Matt Giles | Longreads | May 2017 | 15 minutes (3,772 words)
Last month, Pearl Jam was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Introduced by David Letterman, who looked resplendent with his chin-length beard, it was a fitting honor for one of the greatest rock groups of all time. “I feel like maybe we’re about halfway there to deserving an accolade of this kind of stature, but this is very encouraging,” said Eddie Vedder, Pearl Jam’s lead singer, as part of his acceptance remarks.
What was left unmentioned by Vedder and his fellow bandmates was the collaboration that directly preceded Pearl Jam’s formation more than 25 years ago in Seattle—a supergroup that enjoyed its own moment in the spotlight last year.
Temple of the Dog only released one album, but after a two-decade hiatus, the group reformed in June and announced a multi-concert tour across the United States. Normally, this wouldn’t have made headlines, but it did because Temple of the Dog was a mix of soon-to-be superstars from Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, including Jeff Ament, Stone Gossard, Matt Cameron, Mike McCready, Chris Cornell, and Vedder (who didn’t tour, but was in the original lineup). These rock gods had never officially toured as Temple of the Dog (there have been a few shows here and there, and every few years a video of Cornell and Vedder jamming out to “Hunger Strike,” the band’s hit single, goes viral), but this tour was the first time the musicians got together as the early-’90s super group. “We’re essentially a baby band,” Ament told Rolling Stone in a recent oral history of the band. “We’re 25 years down the road, but we’ve never toured.”
The tour renewed the attention paid to Temple’s “Hunger Strike” music video. Released three times over the ensuing decades, the video — sparse, loaded with symbolism, and an ode to both the city of Seattle and Andy Wood, the Mother Love Bone singer whose death both launched and inspired Temple’s founding — gained notoriety for helping to foment the wave of the ’90s video genre. You know what they look like: dark colors, set in nature, elderly individuals writing on a chalkboard, anthropomorphism, warped graphics, unconventional camera angles, and more. The TV sitcom “How I Met Your Mother” mocked the style in the 2013 episode, “PS I Love You”; the episode featured the alt-rock backstory of Robin Scherbatsky, whose breakout hit had all the ’90s music video trappings (including extras clad in flannel).
“There were certain things showing up in videos that were consistent through that time period, and we’d crack up every once and a while,” says Amy Finnerty, a music programming executive at MTV who first pressured the network to air the “Hunger Strike” video. “It’s not hard to notice a lot of videos featuring a sole lightbulb flickering or swinging ominously. The theme was noticeable.”
While Temple of the Dog released only one record, the creative implications of “Hunger Strike’s” music video reverberated throughout the industry. It was a call to action of the scene, which was still too early to be called grunge, and kicked off several years of artistic creativity, growing budgets, and the how a network—through programs like “Buzz Bin” and “120 Minutes”—wholly embraced grunge and alternative music. “Music was shifting, and the musical movement was shifting from what was on MTV,” says Susan Silver, who managed Soundgarden and Alice in Chains (and was, at one point, married to Cornell). “Not that there weren’t tons of nuanced videos, but we just didn’t see them very often. So this movement that was moodier and had different undertones and visuals became much more evocative to those watching as well as creating the videos.”
When Paul Rachman was first approached to direct the “Hunger Strike” video, the 29-year-old director was just emerging from an artistic rut. A native New Yorker, Rachman had cut his directing teeth on videos for Bad Brains, Gangrene, and Mission to Burma, but by the late 1980s, “hardcore was turning into speed metal,” he says. “Guns N’ Roses and Motley Crue are breaking, and all of a sudden, I was in this heavy metal world. I’m not that guy. There was this mountain of crappy music coming out. Every single one of them has to do a video, and every single one of them has to try to get on MTV. There’s an abundance going on, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was good music. I wasn’t inspired.”
Though MTV was roughly a decade old, the network was still trying to figure out how to best utilize the music video medium. Though the channel mostly showed music videos, but there hadn’t yet been a dominant musical movement to which the network could align itself. Since the only videos being produced were financed by record companies, there was a small pool to draw from. Though some then-unknown performers like Cyndi Lauper and Madonna were able to break the mold and skyrocket to fame based on videos championed by MTV, the record companies made sure to crowd out all competitors, limiting the boundaries of what a music video could be.
“I don’t want to say ’80s bands were dumb,” says Juliana Roberts, a producer for The Foundry, Propaganda Films’ hard rock division. “But there was a formula at that point. There was a hot girl, a band performing live, or the band riding off on motorcycles with hot girls. It was very basic.”
“It was the big rock look,” says Rachman. “It was slick. It was all the same—big lights, big rock. The record companies liked that because they always knew that’s what they were getting. It’s like, ‘Oh, well let’s buy the red Cadillac, that’s this guy.’”
