Alice In Chains had already helped propel what would come to be known as grunge into the mainstream. Man In The Box from their 1990 debut album Facelift gave the nascent scene its first big hit but by the time Dirt rolled around in the latter part of 1992, Nirvana’s Nevermind had changed the game entirely.
Going into their second full-length, AIC found themselves under the magnifying glass as a major player in this somewhat nebulous Seattle scene. And they stood out even within the musically disparate group of bands being lumped together under the grunge banner. They brought a metallic edge and – on this album especially – a darkness that their peers couldn’t match. Dirt was well-named as it plumbed the depths of despair, depression and frontman Layne Staley’s heroin addiction. Songs like God Smack and Junkhead didn’t exactly hide behind allegory but there’s something uplifting about the sheer gloomy heaviness and Staley’s peerless vocal delivery.
It remains the band’s masterpiece but here are 10 things you probably don’t know about Dirt…
1. The band fled to the desert with Slayer frontman Tom Araya when the LA riots kicked off
Alice In Chains decamped from Seattle to Los Angeles to work on Dirt – just as the infamous 1992 Los Angeles riots broke out following the acquittal of the police officers who had been filmed beating Black motorist Rodney King.
Guitarist Jerry Cantrell recounted in the book Grunge Is Dead: “We came down to LA, started tracking the record, and that Rodney King verdict came down… the fucking town went up in flames. We were staying at the Oakwoods in Venice — so we had to come from Studio City to Venice while the whole city’s in a riot. We called up Tom Araya from Slayer, and we went out to the desert and hung out there for a while, ’til the shit cooled down. We had to postpone until the riots fucking chilled out. That’s a moment I’ll never forget — tied to that record.”
2. The Araya-enhanced Iron Gland was built on a Layne Staley riff the rest of the band hated
Sticking with Tom Araya, the Slayer frontman contributed his distinctive howl to the 43-second interlude Iron Gland. The track was built around a riff written by vocalist Layne Staley that sounds a lot like Black Sabbath’s Iron Man if you dipped it in tar and rolled it through an abattoir. Legend has it that the rest of the band hated it but let the singer keep it on the album if he promised never to play it to them again. The track was originally untitled on Dirt, with the name only revealed on later compilations.
3. Staley’s shades in the Rooster vid were covering up his pinprick pupils
Fans will already know that Rooster was written for guitarist Jerry Cantrell’s father, who went by that nickname and served in the US Army during the Vietnam War. The music video featured real Vietnam documentary footage, as well as graphic combat simulations and Layne Staley in thick black shades.
Apparently, the singer wasn’t just going for rock star cool. As director Mark Pellington recounted in Mark Yarm’s grunge history Everybody Loves Our Town: "Layne was pretty high. His eyes were really fucked up. He was totally pinned. I said, 'God, you look like a badass in those sunglasses.' And it was like, 'All right, let's go. Let's get a couple of takes.'"
4. Lane Staley broke his foot touring with Ozzy Osbourne, much to Ozzy’s amusement
The band’s first major tour in support of Dirt was with Ozzy Osbourne on his No More Tours jaunt. Staley spent most of the tour on crutches, following an accident in which he broke his foot. “I was riding a three-wheel, all-terrain vehicle,” he explained in an interview. “No brakes. And I turned and was either going to run into a truck and break my neck or try and jump off. And the bike ran over my foot.”
Ozzy bassist Mike Inez – who would later join Alice In Chains - added: “Ozzy was watching from his dressing room window. He said it was one of the most funniest things he’d ever seen in his life. This guy breaking his foot. It was hilarious.”
5. Bassist Mike Starr was fired while on tour in Brazil
Dirt was an album that explicitly referenced drug use and it was no secret that Layne Staley and drummer Sean Kinney were wrestling with their own addictions during the period It was bassist Mike Starr who was fired though, being replaced by Inez.
Staley told Rolling Stone at the time, "It was just a difference in priorities. We wanted to continue intense touring and press. Mike was ready to go home.”
The bassist would later claim on an episode of Celebrity Rehab that he was actually kicked out of the band due to his escalating drug use. Starr died of a prescription drug overdose in 2011, less than a decade after Staley.
6. Would? was written about late Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood
Jerry Cantrell wrote Would? about his friend Andrew Wood, the late lead frontman of Mother Love Bone, who had died of a heroin overdose in 1990. In the liner notes of AIC boxset Music Bank, the guitarist wrote: “Andy was a hilarious guy, full of life and it was really sad to lose him. But I always hate people who judge the decisions others make. So it was also directed towards people who pass judgments.”
7. Staley wrote his first full songs and contributed his first guitar parts on Dirt
Cantrell was the band’s main songwriter but Staley came to contribute more, especially in the lyrical department. Dirt contained two tracks – Hate To Feel and Angry Chair - for which the singer had sole writing credits and on which he also played guitar.
In the liner notes for the Music Bank box set, Cantrell said of Angry Chair: “Such a brilliant song. I'm very proud of Layne for writing it. When I've stepped up vocally in the past he's been so supportive, and here was a fine example of him stepping up with the guitar and writing a masterpiece.”
8. The singer had a ‘shrine’ including a dead puppy in a jar
According to David de Sola’s book Alice in Chains: The Untold Story, Staley asked production staff to construct a makeshift wall of soundproof material around the vocal booth, so that he could record in complete privacy. Inside the wall, Layne created a little shrine that, according to Dirt engineer Bryan Carlstrom, consisted of “candles and a picture of the Last Supper, and then a dead puppy in a jar”.
De Sola wrote that assistant engineer Annette Cisneros confirmed the account, adding, “It was scary back there. I tried not to go back there.”
9. The model on the cover also appeared on Spinal Tap’s Bitch School single
Fans believed for many years that the woman half buried in dirt on the album cover was Staley's then-girlfriend Demri Parrott.
"I wanted this cover to have a rather 'Hellish' atmosphere," photographer Rocky Schenck told Revolver some years later. He also revealed that the model was actually Mariah O'Brien, whom Schenck had shot previously for the cover of Spinal Tap's rather less haunting single Bitch School.
10. The drug-inspired second side has a specific and deliberate running order
While it was not a fully-fledged concept album, Jerry Cantrell has said that a large part of Dirt follows a story arc. Speaking to RIP magazine at the time he said: “Those songs are put in sequence on the second side, those five songs from Junkhead to Angry Chair for a reason: because it tells a story. It starts out with a really young naive attitude with Junkhead, like drugs are great, sex is great, rock'n' roll, yeah! Then, as it progresses, there's a little bit of growing up and a little bit of a realization of what it's about…It's really easy to die; it's really hard to live.”