It may be hard to believe for some that this week marks the twentieth anniversary of “Plush”’s journey to the top of the Billboard rock charts, effectively propelling the band to stardom. It was the height of the alternative rock movement of the early 90’s, and the band quickly amassed a giant fanbase; it is said that they managed to turn alternative rock into arena rock.
However, many to this day still write them off as nothing more than a grunge clone, riding on the coattails of Pearl Jam with Weiland’s throaty vocals. Is this really the case? Given recent events surrounding the band’s name that have left its future in jeopardy, now may be the perfect time to reflect on what the band truly was.
All quotes are taken from Stone Temple Pilots: Written & Illustrated Book and Interview Disc by Ian Gittins. 1994. Carlton Books. The book provides a unique insight into the early days of the band, up to the release of Purple.
“We never argued,” clarified guitarist Dean DeLeo, who left the construction materials industry for the world of rock music. “Bands that spend their time fighting are counter-productive. We just found quite naturally that everyone pitched in and there was a lot of love between us. Like a family.” In context with recent events surrounding the STP camp, the quote has a bit of a depressing connotation. Those were the words of a band with spirit, with the attitude to seize the music industry by storm.
Back then, Scott Weiland (who performed under the moniker “Weiland”, completely eschewing his first name) was a filled out man with crimson-spiked hair and a prominent goatee. He was charismatic and eager to show the world what he had in store, long before the days of The Wildabouts, lawsuits, and child support. “It would be really nice to have it go well and sell,” claimed Weiland, “but I’d really be happy to be successful enough to have a nice little humble place to live and be able to take my girlfriend out to an all-you-can-eat shrimp every once in a while!”
“[Weiland’s] one of the most intense guys I’ve ever met,” Dean said. “There’s definitely a comparison to Henry Rollins. Weiland is getting to be as real as Rollins.” Though early on, STP were designated as “grunge” by many, the band strived to make music that resonated on a deeper level, rather than slapping a label on themselves.
“Its all down to basing your performance on gut instinct,” Dean said, “getting those honest feelings out as an expression of art, instead of relying on image like fucking Poison-type bands.”
“You know how when you listen to a Led Zeppelin album you listen to the entire album, not just to the odd song?” explained Robert. “We wanted to make a record like that. We wanted to create a vibe which would run right through the whole album.”
Weiland elaborated, “We want to display a very intense musical and emotional power, but that doesn’t mean just playing as loud and heavily as we can from the first song to the last. We don’t want to sound just one way. We like to paint different soundscapes to create different moods. We’re not just a ‘plug in, crank it up to ten, let’s rock’ band. Our music has more sides to it.”
Before drugs overcame Weiland’s life and became the focal point of his lyrics, his world views dominated much of his lyrical content. “I guess I tend to find the darker sides of life more attractive than the yellows and oranges.”
Regarding Core‘s mysterious album cover, bassist Robert DeLeo said, “The picture on the sleeve is a surreal Garden of Eden, where the woman beneath the tree is holding a sphere of the world representing women’s rights and the condition of the planet.”
Weiland chipped in, “The whole concept is pretty phallic. In our opinion women are actually at the core of humanity’s existence and closest to what is God-like because of the fact that they are strong, resilient, and have the ability to create life. But the picture also represents the idea of trying to dominate Woman throughout history.
“I’m putting myself in the mind of the typical American jerk with the wholly unoriginal attitude about women,” Weiland said of his controversial “Sex Type Thing” lyrics, which were misinterpreted by many as advocating date rape. Though feminism often found its way into his writing, Weiland claimed that didn’t mean he himself was a cookie-cutter feminist.
“It’s not even a political song. I don’t want to be thought of as a poster boy for the feminist movement. I respect feminism, but that doesn’t mean that that’s all I am. That kind of objectification can ruin even sex.”
The blend of Zeppelinesque alternative rock music with contemporary social ideas obviously worked well for the band; to this day, Core has sold at least 8 million copies worldwide.
Of course, the media, grunge fans, and other artists were quick to jump on the band; they came into the music industry at just the right time, and naturally, they were easy targets. Voted “Worst New Band” by Rolling Stone (and “Best New Band” by readers of the same publication), the band endured an unreal amount of criticism. Iggy Pop accused them of being MTV fodder, and the band became the butt of a joke in a Pavement song (alongside Billy Corgan, who refuses to let that go even today). Robert Christgau went even as far as to say that the band should “catch AIDS and die” due to his misinterpretation of the lyrics to “Sex Type Thing”. They were Stone Temple Pirates, Stone Gossard Plagiarists, so on and so forth… as if the band cherry picked the sound of the Seattle bands and wrote it off as their own.
With that said, what exactly was the Seattle sound? If you were to take Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana and put them side by side, they would have little to no similarities. The supposed similarities between STP and those bands aren’t really in the music. Robert DeLeo’s funky, classically influenced bass-work has no place in a song by Alice in Chains or Soundgarden. Stacking his brother Dean’s guitar work next to Mike McCready’s, one who is informed could easily distinguish Dean’s crunchy, psychedelic flavor from McCready’s signature style.
