An Extensive History of Alice in Chains

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Eleanor Boehme

With the formation of bands such as Nirvana and Green Day, 1987 helped usher some of the most legendary grunge and punk acts into the American music scene. Fall of that year, Seattle bore witness to the genesis of one-such iconic grunge act, Alice in Chains.

Prior to the band’s formation, vocalist Layne Staley had been performing in metal cover band “Sleze” since 1984, which rebranded to “Alice N’ Chains” shortly before the acts dissolve in 1987. That same year, Staley met guitarist Jerry Cantrell who had previously performed in the short lived band “Diamond Lie”.

Cantrell reached out to drummer Sean Kinney and bassist Mike Starr, and these four formed what is now known as Alice in Chains. The band finished their demo, “The Treehouse Tapes”, in 1988, which earned them a place on the Columbia label. 

The 1980s were also witness to the formation of several other grunge bands such as Soundgarden, Malfunkshun, and Mother Love Bone, whose remaining members went on to form Pearl Jam. With the formation of Nirvana in 1990, the grunge scene was really beginning to take off in Seattle. 

Alice in Chains established their place in the scene with the release of their first studio album Facelift in August of 1990. Two songs from this album, “We Die Young” and “It Ain’t Like That” had been released in July on promotional EP “We Die Young”, and both became hits on Seattle’s metal radio. 

Despite the early support for the album, Facelift was not an instant success, selling under 40,000 copies in the first six months. Only after the single, “Man in the Box”, was added to MTV’s regular daytime rotation did the album take off, selling 400,000 copies in the following six weeks. 

Facelift peaked at 42 on the US charts and is a 2x certified platinum album by the Recording Industry Association of America. 

Their debut album allowed the band to develop their distinct mode of musicianship and gave them their first taste of stardom. In the December 1992 issue of M.E.A.T, Staley reveals the rising band’s feelings about their new found success.

“Blown away is an understatement, it was clinically insane for a while,” said Staley. 

“Man in the Box” in particular is where Alice in Chains really established their distinct sound and lyrical style. 

Guitarist Jerry Cantrell and Staley are the ones behind most of the lyrics on Facelift, collaborating on songs like “Man in the Box”, “I Can’t Remember” and “Love Hate Love”. In a recorded interview with MuchMusic from 1991, Staley states that “Man in the Box” is about media censorship. 

In the 1999 Music Bank box set, Cantrell also talks about “Man in the Box” saying, that whole beat and grind of that is when we started to find ourselves; it helped Alice become what it was.”

Following the release of Facelift, the band was able to open for several iconic artists such as Van Halen, Iggy Pop, and Poison. In 1991, the band scored their spot on the North American leg of the worldwide Clash of the Titans tour, supporting headlining bands Slayer, Anthrax, and Megadeth. 

Alice in Chains wasted no time putting out more music, releasing EP “Sap” in February 1992 and full length album “Dirt” on September 29, 1992. 

“Dirt” went on to become the magnum opus of Alice in Chains’ discography. It is now a four time certified platinum album, selling upwards of five million copies worldwide, and receiving a Grammy nomination for Best Hard Rock Performance. 

The album continues to be commended by rock music fanatics 29 years later. Rolling Stone listed Dirt as the number 6 position on their list of the 50 Greatest Grunge Albums and 26 on The 100 Greatest Metal Albums of All Time

Alice in Chains toured the album on Ozzy Osbourne’s No More Tours Tour, during which Mike Star was replaced by bassist Mike Inez due to his spiraling drug addiction. 

The band followed their two studio albums with the EP “Jar of Flies”, an acoustic project that echoes the sound of their earlier release, Sap. The band wrote and recorded it entirely in the course of one week.

The EP was the first in music history to debut at number 1 on the US Billboard Top 200 and sold upwards of 141,000 copies in the first week in the US.

Jar of Flies has been the influence behind many musicians of the current era of grunge, credited as the inspiration for Cane Hill’s EP “Kill the Sun” and Strung Out’s acoustic EP “Black out the Sky”. 

Following the release of Jar of Flies, frontman Layne Staley was checked into rehab for his decline into heroin addiction. The band recorded and released their final album with Staley in November 1995 with the self-titled “Alice in Chains”. This was the last album that the band would release as a recording artist of Columbia. 

Just as the prior EP had, Alice in Chains debuted at number 1 on the Billboard 200. The band was set to tour their new songs with Metallica, Fight, Danzig, and Suicidal Tendencies, but were replaced by Candlebox due to Staley’s drug habit. Staley’s drug problems resulted in a temporary hiatus of all Alice in Chains activity, during which Staley joined “supergroup” Mad Season. 

Unique to their other work, the lyrics of Alice in Chains were written primarily by Staley as opposed to Cantrell.

“I just wrote down whatever was on my mind,so a lot of the lyrics are really loose,” said Staley in an interview with Rolling Stone. 

“If you asked me to sing the lyrics to probably any one of them right now, I couldn’t do it. I’m not sure what they are because they’re still that fresh.”

In April of 1996, the band was invited to perform for popular tv series MTV Unplugged. The show was first aired on May 28, 1996 and recorded as a DVD that was released in 1999. The recording was released as a CD in 2007. 

On July 3, 1996, Layne Staley performed his last concert. Following his final tour, Staley purchased a condominium in Seattle’s University district under the alias John Larusta. This is where Staley would spend the final five years of his life. 

Staley grew increasingly reclusive and malnourished, eventually declining into 24/7 drug use and ignoring calls and visits from friends and family alike. His death went undiscovered for nearly two weeks due to his refusal of visitors. He weighed a mere 86 pounds when he was found, despite being 6 feet.

Staley passed away on April 5, 2002, 8 years to the day after the death of fellow grunge frontman Kurt Cobain.

The impact of Staley’s short 34 years and his lyrical collaboration with Jerry Cantrell continue to touch the soul of grunge fans everywhere.

Although the final days of Layne Staley proved to be dark, the legendary band that he helped create continues to shine brightly. The band continues to tour with Cantrell and new co vocalist William Duvall.