Hoping to foster an undercurrent of underground music that might crest into the mainstream (and score the thousands upon thousands of eyeballs the network needed), MTV launched “120 Minutes” in 1986. According to Dave Kendall, the show’s creator and an early host, its mission was simple: “This was a time when smaller bands could only get airplay on college radio [and] ‘120 Minutes’ provided the broadest exposure for the less commercial music videos.” The show, which lasted for nearly 1,000 episodes on MTV and MTV2, was a testing ground for videos the network’s executives thought might resonate—if they thought a video would blow up, it would premiere on “120 Minutes.”
But a group couldn’t just leap-frog from its Econovan to the primetime rotation. All new videos, regardless of the musical genre or artist, were submitted to MTV’s music meeting committee, a dozen or so staff members—all in their 20s and 30s—who met every Monday to determine whether the video had a place within the ethos. “All the music that played on MTV, regardless of the show, was cleared by music programming,” says Finnerty, who worked in the department in the early ’90s. “Four weeks or so in heavy rotation could really blow a band up.” If a group wasn’t ready for “120 Minutes,” though, their videos could land in the “Buzz Bin,” which was originally called “Hip Clip of the Week.”
“It was all about getting in the ‘Buzz Bin,‘” says Rachman. “That could lead to getting in daily rotation on MTV and break out. It was a crap shoot.”
In 1992, Judy McGrath, an executive vice president and creative director for MTV, told the New York Times: “Music, visually presented, is the lifeblood of the channel. We need new music to keep our viewers stimulated and watching.”
Rachman had to, in his words, “fake it for a bit,” directing the “War Inside My Head” video for Suicidal Tendencies, which alternates between shots of the band performing and scenes inside the mosh pit, so when Silver tapped him to direct the second single for an up-and-coming band called Alice in Chains, Rachman was eager for a change. “Everything was a bit different in Seattle, and the sounds really connected with my upbringing in punk and hardcore,” he explains. “The city had a different slant.”
The resulting video was “Man in the Box,” and Rachman hashed out the video’s concept over fax with Layne Staley, the band’s lead singer. “It was all very loosely conceptual,” he says. “Layne had these ideas like a leaky barn and a baby with eyes sewn shut, so I took that into account as well as listened to the lyrics and the music.”
Though the finalized treatment — a sepia-toned video featuring the band in a barn, surrounded by pigs and cows, with an appearance from the Reaper (an elderly man with his eyes and mouth sewn shut) — was approved, Rachman had his doubts the day of December shoot: “As I am driving to the barn, I kept asking myself, ‘What the fuck am I doing putting this kind of rock band on a farm with cows and pigs?’ I just came to this sudden realization that there’s nothing like this on MTV. No other band is doing this.”
Released in early 1991, the video not only became an instant hit, but also a quintessential video in the ’90s genre. It codified the checklist for what a video in the ’90s would look like. In Mark Yarm’s Everybody Loves Our Town, an oral history of the Pacific Northwest music scene, Rick Krim, MTV’s director of music talent, explained how “Man in the Box” set the stage for videos like “Hunger Strike”: “I remember discussing in a meeting whether [to take] Alice in Chains or this band Thunder, which was a hair band that sounded like Whitesnake. There was a whole big discussion, and … we all picked Alice in Chains. The video … was pretty dark. Sort of the antithesis of a lot of stuff on the channel. Alice in Chains felt like it was something new, and Thunder felt like it was something old. When MTV opts for this Alice in Chains band over a hair band, that was starting the tide turning.”
Finnerty adds, “Nothing during prime time or regular rotation hours looked different. It was all Bobby Brown, Paula Abdul, or stuff that bridged the ’80s and ’90s. Anything that looked different and weird, that was good.”
Fresh off the rapid success of “Man in the Box,” Silver again tapped Rachman for another video. This one — “Hunger Strike” by Temple of the Dog — was a unique scenario. Andy Wood, the charismatic lead singer of Mother Love Bone, died in 1990 following a heroin overdose; it was a very fluid moment musically in Seattle, and two of Mother Love Bone’s remaining members of the band, Ament and Gossard, began to look for other musicians to jam with.
One of those who met up with Ament and Gossard was Mike McCready, but nothing materialized until Cornell, who was Wood’s close friend and roommate, started jotting down lyrics and writing songs in part to memorialize Wood. As he recently told Rolling Stone, “I don’t really remember doing much else after the funeral other than just being swept up in the grief of the moment, but after a couple of weeks I wrote two songs [“Say Hello 2 Heaven” and “Reach Down”] for Andy. I don’t remember recording the demos, but I remember the ideas and writing the lyrics because they were really different and they involved a real person…these lyrics specifically reflected Andy and my feelings about him.”
Silver, who was then dating Cornell, says, “He had been doing that kind of recording at home years before that, but those songs were very meaningful because they were part of the grieving process that Chris was doing at the loss of friend.”
