The Abstract Power of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun”

A lot of classic rock songs come from unexpected moments of inspirations. Artists often don’t know why they strike, but they recognize when they do. Such was the case when singer/guitarist Chris Cornell conjured the idea for Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” which has since become the pinnacle song in their catalog. It was also a trippy deviation from what fans had come to expect from the seminal grunge band.

Videos by American Songwriter

Nocturnal Emission

When singer/guitarist Chris Cornell conjured up the idea for “Black Hole Sun,” he was driving home at 4 a.m. from Bear Creek Studio in Woodinville, Washington. The band were in the midst of recording their fourth album, Superunknown. Cornell kept the melody floating in his head until he got home, then whistled it into a voice recorder. The lyrical ideas had already formed in his head, and he jotted them down the next day.

“It sparked from something a news anchor said on TV and I heard wrong,” Cornell told Uncut in 2014. “I heard ‘blah blah blah black hole sun blah blah blah.’ I thought that would make an amazing song title, but what would it sound like? It all came together, pretty much the whole arrangement including the guitar solo that’s played beneath the riff.” He has said he wrote the song on a Gretsch guitar in 15 minutes.

Cornell told Rockline in April 1994: “The title is is more or less kind of a bit of asking for hope … or grasping for some kind of hope out of depression or feeling sort of lost or sad. But the lyrics were more or less inspired by the music, so it’s kind of ethereal and dreamy. I didn’t really go for anything specific there.”

Ultimately, the lyrics were impressionistic and not really meant to invoke a specific meaning. Some thought it related to the suicide of Kurt Cobain, but that was not the case.

Cold and damp
Steal the warm wind, tired friend
Times are gone
For honest men
Sometimes, far too long for snakes
In my shoes
Walking sleep
In my youth, I pray to keep
Heaven send
Hell away
No one sings like you anymore

A Psychedelic Detour

Musically, “Black Hole Sun” was different from more aggressive Soundgarden numbers like “Jesus Christ Pose” and “Rusty Cage,” or a more grinding, Sabbath-esque track like “Outshined.” Cornell’s bandmates recognized it as something striking and special, meshing moody psychedelia with a Beatles influence.

“It wasn’t the heavy, guitar-orientated song we were used to,” lead guitarist Kim Thayil told Uncut. “It had more of a pop construction, but it had seemed powerful.” He later called it the “Dream On” of their live set.

In 2017, co-producer Michael Beinhorn recalled his initial reaction to “Black Hole Sun” to the Pods & Sods Network. “I think for the rest of my entire life, until I draw my last breath, I’ll never ever forgot how I felt when they started playing that song,” Beinhorn declared. “From the very first few notes, I felt like I’d been hit by a thunderbolt. I was just absolutely stunned. What in the world is this? I get goosebumps thinking about it now.”

The title juxtaposition of a black hole, a star-sucking void in space, with a sun, a fiery beacon of energy that supports planetary life, inspired an equally trippy video from director Howard Greenhalgh. The clip came off like a David Lynch film on acid. Eeriely smiling suburbanites, their faces digitally distorted into grotesque expressions, face the apocalyptic wrath of the titular entity, most of them sucked into its dark space. It was a memorable combination of sight and sound.

A Big Hit from a Black Hole

Soundgarden only ever had one song make the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, “Black Rain,” which lasted one week at No. 96 in 2010. In classic heavy rock fashion, their success was driven by radio and videoplay, touring, and word of mouth.

The first single from Superunknown, “Spoonman,” hit No. 9 on Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks airplay chart, but “Black Hole Sun” shot up to No. 2 and became the first of six Soundgarden tracks to top the Album Rock Tracks/Mainstream Rock radio charts throughout their career. The song also went No. 1 in Iceland; Top 10 in Canada, Australia,  France, and Ireland; and Top 20 in six other European countries.

“Black Hole Sun” still resonates today with 252 million YouTube views and 636 Spotify listens, making it the band’s top track on both streaming services. The song has been covered live and in the studio by an eclectic array of artists including Norah Jones, Peter Frampton, Paul Anka, and Brandi Carlisle (with the surviving members of Soundgarden).

Superknown also became Soundgarden’s biggest album. It went No. 1 in America, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and Top 5 in the UK, Norway, and Sweden. 

“It was a good song for us to have as an international hit because it defied categorisation on just about every level,” Cornell told Uncut. “It’s a moody, sombre song but it was a summer smash and the look of the video helped, with that eerie springtime thing. It creates a feeling, but I can’t tell you specifically what it is about. And if I can’t, how is somebody else going to connect to it? Maybe it’s just open enough that people can make it a soundtrack to their moment.”

When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Leave a Reply

How John Prine Inspired Kris Kristofferson’s 1972 Song “Jesus Was a Capricorn (Owed to John Prine)”