30 Years Ago: Soundgarden Give Hard Rock a Face-Lift on ‘Badmotorfinger’
Soundgarden were the first of a tight-knit circle of Seattle bands to make it to a major label when they signed with A&M Records in 1988, but it wasn’t until they released their second album, Badmotorfinger, on Oct. 8, 1991, that the mainstream began to take notice.
Between the bludgeoning Black Sabbath-like riffs and singer Chris Cornell’s otherworldly caterwaul, it was a hard record to ignore. The album's title is a play on the Montrose song “Bad Motor Scooter” that guitarist Kim Thayil found colorful and amusing.
Badmotorfinger opens with “Rusty Cage,” one of three singles the album spawned. But it's the grinding, drop-D-tuned dirge “Outshined” that showcases Cornell’s howl and helped distinguish the band from the metal acts that were considered contemporaries at the time. When the track breaks down, he lets out a series of jet-engine screams like a souped-up Robert Plant.
From that moment on, the album rarely lets up. The slow churn of “Slaves and Bulldozers” and “Searching With My Good Eye Closed,” along with the unscrewed swirl of “Jesus Christ Pose,” posited Soundgarden as something dark and sinister - more akin to what Alice in Chains were doing than anything else coming from the burgeoning Seattle scene.
It made for some interesting song structures and explorations: “Room a Thousand Years Wide” is led by Thayil’s siren-like guitar but ends with a saxophone solo; the instrument, along with trumpet, is sprinkled throughout “Drawing Flies” and “Face Pollution,” too. Few mainstream rock bands were incorporating brass on this level in the early '90s.
Watch Soundgarden's Video for 'Outshined'
Like with the album's predecessor, 1989’s Louder Than Love, Terry Date produced, but there were some differences - like initial recording sessions in California’s Bay Area and the addition of bassist Ben Shepherd, who had previously auditioned for the group and was now replacing Jason Everman. He also contributed to the songwriting process.
“[Badmotorfinger] was a lot darker sounding," drummer Matt Cameron said in the book Grunge Is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music. “We got a heavier guitar sound, and we used Ron St. Germain to mix it. He did a lot of records we liked – I Against I by the Bad Brains. So, he mixed the drums dry, and the bass is really loud – it was a cool sound. It’s certainly different than Louder Than Love.”
The cover featured a spiky circle design with a triangle in the middle that included both the title of the record and a spark plug, a nod to "Bad Motor Scooter." Even though it became Soundgarden's logo, it was more profane than anyone could have imagined, as artist Mark Dancy recounted in Total F*cking Godhead: The Biography of Chris Cornell. “Their thing was a middle finger, and finally I managed to do it in this electrical, jaggedy way,” he said. “The design, all it is, is 12 songs, 12 little flip-off hands going around in a circle.”
Following a two-week delay from its scheduled Sept. 24 release date due to production issues, the LP was released at the tail end of a six-week period when the holy trinity of landmark grunge albums landed on shelves. Along with Pearl Jam’s Ten, and Nirvana’s Nevermind, Badmotorfinger spearheaded a new revolution, and was the heaviest of the bunch. That led to airplay on MTV’s Headbangers Ball and being handpicked to open Guns N’ Roses’ North American tour that December.
Come February 1992, with the Seattle explosion in full swing, Badmotorfinger reached its peak position on the Billboard chart, making it to No. 39 and going gold the following month. Eventually, on the heels of relentless touring and successful follow-up records, the LP reached double-platinum status.
“That whole year of Badmotorfinger seemed like ‘Whooom! Where did it go?’” Shepherd said in Grunge Is Dead. “It was like stepping into a fucking dragster and going for it.”