October 31st, 1988, SOUNDGARDEN released their debut full-length album, Ultramega OK, through SST Records. Since its inception in 1984, Soundgarden spearheaded the new breed of alternative rock bands emanating from the Pacific Northwest. Having released two EPs on Sub Pop Records in 1987, Screaming Life and Fopp, the band took the lead of fellow Washington State upstarts, the Screaming Trees, and signed to SST Records.
Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn founded SST Records in 1978. Author Michael Azerrad wrote, “Ginn took his label from a cash-strapped, cop-hassled store-front operation to easily the most influential and popular underground indie of the Eighties.” SST’s catalogue is impeccable. It reads as a who’s who of the most influential and vital underground acts of the 1980s and beyond. Alongside releasing all of Black Flag’s output, SST and Ginn signed and released ground-breaking albums by Husker Du, Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Subhumans, Saint Vitus, Sonic Youth, Bad Brains, Firehose, Das Damen, and Dinosaur Jr.
The allure of SST was obvious. Cutting-edge alternative rock and punk acts flocked to the label. Their grassroots DIY approach to recording and distribution suited the all-important indie aesthetic of the 1980s underground scene. SST was also a more prominent independent label than the fledgeling Sub Pop, who didn’t have the money to match the band’s ambition.
“We did Ultramega OK with SST because they certainly had more resources financially and network-wise at the time than Sub Pop did.” recalled Thayil, “They had the money to put us into a 16-track studio as opposed to the eight-track studio, like Reciprocal Studios where we recorded Screaming Life. So, we thought, okay, Greg Ginn from SST and Black Flag wants to put us in a 16-track; he has the money to do it, and Sub Pop didn’t really have the kind of cash flow.”
Soundgarden was not impressed by the carrots being dangled in front of their noses by the major labels around this time either. Signing to a major label behemoth likely meant relocating to Los Angeles, the epicentre of the corporate music business. In the band’s minds, this would disrupt their relationship in the communal Seattle scene. According to Cornell, “We 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.” SST offered the next logical step up the ladder from Sub Pop while still staying somewhat street-level.
With a small advance from the label, Soundgarden began recording in the spring of 1988 in Seattle, Washington, and Newberg, Oregon, with producer Drew Canulette. But it wasn’t plain sailing. Chris Cornell recalled, “Material-wise, we went through the same process that we always did, but the producer wasn’t used to the sound we wanted and didn’t know what was happening in Seattle.”
At this time, the Seattle and Pacific Northwest music scene was a faint blip on the radar of even the most decerning alternative music fan. So, Drew Canulette was at a disadvantage when producing Ultramega Ok. Seattle’s Jack Endino, who had produced Screaming Life and Fopp, was at the epicentre of the nascent Pacific Northwest scene and understood the DNA of the band and where their visions lay. Drew was shooting in the dark.
“We always considered Ultramega OK our second album,” says Thayil (the band consider the six-track Screaming Life their debut “mini” album), “but it was our first full-length one. We also had a new producer who, although we got along well with him and loved the guy, we had a communication problem with the final process, and we weren’t that happy with the way the record sounded. By the way, that producer Drew Canulette is a great guy.”
In a 1995 interview, Chris Cornell admitted, “We made a huge mistake with Ultramega OK because we left our home surroundings and the people we’d been involved with. We used a producer that really did affect our album in a kind of negative way. SST suggested Drew Canulette because they could get a good deal. I regret it because, in terms of material, it should have been one of the best records we ever did. It actually slowed down our momentum a little bit because it didn’t really sound like us.”
Even though Soundgarden had spurned the advances of major labels to stay close to the wellspring of their creativity in the Pacific Northwest, introducing a producer who didn’t fully grasp their modus operandi caused a similar upheaval to the one they were trying to avoid. But, despite the band and producer not seeing eye to eye on the project’s direction, Ultramega OK is a stellar album.
This fact became even more apparent when, in 2017, the band announced they had taken back the rights to Ultramega OK from SST. They hired Jack Endino to do a complete remix of the album, more in keeping with their original vision. The result was a revelation. Ultramega OK was always a good album; despite the atrocious mix of the original, the songs and passion of the band were on full display. The remix brings that vision into sharp focus and adds weight, dynamics and energy the original only hinted at.
The album opens with “Flower.” Kim Thayil created the song’s eerie intro by blowing on the pickups of his guitar. Matt Cameron’s rolling snare introduces the band; his tom patterns propel a sledgehammer downbeat from Thayil and bassist Hiro Yamamoto as Chris Cornell’s voice glides ghost-like and wordless above the fray. Suddenly, they switch gear, launching into a crushing drop D riff replete with off-kilter time signatures and jagged stop-start motion. It’s hypnotic in its heaviness and circular groove. Cornell sings, “All of seventeen, Eyes a purple green, Treated like a Queen, she was, On borrowed self-esteem.” Regarding “Flower”, Cornell said, “It’s about a girl who becomes a woman and basically invests everything in vanity and then burns out quickly.” “Flower” was the only single released from the album.
