Pioneers of a genre: Nirvana

Nirvana was an American rock band formed by singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain and bassist Krist Novoselic in Aberdeen, Washington, in 1987. Nirvana went through a succession of drummers, the longest-lasting being the nomadic Dave Grohl, who joined in 1990. Despite releasing only three full-length studio albums in their seven-year career, they have come to be regarded as one of the most influential and important Grunge bands in history.

During its initial months, the band went through a series of names, starting with Skid Row and including Fecal Matter and Ted Ed Fred. The group finally settled on Nirvana, which Cobain said was chosen because “I wanted a name that was kind of beautiful or nice and pretty instead of a mean, raunchy punk name like the Angry Samoans”.

In the late 1980s, Nirvana established itself as part of the Seattle grunge scene, releasing its first album, Bleach, for the independent record label Sub Pop in 1989. According to Cobain, the music on Bleach conformed with the grunge genre Sub Pop heavily endorsed. “There was this pressure from Sub Pop and the grunge scene to play ‘rock music'”, he said, and noted that he stripped it down and made it sound like Aerosmith. Cobain also felt he had to fit the expectations of the grunge sound to build a fanbase, and hence suppressed his arty and pop songwriting traits while crafting the record.

Nirvana’s sudden success widely popularized alternative rock, and Cobain found himself referred to in the media as the messiah of a generation, with Nirvana considered the flagship band of Generation X. The money for the recording sessions for Bleach, listed as $606.17 on the album sleeve, was supplied by Jason Everman, who was subsequently brought into the band as the second guitarist. Though Everman did not actually play on the album, he received a credit on Bleach because, according to Novoselic, they “wanted to make him feel more at home in the band”.

In April 1990, the band began recordings for the follow-up to Bleach. During the sessions, Cobain and Novoselic became disenchanted with Channing’s drumming, and Channing expressed frustration at not being actively involved in songwriting and subsequently left the band. The band was eventually introduced to Dave Grohl, who was looking for a new band following the sudden break-up of Scream. A few days after arriving in Seattle, Novoselic and Cobain auditioned Grohl, with Novoselic later stating, “We knew in two minutes that he was the right drummer”.

Disenchanted with Sub Pop and with the Smart Studios sessions generating interest, Nirvana decided to look for a deal with a major record label and signed to DGC Records in 1990. The band subsequently began recording its first major label album, Nevermind. To earn gas money to get to Los Angeles to record the album, Nirvana played a show where they performed Smells Like Teen Spirit for the first time. The album’s tentative title, Sheep, was something Cobain created as an inside joke directed towards the people he expected to buy the record. Novoselic said the inspiration for the title was the band’s cynicism about the public’s reaction to Operation Desert Storm. The Nevermind album cover shows a naked baby boy, alone underwater with a US dollar bill on a fishhook just out of his reach. According to Cobain, he conceived of the idea while watching a television program on water births with Grohl. A photographer was then sent to a pool for babies to take pictures. Five shots resulted and the band settled on the image of a four-month-old infant named Spencer Elden, the son of the photographer’s friend.

Nevermind arrived on the scene during a transitional period for popular music. Hip-hop was about to become pop music’s most popular genre. Glossy, pre-packaged pop acts like New Kids on the Block, and childish hair metal acts like Poison and Motley Crue were exhausting their shenanigans, and “alternative” acts like R.E.M. and Jane’s Addiction were beginning to get major MTV airplay. Whether this is true or not – as historians like to simplify things for the masses–the song (and, subsequently, Nevermind) definitely caught people’s attention. Enigmatic frontman Kurt Cobain yelped out practically unintelligible lyrics with so much conviction it was hard to believe. The guitar tracks crackled, Novoselic’s rudimentary yet groovy bass lines throbbed, and Dave Grohl’s drums sounded like battlefield explosions. All of this combined to make the punk rock qualities of Nirvana more accessible to a population addicted to mainstream music.

Smells Like Teen Spirit is now an iconic number, with its anthemic stature – the irresistible vocal melody, and its quiet/loud dynamic. The song displays a mastery of dramatic tension. Cobain came up with the song’s title when his friend Kathleen Hanna, at the time the lead singer of the band Bikini Kill, wrote “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on his wall. Hanna meant that Cobain smelled like the deodorant Teen Spirit, which his then-girlfriend Tobi Vail wore. Cobain claimed he was unaware that it was a brand of deodorant until months after the single was released, and had interpreted the slogan as having revolutionary meaning, as they had been discussing anarchism, punk rock, and similar topics.

It is followed by In Bloom, a song which lyrically mocks its own listeners (“he’s the one / who likes all the pretty songs / and he likes to sing along / and he likes to shoot his gun / but he knows not what it means”) who are undoubtedly singing along to it, oblivious of its meaning. Come As You Are follows, and changes the dynamic ever so subtly. The chorus effect on the guitar gives off a flowing sound, as Cobain’s lyrical enigma completely befuddles his audience (“Come as you are / as you were / as I want you to be”). Breed returns to punk textures, and is the hardest rocking number on the album yet. Things soften a bit with <strong>Lithium</strong>, another song filled with brilliant, self-loathing lyrics (“I’m so ugly / that’s okay ’cause so are you”) and an irresistible chorus. The quirky chord progression is representative of the influence of the more abrasive new wave acts on Cobain’s songwriting. Side One culminates with one of two acoustic numbers on the album in Polly. The song, about a rape victim who wins the sympathy of her tormentor to secure her escape, is completely harrowing. Not only is the first side filled with wry humor, aggression, and restraint, it is overwhelmingly human and empathetic, especially to those who are considered underdogs.

