Nirvana – Nevermind (Classic alternative rock album)



Why is Nevermind so famous

There’s an old saying that any good avantgard art will eventually become accepted by the Academy. Nirvana was an artsy punk band with an ear for hooky melodies. Nirvana is also one of the most successful rock bands of the last decades. Nevermind is the group’s most famous album, a juggernaut both in terms of influence and artistic credibility. How many anticipated the rise of Nirvana? Few, or none, if folklore is to be believed.

Once Nevermind started picking steam, record labels were scrambling to find the next Nirvana. A style and host of groups that had long been ignored, were now the ruling force in the music industry. It couldn’t last forever of course. But, for alternative rock it was certainly a watershed moment.

Like Catcher in the rye or John Lennon’s Imagine, Nevermind has never exited public consciousness. Yet, its acceptance has done little to soften the impact of each new listen of the album. Alternative rock has its classic albums. Nevermind is, without a doubt, among them.

 Kurt COBAIN recording in Hilversum Studios (Photo by Michel Linssen/Redferns)
Kurt COBAIN recording in Hilversum Studios (Photo by Michel Linssen/Redferns)s)

History of Nirvana before Nevermind

Kurt Cobain was born in Aberdeen, Washington. It was during his childhood years that he manifested a great interest in music and art. Following a string of turbulent teenage years, Cobain turned his attention towards performing rock music.

Cobain met Krist Novoselic at their local high-school. They became friends, bonding over their love of punk rock music. Following several attempts to create a band, they finally came with the three piece format of Nirvana around the year 1987.

With Chad Channing behind the drums, the band recorded their debut album Bleach in 1989. The album was released on the thriving Seattle record label Sub Pop, home of bands like Soundgarden Mudhoney and the Melvins.

Bleach - Nirvana's debut album

The album was moderately successful commercially. Reviews for Bleach were initially positive, although not numerous. The album would be discovered by a wider audience in years to come. However, in the eyes of many it served as a pivotal moment in alternative music during the 1990s. Chris Cornell (Soundgarden, Audioslave) had this to say about the record:

“I remember the first time I heard Nirvana’s demo cassette that became “Bleach,” and feeling that there was a lot of great music here… it was friendly, but there were rivalries in a sense. If there’s a whole bunch of good bands, it forces you to up your game a little bit.” Cornell would later name Bleach as his favorite Nirvana release.

The recording of Nevermind

By 1990, Nirvana’s relationship with Sub Pop had soured. The group began looking for a record label to buy out their contract. Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon recommended the group to Geffen records. They were eventually signed to their smaller subsidiary DGC Records.

The group set about writing and recording their second album. They now had a new drummer, Dave Grohl, formely of the punk band Scream. Grohl’s influence on the sound of the band was instantly felt. Cobain praised his style and impeccable sense of timing. Grohl also contributed to the songwriting process, although in a limited amount. He would later go on to achieve significant success with his group Foo Fighters.

Nirvana chose Butch Vig to produce the album. Vig set about creating a heavy, yet commercially palatable sound. The sessions begun in early April of 1990. The majority of the songs that would eventually surface on Nevermind were written and recorded, albeit most were missing the lyrics. Several sessions were set up, with the recording process wrapping up by early August.

The band were initially enthusiastic with the results. However, Cobain would later criticize the production values, calling them too slick when compared to Nirvana’s early punk rock sound. But, the production, may have been the best choice to reflect the dynamic of the songs.

The majority of the songs were written solely by Cobain. Almost all of them use a classic verse-bridge-chorus structure. Loud-quiet dynamics are amply used, highlighting Cobain’s raspy vocals. Although a punk record at heart, it’s easy to see how Nevermind could have mass commercial appeal.

Seattle music and Grunge

Nirvana will always be associated with Grunge, the musical style and aesthetic that achieved worldwide success in the 1990’s. However, it is important to note that Nirvana, along with numerous contemporaries, disliked being associated with the grunge movement.

What defined grunge music? For the most part, two loosely connected features. On the one hand, the majority of the bands being given the moniker were from the city of Seattle, or from the neighboring vicinity. Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic grew up in Aberdeen, WA. A distance of around 100 miles separates the two cities. Nirvana’s early career often had them playing with Seattle groups.

As for the music itself, there are several elements found within the majority of grunge music. For one thing the grunge background, if you will, is generally steeped in appreciation for guitar heavy bands like Black Sabbath. The sludgy riffs would come to influence numerous bands around the Seattle area. Perhaps no band used the influence to more effect that the Melvins, a band that had a profound effect, musically as well as personally, on Nirvana and Kurt Cobain.

