It might be a stretch to say that the Singles soundtrack was to grunge what Saturday Night Fever was to disco — but not by much. Songs from that 1992 compilation by the likes of Pearl Jam, Screaming Trees, and Mother Love Bone may not have been as omnipresent in pop culture as the Bee Gees’ hits were in the ‘70s, but they did attract millions of listeners to the then-burgeoning Seattle scene. And nowadays, a lot more people wear flannel than white three-piece suits.
Whatever the case, it’s safe to say that Cameron Crowe’s iconic ‘90s film and its accompanying soundtrack helped introduce the “Seattle sounds” to the rest of America — and the world. The romantic comedy wasn’t about music per se, but rather about the relationships of a group of Gen X’ers residing in a Seattle apartment complex. One of those characters was Matt Dillon’s dopey frontman of the fictional grunge group Citizen Dick, whose other members were played by Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, Stone Gossard, and Jeff Ament. The movie also featured performances by Alice in Chains and Soundgarden, but the soundtrack was the real star.
Released on June 30, 1992, two and a half months before Crowe’s film hit theaters, the Singles soundtrack — which receives a deluxe reissue treatment this week, with an additional disc of rarities by Chris Cornell, Paul Westerberg, Mudhoney, Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready, and, yes, Citizen Dick — went on to be certified double-platinum for sales of 2 million copies. Pearl Jam’s full-length debut, Ten, later went all the way to No. 2 on the Billboard album chart, likely helped by the exposure from the film.
Although Nirvana, whose breakthrough sophomore album Nevermind had knocked Michael Jackson’s Dangerous out of the top spot on the album chart earlier in ‘92, were noticeable absent, the Singles soundtrack offered listeners perhaps the best possible overview of the Seattle scene — showcasing Pearl Jam predecessor Mother Love Bone, grunge forerunners Mudhoney, Soundgarden singer Cornell’s early solo work, and even classic heritage acts the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Heart side-project the Lovemongers. Also featured were non-Seattleites, but kindred spirits, like Westerberg (making his debut as a solo artist rising from the wreckage of the Replacements) and Chicago buzz band Smashing Pumpkins.
After relocating to Seattle in the late-’80s, Crowe — who began his career as a teenage rock journalist for Rolling Stone and other publications — fell in love with the Seattle scene. “We were listening to all these amazing songs that were coming out and we were going to clubs and watching these bands. It was so cool and so fresh,” recalls Crowe’s then-wife, Heart guitarist Nancy Wilson. “Cameron’s always been someone who can hear the next thing that’s going to happen.”
There’s a perception that Crowe tried to cash in on the success of the Seattle scene, but Singles was actually filmed before it exploded. “It stayed in the can for a year until the studio released it on the heels of the so-called ‘grunge explosion,'” Crowe said in a 2000 interview with the A.V. Club.
Mudhoney singer/guitarist Mark Arm concurs. “The movie was filmed before the scene got super huge,” he tells Yahoo Music. “But to me at the time, things were already really big. The Seattle scene was being discussed in major music publications like Rolling Stone and Spin. It wasn’t fanzine-level anymore. But after everything exploded, people were getting put on the cover of Time magazine. That was a whole other level of craziness.”
Arm says he and his bandmates had already had enough, as evidenced by their Singles contribution “Overblown,” in which Arm deadpans over heavy guitars and a driving drumbeat, “Everybody loves us / Everybody loves our town / That’s why I’m thinking lately / The time for leaving is now.” In retrospect, Arm admits, “I don’t know if that attitude really helped us.”
Aside from “Overblown,” Arm made a cameo in the film, carrying a box of records, and another of the band’s songs, “Touch Me I’m Sick,” received a rewrite to become “Touch Me I’m Dick,” a theme song of sorts for Citizen Dick. “I’m not sure who’s idea that was,” Arm says. “It might have been Stone’s or Jeff’s. It seems like their sense of humor.” That track makes its debut on the new deluxe anniversary edition of Singles.
Despite the fact that Mudhoney were a crucial part of the Seattle scene, the band wasn’t necessarily going to be featured in Singles until Arm and a few friends actually lobbied Crowe to be included. “We kind of caught wind of that this movie was being made,” Arm recalls. “So [Mudhoney guitarist] Steve Turner, [Sub Pop Records founder] Bruce Pavitt, and I got a hold of Cameron and had a meeting with him and said, ‘Hey, there’s this whole other thing happening, too.’ I think that’s the only reason we’re on the soundtrack. I’m not sure why Nirvana wasn’t. Maybe because no one from Nirvana marched into his office.”
Still, Arm is conflicted about Singles and the height of the grunge explosion. When first asked about the film and his memories from that time, Arm laughs before saying a word. Later, Arm, who still fronts Mudhoney and works managing the Sub Pop warehouse, adds, “I have totally mixed feelings about that whole era. Some of it was amazing and super-fun, and then a lot of it was really tragic.”
