May 23, 2017 | by James Greene, Jr.
Soundgarden made mammoth and frequently beautiful noise, but no one turns to their records for a belly laugh. Most of what we recognize as humor from this storied band (the MILF anthem “Full On Kevin’s Mom,” the cover of Spinal Tap’s “Big Bottom”) blends in seamlessly with the rest of their emotionally charged thunder storms. And so, the jokes evaporate between “Jesus Christ Pose” and “Fell On Black Days.” There is a brief moment in the Soundgarden oeuvre, however, that proves these guys could mine deeply satisfying laughs, not only about themselves but their “scene,” “the biz,” and post-Alive Kiss. The track is, of course, “Sub Pop Rock City.”
Recorded in 1988 for the Sub Pop 200 compilation (which also includes embryonic offerings from Nirvana, Tad, the Fastbacks, and Catt Butt), “Sub Pop Rock City” bullseyes the almost too savvy branding Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman were already working hard to cultivate for the acts on their Seattle-based label by refusing to play along. The grunge scene Sub Pop wanted to (and eventually did) sell the world was articulate but downcast, impassioned but inward. In what feels like a protest of being anyone else’s commodity, Soundgarden substitute for their requisite complex framework a simple glam shock that’s bashed out as if they’re trying to win favor with C.C. DeVille.
Whether protest or goof (or both), the grimy basics of “Sub Pop Rock City” are a blast. The song opens with the lone, firm rumble of bass guitar; the drums pop in a measure later. Chris Cornell offers several comical grunts before he and the guitars explode into a fantastic parody of every 1970s rock disciple in the universe (Cornell included). The snarled-out lyrics send up the idea of Frasier Crane’s home town as hip central: “I’m not stoned but I wanted to tell ya / That when I’m in the mood I could think of playin’ there! / Goin’ to Seattle where the rock’s so heavy / With all them sex dogs in my Chevy!”
Later, we come upon the true mantra of the underground music head: “Goin’ to the show that rocks, alright / and everyone I hate is at the party tonight!"
“Sub Pop Rock City” climaxes when Soundgarden toss out the song’s third verse in favor of a phony phone call where the band bashfully ask their Sub Pop label bosses to let them shave off their era-defining sideburns. It’s obvious the soundbites of Pavitt and Poneman edited into the recording are from an entirely different conversation, one with a bit more gravity; “I just wanna know what — what the heck’s goin’ on,” Poneman stiffly repeats as Soundgarden mock him via a Kiss b-side from hell (though, to be fair, no one in Kiss ever played a guitar solo so drenched in the ghosts of ‘60s psych and possible psych meds).
Indeed, “Sub Pop Rock City” also works as satire of those shameless dick wavers Kiss, the McDonald’s of rock music, who at the height of their fame torpedoed any opportunity for adults to take them seriously by draping 1976’s otherwise solid Destroyer LP (the clutch follow up to unexpected smash double live disc Alive) with loads of asinine sound effects. No coincidence these clowns tumbled into the shitter after Destroyer, flailing through every gimmick imaginable until one morning they woke up back in their original face paint with Tupac at the Grammys.
Kudos to Sub Pop for putting this song out at a time when very few people outside Washington state would understand exactly what “Sub Pop Rock City” is targeting. Not that anyone would have expected Sub Pop to can it; one of the label’s big marketing angles revolved around the notion that everyone cool is actually a loser, especially in grunge, and that wanting to have a successful business is actually corny and stupid. Make fun of us, we deserve it. It’s cool to be lame and lame to be cool. Somewhere in that line of thinking you can extract the lesson that just because something is popular does not mean it is at all bad, which is exactly what Soundgarden proved when they got a deal with A&M Records and subsequently conquered the world.
That strain of thought also makes me reconsider the premise of this article’s opening paragraph. Maybe performing a straightforward rendition of Spinal Tap’s “Big Bottom” is the funniest joke to make. Maybe writing a MILF anthem and playing it like an honest to god anthem is funnier than making the whole thing obvious. Well, you know what they say: there’s no accounting for taste, humor is subjective. All I know is nothing makes me laugh like Soundgarden pretending to be Kiss, making fun of their record label, and using the phrase “sex dogs.”