Another important starting point for the grunge style is, without a doubt, punk rock. The majority of these musicians cite early punk rock groups such as the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, or the Clash as having provided an important source of inspiration

Even more important to the rise of 90s grunge, is the effect of American punk and hardcore bands and their DIY ethics. Bands like Black Flag, Fugazi or the Minutemen played relentlessly across the U.S., while funding their own tours. Their recordings were often created in the same indie spirit. The groups would favor small record labels, over the support of the majors. With few exceptions, these bands were known to align themselves with liberal politics and condemn the rise of sexism, racism or homophobia. In many ways, Kurt Cobain would become an advocate, however shy or unwilling, of the same politics later on.

As the Seattle bands started during the 1980s and 1990s began to disband, the sound they had established became a mainstay of the rock charts, albeit in different form. Many of the most popular bands that succeeded them owed some debt to Nirvana and the Seattle scene. Critics, however, often argued that many of these bands tended to borrow merely the most obvious elements from their predecessors.

Influences on Nirvana’s Nevermind

It takes great taste to borrow from great bands. This is also true of Nirvana. While the band rarely plagiarized outright, the group members were always open about their direct influences. And, Nirvana’s advocacy of different bands only helped heighten their profile. This was especially welcome since the majority of these bands were unknown to the mainstream public at the time.

It’s hard to identify the most important influence on the creation of Nevermind. The group had certainly veered towards changing their sound from their first release, Bleach. Perhaps the biggest influence on Nirvana at the time was the sound alternative rock pioneers, the Pixies.

Kurt Cobain openly spoke of his admiration for the Boston quartet. “When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily I should have been in that band – or at least in a Pixies cover band,” Cobain would later remark.

pixies

There were many elements that Cobain could feel a kinship towards. Pixies’ main songwriter, Francis Black, owned an incredible ear for both sweet melodies, as well as interesting dissonance, and comfortable way of combining both. The band’s lyrics were dark, yet humorous. The band members were inventive musicians, despite not of them boasting virtuosic abilities.

As for Nirvana’s first single Smells like teen spirit, Cobain admitted that his goal was to create a perfect pop song. In his mind, the songs by the Pixies exemplified this lofty standard. Teen spirit features the loud-quiet-loud dynamic that Black’s band was known for, as well as the repetitive riff during the verse that would have sounded at home on either Surfer Rosa or Doolittle, the group’s classic records.

Nirvana - Smells like Teen spirit single, from the NEvermind album

If Bleach had been a watermark moment for inventive garage rock, Nevermind was a conscious effort to make the band’s sound more palatable. Yes, Kurt Cobain would shy away from tackling the issue head on. Could the anti-hero of 1990s rock had masterminded a plan to climb the charts?

The evidence seems to suggest, yes. Most telling is the band’s choice for producer. Butch Vig stepped in. He brought with him all the modern techniques he would later use with his platinum selling band, Garbage.

Vig had produced the Smashing Pumpkins’ debut album Gish. He had rightfully acquired a reputation for being the type of producer that could squeeze out a muscular rock sound that maintained ear-hooky melodies. The producer encouraged the same for Cobain, highlighting the riffs, melodies and hooks. The British magazine would later call Nirvana The Guns n’ Roses that it’s Ok to like.

One episode that speaks of Vig’s vision is his request that Cobain double track his vocals. The singer was initially hesitant. After all, punk rock bands didn’t do this. And Nirvana. for all intents and purposes were a punk band.

Butch Vig convinced Kurt Cobain by telling him this was a trick often employed by John Lennon in the Beatles. It was enough to persuade the young singer. A lesser known fact is that Cobain was a big fan of the Beatles and that Lennon played a significant role in his songwriting style.

Musical style

To many rock listeners, especially casual ones, Nirvana may well define the sound of the 1990s. Did an alternative group, influenced by punk rock, have such a colossal impact? Or, does it seem that way with hindsight?

Trends do come and go. But, for many years, Nirvana’s sound, was one copied mercilessly. Some bands did, of course, as a loving tribute. Other groups, used it as a way to engineer platinum success. In both cases, what were most copied were the dynamics of Nirvana’s music.

On Nevermind, Nirvana perfect the formula created by Pixies of shifting from soft to loud, from distorted sound to clean ones. Smells like teen spirit, arguably the album’s most famous song, uses the dynamic to an extreme. The intro plummets in, lead by distorted power chords and thunderous drumming. But, the verse creates tension. Two notes are played over and over, with the sound of a chorus pedal sweetening Cobain’s guitar. Then, the chorus brings the intro back. This time the heaviness of the sound is emphasized by Kurt Cobain’s raspy singing.

