon and McCartney in the Seventies,” Ringo Starr adds: “It was going to run like a rock opera. It had started out with a feeling that it was going to be something totally different, but we only got as far as Sergeant Pepper and Billy Shears singing ‘With a Little Help from My Friends.’ It still kept the title and the feel that it’s all connected, although in the end we didn’t actually connect all the songs up.”

Cleverly, the title track and reprise also function as a sturdy defensive mechanism. These bookends effectively set up a tabula rasa listening experience and allow for critical leeway about the eclectic music in between — since, after all, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” often feels like someone skipping up and down a radio dial, flitting between stations and styles. By creating personal distance from these experiments, the Beatles give extra cushioning to their transition away from fresh-faced rock ‘n’ roll.

“It seems now that the Beatles were effectively saying, ‘Look everyone! Concept albums are possible. This [‘Sgt. Pepper’] isn’t it, but it proves that it’s possible,’” Thomas MacFarlane wrote in the essay “‘Sgt. Pepper’”s Quest for Extended Form,” which appeared in a book about the record. “In retrospect, this ingenious strategy helped them buy the time necessary to explore questions regarding formal space on a sound recording.”

The genius of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” of course, is that it thrives apart from any concept, and its songs succeed on their own individual merits. McCartney for one remains proud of the record. During live shows, he’s fond of reminiscing about how he and John Lennon saw Jimi Hendrix cover the record’s title track at a concert — three days after the album was released — while the loopy “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” has been a recent Macca setlist staple. Once again, the legend of “Sgt. Pepper” lives (and evolves) another day.



Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

1967 – 6 Hour Selection 50 Years On

John Lennon by Richard Avendon 1967

I wanted to do something to mark the 50th anniversary of 1967 – a truly magical, myth-laden, musical year when so much changed, separating old from new and leading to a seismic cultural shift, especially via the recording industry – artists becoming increasingly ambitious, with pop music no longer regarded as throwaway fodder for the kids, but the great artistic statement of the age.

1967 provides the pivot point in my personal mapping of the 20th century – June 1st if I want to narrow it down to a specific date. This was when ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ by The Beatles was released, an album that would soundtrack the psychedelic ‘Summer Of Love’, blowing minds and inspiring countless other artists to up their game, whilst The Beatles’ interest in lysergic acid diethylamide and eastern mysticism, altered not only their own states of consciousness and perception, but, pied piper like, they led a whole generation down the rabbit hole.

*Due to the compilation falling foul of Mixcloud’s agreement in the US regarding the amount of tracks by an individual artist, the podcast is unfortunately not available to stream there. To resolve this we’ve now also uploaded the podcast to the Hear This platform, which can be accessed in the US:

However, you won’t find any of the tracks on ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ in the compilation I’ve put together in tribute to this momental year – the reason being that none of its inclusions were issued as singles. I’d originally thought about approaching this as a selection of my favourite tracks from the year, but whilst I was researching I decided that I’d only feature singles that had made the top 50 of the UK chart during 1967, and in the order in which they appeared. This has resulted in a 6 hour epic, available to stream via Mixcloud.

The 7” singles only format, is in line with my 24 hour Random Influences project, covering the ’60s and the first half of the ’70s,, which is available to stream via Mixcloud:

Whilst, of course, being a subjective selection, I felt that this format would provide a reflective representation of what people were listening to in the UK that year. It meant that I missed out on some tracks that we’re hits in the US, but not here, not least the Jefferson Airplane’s ‘White Rabbit’ and Buffalo Springfield’s ‘For What It’s Worth’, both key US countercultural anthems, plus Soul classics including Jackie Wilson’s ‘(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher And Higher’ (which would be a UK hit thrice over, but in ’69, ’75 and ’87) James Brown’s Funk blueprint ‘Cold Sweat’and Smokey Robinson & The Miracles’ ‘Tears Of A Clown’, hidden away as an album track in ’67, but destined to become a transatlantic #1 hit 3 years on.  Then there’s a whole heap of now Northern Soul classics that were complete obscurities at the time of their release, only to be excavated in the ’70s by obsessive British DJs.