The album Chris Cornell described as “college” for musicians: “The songwriting is incredible”

Most rock musicians didn’t concern themselves with learning the conventions of musical theory. If it sounded good, it was good, and it didn’t matter if it was the proper way of making records that everyone learned from a songbook. Although Chris Cornell carved out his own niche of making truly off-the-wall rock music with Soundgarden, he admitted that picking up David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust became his musical education for years.

When looking at Bowie’s body of work, though, Ziggy Stardust may be one of the most mainstream efforts he had ever made. After trying his hand at making folksy music and even heavy metal on The Man Who Sold the World, this was when glam rock was officially brought to the masses, putting together Beatles-esque songwriting, casual androgyny, and a boatload of whimsy on every track.

Despite being almost everyone’s gateway into Bowie’s albums, there are still a lot of left turns that no one sees coming. The experimentation from Hunky Dory hadn’t gone anywhere, and hearing those strange turns in the chord progressions on songs like ‘Soul Love’ and ‘Rock and Roll Suicide’ was certainly different from the typical rock and roll of the day.

Just take a song Bowie wrote around this time that didn’t make the cut: ‘All the Young Dudes’. Most people know the Mott the Hoople original, but Bowie’s way of writing the song includes some of the strangest chord choices on the chorus, going from a decent lazy shuffle to throwing in weird modulations and a key in time signature to get everything back to the next go-around.

For Cornell, this kind of strange experimentation was wildly interesting to him, telling Rolling Stone, “Listening to [Ziggy Stardust] was a bit like going to college, like the Beatles. The songwriting is incredible … [I] loved every single song on the album”. While it’s hard to draw a straight line between a song like ‘Starman’ and ‘Spoonman’, that kind of songwriting gave Cornell the freedom to branch out into other genres.

Going through his body of work with Soundgarden, most people tend to just look at the bigger hits from their albums like ‘Outshined’, but there’s a lot more depth once you dig into the deep cuts. Outside of his gargantuan voice, Cornell went down every creative avenue imaginable on his albums, either tuning the guitar into strange tunings that didn’t have proper names or composing in strange time signatures no one had even thought of.

It’s not like his mainstream songs were any less complicated, either. ‘Spoonman’ is already in 7/4 and is borderline impossible to dance to, and for as much as people have given praise to songs like ‘Black Hole Sun’, the kind of harmony that is used in the song feels like something that Bowie could have reasonably come up with had he been reborn as a grunge rocker.

More than anything, Bowie was looking to expand the palette of rock and roll with his commercial breakthrough. He could still make hits on their terms, but there was so much more to explore when you put a few sonic detours into every track.

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