No other singer would perhaps be as copied in the intervening years, other than, perhaps, Eddie Vedder. While Vedder’s baritone offered the perfect lead sound to hard rock groups anxious for an earnest radio friendly sound, Cobain’s voice was even more so, a trademark of classic rock.

Cobain possessed a tenor voice, that allowed him to sing high and keep the vocals above the noise of the rest of the mix. From Sting, to Robert Plant, to Layne Staley, it’s the type of rock vocals that function best in a rock environment.

Much like the sound of his guitar, Cobain preferred to oscillate from raspy vocals to screams, to clean singing. The quality of his voice is on better display here than on the band’s debut. It would receive even more attention once the band accepted to playing an Unplugged set for MTV in 1994.

The guitar is in focus throughout the album. However, Cobain acts as an anti guitar hero here. This was the era of the guitar shredders, one must remember. The Nirvana guitarist’s minimal approach to the instrument seemed at the time, down right avantgarde.

Cobain’s playing was often reliant on power chords. His abilities appeared deceptively limited. What the guitarist may have lacked in speed, he more than made up in inventiveness and ability to utilize simple chords and melodies. It was classic songwriting at its best, some would argue. It was only that angst and harsh singing was added to the mix.

The fact that Cobain’s songs contained a fairly simply, pop oriented structure, allowed numerous traditional bands to enter the indie and alternative rock world of the 1990s. Ironically, Nirvana one of alternative rock’s best kept secrets, eventually, became the model on which platinum success was built.

Lyrics and themes

It’s odd and maybe a bit unfair that Cobain’s lyrics overall tended to be associated with doom and gloom. True, many of Nirvana’s fans, younger ones especially, tended to gravitate towards the gritty words Cobain was sinking.

But, it was, overall, a shift towards realism rather than anything else. The 1980s rock bands had been a time when MTV promoted the rock excesses of glam rock bands. Groups like Motley Crue or Poison, promoted themselves as rock band caricatures. Their hair styles were big, their stage shows were elaborate, and they displayed the kind of wealth the majority of their fans would only get to dream about.

It was certainly not the reality for most rock fans across America and the world. For them, bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam or Soundgarden felt like an honest transition towards honesty. Other successful bands of the 90s, like Primus or Ween, favored humor, often self deprecating. This was again a powerful shift from the rock music successful in years prior, where comedy existed, but involuntarily.

Humor is a trait of Cobain and Nirvana that often gets overlook. This is in no small amount due to the production of Nevermind. Of course, it is also a consequence of the famous event that lead to Cobain’s life ending.

In spite of all of this, Nirvana was a band that could, by their own will be hilarious. They often destroyed stage equipment, in a bid to break down the fourth wall between themselves and the audience. Cobain would purposely mess up guitar parts, seemingly to attract attention to his flaws as a player. They would answer interviewers mockingly, failing to give a straight answer to most questions.

A lot of the humor may have been the result of Krist Novoselic’s great wit and sharp tongue. It was also steeped in the bond between himself and Cobain. The two had become friends in high-school and later formed Nirvana. By most accounts, the band was entertaining to begin with, but far from being the most professional rock group. Humor and a Replacements-like lack of professionalism were part of the ingredients. Nirvana was a band that also functioned by a credo seemingly shared by their Paul Westerberg led predecessors. Never let them see you try.It is one of the reasons why Nevermind and its success were difficult to accept for a band that had started out, in some ways, as a prank.

But, there is comedy to be found on Nevermind, as well, albeit buried in the mix. Smells like teen spirit was, unbeknownst to Cobain, the slogan to a deodorant. Breed mocks lack of ambition among teenagers. Territorial Pissings begins with Novoselic reciting the words to a hippie folk song, before launching into a full-on sonic attack. And, the closing song, the hidden track Endless Nameless, is a recording of musical experimentation aka guitar noise.

Then there are the heartfelt moments, courtesy of Cobain’s real interest in social justice. Polly is a terrifying story of rape and murder. Lithium and Come as you are are songs of despair, written following a romantic breakup. Their lyrics seem to address mental issues. Other moments on the album speak about (and against) apathy.

Kurt Cobain - Nirvana singer

If Cobain was aiming to mix many of the themes that young people tend to be interested in, he likely did it by accident. The songs were written with a greater attention to details. But, the lyrics were, if we are to believe Cobain, usually the last element added by him.

Often written in a stream of consciousness style, the lyrics find Kurt Cobain at his most earnest. It’s not so much a statement, as it is an interpretation of a Rorschach test. As vague as they often are the lyrics resonated with audiences at the time of the album’s release. Little has changed, with the words still tremendously quotable in modern popular culture, and the songs often covered by other artists.

