While grunge music hit the masses with Nirvana‘s Nevermind in the fall of 1991, a full year earlier there was another Seattle band who began laying the groundwork for the musical explosion to come. That band was Alice in Chains, who on Aug. 21, 1990, unleashed their debut full-length album Facelift.
In the mid-’80s, vocalist Layne Staley‘s high school band Sleze transitioned into a full-on glam metal outfit known as Alice N’ Chains. But as the years passed, Staley’s musical style began to develop into something much darker and heavier. Flanking himself with guitarist-singer Jerry Cantrell, bassist Mike Starr and drummer Sean Kinney, Staley kept the moniker but changed it to Alice “In” Chains and the group began to play around the Seattle area. A local promoter Randy Hauser offered to pay for the band to do some demo recordings and the collection, known as The Treehouse Tapes, began to circulate. Eventually the demos landed on the desk of music managers Kelly Curtis and Susan Silver, who passed the music onto a Columbia Records rep and the band signed to Columbia in 1989.
The band entered Seattle’s now famous London Bridge Studio to start recording music with producer Dave Jerden and also traveled to the Capitol Recording Studio in Hollywood to work, as well. Between December 1989 and April 1990, Alice in Chains laid down tracks but the label knew they had something special and pushed for a quick turnaround.
Kinney recalls that he almost didn’t end up on the album because he had a broken hand. He stated in Grunge Is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music, “I almost didn’t play on the record — they started rehearsing with the drummer from Mother Love Bone, Greg Gilmore. I was sitting there playing with one hand, guiding him through it. Dave Jerden came in and they started to try to do it. He was like, ‘Screw it — pull the plug. This is not going to be the same.’ Luckily, we took a tiny bit of time off. I had that cast on for a while, and was like, ‘I can’t miss this.’ I cut my cast off in the studio and kept a bucket of ice by the drum set. Kept my hand iced down and played with a broken hand. I tried not to do that again — your first big break, and you f–k it up.” But production moved forward.
To test the waters, the label released a promotional EP around the single “We Die Young.” But it was more of a gradual acceptance for the band at radio. Jerden told Ultimate Guitar, “The feedback we were getting was Layne’s voice is wrong. So many program directors said that. Cause this is at the time of Axl Rose and Dio and all these high voices. I’ve always liked a little bluesy voice myself. To say Layne’s voice is wrong or to say anybody’s voice is wrong is a pretty ridiculous thing to say, but that’s the feedback I got.” But while radio might have been slow to embrace, the listeners were not. After radio picked up on “We Die Young,” the label pushed forward the schedule for release and by August 1990, the Facelift album was in the hands of a quickly growing fan base.
As stated, “We Die Young” really connected with listeners right out of the gate. Cantrell recalls of the song, “[I was] riding the buss to rehearsal and [seeing] all these 9-, 10-, 11-year-old kids with beepers dealing drugs. The sight of a 10-year-old kid with a beeper and a cell phone dealing drugs equaled ‘We Die Young’ to me.”
If “We Die Young” was the song that found the band knocking on the door to success, “Man in the Box” was the track that knocked that door down. The song’s signature guitar line and talk box usage had listeners humming along. Cantrell said in the Music Bank liner notes, “That whole beat and grind of that is when we started to find ourselves. It helped Alice become what it was.” In an interview with Much Music USA, Staley stated that the song was about censorship in the mass media. The track would climb to No. 18 on the Rock Tracks chart and would later receive a Best Hard Rock Performance Grammy nomination and a nod for Best Heavy Metal / Hard Rock Video at the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards.
The album also generated a number of other fan favorites. “Bleed the Freak,” an us-against-the-world type of track, and the bluesy “Sea of Sorrow” would be released off the album, and songs like the riff-heavy “It Ain’t Like That,” the emotionally powerful “Sunshine” and the dark and moody “Love Hate Love” also rank among the band’s best work.
“Sunshine” really left an emotional impact with many listeners as it came from a personal place for Cantrell. Speaking with Spin, he confirmed that it was written about his mother’s death. “When I was a little kid, I’d always tell her, “I’ll be famous and buy you a house and you’ll never have to work again. I’ll take care of you like you took care of me.’ When she passed away, it was a really sh–ty time for me. I didn’t know how to deal with it then, and I still don’t. But it gave me the impetus to do what I’m doing,” said the guitarist.
Though the grunge explosion was still a year away, Alice in Chains spent 1990 and 1991 building their fan base and connecting with audiences. They opened for Iggy Pop, Van Halen, Poison and Extreme and really won over fans on the Clash of Titans tour with Anthrax, Megadeth and Slayer. By the time grunge moved from the underground to the mainstream, Alice in Chains were in prime position, with their music having a full year to connect with audiences.
“I’d like our music to hit someone on a gut level,” said Cantrell to Spin. “Take it and be moved by it — I’d like them to feel something, whether they love it or f–king hate it. We’re all outcasts. We just want to be able to look each other in the eye and go, ‘This is pretty cool.’ That’s all you need — everybody grooving on the same thing.”
Within a year, most of the music world was “grooving on the same thing.” Alice in Chains’ Facelift became the first grunge album to reach platinum status and went on to receive a double platinum certification. It also paved the way for greater things to come.
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