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The band is named after a sculpture in Seattle called "Soundgarden," and longtime speculation was that this song got its name from another Seattle sculpture called "Black Sun," by the artist Isamu Noguchi. (The piece is located in Volunteer Park on Capitol Hill. It looks kind of like a huge, black doughnut and is aimed so you can see the Space Needle through the middle of it.)
Chris Cornell stated in a 2014 interview with Entertainment Weekly that the title came from something he heard on the news - he thought the anchor said "black hole sun," but he really was saying something else. Cornell started thinking about the phrase and decided to write a song around it, as he felt it was a thought-provoking title. He wrote the lyrics first, then composed the music based on the images he came up with.
This song was written entirely by Chris Cornell. "If I write lyrics that are bleak or dark, it usually makes me feel better," the Soundgarden frontman said.
This song is certainly bleak, with references to snakes, a dead sky, and the summer stench. It's one of the more morose songs to get consistent airplay, and it helped associate the Grunge sound with depression and angst. Cornell, however, was simply expressing some dark thoughts in song - he was not suffering or crying for help in the manner of Kurt Cobain.
In our interview with Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil
, he said of this song: "We'd had singles before. But that was easily our biggest hit. That was more singer/songwriterish. Chris went that direction of singer/songwriter guy, and the band was more accepting because of the success of singer/songwriting stuff as opposed to more guitar oriented rock. It was more vocal accompaniment rock, some guitar. So we started utilizing a little bit more of that."
This song got a lot of radio play because the Alternative format and "Grunge" sound were popular at the time and Top 40 radio stations were playing a lot of songs by artists like Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Stone Temple Pilots. It didn't make the Hot 100 because it wasn't released as a single and therefore ineligible for the chart (it did make #24 on Billboard's Airplay chart). Holding back singles was a common ploy around this time, as it encouraged fans to buy the albums. Accordingly, Superunknown went to #1 in America, far better than the #39 peak of their previous album, Badmotorfinger.
This won a Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance. They also won Best Metal Performance that year for "Spoonman
The song was covered by Peter Frampton on his 2006 instrumental album Fingerprints. The lyrics were replaced by Frampton on guitar, playing through his trademark "talk box," through which he simulated the pitch of the vocals, but not the words. The only distinguishable words (played through the talk box) in the rendition are "Black hole sun, won't you come," which can be heard in the verses after the bridge/guitar solo. Fingerprints won the 2007 Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Album. (thanks, Colin - North Dartmouth, MA)
The surreal Howard Greenhalgh-directed video finds the band performing the song in an open field as a suburban neighborhood are swallowed up by a black hole. Speaking with Artist Direct
in a 2012 interview, Cornell said that at the time he had made a number of videos with directors who didn't understand where the band was coming from and he was disillusioned with the whole process. "We just read treatments for it, and Howard Greenhalgh's treatment just read weird as the video turned out," he recalled.
"I suggested we just pick one that we want, try to find a great one, and let the guy do whatever he wants," continued Cornell. "We should just be there and not emote, not pretend to be excited to play the song, deadpan, stand there, and do absolutely nothing. We chose his treatment because it seemed interesting. I told him on the phone, 'We're not going to do anything. You're not going to get anything out of us. We're just going to stand there because we don't want to do this anymore.'. Somehow, for whatever reason, he loved that.
I love the video because it worked. It just happened to be a guy with a great idea who happened to believe in our notion that we're reluctant video stars who are going to give you nothing. The contrast of us giving you nothing and your vision is actually going to be better than if we're jumping around acting like crazy rock people and you're doing these flash jump-cut edits and crazy lighting. We're weird enough as it is, and we're tired of trying to not be. It worked. It was a big lesson. If you get out of somebody's way, or collaborate in the right way, a good thing can come out of it."
Chris Cornell got the idea for this song while driving home from Bear Creek Studio, near Seattle, where Soundgarden were recording a version of "New Damage" for a charity album. He recalled to Uncut magazine August 2014: "I wrote it in my head driving home from Bear Creek Studio in Woodinville, a 35-40 minute drive from Seattle. It sparked from something a news anchor said on TV and I heard wrong. 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."
"I spent a lot of time spinning those melodies in my head so I wouldn't forget them," he continued. "I got home and whistled it into a Dictaphone. The next day I brought it into the real world, assigning a couple of key changes in the verse to make the melodies more interesting. Then I wrote the lyrics and that was similar,a stream of consciousness based on the feeling I got from the chorus and title."
Cornell reflected on the song's lyrical content to Uncut: "What's interesting to me is the combination of a black hole and a sun," he said. "A black hole is a billion times larger than a sun, it's a void, a giant circle of nothing, and then you have the sun, the giver of all life. It was this combination of bright and dark, this sense of hope and underlying moodiness."
"I even liked the way the words looked written down," Cornell added. "I liken it to Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, where there's a happy veneer over something dark. It's not something I can do on purpose but occasionally it will happen by accident."
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