Album title

The album title is by all accounts intended as an inside joke. Willingly or not, it also acts as a symbol of the group’s attitude towards fame and life. Anecdotes speak of how Cobain suggested the title. The inside joke had to do with how important issues could be ignored for less important ones, like picking out an album title.

Supposedly, the initial title suggested by Cobain was Sheep. Of course, this was another joke. It was a funny way to pick on the people who buy the album, pushed on by the pressure of its promotion. Ironically enough, the album would initially benefit from very little promotion, yet still managed to be very successful.

Artwork

The iconic artwork shows a naked baby boy swimming in a pool, chasing a dollar bill that is tied to a fishhook. This combined two ideas that Cobain entertained at the time.

One of them was the continuation of the joke about selling out. The album was far from being a favorite for achieving mainstream success. Indeed, bands like Sonic Youth, REM, even Alice in Chains seemed better poised for this.

But, the group had knowingly adopted a more commercial approach. It went all down to their choice of producer. It was a conscious step, yet one they feared would antagonize their punk rock audience. The dollar bill was a tongue-in-cheek way of acknowledging what they were about to do.

The second, more serious part, of the concept had to do with Cobain’s obsession with human birth and biology. Dave Grohl and Cobain are said to have seen a documentary about water births. The images were so striking that they suggested it as the cover artwork to Geffen’s art department.

The Nirvana Nevermind baby would become one of the most iconic images of 90s music. It’s safe to say that the artwork has long ago entered public consciousness, with its status shared by only a handful of other albums. Abbey Road, The Dark Side of the Moon, Thriller? All of those are album covers that even habitual music fans are aware of. Alongside them stands the Nirvana baby cover.

The theme presented in Nevermind’s artwork would once again be used by Cobain for the band’s final studio album, In Utero. Its relation to the theme of birth is in the album title, many of the lyrics, and, perhaps, even in the anatomical manikin with superimposed wings that found on the front cover.


Initial reception and beginning of worldwide fame

To say that Nirvana’s success seemed to have occurred overnight is by no means an exaggeration. Many fans of the band would have heard of the legend of the Christmas returns of Michael Jackson albums. The story goes that numerous buyers opted to return their Jackson Dangerous album, for the relatively unknown Seattle band.

The Geffen record would fully embrace Nirvana. Why wouldn’t they? In Nirvana they had the coolest band of the moment. Nirvana was a multi-platinum selling group. Their faces were plastered on magazines across the world. Only that Geffen’s faith in the band had not always been obvious to recognize.

In fact Geffen had expressed very little interest in the band, or their first album for the label, initially. By most accounts the label had signed Nirvana as a means to capitalize on the relative success of Sonic Youth, a band Nirvana had toured with.

Other Seattle bands had also been signed to major labels. Although, at the time, the umbrella term of grunge was not yet used. Alice in Chains was marketed by the label as a metal band. They had shared the bill with groups like Slayer and Anthrax. Soundgarden had begrudgingly accepted to sign to a major label after years of being courted. The group was marketed as a heavier version of the well-respected Jane’s Addiction. Mother Love Bone had courted mainstream popularity as a glam metal band. Following the untimely death of singer Andrew Wood, the remaining members regrouped as Pearl Jam. They would soon reap the rewards of Nevermind’s sales.

Proof of Geffen’s relative lack of initial involvement is the fact that the album was released by the Geffen owned imprint DGC. Once Smells Like Teen Spirit began its ascent up the charts, the Geffen media machine began its effort of raising the band’s profile.

Teen spirit was a shock hit. Much of this had to do with the budget friendly video production. The video was initially played during the night on MTV’s 120 Minutes show. Numerous requests for the song and accompanying video lead MTV to play the song during the daytime.

Album sales began to pick up, with Nevermind reaching the Billboard Top 40 by November of 1991. The group embarked on a low-key European tour. The band members would receive frequent notifications of how well the album was performing in the United States. According to Cobain, they were incredulous. For all they knew, Geffen was merely trying to keep them content and on the road.

Critical recognition was also slow coming. Initially the album was reviewed in few publications. However, the majority of those writing about the band wrote in appreciate terms. As the sales gew, so did the critical appreciation.

The majority of publications that chose to speak of Nirvana’s Nevermind offered it reviews. Most praised Cobain’s songwriting and group’s knack for combining aggression with catchy melodies. Critics compared Nirvana to contemporaries like Dinosaur Jr, Sonic Youth, or Mudhoney. Nevermind was chosen as the Album of the year by music publications NME and the Village Voice.