“All Your Lies” is a thrilling punk rock rager featuring a wicked halftime breakdown. Its breakneck speed and edge-of-your-seat dynamics make it a somewhat lost Soundgarden classic. Cornell wails, “All your fears are lies,” over a tightly controlled din of thrashing guitars and a wrecking ball rhythm section before the song descends into an infectious halftime groove with Cornell’s rhythmic vocal hooks of “triples, falling, limping, crawling, biting, fighting, back from dying, endless ending, comprehending, Nothing of the sin she’s sinning.”
“665” is a short interlude featuring waves of guitar feedback, distant drums and bass and Cornell’s incessant howl, which is reversed to give the effect of a record being played backwards. Conspiracies among overly zealous parent groups and politicians were rife in the ’80s regarding so-called hidden, satanic messages in the grooves of rock records when played backward. In an obvious lampooning of such idiocy, Soundgarden reversed Cornell’s vocal on “665”, making his delivery sound demonic and indecipherable. If the listener plays it backwards, we hear Cornell sing in doting terms about his love of “Santa Claus. Santa, I love you, baby. My Christmas king. Santa, you’re my king; I love you, Santa baby; got what I need.”
“Beyond The Wheel” is an all-time Soundgarden classic. Lumbering, threatening, atmospheric and brooding, it opens with Cornell in his deepest register, the band channelling Black Sabbath at their doom-laden finest. The song explodes with Cornell hitting god-tier heights of exhilarating vocal prowess. It’s a compelling statement of intent from a gifted band pushing the limits of their capabilities.
“667” is another short interlude that continues the theme of “665” which leads us into “Mood For Trouble.” Opening with a fast, rhythmic acoustic guitar, the song erupts into a blazing rocker with some powerful high-hat work from Matt Cameron and racing tremolo picking from Thayil before falling into a halftime psychedelic dreamscape. Hiro Yamamoto’s bass fills are gorgeously played and note-perfect. It’s another largely forgotten Soundgarden classic.
“Circle Of Power” opens with cascading drums and guitars before locking into a thrashing punk rock workout sung by Hiro Yamamoto. An exhilarating, rip-roaring ride, Hiro’s voice sounds manic, powerful and laced with just the right amount of venom and grit.
“He Didn’t” features a psychotic looping riff and chaotic rhythmic changes. Its energy is palpable and intoxicating. Cornell sings, “He did nothing perfectly; he did nothing quite well.” The song’s middle eight sounds seasick and disorientating as it careens toward its concussive end.
Soundgarden always chose some unexpected covers for their sets. From the Ohio Players’ “Fopp”, The Beatles’ “Come Together”, and Black Sabbath’s “Into The Void,” to Devo’s “Girl You Want”, AC/DC’s “Problem Child” and Spinal Tap’s “Big Bottom” to name but a few. Their choices always seemed to come out of left field. Their rendition of Howlin’ Wolf’s classic “Smokestack Lightning,” keeps all the blues energy of the original and infuses it with their own DNA. On the original pressing of the album, the band segued into a snippet of Sonic Youth’s Death Valley ’69, but for some reason, this was removed from the 2017 reissue.
Thayil stated that “Nazi Driver” is about “cutting up Nazis and making stew out of them.” And if the lacerating shards of guitar and pounding rhythm section are anything to go by, they do a pretty damn good job. Throughout the album, the quality of songwriting is exceptionally high, the musicianship is outstanding, and the critical components of Soundgarden’s sound are in place. “Nazi Driver” points to some elements the band would expand upon further down the line; in its pure form here, the sound is electrifying.
“Head Injury” could easily make the list of all-time great Soundgarden songs. Its blunt force riff and pounding delivery are elevated by Cornell’s yelps, pants, spoken word and caustic vocal histrionics. Soundgarden can’t be accused of front-loading Ultramega OK with their best songs (a futile exercise with an album of this quality). The album’s final song is another classic, “Incessant Mace.”
Sounding like The Doors and Black Sabbath fed into a meat grinder and seasoned with a dollop of Jimi Hendrix wilder guitar workouts, “Incessant Mace” is an atmospheric, heavy blast. Building in intensity, its snaking riff descends toward the pit of hell as Thayil spits out shards of incendiary lead licks. Cornell’s shredded wails of “Mace” at the song’s end give way to a random blues harmonica riff.
The album’s closing track, “One Minute of Silence”, is a “cover” of John Lennon’s “Two Minutes of Silence” from the 1969 album Unfinished Music No.2: Life with the Lions, excluding Yoko Ono’s part. Cornell jokingly said that the band “appreciated the Lennon arrangement so much”. No instruments are played, although the band can be faintly heard in the background. Cornell later stated, “We were trying real hard to shut up, but Kim couldn’t possibly shut up for a whole minute.”
It’s advisable to consider the 2017 remix re-release of Ultramega OK, the definitive version of the album. While the original has a scrappy passion, it was far from the mix the band envisioned. In this case, the new mix completely rejuvenated the album. One wonders, had this version been the one to hit shelves in 1988, would Soundgarden’s upward trajectory have been even faster?
As it stands, Ultramega OK is a stunning album. Menacing, dark and wickedly funny, it laid the foundations for not only Soundgarden’s future but for the grunge and alternative rock revolution that would flip the music world on its head three years down the line. Ultimately, the album has struggled to be heard above the stunning din of the band’s masterpieces like Louder Than Love, Badmotorfinger, and Superunknown, which is a shame because fans of those albums will find so much to love about Ultramega OK.