SOUNDGARDEN – DOWN ON THE UPSIDE (1996)

SOUNDGARDEN – SCREAMING LIFE/FOPP (1990)

May 11th, 1990, SOUNDGARDEN and Sub Pop Records released Screaming Life/Fopp, which combined the Jack Endino-produced Screaming Life mini-album (released in 1987) with the Steve Fisk-produced Fopp EP (released in 1988) into one full-length album and released it on cassette and CD. 

Soundgarden’s debut EP, Screaming Life, arrived in 1987. At the time, the general public still considered the term “grunge” to mean dirt on your shoe or grime underneath the sofa. Soundgarden, alongside Washington State neighbours Green River, Malfunkshun, and (the) Melvins, were already rewriting the blueprint for off-kilter rock. Nirvana and Alice In Chains had barely formed, while Mother Love Bone and Mudhoney were still non-existent.  

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. 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 band has no intention of following the prevailing winds of rock in 1987. 

Nowhere was Soundgarden’s dichotomy embodied more than in the considerable presence 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 fronting an arty, noisy rock band with metal, sludge, new-wave, and goth rock leanings. “Hunted Down” summed up the band’s modus operandi perfectly. It was their opening salvo, and they set out their vision of intent with conviction.

Matt Cameron’s infectious drum pattern kicks off track two, “Entering.” Soon, the song morphs into a thunderous romp of barbed guitar lines and Cornell’s incessant wails. The song breaks down again, with Thayil coaxing Cure-like guitar atmospherics from his Guild over Cornell’s ominous spoken word musings. “Entering” is one of Soundgarden’s lost classics—an incredible trip through the twisted vision 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.

“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; his guitar flourishes are expressive and exhilarating in their wild abandon, referencing The Cure, John McGeoch and PIL.

“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.  

“Hand Of God” closes the Screaming Life EP. It opens 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.

Where Screaming Life was a revelation in 1987, the Fopp EP released in 1988 is a curious beast. It was recorded on the stage of the Moore Theatre in Seattle, Washington, with producer Steve Fisk. No audience was in the building, and the theatre was only used as a recording location, 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’s not even an EP, more a maxi-single release. The title track is a cover of the Ohio Players song; Kim Thayil explained the band’s decision to record it, “That’s an Ohio Players song off of their album 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 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, doesn’t demand repeat listening. “Kingdom Of Come”, the lone Soundgarden original, is a blazing punk workout that, tonally, has a lot in common with the band’s contemporaries Green River and U-Men. 

Soundgarden ends the EP with a cover of Green Rivers’ “Swallow My Pride.” The band imbues the song with the same loose punk swagger and sardonic wit of the original. Soundgarden’s decision to cover a song by one of their contemporaries spoke to the camaraderie within the close-knit Seattle music scene. 

Sub Pop Records’ compiling of these EPs into a single re-release package in 1990 was strategic. Soundgarden was coming off their first major label release, Louder Than Love, in 1989, which had received ecstatic reviews. The band’s ever-growing fan base was clamouring for more—Sub Pop seized the moment by re-releasing these early EPs into a single package, thus allowing fans to hear more who may not have been au fait with their pre-Louder Than Love output. 

The band now considers this format to be their first album properly. It’s exhilarating to listen to and see one of the greatest bands of the past forty years taking their formative steps. In 2013, Sub Pop issued a deluxe re-release of Screaming Life/Fopp with a remix by Jack Endino. The label also reworked Charles Peterson’s iconic cover photo and the album art. The 2013 re-issue contains an extra track, “Sub Pop Rock City,” which the band recorded in 1988 for the Sub Pop 200 compilation.

The 2013 reworking of the Screaming Life/Fopp is pitch-perfect in execution. Jack Endino’s remix is glorious, keeping all the angularity, energy and rough edges of the original while expanding the soundstage and depth of the instrumentation and vocals, making this document of Soundgarden’s formative steps even more essential.