Initially, DGC Records was hoping to sell 250,000 copies of Nevermind, which was the same level they had achieved with Sonic Youth’s Goo. However, the album’s first single Smells Like Teen Spirit quickly gained momentum, thanks in part to significant airplay of the song’s music video on MTV. As it toured Europe during late 1991, the band found that its shows were dangerously oversold, that television crews were becoming a constant presence onstage, and that Smells Like Teen Spirit was almost omnipresent on radio and music television. By Christmas 1991, Nevermind was selling 400,000 copies a week in the US. In January 1992, the album displaced Michael Jackson’s Dangerous at number one on the Billboard album charts, and also topped the charts in numerous other countries.

In its citation placing it at number 17 in its 2003 list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, Rolling Stone said, “No album in recent history had such an overpowering impact on a generation—a nation of teens suddenly turned punk—and such a catastrophic effect on its main creator.” Cobain’s popularity was at such a peak that he was apparently offered the role of the heroin dealer, Lance, in the Tarantino movie Pulp Fiction, which he declined, which is why “Tarantino, Quentin” was thanked in the liner notes to their Nevermind follow-up, In Utero.

Citing exhaustion, Nirvana decided not to undertake another American tour in support of Nevermind, instead opting to make only a handful of performances later that year. Amid rumors that the band was disbanding due to Cobain’s health, Nirvana headlined the closing night of England’s 1992 Reading Festival, where Cobain personally programmed the performance lineup. Nirvana’s performance at Reading is often regarded by the press as one of the most memorable of the group’s career.

In Utero is the third and final studio album by American rock band Nirvana, released on September 21, 1993. Nirvana intended the record to diverge significantly from the polished production of its previous album, and capture a more abrasive and natural sound. Several of the songs on In Utero had been written years prior to recording; some of them dated back to 1990. Cobain originally wanted to name the album I Hate Myself and I Want to Die, a phrase that had originated in his journals in mid-1992. At the time, the singer used the phrase as a response whenever someone asked him how he was doing. Cobain intended the album title as a joke; he stated he was “tired of taking this band so seriously and everyone else taking it so seriously”. The final title was taken from a poem written by Courtney Love.

As an artist resenting his global success, the idea was to sabotage what the band built – to creating a raw, underground sounding punk album that would result in Nirvana’s fanbase ripping itself in half. The final product is not only the band’s magnum opus, but one of the best alt-rock/grunge albums of all-time; lyrically intelligent, musically visceral, and it speaks volumes as to where the frontman was emotionally. Heroin was a big problem for Kurt at this point, and it didn’t help it was his go-to drug to cope with the overwhelming aftermath of Nevermind. Prior to In Utero‘s inception Kurt was tired of touring and the business, and it was rumoured he was considering pulling the plug on the band to work on other musical ventures. All the songs on here are as catchy as any album previous, they just bring a much darker tone; fuelled by anguish and self-loathing, tracks like Milk It and Scentless Apprentice would have come as a big surprise to fans listening to them for the first time, upon the album’s release. Kurt constantly conveys a man on the edge: vocals and screams are unhinged and wild, while the distorted music creates mass chaos. There are bucket loads of topics to unearth here: Rape Me was a song designed to cause controversy looking at it briefly, but it’s a tongue-in-cheek parody to Smells Like Teen Spirit, describing his disliking of the song in question; while Francis Farmer Will Get Her Revenge On Seattle is about an actress in the 40s who was institutionalized, not for insanity, but for being different. Pennyroyal Tea is more tonally upbeat compared to the rest of the album, and is one of the catchiest songs written by the band – the kind of song that sticks in your head for a long time after playing.

In early 1994, the band embarked on a European tour. Nirvana’s final concert took place in Munich, Germany, on March 1. In Rome, on the morning of March 4, Cobain’s wife, Courtney Love, found Cobain unconscious in their hotel room and he was rushed to the hospital. A doctor from the hospital told in a press conference that Cobain had reacted to a combination of prescribed Rohypnol and of alcohol. The rest of the tour was cancelled. In the ensuing weeks, Cobain’s heroin addiction resurfaced. An intervention was organized, and Cobain was convinced to admit himself into drug rehabilitation. After less than a week in rehabilitation, Cobain climbed over the wall of the facility and took a plane back to Seattle. A week later, on Friday, April 8, 1994, Cobain was found dead of a self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head at his home in Seattle.

In August 1994, DGC announced that a double album titled Verse Chorus Verse featuring live material from throughout the group’s career on one CD and its  MTV Unplugged performance on another was due for release that November. However, Novoselic and Grohl found assembling the live material so soon after Cobain’s death to be too emotionally overwhelming.

Grohl founded the Foo Fighters, and Novoselic turned his attention to political activism. With the career-spanning live portion postponed, MTV Unplugged in New York debuted at number one on the Billboard charts upon release in November 1994.

In 2014, Nirvana was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; the members inducted were Cobain, Novoselic, and Grohl.