Layne Staley was one of the great icons of grunge. A tortured soul who exorcised his demons through music, until those demons eventually got the better of him, leaving behind a legacy that’s as harrowing as it is glorious.
But it wasn’t always like that. Long before he descended into the drug hell captured on Alice In Chains’ landmark 1992 album Dirt, the singer was just another glam rock-loving kid with a Mötley Crüe poster on his wall and can of Aquanet hairspray in his bathroom cabinet.
Back in May 1986, when he was 18 years old, Layne played a show with his first band at Seattle’s University of Washington. And the band’s name? Alice N’ Chains.
To be clear: this wasn’t Alice In Chains as we know them. There was no Jerry Cantrell or Sean Kinney for starters. As well as Layne, the line-up featured guitarist Johnny Bacolas, bassist Nick Pollack and drummer James Bergstrom. Bacolas and Bergstrom had formed the band as Sleze a couple of years earlier, before recruiting Staley and changing their name to Alice N’ Chains, complete with cock rock-mandated apostrophe (for full glam metal marks, Layne reportedly auditioned by singing the Crüe’s Looks That Kill).
But footage of the show posted to YouTube (opens in new tab) by Johnny Bacolas shows that while the sound was standard mid-80s pop-metal, complete with “Oh-oh-oh!”s and “Yay-yeah!”s, their singer’s star wattage was already set on full beam. With his teased hair and open-to-the-waist purple silk bolero jacket, he might have looked like a Poison roadie who had just burgled Prince’s dressing room, but his voice and charisma were in place - something the screams from the crowd confirm.
“This represents our roots. I'm not posting this because it is ‘killer music’,” explains Bacolas. “I mean, this was really our first band, we were kids, our first attempt at writing, and recording, and performing. And it was the mid-80s so we looked ridiculous. We had a great time! We met a ton of people, and cultivated our craft from these early jam rooms and gigs. Layne always had the charisma and the voice, as you can see. This is how we all got started, that's all. Nothing more. Dream big, and never stop!”
Following Alice N’ Chains split in 1987, Layne hooked up with Jerry Cantrell, joining the latter’s band Diamond Lie. Somewhere along the way, they resurrected the name of Staley’s old group, losing the apostrophe and reinstating the ‘I’ in ‘In’ along the way. The following year, they recorded a demo called The Treehouse Tapes, and Alice In Chains were off to the races.