In the 1992 comedy Wayne’s World, titular protagonist and lay philosopher Wayne Campbell tells his best friend and hockey partner, Garth Algar, “Led Zeppelin didn’t write tunes that everyone liked. They left that to the Bee Gees.” Apply that sage wisdom to the hard rock landscape of the mid-1990s, and you can make a convincing case for Stone Temple Pilots being their generation’s Led Zeppelin while the Bee Gees in this case were, well, any of the myriad contemporary grunge titans that critics accused STP of mimicking.
Just as critics learned to worship Jimmy Page’s monolithic riffing and Robert Plant’s banshee wail, they slowly came around to Stone Temple Pilots’ effortless pop savvy and staggering musicality on their third album, Tiny Music… Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop, which turns 25 this week. Not only does Tiny Music mark STP’s tragically short-lived creative zenith, but it remains one of the most stylistically adventurous albums of the grunge era.
The press dismissed Stone Temple Pilots as fifth-rate Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains wannabes on their 1992 debut, Core, which nevertheless sold eight million copies in the United States on the strength of piledriving grunge anthems “Sex Type Thing” and “Plush”. (Case in point: Rolling Stone crowned STP Worst New Band in its 1994 critics’ poll while fans voted them Best New Band.) The San Diego quartet’s critical standing improved somewhat on their sophomore LP, Purple, which debuted atop the Billboard 200 and sold 6 million copies in the US, fueled by soaring alt-rock smashes “Interstate Love Song”, “Vasoline”, and “Big Empty”.
But Stone Temple Pilots only finished recording Purple by the skin of their teeth, as frontman Scott Weiland was caught in the throes of an all-consuming heroin addiction that would dog him for years. Cops busted the singer for possession of cocaine and heroin on May 15, 1995; after his wife, Jannina, posted bond, he hopped out of their moving car to go score from his dealer, then holed up at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles and embarked on a cinematic bender with his floormate, Courtney Love. Weiland spent the rest of 1995 bouncing between rehab centers, as the future of Stone Temple Pilots hung in the balance.
When the band — Weiland, guitarist Dean DeLeo, bassist Robert DeLeo, and drummer Eric Kretz — finally regrouped in October of ‘95 and headed to Santa Barbara with producer Brendan O’Brien to commence work on their third album, the pressures they faced were manifold. They had to reassure fans that they were in it for the long haul and make amends for the tour dates they scrapped so Weiland could go to rehab. They had to show critics that their upward creative trajectory from Core to Purple wasn’t a fluke. And they had to prove to themselves that they could hold this operation together by a thread long enough to make another album.
On Tiny Music, Stone Temple Pilots passed every test with aplomb. Following the slinky, 81-second instrumental “Press Play”, the album roars to life with the punchy “Pop’s Love Suicide”. Fundamentally, it’s not so different from Purple opener “Meatplow”: a straightforward hard rocker anchored by Dean’s beefy guitar riffs and ornamented with shimmering, ‘70s FM rock trimmings. But it also hints at STP’s radical reinvention, which becomes more apparent with each song on Tiny Music. Weiland completely ditches the gruff, Eddie Vedder-esque baritone that dominated Core and parts of Purple; in its place is a raspy, mid-range sneer lifted from Bowie and Jagger, augmented with bubblegum falsetto harmonies. He underwent a physical transformation, too, slimming down considerably and growing his once-buzzed hair out into curly locks. The bulky, hyper-masculine jock from the Core era now sauntered across the stage with serpentine grace, as seen in the band’s David Letterman performances from 1996.
