May 11th, 1990, Sub Pop Records released Screaming Life/Fopp, which compiled the Jack Endino-produced Screaming Life mini-album (first released on October 1st, 1987) with the Steve Fisk-produced Fopp EP (first released on August 1st, 1988) into one full-length album and released it on cassette and CD.
When Soundgarden released their debut EP, Screaming Life, in 1987, grunge wasn’t even a thing. Nirvana and Alice In Chains had barely formed, and Mother Love Bone and Mudhoney were still non-existent. Alongside Washington State contemporaries Green River, Malfunkshun and (the) Melvins, Soundgarden was already rewriting the blueprint for off-kilter rock that blended elements of punk, hardcore, metal and classic rock into a potent mix.
If we’re being honest, grunge was never a thing. It’s difficult to remember a time in rock history when a word tried so hard to accommodate so many bands under one umbrella who were so sonically different. The exercise of giving a scene a name isn’t the issue; trying to align vastly different artists under one roof is cumbersome. “Grunge” is as all-encompassing and catch-all as the term “Alternative Rock.” The bands usually attributed to the grunge moniker are as diverse and divergent as those associated with alternative rock.
From the beginning, Soundgarden was a curious dichotomy within a scene that relished individuality and contrast among its musician cohorts. Screaming Life was a clarion call to those who heard its feral howl over the din of glam rock polluting the airwaves and magazine stalls in 1987. Nowhere was this dichotomy embodied more than in the personage of Chris Cornell. Everything was at odds from the very start but somehow fit so perfectly. Here was a shirtless, genetically gifted Adonis with the vocal prowess to match any rock God plying their trade since the inception of rock ‘n roll, fronting an arty, noisy rock band with metal, sludge, new-wave and goth rock leanings.
The band’s first single, “Hunted Down”, roars from the gate with a looping riff from Kim Thayil; drenched in chorus and heavy on dissonance, it’s immediately apparent that this isn’t going to be a “normal” walk in the park. Thayil said, “That song wasn’t supposed to be as heavy sounding as it turned out. We just started jamming on the riff, and it took on the ‘noise rock’ dimensions, kind of a rhythmic thing. And that solo is a noise solo. It’s very dissonant.”
“Hunted Down” was Sub Pop Record’s first “on hold music” when anyone contacted the label’s offices. According to Kim Thayil, “You would call them up, and when they put you on hold, you heard ‘Hunted Down’.”
“Entering” starts with a drumbeat that resembles Bauhaus’s “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” before morphing into a thunderous romp of barbed guitar lines and incessant wails from Cornell. The song breaks down again, with Thayil coaxing Cure-like guitar atmospherics from his Guild while Cornell dictates an ominous spoken word passage. “Entering” is one of Soundgarden’s lost classics. It’s an incredible trip through the twisted soundscapes of a band of young visionaries.
“Tears To Forget” is an astonishingly feral punk rock blast. Cornell adopts an almost-death metal shredded rasp, which he never returned to throughout the rest of his recorded career. Musically, Kim Thayil shreds through a litany of stunningly aggressive riffs as Matt Cameron and Hiro Yamamoto navigate an obstacle course of rhythmic dynamics.
“Nothing To Say” gives credence to the school of thought that Soundgarden were the natural heirs to the Black Sabbath throne—doom-laden and deliberate in its funeral march. The song possesses all the foreboding and bleak atmosphere each member could wring out of their instruments.
“Little Joe” is a melting pot of new-wave, pop, punk and funk influences. Cornell’s vibrato is high-pitched and exaggerated—Cameron and Yamamoto’s rhythm section channel Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads. Kim Thayil splashes rich shades of colour throughout, referencing The Cure, John McGeoch and PIL.
“Hand Of God” closes the Screaming Life EP. Opening with an excerpt of a preacher delivering a sermon, which ends, “He says “vanity of vanities the whole thing is a vain parade. It has no meaning.” The band drives into a wrecking ball groove replete with shards of guitar and crushing drums.
Screaming Life is a vital recording. Soundgarden hit the ground running, sounding fresh and bursting with ideas and potential; this EP only points to greatness.
Where Screaming Life was a revelation in 1987, the Fopp EP released in 1988 is a curious beast. The EP was recorded on the stage of the Moore Theatre in Seattle, Washington, with producer Steve Fisk. No audience was in the building. The Theatre was only used as a place to record, so Fopp is not a “live” EP in the traditional sense.
The EP contains one Soundgarden original, two covers, and a remix of the title track. In many regards, it is not even an EP, more a maxi-single release. The title track Fopp is a cover of the Ohio Players song. Kim Thayil explains: “That’s an Ohio Players song off of Honey. I’ve had that album since I was in high school. We decided to take the song and make it AC/DC. We’d take the power chords, turn up the volume and make it heavy. “Fopp” is a good song that we felt needed to be given its due as a “kick-ass rock song!” The remix of Fopp, which is subtitled (Fucked Up Heavy Dub Mix). While an interesting curiosity, it doesn’t demand repeat listening.
“Kingdom Of Come”, the lone Soundgarden original, is a punky number that, tonally, has more in common with Green River and U-Men than Soundgarden. Speaking of Green River, Soundgarden ends the EP with a cover of Green River’s “Swallow My Pride.”
Compiling these EPs into a single re-release package in 1990 by Sub Pop Records was strategic. Soundgarden was coming off their first major label release, Louder Than Love, in 1989; along with ecstatic reviews, they were garnering more and more fans who may not have been au fait with their pre-Louder Than Love output.
The band now consider this format to be their first album proper. It’s an exhilarating listen and look at one of the greatest bands of the past forty years taking their formative steps.