While some bands benefited from the exposure on Singles, Mudhoney weren’t necessarily one of them, though Arm did get his only platinum record for the band’s contributions to the soundtrack. The band was signed to Warner Bros. in the signing spree that saw major labels frantically inking bands connected to the scene, and Mudhoney’s first album for the label, 1982’s Piece of Cake, sold fairly well for a relatively new act. “That was our biggest-selling record out of the gate,” he recalls. “I think it sold 150,000 or something, but in my mind, it was like, ‘OK, there’s a million people who heard us on the soundtrack and 850,000 said no.'”
The opposite was the case for Screaming Trees, whose “Nearly Lost You” was the most successful track released from the Singles soundtrack, peaking at No. 5 on Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks chart and No. 12 on Mainstream Rock Tracks. Though they were lumped into the Seattle scene, Screaming Trees predated grunge. They formed in 1985 in Ellensburg, Wash., by singer Mark Lanegan, Gary Lee Conner on guitar and his brother Van Conner on bass, and drummer Mark Pickerel. Before signing with Epic, the band released albums on Hall of Records and Southern California punk label SST. By the time they were recording their second album for Epic, Sweet Oblivion in 1992, Barrett Martin — a refugee from Skin Yard, another early grunge band — had joined the group.
“That period of time was very special,” Martin recalls, “because Cameron was here making that movie before everything blew up. Prior to the Pearl Jam and Nirvana albums, those two records that the whole world became aware of, there was this whole scene in Seattle that was really special and mutually supportive. We all went to see each other’s bands. We knew each other and we jammed together in other configurations before those bands became finalized.”
Screaming Trees weren’t initially slated to be on the soundtrack and weren’t even in Seattle while the movie was being filmed. Instead, they were holed up in a New York recording studio working on Sweet Oblivion, which would include “Nearly Lost You.” “We were recording that album and the mixes were going straight to the Sony Black Rock building,” Martin says. “At some point, they played ‘Nearly Lost You’ in a staff meeting and thought, ‘That’s a great song. We got to put that on the Singles soundtrack.'”
It was such a late addition to the album, it almost didn’t make it, says Martin, who just published his memoir/travelogue, The Singing Earth. “As I remember, I think the soundtrack had been mastered and was ready to be manufactured and they literally stopped the presses and put ‘Nearly Lost You’ on the soundtrack at the very last minute. So it was added in the 11th hour.”
As it turned out, “Nearly Lost You” and Alice in Chains’ tribute of sorts to late Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood, “Would?,” ended up being the radio hits from the album. With “Nearly Lost You” helping to propel the soundtrack, Sony decided to delay the release of Sweet Oblivion. “At a certain point, they thought, ‘OK, now we can release the Trees’ album,” Martin recalls. “It was very fortuitous for us, because it helped sell the Sweet Oblivion album and I think it also helped sell the Singles soundtrack.”
Former Trees singer Lanegan, who now fronts his own eponymous band, dismissed the track on its 20th anniversary, telling Spin, “It’s one of those songs I hope to never hear again. Why? Because it was specifically written to be a single. It’s a corny, cheesy tune. But, you know, whatever. It is what it is.” Martin, however, stands by the song. “It’s a good song,” he tells Yahoo. “It has good lyrics, it’s musically interesting, it’s well-arranged, and it doesn’t sound like a lot of the other songs doing derivations of grunge and grunge-light in the following decade. I don’t think it’s the best song the Screaming Trees ever wrote, but it’s a well-known song.”
For Nancy Wilson, half of the driving force of platinum-selling rockers Heart, Singles also was a beneficial experience. With Heart on hiatus, Nancy and her sister, singer Ann Wilson, decided to scale things down and get back to their roots with the side-project the Lovemongers.
“We sort of folded up the big, bombastic hair-band ’80s as the scene was exploding right then at that time in Seattle,” Nancy tells Yahoo Music. “We packed up our tents and went back to Seattle with the hopes that we could be part of the music scene there, because it was really happening.”
Unlike the punk movement, which generally dismissed the previous generation’s superstar acts, the Wilson sisters found the musicians in Seattle welcoming. They hadn’t been confident that that would be the case. “We were nervous about when we went back to Seattle to take a break, that all these new cool bands were going to think we were just an old dinosaur hair band from L.A. Nut they really turned into brothers,” Nancy says. “[Alice in Chains guitarist] Jerry Cantrell, the first night we hung out, he said, ‘Will you show me the guitar part for ‘Mistral Wind’ [the acoustic closing track from Heart’s 1978 album Dog & Butterfly]? I love your stuff. I love your work, especially your early stuff.’ They were very generous. These are generous people. There’s a spirit of community is Seattle that was so refreshing to come home to.”
The Lovemongers’ contribution to the Singles soundtrack was a live cover of Led Zeppelin’s “The Battle of Evermore,” which had the Wilson sisters tipping their hats to one of their greatest influences. However, Nancy says she and Ann just weren’t looking back, but were finding inspiration from the new Seattle bands as well. “It’s certainly true,” she says. “It was a really refreshing direction these bands were taking and it kind of revitalized, renewed, and refreshed our perspective of what it was we were going to try to do next. We were getting out of stilettos and putting on the combat boots.”