Seattle, Washington is synonymous with several more notable characteristics in our collective psyche. It is known for coffee, rainy weather and the Space Needle, but during the 1990s it was known worldwide for its music scene. The city became the cultural epicenter of Grunge; a wildly popular musical style that swept the airwaves and became the resounding chorus of Generation X. Grunge emerged primarily as a new genre based on influences from 80s alternative rock, heavy metal, and punk rock. Grunge songs categorically had rough harmonies bogged down in slow tempos peppered with angry, depressed, frustrated, saddened, or scared lyrics (Bogdanov, Woodstra & Erlewine, 2001). Ultimately, the grunge sound was created by skilled bass and rhythmic guitarists strumming rough riffs, with a drummer pounding gritty beats, led by a lead singer painfully singing in sheer anguish. No other musical genre became as definitive in the 1990s as Grunge, and no other group became as definitive in Grunge music as Alice In Chains.
Alice In Chains began its story in Seattle in 1987 when garage band singer Layne Staley met musician Jerry Cantrell during a chance meeting at a party. Cantrell invited Staley to his group “Diamond Lie” along with his friend and bassist Mike Starr. Drummer Sean Kinney was dating Cantrell’s sister at the time and completed the quartet. The group changed its name to “Alice In Chains” based on one of Staley’s old garage bands, “Alice N ‘Chainz”, which was a glam-rock band that played music influenced by “Guns N’ Roses” in drag (Wikipedia, nd). Quickly gaining notoriety in Seattle, the group signed with Columbia Records in 1989 and in June 1990 they released their first EP entitled “We Die Young”. The title track became a modest hit on local radio stations, but soon paved the way for their first full-length LP, “Facelift” that same year. Facelift’s first single, “Man In The Box,” which was co-written by Staley and Cantrell, was inspired after a dinner with record executives that included a discussion of how beef is raised. Alice In Chains began touring as the opening act for Iggy Pop and Van Halen (Wikipedia, nd), which helped the Facelift album earn gold certification just over a year later.
In 1992, Alice In Chains released her second EP called “Sap” which featured a collection of 5 acoustic tracks. It featured collaborations with Heart’s Ann Wilson, as well as fellow Seattle rocker Chris Cornell of Soundgarden. Quickly becoming a staple of the Seattle music scene, the band made their screen debut playing a sleazy bar band in a cameo appearance during Cameron Crowe’s 1992 film “Singles.” That year also marked the release of his second LP titled “Dirt”. The album showcased Alice In Chains’ signature sound with heavy songs laden with guitars perpetually shadowed by dark lyrics. The album established the group as mainstream rock stars by being certified platinum and remains their most commercially successful album to date. However, many of the album’s bleak songs dealing with addiction and loneliness fueled rumors that lead singer Staley was sinking deeper into the depths of drug abuse (Wikipedia, nd). During the group’s non-stop touring schedule and conflicts over drug use within the band, Mike Starr left Alice In Chains and was replaced by Ozzy Osbourne bassist Mike Inez.
The following year, the group reunited in 1993 to record two singles for the Arnold Schwarzenegger film “Last Action Hero”, titled “A Little Bitter” and “What The Hell Have I?” That summer, Alice In Chains joined the Lollapalooza tour with Babes In Toyland, Primus, Rage Against The Machine, and Tool with great success (Wikipedia, nd). Building on Lollapalooza’s notoriety, the group began work on another EP in late 1993 called “Jar Of Flies”. The album was released to much fanfare in January 1994, debuting at number 1 on the album sales charts, the first EP to do so (Wikipedia, nd). Jar Of Flies was a departure from Alice In Chains’ usual hard rock sound, rather than presenting a more melodically focused collection of acoustic halftime songs. Although the album was written and finished within the span of a week, music critics have praised the work as a “mini masterpiece” (Wikipedia, nd). However, Alice In Chains refrained from touring in support of Jar Of Flies, adding additional speculation about Staley’s drug abuse.
In 1995, Staley spearheaded lead vocals on the album “Above” for his side group “Mad Season,” which was a Seattle supergroup made up of Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin and Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready (Wikipedia, nd ). November of that year also marked the return of Alice In Chains with her self-titled LP also known as “Tripod” by fans due to the grim three-legged dog featured on the cover. Alice In Chains fans welcomed the album as a departure from Jar Of Flies’ earlier acoustic sound and a return to Dirt and Facelift’s more definitive grunge style. On April 10, 1996, Alice In Chains performed live in New York City for an MTV Unplugged show in front of 400 people. A visibly gaunt and tall Staley performed many of the reworked acoustic songs with the rest of his band and with the help of guitarist Scott Olson. Shortly after the July 3, 1996 performance in Kansas City, Missouri, Staley last performed on stage as the lead singer of Alice In Chains during an opening act for Kiss. The group replaced Stone Temple Pilots after they, ironically, withdrew due to drug use by their own singer Scott Weiland (Ashton, 2002).
Staley became more depressed and lonely after the 1996 death of his girlfriend Demri Parrott via bacterial endocarditis from a dirty heroin needle (MTV, nd). Meanwhile, with Alice In Chains on hiatus, Cantrell launched a solo project in 1998 called “Boggy Depot.” His album featured collaborations from Alice In Chains members Inez and Kinney, which is why fans sometimes refer to it as Alice In Chains’ “lost” album. The original members of the band last entered the studio in 1998 to record the singles “Get Born Again” and “Died” for their next 48-song career spanning collection, “Music Bank,” released in 1999.
Although Alice In Chains never officially separated, any prospect of reunion sadly ended on April 20, 2002 when Staley was discovered dead in his Seattle condo from a speedball overdose of cocaine and heroin (Ashton, 2002). The badly decomposed body was identified as Staley’s and the coroner determined that death occurred on April 5, 2002. Ironically, his death was eight years after the day Kurt Cobain of Nirvana died of a self-inflicted gunshot to the head ( MTV, nd).
Staley’s death marked the official end of the original Alice In Chains. However, four years later, on March 10, 2006, the surviving members of Alice In Chains reunited to begin a North American tour in Atlantic City, New Jersey, with “Comes With The Fall” singer William DuVall. While no new material has yet been written or recorded, the touring group features many of the classic songs that made Alice In Chains such a resounding success during the 1990s. Alice In Chains represents a definitive example of staying power. that have certain songs over time. Even after more than a decade since the original group’s last new album, many Alice In Chains songs stand the test of time and remain timeless standards on contemporary rock radio playlists even today.