Stone Temple Pilots’ ‘Purple’: Still Entertaining at 25
The Stone Temple Pilots released their most famous and arguably best-loved album, Purple, the same year that Kurt Cobain died: 1994. It seemed almost symbolic in a way: the ‘early ‘90s grunge movement began waning with its leader’s death, and STP, although superficially lumped into that scene, was rising. The group never really fit into that world, and was therefore able to transcend grunge’s trappings and survive its inevitable demise.
“I don’t think we ever wrote music to fit into any scene, I think we were just expressing ourselves,” the band’s Robert DeLeo told TIDAL. “You can’t base your art on how people respond to it. I think you just do what you do and try to express as many different kinds of sentiments you can as an artist.”
Hailing from San Diego, California, Stone Temple Pilots — originally named Mighty Joe Young — spent a few years building up a fanbase in sun-soaked Southern California before signing to Atlantic Records and releasing their debut LP Core in 1992.
When the band then entered the mainstream rock landscape, most rock fans at the time were in one of two camps: (1) the grunge idealists who worshipped devoutly at the Pacific Northwest altar of rain and heroin, and (2) those who cultivated a more broad taste of alternative musical culture.
Nirvana, like Soundgarden and Mudhoney, were considered legitimate grunge stars; they were all from Seattle and had spent time toiling in the underground on smaller, independent labels before they found wider mainstream success in the majors. Stone Temple Pilots, with their SoCal roots and seemingly effortless rise to stardom, found themselves lacking street cred. The million-dollar royalty checks didn’t help.
By the time STP was breaking into the national alternative scene, Nirvana was everything; Kurt Cobain was king and all of his edicts were to be followed to a T. King Cobain thought Pearl Jam were sellouts? So did the flock.
It’s not known what Kurt Cobain thought of the Stone Temple Pilots, but he paved the way for the hate they first endured. When he said of Pearl Jam, “They were marketed — not probably against their will — but without them realizing they were being pushed into the grunge bandwagon,” he could have just as easily been talking about Stone Temple Pilots. The purists who loathed STP upon their arrival had been coached by Cobain to reject and attack any band that wasn’t deemed authentic by the lord high executioner.
And to be fair, STP’s debut Core did not sound or feel wholly authentic. Whereas their grunge contemporaries were a blend of previous decades’ sounds and genres, STP appeared as an unholy amalgamation of current bands. If the “classic” grunge sound was a mix of the Stooges and Bowie, Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin, STP’s grunge-come-lately was widely panned by critics as merely a watered-down blend of other ‘90s artists. Entertainment Weekly wrote “STP sounds like it has crash-landed Pearl Jam into Alice in Chains.” Rolling Stone called the LP “a testosterone fest.”
“That’s part of being an entertainer,” DeLeo said of negative press surrounding the record. “Not everyone is going to like what you do. You’re not going to please everyone.”
STP obviously didn’t please rock journalists, but they did please many alt-rock fans. Core sold more than eight million copies, critics be damned, and there was a seismic scene shift in 1994. King Cobain was dead. Long live the king. As the larger grunge scene faded, the alternative genre widened and became a scene that was more fun, more freaky and in the end more inclusive.
It was the perfect time for Stone Temple Pilots to release Purple. Simpler, more laid back and generally more fun than their boisterously bleak debut Core, Purple was a colorful, expansive rock record that would prove STP was there to stay for the duration of the ‘90s and beyond — and it would finally start to accrue some real critical respect for the band.
When the first track on your hard rock LP is named “Meatplow,” it can be hard for an audience to gauge your level of self-awareness, especially in an era when sardonicism reigned supreme. The opening track on Purple could be seen and heard as a repudiation of the critical machine that tried to crush them (“They got these pictures of everything/To break us down, to break me down”) or it could be ignorant of it altogether (“Got a bullet/But it ain’t mine.”)
At this point, Stone Temple Pilots knew who they were, what they were doing and what critics thought of them. Although they had achieved massive mainstream success with their debut LP, they may have still been feeling the sting of its poor reviews when they were writing Purple: eight million STP fans can’t be wrong, but that doesn’t mean the critics weren’t right.
“Meatplow”’s vulgar title reads like a self-aware, wholly unsarcastic middle finger, a real ‘fuck you’ to the haters from Pilots vocalist Scott Weiland (“Scott read more press than I did,” DeLeo said) spat out over lumbering loud lines and thick dirty grooves.
Purple’s second track and second single, “Vasoline,” continues with the vitriolic sass established in “Meatplow.” The DeLeo brothers poke out a dark, droney, ridiculously simple riff that wouldn’t sound out of place in a hot cramped garage, but would be blasted from the biggest stadium speakers around the world. “Vasoline” is a walking contradiction: it is a tight but wide, subversively stupid and surprisingly smart assessment of authenticity in the mainstream rock scene (“One time a thing ocurred to me/What’s real and what’s for sale?”). The lyrics also address critics’ view of the band, STP’s success as an annoyance (“Flies in the vaseline we are/Sometimes it blows my mind/Keep getting stuck here all the time”) and even touch upon Weiland’s own drug use (“Going blind, out of reach/Somewhere in the vaseline.”)