Cornell eventually recorded those songs onto a cassette, and once Gossard and Ament heard the tracks, they convinced Cornell to form a one-off collaboration as a tribute to Wood: Temple of the Dog. The trio recruited McCready, Matt Cameron, then-Soundgarden’s drummer, and a recent transplant to Seattle, Eddie Vedder, who was auditioning to be the lead singer of Mookie Blaylock, which would later be renamed to Pearl Jam.
“Say Hello 2 Heaven” may represent the record’s emotional core, but “Hunger Strike” is the group’s masterpiece, and it is the first inkling of Vedder’s unbelievably powerful voice. Though Cornell originally thought the song was just filler on the album, Vedder transformed “Hunger Strike,” his baritone complementing Cornell’s higher vocal range, and the call-and-response classic was born. Cornell told Yarm, “He started singing the low parts for me because he saw it was kind of hard… suddenly the light bulb came on in my head, this guy’s voice is amazing for these low parts. History wrote itself after that, [and it] became the single.”
When Temple of the Dog’s album dropped in April 1991, it only sold 70,000 copies. Soundgarden was still somewhat underground, and the Pearl Jam’s Ten wouldn’t come out for several more months, so Rachman wasn’t sure what to expect when he met the group in his Seattle hotel room in mid-1991 to storyboard the subsequent video for “Hunger Strike. “Chris wanted to make something a little more of an ode and a film to Andrew, and didn’t necessarily want to be in the video as a rock band,” says Rachman, “whereas the guys who would become Pearl Jam were starting over. They wanted exposure.”
Cornell did have a particular vision for the video, mentioning in passing that it should be more cinematic, which shows the growth of the music video genre. During the 1980s, music videos were largely, if not entirely, shaped by the director and the record label, but now musicians were taking more ownership of the process.
“The individual artistry came in, and the band collectively started to influence the conceptual part of the video,” says Roberts, who was on location for the “Hunger Strike” video shoot (“I was producer, craft services, makeup, and transportation for Temple of the Dog”). She adds, “People were becoming more educated on videos, and what they wanted and didn’t want, and bands had a bit more control over how they wanted to be perceived.”
Wanting to stave off any potential creative disagreements later on, Rachman suggested filming out in the natural elements — another ’90s video hallmark. “‘Why don’t we make Seattle part of the video?’ he recalled asking. “The city is an inherent part of who you guys are, and who Andrew was.” Cornell became a location scout, taking Rachman to Discovery Park, the city’s largest park. It was an ideal setting. “Within 500 yards, I had bluffs over the ocean, a beach, a lighthouse, these abandoned barracks, the woods, and some tall weeds,” says Rachman. “I didn’t need to shoot anywhere else.” When he wrote his treatment for A&M, Temple’s label, it was brief — a paragraph about ‘the band hanging out in nature.’
Working off a low budget of about $40,000 or so, the shoot ran the full meteorological gamut: snow in the morning, sunshine over the Puget Sound, and a hailstorm that damaged Cameron’s drum set. And then there were qualms with lip-syncing. This was Vedder’s first video, and the singer (when he showed up to the shoot, he was wearing a hat and shorts, and Roberts mistakenly thought Vedder was taking coffee orders) did not want to lip-sync. “He kept saying, ‘This is so fake,’” says Rachman. “I told him not to look at the camera and focus on something else. Just find the music. That’s why he is staring off in the distance during his shots in the tall weeds.”
Scenes featuring Cornell sitting underneath a school desk in a darkened room were interspersed with the group jamming on the beach, in the woods, and around a bonfire at dusk. The video was a visual summation of Seattle and the Pacific Northwest, yet the video, which was released to “Buzz Bin” shortly after filming, still wasn’t an immediate hit. No one really paid attention. “It was an insider album, and wasn’t big pop culture,” says Rachman. “We all moved on with our careers.” And though it made “Buzz Bin,” the video wasn’t selected for prime time or “120 Minutes.” “If we tried to make it play early on, it wouldn’t have worked,” says Finnerty.
But 1991 was the year punk broke, resulting in albums from not only Temple of the Dog but the Pearl Jam’s debut album (not to mention Nirvana’s Nevermind and Soundgarden’s third album, Badmotorfinger), all of which propelled grunge and its alternative music cousins to the mainstream, blitzing any other musical genre. Music videos came along for the ride, and like “Hunger Strike,” the videos had a “far more soulful direct relationship to the lyrics and the stories,” says Mark Pellington, director of Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” and Alice in Chains “Rooster” (among many others).
“Music videos weren’t being used just to break a band anymore,” he continues. “They were being appreciated artistically, and as such, they were seen as having a lasting impact. Videos were a bit grittier and darker and more aggressive. Part of it was we were not in the Reagan America anymore, and we were heading towards a democratic reaction to the populist Reagan years.”
