“I ammmmm smelling like the rose that somebody gave me on my birthday deathbed / I ammmmmm smelling like a rose that somebody gave me ‘cause I’m dead and bloated!!!”
Crack-crack-duhn-nuh-nuh-nuhhhhhhh!!! — thunder-clap drums and a bulldozer of guitar crunch follow frontman Scott Weiland’s a cappella introduction to Stone Temple Pilots’ debut album, Core, released 25 years ago today (Sept. 29). It’s as classic sounding as an album far older. And, then and now, it’s sonic catnip—just picture a group of teenagers screaming Weiland’s intro, in unison, and playing rock star, air guitar and all. This is how many were introduced to STP, and the power of this band and their debut LP remains today—and will as long as the unpretentious spirit of rock persists. And don’t you forget it, Mr./Ms. Fancy Pants Music Snob.
Weiland certainly stirs our inner rock star. After all, he was, in essence, playing rock star his whole life, and he eventually succumbed to the hazards of the job. But Core is Weiland, guitarist Dean DeLeo, bassist Robert DeLeo and drummer Eric Kretz mimicking the musical idols of their youths—especially 1960s psych-rockers like The Doors and ‘70s arena Goliaths like Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin, but with the angst and sludged-out touches that defined the early 1990s.
After forming the core quartet in 1989 under the name Mighty Joe Young, the band started gaining a considerable following in their native San Diego, CA. Soon the quartet switched their name to Stone Temple Pilots (a bluesman already had the Mighty Joe Young moniker) and inked with Atlantic Records during the early-‘90s alt-rock gold rush, driven by the commercial success of Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam—the colossal acts of the Seattle Sound, who would soon come to haunt STP.
The band hit the studio with producer Brendan O’Brien and when the LP dropped Sept. 29, 1992, it shot to No. 3 on the Billboard 200 thanks to hit singles “Sex Type Thing,” “Plush” and “Wicked Garden,” which remain rock radio staples today. Soon, however, the band was met with significant backlash from critics and grunge purists, some of whom claimed STP were constructed by label execs to cash in on the grunge sound. Still others labeled them Pearl Jam rip-offs, copy-cats of the band fronted by the moody Eddie Vedder, who were riding high after their debut, Ten, exploded in ’92 on the strength of “Alive” and “Jeremy.” In hindsight, though, this comparison is unfair, the rock equivalent of a high school punk calling his rival a “poseur.”
And it didn’t stick—STP grew and grew, because theirs was a unique version of the popular sound of the day, imbuing far more glam flair, sludgy psychedelia and hook-laden riffage, a sound they’d perfect on releases to come (culminating in 1996’s essential Tiny Music… Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop). Also, Weiland wasn’t a brooding introvert a la Vedder (or Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell or Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley)—he wanted to be a rock god in the classic sense; he strutted the stage like Robert Plant or Mick Jagger or Steven Tyler, and brought a sexual energy to an otherwise SERIOUSLY ARTISTIC genre.
As for Core, the numbers speak for themselves: The album eventually went eight times platinum. And for good reason—these songs are undeniable: “Sex Type Thing” is ear-worm guitar crunch as Weiland elevates the song to a massive chorus—the man can sing. “Wicked Garden” bobs and weaves rhythmically (the drumming across the album is top-notch) and reaches a poppy chorus with Weiland stretching out wide: “Can you see just like a child? / Can you see just what I want?” Then of course, that refrain: “Burnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn burn burn!!!” as the DeLeo Bros provide mimicking backing vocals. “Plush,” the LP’s second single inspired by a newspaper article Weiland read about a woman found dead in San Diego, is slower and less in-your-face, hinting at the sounds STP would soon explore (“Interstate Love Song” etc.). It’s powerful—the layers of power chord slashes and twinkling riffs surround Weiland’s crooning: “When the dogs do find her / Got time, time, to wait for tomorrow.” It won the Grammy for Hard Rock Performance and its video nabbed the MTV VMA for Best New Artist. And its acoustic performance on MTV’s Headbangers Ball became a fan favorite.
But there’s more than the hits we all remember: The band attempted to recreate the concept album approach of their rock idols, cutting in trippy, experimental interludes. There’s “No Memory,” a dense, “Stairway”-on-smack guitar and bass riff, and the 1:30-long “Wet My Bed,” a floating ether of acoustic twanging which finds Weiland, sounding very loaded, pissing himself and searching for his girlfriend (and his only cigarette) in the bathtub. Because “Water cleanses, you knowwwwwww?” While this could be discarded as posturing, it was different and enticing to first-time listeners, providing a breather between the pedal-to-the-metal hard rockers. You typically didn’t hear anything like this in the Billboard Hot 100 top 10.
There’s also the compelling “Naked Sunday,” which finds STP experimenting in SoCal funk-rock territory with a stuttering guitar riff and aggressive drum patterns (cowbell and congas, too). “Creep,” the LP’s acoustic single, delivers one of their best-known choruses: “I’m half the man I used to beeeeeeeeee.” One of the best and most underrated tracks, though, is “Crackerman,” a tune that perhaps best represents STP on the LP and in their future. It’s glammy, heavy and has attitude—this ain’t grunge, it’s hard rock, baby—and finds Weiland and the band in their sweet spot, delivering monster guitar riffs, crushing drums and Weiland’s memorable melodies up front. Here Weiland would introduce a move that’d become a trademark, a thrill to see live—his switching between singing straight into the mic, then yelling through a bullhorn. You can almost see him slithering across the stage, pink feather boas, crushed-velvet shirt, Jackie O sunglasses, red-dyed hair and all. This is not the Seattle Sound.
Core is truly the core of STP’s career. It’s a young band playing with their favorite sounds, honoring their heroes and trying to find their place in a musical landscape monopolized by the grunge rock Big Four. With Core, STP laid the foundation for a career that would get more musically experimental and successful. And despite their naysayers, when the story of the 1990s is told decades or centuries from now, the music of STP will be one of the stars of its soundtrack, as integral to the times as any Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam or Alice in Chains, but with a version of the era’s sound that’s theirs alone. It pays to be a poseur.