Stone Temple Pilots were better than Pearl Jam. Nobody was allowed to admit that in the ’90s, when self-seriousness reigned and alternative rock was supposed to be Very Important Business — or rather, A Very Important Indictment Of Business (see: Pearl Jam’s war against Ticketmaster). Plus Scott Weiland made it harder on himself by blatantly copying Eddie Vedder’s trademark bellow throughout STP’s underrated 1992 debut album, Core. As a result, “Wicked Garden” and “Plush” sounded like glammed-up cock-rock in grunge clothing, which is exactly what those songs were. That’s what it took to get on the radio in 1992, and Stone Temple Pilots were a band made for radio. Unfortunately, copping the popular affectation of the times also got STP pegged as a Pearl Jam ripoff band. Were they a bunch of Hollywood creeps trying to ride the Seattle wave? Sure. But they were incredibly talented Hollywood creeps, gifted songwriters with a magnetic, self-destructive frontman who played the part of a rock star exceptionally well. They wholly embraced the ridiculousness of rock ’n’ roll showmanship and skeeze in an era dominated by sanctimonious posturing and intentional weirdness that looks far more ridiculous than most of STP’s exploits in hindsight. Core was stacked with hits, and deservedly so; despite all its dunderheaded lyrics and the despicable rapeyness of “Sex Type Thing,” it’s a hard-hitting, harmonically dense blast of songcraft. But if it was the only thing they ever released, they’d have gone down as mere copycats, which would be a shame because they were much better than that. They were their own band, and on their sophomore LP, they started to prove it.
Purple, released 20 years ago tomorrow, is the beginning of the rest of this band’s life. They stopped trying to fit in and instead became their truest selves. The rock landscape was already significantly different in 1994 than it had been in 1992. Kurt Cobain was dead, but the spandex rock he allegedly killed was still staving off extinction. Pearl Jam was moving away from the sound that made them famous, willfully surrendering the grunge spotlight to Soundgarden and Hole. Live was thriving as a sort of mystic frat-bro Pearl Jam. Alice In Chains released the acoustic curio Jar Of Flies. Smashing Pumpkins and Weezer were on the rise, doing wildly different things with hair-metal iconography that inspired much of STP’s steez. Green Day and the Offspring were bringing pop-punk into the equation. Nine Inch Nails and Rage Against The Machine were picking up steam, having merged hard rock with industrial and hip-hop respectively. Dave Matthews Band was entering the national picture, with Phish already well into their ascendance. A bustling lo-fi scene was bubbling into the mainstream via Pavement and Guided By Voices. Britpop, Beck, Beastie Boys — it was all happening in ’94. Compared to most of that action, Stone Temple Pilots were practically a classic rock band, and they embraced that identity on Purple.
“Interstate Love Song,” for example, sounded like it was 25 years old from the day it was released. Quite pointedly, it was expertly designed for blasting on the highway, windows down, the DeLeo brothers’ rich guitar-bass interplay curving along with the road, your terrible voice blurring into Weiland’s grizzled baritone. In the grand tradition of nonsensical rock radio smash hits, who gives a shit what he’s singing about? (And really, Dean DeLeo’s slide riffs speak for themselves.) Same goes for “Vasoline,” which matches Weiland’s faux-intellectual wordplay with the smartest dumb guitar parts known to man. The track milks a simple hammer-on riff and an incessant power-chord chorus for maximum rhythmic impact while Weiland successfully tests the limits of his range, setting loose the fiery rasp that would prove to be a potent counterpoint to his low-end warbles. It should also be noted that savvy, workmanlike drummer Eric Kretz made these songs slap. He knew when to unleash a flurry of fills and when to just drive STP’s music steadily and let the band’s more colorful flourishes unfold. The other single, “Big Empty,” was a marked improvement on Core’s ballad attempt “Creep” (which loses to Radiohead and TLC in the early-’90s “Creep”-stakes), merging smoky bossa-nova verses with a massive arena-worthy refrain that has more to do with “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” than “Even Flow.”
Purple’s deep cuts are as notable as its singles. Opener “Meatplow” sounds exactly like its title, built upon an atypical power power-chord churn that’s literally physical as fuck. “Lounge Fly,” best known as the longtime MTV News intro music, matches creepy backwards chords with ominous jazzy harmonies and tumbling rockslide percussion. Spazzy masturbation missive “Unglued” is followed by the gleaming-then-gargantuan “Army Ants”; both of them probably could have rendered Purple one of those ’90s albums that yielded five or six hit singles, if only they’d been released. This music was far more accomplished and distinct than anybody gave this band credit for the first time around. Even the Core retread “Silvergun Superman” has merit, its evocative bassline among Robert DeLeo’s grooviest. The real shocker, though, is that the album’s softer, more pensive moments are just as effective, be they the acoustic curiosity “Pretty Penny,” the euphorically floaty power-ballad “Still Remains,” or the big closing number “Kitchenware & Candybars.” And the secret song, practically a requirement in that era, was a self-aware bit of old-fashioned crooning that’s as funny as it is well-executed.
None of this stuff was particularly meaningful, but STP didn’t pretend to be meaningful. Pearl Jam carried themselves like the whole of rock history was on their shoulders — with predictably dour results. In contrast, STP knew they were clowns, and the further they plunged into classic-rock camp, the more their true talents blossomed. That’s why 1996′s Tiny Music… Songs From The Vatican Gift Shop, where they finally shook off grunge’s last vestiges, started openly aping the Stones and the Beatles, and ended up refracting them through their own unique sensibility, became their creative pinnacle. It’s why 1999′s post-breakup single “Down” was such an absolute crusher, a sneaky-great rock radio hit that never quite jibed with its time. They were rock ’n’ roll showmen, at their best when Weiland was free to strut and preen, a former high-school jock splitting the difference between David Bowie and Axl Rose and pulling it off on sheer gall.
As a kid who wasn’t bringing ideological baggage to my rock ’n’ roll radio, Weiland and his megaphone seemed like so much more fun than Vedder and the rest of grunge’s preeminent sourpusses. Unfortunately, he’s best-known for the heroin problem that dogged him throughout STP’s career and for being so difficult to deal with that the rest of the band cut ties with him twice. (BTW, 12 Bar Blues, the solo album Weiland made during STP’s first breakup, is a killer composite of glam-fuzz fuckery that proves Weiland brought more than just his voice to the table in this band.) It’s a shame that the DeLeos and Kretz honestly believe they’re better off with Chester Bennington’s electrified whimper these days because when the original lineup was all systems go, they were total monsters of rock — gifted songwriters and great entertainers who weren’t afraid to bask in their genre’s glorious skeeze. Purple is an effective document of those powers. It would never pass muster as high art, but it’s as artful as utilitarian rock music gets. And in its native environment — be that a skuzzy concert hall or the car stereo on a sunny day — it’s the proudest cock in the flock.