25 Years Ago: Sub Pop Releases Soundgarden’s ‘Screaming Life/Fopp’
This is a strange but important anniversary. Screaming Life/Fopp is Sub Pop's compilation of Soundgarden's two EPs for the label, released on May 11, 1990. In practice, though, the album was more of a relaunch than compilation. Prior to its release, many of us didn't know of Soundgarden's Sub Pop roots. Let's be honest: Many of us didn't even know what Sub Pop was.
Keeping up with regional scenes is hard enough in the internet age, but in the '80s it was nearly impossible. We learned about indie labels from other parts of the country in a handful of ways: word of mouth, from bands coming through town, the occasional zine, random finds in the record bin, that kind of thing.
On rare occasions, a band on an indie label would blow up, and then it was on. Black Flag turned us on to SST, the Replacements to Twin/Tone and R.E.M. to I.R.S. Once those obscure label names hit our radar, we were on the hunt for everything in their catalog.
So it is with Sub Pop. Almost 30 years after Bruce Pavitt formed the label, Sub Pop is a household name, but when Screaming Life dropped in 1987, both Soundgarden and the label were very much a regional phenomenon. That's not to say that both weren't without potential: Jonathan Poneman was so taken with Soundgarden that he invested $20,000 in Sub Pop in order to release the band's first single, "Hunted Down."
The track served as Screaming Life's opener, but it was also the beginning of Pavitt's and Poneman's business relationship. In other words, "Hunted Down" marks the birth of Sub Pop as we know it. Even Charles Peterson's cover photo, a black and white shot of a shirtless Chris Cornell, helped to codify what the world would soon know as "grunge."
Like any debut, Screaming Life captures a band figuring out their sound, their influences clearly on display. "Entering" opens with an almost Police-like drum figure, and mid-song Cornell talks over several bars in a baritone reminiscent of Jim Morrison. His voice is fully-formed, though, that other worldly wail that marks him as the most technically accomplished of the Seattle singers.
Also fully formed: Kim Thayil's menacing drop-D guitar, which marks "Nothing to Say" as the ancestor to Badmotorfinger's "New Damage."
Speaking of influences, they weren't limited to Black Sabbath. Soundgarden's follow-up EP took its name from a track by '70s funk all-stars the Ohio Players. That band's 1975 album Honey landed in a lot of record collections thanks to hit single "Love Rollercoaster," but Thayil gravitated toward "Fopp," one of the album's deep cuts:
Thayil told Songfacts back in 2014:
The 'Fopp' EP is not [a] piece of serious or creative work by Soundgarden. It has a novelty component. It's definitely for humor's sake. We play "Fopp" all the time live. We love the song. We had a blast paying it live. It's heavy and sexy and we love the groove.
One can't help but wonder how much Cornell's roommate, Andrew Wood, may have influenced Soundgarden's playful attempt at funk-metal fusion. These were the pre-Mother Love Bone days, after all, when Wood was still fronting Malfunkshun.
The EP included only four tracks: "Fopp" and a dub mix of the same, a cover of Green River's "Swallow My Pride" that Thayil describes as "a little bit of a parody as well as an homage," and a Cornell original entitled "Kingdom Come." Slow the tempo and this track predicts Superunknown's "Keep it Off My Wave":
The two EPs brought the major labels calling, but Soundgarden went with SST for their first full length album, 1988's Ultramega OK. This brings us back to the head of this article. Even though SST wasn't a major label, it was on the national indie radar. That plus the video for "Flower," the album's single, showing up on MTV's 120 Minutes meant immediate indie cred. From there it was a short jump to their major label debut, 1989's Louder Than Love.
Around seven months after Louder Than Love was released, Sub Pop brought out the Screaming Life/Fopp compilation, and those of us who thought they were in on the ground floor with their SST debut discovered a whole new world -- not just of Soundgarden, but of this flannel beast that was stirring to life in Seattle. That's what makes the compilation such a special addition to our stacks: If you were in the Pacific Northwest at the time it may have been old news, but for the rest of us it was like a beacon leading to a whole new scene.
Screaming Life/Fopp got the remastering treatment in 2013, but the only bonus track was the novelty cut "Sub Pop Rock City," originally recorded during the Screaming Life sessions.