Or as Kurt Cobain stressed during the filming of the “Smells like Teen Spirit” video, which dropped in the late summer of 1991, “the video had something that was truly about what [Nirvana was] about.” Musicians wanted to give their lyrics life beyond the page or radio waves, and as MTV and mainstream radio began to play these songs with deeply personal and evolved lyrics, it gave others freedom to write songs with more meaning. “It opened up a whole new playground,” says Finnerty. “People kept true to their own sense of music and authenticity.”
Adds Kendall from “120 Minutes”, “It was the music that counted, and like any art-form, certain bands and directors raised the bar, and inspired others to do the same. ‘120 Minutes’ offered them national exposure, so there was a real necessity for them to produce videos of reasonable quality. Because most of them had limited budgets, they had to find ways to be creative, and work with what they had. That encouraged the development of a more artistic approach.”
“The hot girl in a music video formula just got crushed,” says Roberts. “You didn’t see the hot girl for a while.”
Of course, once MTV committed to grunge and alternative, those small budgets blew up, jumping from anywhere between $250,000 to $750,000, which attracted not only more experimental and artistically daring directors, but also big-name directors who were just as keen to push the creative envelope. Finnerty was the first person at MTV to watch the “Smells like Teen Spirit” video, taking it from office to office while at the same time chaperoning her friends, the Smashing Pumpkins, around the network. “Once the movement got started, and people saw it wasn’t a fluke, we knew we had to commit,” says Finnerty. “We’d go to the record company and tell them to put more money behind a band, whether for music videos or getting the band on tour. Before grunge, MTV’s departments were bifurcated, but we started having a larger dialogue to line up a narrative properly.”
That was difficult for “Hunger Strike,” as Temple was an on-off collaboration, but once Pearl Jam erupted, MTV revisited the video and asked A&M, the group’s label, to recut it, focusing more on Gossard, Ament, and, especially, Vedder. The close-up, midway through the “Hunger Strike” video, soon became the singer’s signature look — “there’s a glint in his eyes,” says Rachman — and when the revised video debuted on “120 Minutes” in August 1992, sandwiched between Michael Penn’s “See the Doctor” and “Radio Song” from R.E.M., sales exploded. Within three weeks, more than 300,000 Temple of the Dog records were sold, the album cracked the pop chart’s top 25, and then eventually went platinum.
”It didn’t really get that broad attention,” Cornell told the New York Times, ”until someone at MTV put it together that ‘Oh, there’s this one video that we have that has members of both bands in it; let’s play it all day!”’
The video’s four minutes helped spark the imagination of successive directors and bands, and subsequent videos the next several years took inspiration from Rachman’s “Hunger Strike”, fueling the medium and ushering an era of more creatively driven and visually beguiling videos. Following Pellington’s success with “Jeremy,” which pieced together still photos, close-ups, and challenging imagery (according to the director, the 14-page treatment was “fairly ambitious”), he was commissioned to direct the video for the first single of Silverchair, an up-and-coming Australian band. During his first conversations about “Tomorrow” with the group, Pellington recalls, “They told me to just make it like ‘Jeremy.’ The band and the label was spending some decent bread, and they just wanted ‘Jeremy II.’ That thing was epic, and it cast a big shadow over a lot of my stuff for many years.”
“Everybody is ripping everybody off in art and cinema and music,” says Rachman. “At the time in the mid-’90s, there’s so much music video work being made, and not every video gets on MTV. There were just too many, and of course there was going to be riffing and similarities.”
As is the case with all pop culture, nothing is enduring, and the wave crashed just a few years after its early 90s’ peak. Budgets became too bloated, video shoots became too unwieldy, and MTV began to shift to original programming, lessening the importance of the music video within the network’s hierarchy. “Videos became a double-edged sword,” says Silver. “A director could throw out some idea they had in a dream and say it’ll cost $750,000 — without a storyboard. The video may or may not work, and no one was accountable.”
Still, the importance of Temple of the Dog’s “Hunger Strike,” and the videos that followed it, is monumental. Before the group embarked on its 2016 tour (its first as Temple of the Dog), a third cut of the video was made, incorporating some extra and previously unseen footage Rachman shot with his 16 mm Bolex camera. “They used my favorite stuff, which was Eddie and Chris under the table with a candle on top,” he says. “That’s my whole concept of remembering Andy.”
“All three of those videos can co-exist, because they represent different creative visions,” he adds. “I loved that song, and I loved that album. I had an old muscle car in New York, a 1970 Chevy Malibu, and I’d play the record nonstop on cassette. In a way, I hope Temple of the Dog doesn’t make another album. There should only be one.”
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Matt Giles is a staff writer and chief fact-checker at Longreads.