As the record progresses, Weiland, DeLeo and the band are able to focus less on outer forces and more on inner feelings. On the record’s fourth track, the mega-hit “Interstate Love Song,” the Pilots steer their shiny plane away from the land of gloomy grunge and toward a sunny alt-country. Anchored by an acoustic guitar with a sweetish ‘70s vibe, the track is more similar to STP’s alternative contemporaries like Cracker or Goo Goo Dolls than any of their grunge rivals.
The vocal performance is bright and breezy, even if it belies the darker sentiment: “Leaving on a southern train/Only yesterday you lied/Promises of what seemed to be/Only watched the time go by.”
“Interstate Love Song” proudly displayed the band’s versatility. When asked if he had made a conscious effort to branch out from hard rock territory, DeLeo replied: “We just wanted to make a great a second record, and prove to ourselves that we weren’t a one-hit wonder, that we were going to have a career.”
Although Core had absolutely proved that Stone Temple Pilots weren’t one-hit wonders (four huge hits at least), Purple proved the group was not a one-hit-album wonder as well, and that they were going to have a long and lustrous career.
It’s a testament to both the commercial and artistic aspects of Purple that, even deep into the second side of the LP, you will find one of the record’s biggest hits, lead single “Big Empty.” Featuring the playful slide guitar lines of Dean DeLeo and the beautifully behind-the-beat bashing from drummer Eric Kretz, “Big Empty” had already gained significant radio play when it appeared on the soundtrack to the 1994 film The Crow, reaching #3 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Tracks chart.
Like The Crow, “Big Empty” is a delicious slice of mid ‘90s pop culture. Blissfully brooding verses give way to enormous arena-ready choruses. Like Brandon Lee’s iconic performance in the film, “Big Empty” is both shadowy (“Falling farther/From just what we are”), and gleefully dripping with lurid jest (“Smoke a cigarette/And lie some more”).
Master producer Brendan O’Brien, who had helped make Core a colossal triumph for Stone Temple Pilots, was again behind the board to guide and capture the band on Purple. O’Brien had already achieved astounding sonic results for groups like the Black Crowes and the Red Hot Chili Peppers before he produced Core, and the partnership he began with STP on their first LP continued for four more records.
On Purple, O’Brien expertly captured the clean, uncomplicated tones to create what is arguably one of the least-adorned albums of the ‘90s. The opposite of a kitchen sink recording, Purple is aurally lean and mean, the sound of four dudes just playing loud music in a loud room, because that’s exactly what it is.
“That record is truly performed,” DeLeo said. “Brendan suggested we get our live gear in the studio and record like we played live. We literally played live in the studio: We had monitors and there’s a lot of bleed. That’s how Brendan was; he wasn’t concerned with bleed.”
O’Brien’s lack of concern for bleed is what makes him one of the grunge/alt era’s premiere producers. Rather than focus on creating a sterile environment where he could lift and separate every sound, he simply let the band perform in a natural state, blood be damned. O’Brien did the same for Pearl Jam for most of their career as well, possibly another one of the reasons why STP was compared so forcefully with PJ.
But on Purple, the Pilots sound less like Pearl Jam and more like themselves, although they do dip into Nirvana territory later in the LP. “Unglued,” with all its fuzzy fury and confused, bratty posturing (“Moderation is maturbation/What is what and what makes you feel good?”) sounds like it could be a track off Nirvana’s b-sides collection Incesticide. Delightedly dumb, it revels in the alt-rock God structure even as it joyfully tears it down.
Nirvana and Stone Temple Pilots are actually probably more similar than either band would care to admit. They were both corporate rock juggernauts satisfying throngs of stoned OG-Lollapalooza-era rock fans. Both liberally borrowed from their idols and peers. Cobain sang “I’m a liar and a thief.” Scott Weiland: “Guess I like to steal.” Both groups were dirty, deafening expressions of male anger and sexuality with lead singers who eventually lost their battles with drugs and depression.
But Robert DeLeo and Co. fully celebrated being in the entertainment business, whereas Cobain would never cop to being an entertainer. Cobain seemed to loathe those who desired and consumed mainstream music even as he delivered it to them himself — and had endless disdain for those who wished to be merely comforted or distracted by pop art (“Here we are now/Entertain us”).
Stone Temple Pilots were actually there, and are still here, to entertain us, with no qualms or complaints. Purple’s ultimate, hidden, corny jazz track “The Second Album” (performed by non-Stone Temple Pilot Richard Peterson) perhaps sums up, albeit ironically, the band’s true intention: “The second album/12 gracious melodies worth listening/Hope you enjoy them.”
Twenty-five years since its release, Purple remains as impeccably simple and engaging as it was upon its release. Here it is now, entertain yourself. Hope you enjoy it.
(Photo Credit: Chris Cuffaro)
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