25 years ago Stone Temple Pilots released their sophomore album Purple, a work that marked their departure from the so-called “Seattle sound” and showed the band developing their own sonic identity. It was a time when they were playing the best music of their career while the grunge movement was disintegrating all around them.
Nobody knows if it happened because of their fragile economy at the time, due to a surplus of disaffected youth, or because of the constant uninviting weather that forces people to stay indoors, but during the ‘90s, Seattle became the unlikely epicentre of the last global revolution in the history of rock’n’roll.
That filthy, ridiculous grunge music….
The sleepy, cold coastal town always had a vibrant musical tradition, but in the late ‘70s, the city saw an unprecedented explosion of talent. The reason? Bands from around the country stopped touring in Seattle because travelling up north for just a couple of gigs became too expensive. This ignited the apparition of a myriad of local acts of every conceivable genre that jumped at the opportunity to fill the void.
The scene was all of the sudden so vibrant, it was not uncommon for a Washington kid during the ‘80s to have recorded a couple of DIY records by the time they finished high-school.
Amidst such a small market and with no particular pressure for commercial success, local artists were not constrained to any specific genre and often experimented with multiple styles and techniques. As bands used the same rehearsal rooms – recorded in the same makeshift studios and often even shared members – a distinctive, regional sound started to surface.
With no clear objective in mind, musicians began to fuse elements of punk and heavy metal in the most unorthodox of ways. The term “grunge” became a cheesy, self-depreciative euphemism to describe any sound that felt “extreme”.
Every decade has its fair share of political turmoil, scandals and revolutions
But ‘90s kids were the first generation to watch it all unfold on live TV. Perplexed and thoroughly entertained audiences witnessed horrors like the Gulf War and the Balkan conflict broadcasted in between ads of Pop Qwiz coloured popcorn and Bubble Tape bubble gum.
The parallels with the birth of punk are inevitable… just as punk was born out of the “elitism” and musical extravagance of prog and psychedelia, whatever the hell was happening in Seattle in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s was a similar knee jerk reaction, this time against the eye-blinding glitz and artificiality of glam metal.
The music industry up to that point was dominated by pop superstars like the world hadn’t seen since The Beatles. Rock had been successfully absorbed and normalised into the mainstream, something that iconic journalist Lester Bangs prophesied in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous; the greedy executives, the scheming media… the adults… they all ruined our beloved rock and transformed it into a profitable industry of “cool”. They had won.
Grunge was a raised fist in defiance, a return to a sound that was too loud, too noisy, and that your parents would never like.
But like all good things in life, this dream had to end at some point. Grunge was a short-lived movement that blasted into the stratosphere with the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind in 1991, and starting a freefall decline in ‘94 after Kurt Cobain’s death. By that point, the genre had already become another marketing term as plastic as the pop hits the movement set out to reject.
At the height at the movement’s commercial success record labels entered in a frenzied crusade to take whatever bite of the pie they could. Bands from all over the US moved to Seattle just so they could be marketed as “grunge” and many fabricated their image in imitation of genre underground pioneers like The Melvins, Mudhoney or Soundgarden.
What started as a genuine cultural expression became a globally marketed commodity. Fashion designer Marc Jacobs launched a spring collection for Perry Ellis in 1993 that featured flannel shirts, knitted skull caps, and Dr. Martens boots. “Grungewear” suddenly started appearing in Vanity Fair and Vogue, and companies started offering grunge clothing lines for children.
The genre’s commercial exploitation was cynical and unscrupulous, with ridiculous perversions like “grunge aerobics”, grunge Best Buy ads, and “grunge light” music. In an ironic twist of fate, Sub Pop, the small indie label that was at the centre of the whole explosion of the Seattle Sound sold 49% stake of the label to the Warner Music Group in ‘95.
Watch Stone Temple Pilots – ‘Vasoline’
The name Stone Temple Pilots is inspired by “STP” motor oil stickers
California natives Stone Temple Pilots belong to the second generation of grunge, the wave of bands that saw the genre’s highest commercial success and at the same time witnessed the end of the era. Their career is a peculiar one, with fans and specialised press receiving them in very different ways.
When they released their first album Core in 1992 via Atlantic Records, critics and Seattle sound purists immediately labelled them as “bandwagon-jumpers”. At the same time, songs like ‘Sex Type Thing’, ‘Plush’ and ‘Creep’ became huge hits that prompted the album to peak at No. 3 on Billboard’s Albums Chart.
This was a band that existed in a strange intersection between magnetic commercial appeal and critical pariah-dom. In a Rolling Stone poll in January ‘94, the band was voted “Worst New Band” by the magazine’s music critics while being voted by readers as “Best New Band”.
The STP conundrum back in ‘94:
The conundrum was: should we disconnect from the grunge scene completely and turn into a straight-forward pop act, or harden our sound to gain the acceptance of the Seattle underground?