Stone Temple Pilots continue to synthesize glam, punk, arena rock, and grunge on the breathless “Tumble in the Rough”, on which Weiland acknowledges his demons without self-pity: “I made excuses for a million lies/ But all I got was humble kidney pie/ So what?” Weiland scorns the celebrity industrial complex on “Big Bang Baby”, a swaggering glam-rock romp that tips its hat to both The Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and R.E.M.’s “Orange Crush”. Tiny Music is littered with these classic rock Easter eggs: “Trippin’ on a Hole in a Paper Heart” reworks the riff from Led Zeppelin’s “Dancing Days” in its arena-sized chorus, in which Weiland bellows that he’s “not dead and not for sale” before Dean rips one of the most scorching solos this side of “Good Times Bad Times”.
Tiny Music’s harder songs gave it a presence on modern rock radio, but its softer, more experimental tracks established Stone Temple Pilots as fearless genre benders. Robert flexes his love of jazz and bossa nova on the lithe “And So I Know,” and the band delves into Beatlesque jangle-pop on the bittersweet “Lady Picture Show”. Weiland exorcises more demons on the disarming shoegaze ballad “Adhesive,” musing that he would probably “sell more records if I’m dead” and “[hoping] it’s near corporate records’ fiscal year.”
Even at his most introspective and forlorn, Weiland avoided melodramatic navel-gazing, singing about his precarious position with tongue firmly rooted in cheek. Critics rarely gave Stone Temple Pilots credit for their fine-tuned sense of irony, but it oozes from the wickedly funny (and catchy) “Art School Girl.” Weiland gushes in an affected whine about hitting up underground art parties with his hipster, leather-clad girlfriend, before the chorus explodes and he howls, “I told you five or four times,” as the band kicks up a garage-punk cacophony behind him. It was STP’s way of taking the piss out of themselves and getting ahead of the critics who saw their art-rock reinvention as just another soulless, opportunistic rebrand.
Tiny Music managed to sway some of Stone Temple Pilots’ most venomous critics. Rolling Stone’s Lorraine Ali awarded the album three out of five stars and wrote, “Crappy tunes aside, STP hit at gut level with an album that’s bolder and more street savvy than those of obvious precursors such as Journey or Def Leppard.” (David Fricke later profiled the band for a 1997 cover story detailing Weiland’s drug-related misadventures.) Pitchfork’s Ryan Schreiber was less generous, giving the album 0.8 out of 10 and begging Weiland to kill himself. (“Don’t just do it for yourself, do it for me.”)
Retrospective assessments have been kinder. Stereogum’s Michael Tedder wrote that the songs on Tiny Music were “some of the most melodically rich Stone Temple Pilots would ever write,” while Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan praised the record in a tribute to Weiland following the singer’s death on Dec. 3, 2015. “It was STP’s 3rd album that had got me hooked, a wizardly mix of glam and post-punk, and I confessed to Scott, as well as the band many times, how wrong I’d been in assessing their native brilliance,” Corgan wrote on his website. “And like Bowie can and does, it was Scott’s phrasing that pushed his music into a unique, and hard to pin down, aesthetic sonicsphere.”
Unfortunately, Stone Temple Pilots would never again take such exhilarating creative risks or enjoy the same level of stratospheric success after Tiny Music. They canceled much of their 1996-97 tour so Weiland could return to rehab, and Tiny Music subsequently only sold two million copies in the US, versus Purple’s six million and Core’s eight million. After taking time off to work on other projects, STP regrouped and released the back-to-basics bruiser No. 4 in 1999, but the landscape had changed drastically. Grunge had been supplanted by post-grunge and nu-metal, and while Stone Temple Pilots were still a strong concert draw, they no longer ruled the hard rock roost.
It’s tantalizing to think what Stone Temple Pilots might have accomplished if Weiland had kept his demons at bay and the band had completed the Tiny Music tour and stayed together immediately afterward. As it stands, Tiny Music captures a band firing on all cylinders, triumphing over internal strife, exhaustion, and addiction to craft a thrilling, genre-hopping opus. With grunge already withering in 1996, Stone Temple Pilots delivered a high-water mark for the genre and the crown jewel in their discography.
Pick up a copy of Tiny Music… Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop here…