Of course, it was Weiland’s baritone vocal style that drew comparisons to Eddie Vedder. “I have a lot of respect for Eddie Vedder and the ideals and things he stands for. As an artist, he’s very valid,” Weiland clarified. “But I never really thought if you put us next to each other we looked like Siamese twins!”
Back in those more innocent days before bands like Creed took center stage, Weiland’s defense could have some merit. Most musical artists at the time were children of the 70’s and 80’s, and, as such, they absorbed the same idols as they grew up: Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Kiss, The Who, just to name a few. Would it not be natural for them to sound alike? Both Weiland and Vedder professed to idolizing Jim Morrison, and Weiland had once said that he was afraid of Doors comparisons due to him listening to them around the time of Core‘s recording.
According to Dean DeLeo, “If we model ourselves on anybody, I’d like to make a reference to Led Zeppelin or Queen. All the bands who are around right now were in their grages not so long ago, jamming and playing along to Aerosmith and Zeppelin and Kiss!”
Indeed, the band had pieced together a demo under the name Mighty Joe Young in 1990, a year or two ahead of the grunge revolution, which still contained their trademark throaty vocals and gritty guitar riffs; early versions of “Wicked Garden”, “Naked Sunday”, and “Where the River Goes” appear on the album, alongside legendary track “Only Dying”, which was slated to appear on the soundtrack to the 1994 film The Crow until star Brandon Lee’s untimely death, and funky tracks such as “Dirty Dog” and “Love Machine”.
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The negative press did not bode well with Weiland. “In my lyrics I’m constantly questioning myself and my world. I’m constantly questioning who I am. So to have people telling me that I’m a loser, or I’m not worthy of success- I mean God, yeah, that hurt!” He continued, “I think rock journalists get some form of sadistic pleasure out of breaking down and injuring someone else’s spirit and their emotional self.”
“It had got to the point where we didn’t want to play ‘Plush’ because of the Pearl Jam comparisons. The rock press unfortunately managed to ruin our first album for us.” These were the bemoaning words of Weiland, battered and beaten despite still going strong. Whether the abuse from the press led to the band’s constant reinventions is unknown, but the band’s sophomore album Purple displayed something of a conscious effort to move forward sonically. Though still containing traces of the ferocity of Core, most notably on album opener “Meatplow”, the album was a much more diverse affair, from the country tinge of “Interstate Love Song” to the psychedelic barrage of “Army Ants”.
According to Weiland, “the making of Purple was a rebirth. It gave us the chance to live again and start to enjoy things instead of feeling like trapped animals. You either made a decision that you’re going to move on, or you decide it’s too difficult and say ‘Fuck it!’ and give up.”
Of course, as time went on, Scott’s personal habits also evolved, and his newly budded heroin addiction seeped its way into his music, his appearance, and his personality. Gone was the young man whose only concern was to make a statement, in was the emaciated being who had molded himself in the sense of a traditional rock star: leather, financially unsuccessful solo careers, arriving late to shows, arrests, media attention, and every other trope that often comes with the rock star connotation. However, that didn’t stop STP from churning out quality records. Tiny Music… Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop, was a sonic barrage nothing short of pure creativity. In a sense, it was STP’s Low, or at least their In Utero or Kid A: it alienated the casual fans of the previous material. Tiny Music dabbled in various genres, such as bossa nova on “And So I Know” and jazz fusion on “Adhesive”. Completely gone was the band present on Core; they no longer felt the need to churn out material critics or the media expected out of them.
Their fourth album, No. 4, released after a brief hiatus that encompassed the Talk Show and Weiland solo projects, saw kind of a return to the hard rock format of Core, balanced with airy, psychedelic ballads like “Glide” and “Sour Girl”, the latter being the highest charting single of their career. Their last album before the breakup, the critically underrated Shangri-La Dee Da, was a sonic journey for the band, who have come a long way since the grungey days of Core. There were some traces of that era left in the record: album opener Dumb Love and Coma are two of the heaviest recordings the band has put out. However, the rest of the album has a serene air to it. This atmosphere is only complemented by the equally surreal videos the band put out to promote the songs. The unofficial music video to “Hello, Its Late”, an acoustic ballad, finds the band playing music by the fire on an autumn afternoon, with Robert DeLeo on piano and Weiland looking nothing short of the second coming of Jesus. Easily their most meditative album, Weiland’s lyrics dealt with themes such as his newfound fatherhood, death, and personal rebirth.
As you all should know, the band infamously fired Weiland after putting up with his antics for twenty years, replacing him with the younger and more vital Chester Bennington from Linkin Park. This has generated much discussion. Does the band have the right to use the name? Are they ruining the band’s legacy by continuing without the original lineup that has persevered for twenty years? Is Scott damaging their legacy even further by using the band’s catalogue to promote his solo career? In my opinion, none of that should matter right now. Recent events should do nothing to dampen what the band has offered us.
They showed us that they could persevere even under the heaviest fire. They have given us a catalogue unparalleled in its sonic diversity. Many of us grew up with them, some alongside the band, and others, such as myself, who discovered them after the fact. No matter what comes out of this, we should wish the best for both parties. Deep down, Weiland is still the gruff looking man in the 7-up jacket, hair dyed deep red.
And hey, I’m just saying, Zeppelin were hated by critics too.