Produced in less than a month, their second album Purple was released on June 7, 1994. The record was received as harshly as their first, with some critics bashing them even more viciously than before. But at that point, they were well beyond good and evil.
Purple debuted at number one in the US and by October, it had already sold three million copies.
Grunge was from its inception a hybrid of styles with no defined set of rules. Bands like Nirvana and 7 Year Bitch drew heavily on punk, while Pearl Jam and Soundgarden were more influenced by classic rock and heavy metal.
Stone Temple Pilots presented themselves in Purple as probably the most diverse band of the era, with elements that went from rhythm and blues to psychedelic rock, from jangle pop to country music. And it’s perhaps that wide range of influences that made of Purple the revolving door of ‘90s rock.
“Top 40” listeners could find in their sound a window to less known grunge acts like Screaming Trees or Mother Love Bone, while listeners from the shadiest downtown Seattle bars could take a peek at how the world looks like from pop-candy mountain.
Purple is like witnessing a band going over their whole catalogue of influences until they end up nailing their own identity. The country-tinged mega-hit ‘Interstate Love Song’ for example, was originally devised as a bossa nova tune by Bassist Robert DeLeo. Under its charming facade, it’s one of the many songs on the album that Scott Weiland wrote describing his ordeal with heroin addiction.
Listen to Stone Temple Pilots ‘Lounge Fly
“‘Vasoline,’ for example,” said Weiland in his 2012 autobiography Not Dead and Not for Sale, “it’s about being stuck in the same situation over and over again. It’s about me become a junkie. It’s about lying to Jannina [his first wife] and lying to the band about my heroin addiction.”
The growling, muscular rocker ‘Silvergun Superman’ on the other hand, showed the band displaying a brand of heavily layered, distorted guitars that took them closer to the realm of metal, while the thumping riffs of ‘Meat Plow’ kicked them right into a mosh pit in Seattle.
Then there’s the jangly tune ‘Pretty Penny’ a track where the band contrasted acoustic guitars with Indian influenced percussion and the rhythmic tapping of coins, keys, and a tambourine.
Of all the tracks of the album, the lead single ‘Big Empty’, is probably the epitome of what Stone Temple Pilots is all about. The track is a highly evocative and cinematic journey that contrasts blues-rock with loud distorted guitars very effectively and was included in the soundtrack of one of the very first superhero films ever done, Alex Proyas’ The Crow.
Listen to Stone Temple Pilots ‘Big Empty’ (Acoustic)
The ’90s were a time when society wanted to depart from established canon
While today’s popular culture is one that proudly recycles the past, the ‘90s were, for the most part, a time in which society wanted to depart from established canon. Contradictorily, that same generation that set itself to reject idols was the same that turned Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and the Spice Girls into supernovas.
Layne Staley, Kurt Cobain, Scott Weiland, Chris Cornell and Andrew Wood all paid with their lives the price of a movement that burned too bright, too soon. Just like it happened in England during the Mersey beat era, in San Francisco in ‘66 or in London in the late ’70s, grunge was the pop-cultural explosion led by a young generation fed up by institutions, authority and the promises broken by those in power.
And it might just be me, but it’s really hard to find another revolution with this kind of global impact in the last two decades. I don’t know about you, but I personally think it’s about damn time we had one.
In 2005, Purple was included in Rock Hard magazine’s book “The 500 Greatest Rock & Metal Albums of All Time”, in 2006 Guitar World magazine ranked it in their list of “100 greatest guitar albums of all time” and in 2014 Paste Magazine featured ‘Interstate Love Song’, ‘Vasoline’ and ‘Big Empty’ in their list of “The 50 best grunge songs” ever made.
This October 18, Warner Music is releasing the 25th-anniversary edition of the album in a super deluxe box set that includes a newly remastered version of the original studio record on both CD and vinyl, plus unreleased versions of album tracks, rarities, and several live recordings.
Under the Southern Stars is a unique rock festival with a carnival atmosphere that will return to Australia in April 2020. Stone Temple Pilots and their current lead vocalist Jeff Gutt will play along Bush, Live, Rose Tattoo and Electric Mary.
UNDER THE SOUTHERN STARS 2020
Friday, April 3rd
Peter Barclay Field, Tuncurry NSW
Saturday, April 4th
The Crescent, Parramatta Park, Sydney NSW
Sunday, April 5th
The Entertainment Grounds, Gosford NSW
Thursday, April 9th
Stuart Park, Wollongong NSW
Saturday, April 11th
Hastings Foreshore Reserve, Mornington Peninsula VIC
Sunday, April 12th
Yarrawonga Showgrounds, Yarrawonga VIC
Monday, April 13th
Bonython Park, Adelaide SA
Wednesday, April 15th
HBF Stadium, Perth WA
Friday, April 17th
Sunshine Coast Stadium, Sunshine Coast QLD
Saturday, April 18th
Riverstage, Brisbane QLD
Sunday, April 19th
Foreshore Park, Newcastle NSW
For all ticketing information head to Under the Southern Stars official site.