Alice in Chains’ Facelift: 25 Album Facts

Inside the LP that really broke grunge.

Facelift by Alice in Chains first touched down from the stormy skies and thunderous rock scene of Seattle, Washington on August 21, 1990. That milestone event is, quite precisely, the moment that grunge broke.

Virtually every form of hard rock, punk, heavy metal, alt-rock, and whatever other label got slapped on whatever new sounds garage bands were pumping out had to immediately answer to the gauntlet laid down by frontman Layne Staley, guitarist Jerry Cantrell, bassist Mike Starr, and drummer Sean Kinney.

Today, Facelift’s impact continues unabated in how it moves its original audience, wins over newcomers, and radiates inspirational shockwaves to aspiring rockers. There’s no even imagining how many new garage bands emerged in Facelift’s wake—and still do.

To celebrate an album that, ironically, in no way requires a sonic, aesthetic, or any other form of facelift, here are 25 facts about Alice in Chains’ Facelift.

1. Alice in Chains initially formed in 1987 and rose to prominence alongside other pioneering “Seattle sound” acts such as Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Mudhoney, Mother Love Bone, and Tad. These groups combined heavy metal, punk, ’70s arena rock, and pop influences into a sound and style that, as every human born since 1990 knows, is called grunge.

2. Facelift is Alice in Chains’ first full-length album. The EP We Die Young preceded it in July 1990, containing the title track along with “It Ain’t Like That” and “Killing Yourself,” the latter of which was not included on Facelift.

3. Although Facelift peaked at #42 on the Billboard Album Chart, it sold more than one million copies in its first year of release. It’s since gone double platinum.

4. Unlike AIC’s Seattle-based grunge brethren who largely recorded for Sub Pop and other indie labels, Facelift came out via major-leaguer Columbia Records.

5. Sean Kinney heroically played drums on Facelift with a broken hand. “I cut my cast off in the studio and kept a bucket of ice by the drum set,” he said. “I tried not to do that again—your first big break, and you f–k it up.”

6. Mainstream metal fans famously resisted and resented grunge on immediate impact. Alice in Chains proved to be the first exception—although the affection did not come instantly.

7. In the months after Facelift dropped, Alice in Chains performed as a supporting act for Van Halen, Poison, Iggy Pop, and Extreme. The ’90s made for some strange rock-and-roll bedfellows.

8. AIC famously opened the 1991 Clash of the Titans tour headlined by Slayer, Megadeth, and Anthrax. Watching AIC come out to indifferent or even hostile crowds every night and win them over (sometimes violently), Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian has stated that he realized the group was not only extraordinary, but the very harbingers of a new hard rock revolution.

10. Rock radio, in particular stations with metal programming, warmed quickly to the single “We Die Young.” Still, Facelift sold sluggishly until MTV added the “Man in the Box” music video in heavy rotation. From that point on, the album caught fire.

11. Jerry Cantrell says his inspiration for the lyrics to “We Die Young” came from “riding the bus to rehearsal and [seeing] all these nine, ten, eleven-year-old kids with beepers dealing drugs. The sight of a ten-year-old kid with a beeper and a cell phone dealing drugs equaled ‘We Die Young’ to me.” The song, of course, would take on an even more tragic dimension after April 5, 2002, when Layne Staley died at age 34—from drugs.

12. “Man in the Box” incorporated elements of metal and classic rock—in particular, a talk box—but it sounded like absolutely nothing else on the radio or MTV at the time. “That whole beat and grind of that is when we started to find ourselves,” Jerry Cantrell wrote in the liner notes for the 1999 compilation Music Bank. “It helped Alice become what it was.”

13. The dire lyrics of “Man in the Box” make two references to “sh-t,” first being buried in it and then having one’s nose shoved in it. The chorus, which introduced the world to Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell’s incomparable back-and-forth harmonies, are cryptic and even darker (“Feed my eyes, can you sew them shut?/Jesus Christ, deny your maker/He who tries, will be wasted”).

15. When asked what those words meant, Staley replied that he was criticizing media censorship, but added, “I was really, really stoned when I wrote it.”

16. “Man in the Box” earned AIC a Grammy nomination for Best Hard Rock Performance. They lost to Van Halen’s For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge.

17. The freaky, haunting, even kind of gross “Man in the Box” music video nabbed a nomination for Best Metal/Hard Rock Video at the 1991 MTV VMAs. It lost to “The Other Side” by Aerosmith.

18. VH1 ranked “Man in the Box” at #19 on the TV special, The 40 Greatest Metal Songs. “I Wanna Rock” by Twisted Sister is #20. “Slave to the Grind” by Skid Row is #18. “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath is #1.

19. Guitar World lists Cantrell’s solo at #77 among its 100 Greatest Guitar Solos, right after “Truckin'” by the Grateful Dead and right before “Cinnamon Girl” by Neil Young. Jimmy Page’s solo in “Stairway to Heaven” is ranked #1.

20. Layne Staley closed his last-ever performance with Alice in Chains on July 3, 1996 by singing “Man in the Box.”

21. “Bleed the Freak,” the third single off Facelift, did not hit the mainstream as hard as “Man in the Box” did, but AIC fans went wild for it, and the band frequently opened their performances with the song.

22. Jerry Cantrell is especially fond of “Bleed the Freak,” stating, “The song is us against the world, [telling] those people who put you down: ‘I put up with many years of you putting us down and watching us bleed, now I’d like to see you bleed some back.’”

23. “Sea of Sorrow” is the fourth Facelift single. It reached #27 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart, indicating that “mainstream rock” was in the process of being redefined.

24. If the title “Sunshine” seems out of place on an Alice in Chains song, consider that Jerry Cantrell wrote it in reaction to his mother’s death. Then consider these sample lyrics: “Am I too contagious/full of sick desire/Am I that I promise/burning corpsed pyre/Then some dude came down to touch the Mother/Mother touched, and dude ain’t here no more/Suck your woman down.” Yes, indeed, that’s what AIC’s take on “Sunshine” would and should sound like.

25. Alice in Chains followed Facelift in 1992 first with the EP SAP and then their long-playing masterwork, Dirt. The grunge-fueled alt-rock decade that AIC first ignited was reaching full explosion by that point, and the band enjoyed its own spoils its own way. Even if AIC never won over the rock establishment in the manner of Nirvana, the metal world embraced them in full, and an entire new dimension in hard rock revealed itself—and it’s never stopped going and/or growing from there.

Mike McPadden is the author of the book "HEAVY METAL MOVIES: Guitar Barbarians, Mutant Bimbos, and Cult Zombies Amok in the 666 Most Ear- and Eye-Ripping Big Scream Films Ever!" (Bazillion Points, 2014).