By the end of 1991 the album had received platinum certification, making it one of the most commercially successful punk albums of all time. In December, Nevermind famously overtook Michael Jackson’s Dangerous to become the #1 best selling album in the country.

By the time the tour had ended, Nirvana were reluctant superstars. The group members received their new found popularity with characteristic humor. But, according to reports, the increasing pressures of fame, began to take their mental and physical toll on the band members. None would be more affected than singer Kurt Cobain.

Soon, Cobain was a constant feature of not only the music press, but tabloids as well. His relationship to Courtney Love, member of the band Hole, was amply dissected in the press. It would eventually cause a considerable amount of strain. Cobain was particularly critical of a Vanity Fair feature that accused the couple of indulging in drug use, while Love was pregnant with their child. Cobain fervently denied the rumor.

These events would greatly affect the manner in which the band conducted themselves in connection to the press. Cobain, Novoselic and Grohl would soon become less willing to give interviews, or offer too many insights into their work.

Eventual legacy

In 2005 Dave Grohl talked to Rhythm Magazine about what he is most happy with when it comes to Nevermind. “The one thing I am most proud of is the raw simplicity of Nevermind”.

In many ways, Nirvana was the Ramones off their generation. Their music was, at the same time, complex and simple. Nirvana had a refinement that made critics and experienced musicians pay attention. But, their songs were simple enough that they could be played by beginner musicians. How many thousands of guitarists must have started learning their instrument from the opening riffs to Come as you are or Smells like teen spirit?

For better or for worse, Nirvana was one of the most influential bands for the decades that followed. Once their sound was accepted it provided opportunities for other, high quality, alternative rock bands. Many of these were associated with Nirvana geographically through the city of Seattle.

Nevermind also launched a million copy cats. The music industry loves to copy a successful recipe. That was the case with Nirvana. Regardless of their quality, it’s hard to argue that bands like Silverchair, Bush or Candlebox were not among those that benefited from Grunge becoming a thing.

Once the first wave died, the sound morphed into post-grunge. Groups like Creed, Puddle of Mudd, later, Nickelback, incorporated many of the elements used by Nirvana. many would argue that these groups copied merely the more superficial aspects. These groups transitioned the periods of nu-metal and industrial and remained one of the best selling rock acts of their day.

In more earnest terms, Nirvana’s sound quickly became a standard for quality and artistic integrity. Artists belonging to many different genres have cited Cobain and the group as influences. Tribute albums of Nevermind and other of the band’s songs are frequently released. Nirvana came to define the 1990s musical landscape. Their name is often pronounced alongside the likes of the Beatles or the Sex Pistols.

History of Nirvana following the release of Nevermind

Kurt Cobain seems to have had contradicting views on success. On the one hand, by most accounts, Cobain and the rest of the group, were highly ambitious individuals. By other accounts, Cobain was soon weary of the effects of fame. The group’s desire to maintain their integrity did not always coincide with the requirements made upon them by the music industry.

The multi platinum selling Nevermind and consistent touring, turned Nirvana into one of the most famous rock bands in the world. The group’s schedule was hectic and began to take its toll on its members, especially on Cobain.

Nirvana Novoselic Grohl Cobain

Rumors of Cobain’s ill health began to circulate following the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind. By 1994 the issues had escalated. The group would go on to release only two other studio albums. The first was 1993’s collection of rarities, Incesticide. The following release was the critically praised, publicly divisive, In Utero. Their final album was to be a live release, the Unplugged in New York, recorded mere weeks prior to Kurt Cobain’s passing.

Compilations, live releases and demos continued to be released into the present day. The years have done nothing to quench the general public’s love of all things Nirvana. Some would point towards the irony of it all. Cobain, a troubled man, obsessed with privacy, has become one of the most famous rock musicians in recent history.

Kurt Cobain passed away on April 5th 1994. It was an event discussed at great length, one best not belongs dissected here. The group disbanded shortly afterward. In the following years, the surviving members, Novolosec, Grohl, and guitarist Pat Smear, have performed together on a few occasions. Most notably, the performed together at Nirvana’s induction in the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame. Joan Jett (the Runaways), Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth), St. Vincent and Lorde shared vocal duties.

Looked at it from most perspectives, Nirvana’s Nevermind is one of the most important albums for alternative rock. It ushered in a period not seen since the dawn of punk, with numerous, highly inventive rock bands laying their stake in the mainstream charts. It offered one of the most critically acclaimed collection of songs in recent memory. Nevermind continues to be a standard, one by which all bands are judged on.



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