Many bands express a desire to create something new but only a handful truly achieve it. Nirvana was one of those bands. Between the late 1980s and early 1990s, Nirvana carved out a new space in rock music that spoke to disaffected youth with raw honesty. The band became known for abstract lyrics, distorted guitar riffs and jarring dynamics not unlike a teenage mood swing.
Their 1992 release Nevermind took them from a staple of Washington college radio to a pop culture phenomenon, and their ambivalence over mainstream success became a testament to their punk rock ethos. Nevertheless, their most renowned track Smells Like Teen Spirit is commonly regarded as one of the best songs of the 20th Century.
So how did a group of malcontent slackers become what Rolling Stone called “the world’s first triple-platinum punk-rock band”? This article will delve into the history and sound of these trailblazers of ‘grunge’.
THE BAND FORMERLY KNOWN AS FECAL MATTER
Nirvana formed in 1987 in Aberdeen, Washington. Lead singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain had always been passionate about music. He began playing the guitar at 14, and credits attending a Black Sabbath concert as a child with spurring him to explore a hard rock sound.
Cobain met Nirvana’s future bassist Krist Novoselic when they were students at Aberdeen High School. Cobain would drop out of high school two weeks prior to graduating to begin playing in bands full-time. Soon Cobain and Novoselic formed a Creedence Clearwater Revival cover band, before branching out into their own original material.
After going through several band names (one of them being Fecal Matter) Cobain and Novoselic settled on Nirvana. The name refers to a Buddhist state of enlightenment. Cobain would say later in interviews that they wanted the name to juxtapose with their unruly punk-rock sound.
Just as Nirvana went through a cycle of names, they also struggled to hold on to a drummer until they found a fixture in Chad Channing. With a permanent line-up seemingly in place, Nirvana began to record their first album Bleach in 1989.
Bleach was recorded with Sub-Pop, the label strongly directing the band towards a hard rock style. As with future releases, the raw emotions of Nirvana’s troubled lead singer are embodied in Bleach’s stark sound and bleak lyrics. A notable example is the aptly-titled Downer:
Sickening pessimist hypocrite master
Conservative Communist apocalyptic bastard
Thank you dear God for putting me on this Earth
I feel very privileged in debt for my thirst!
The album was recorded in 30 hours for $600 and sold 40,000 copies in the U.S. One track was released as a single, Love Buzz, originally recorded by the Shocking Blue.
SMELLS LIKE A YOUTH REVOLUTION
Pulling off a successful sophomore album is legendarily a difficult task. It didn’t help that there were two major changes to Nirvana prior to recording. First, Channing left the band and was replaced by future Foo Fighters lead Dave Grohl. Sub-Pop then began to struggle financially. Nirvana predicted a major record company would subsume the label. Therefore they decided to sign with DGC Records, part of Geffen Records.
For their second album Nevermind, the band decided to meld their alternative rock music with an increased focus on melody. Contemporary post-punk bands such as R.E.M and The Pixies inspired this shift. It’s safe to say that neither Cobain nor his bandmates could have predicted the success of Nevermind. Then Smells like Teen Spirit happened.
In true Nirvana fashion, the meaning behind the title wasn’t immediately apparent. Was it a comment on a generation of disillusioned post-Reagan youth? In fact, the name from graffiti left on Cobain’s bedroom wall – 'Kurt Smells like Teen Spirit' – by none other than Bikini Kill singer and riot-grrrl punk pioneer Kathleen Hanna.
Smells Like Teen Spirit gained huge traction on U.S. college radio when it was first released in 1991, before skyrocketing in mainstream popularity. For the first time, Nirvana gained international recognition, with the song reaching Number 7 on the UK Singles Chart. Nevermind would go on to sell over 10 million copies in the U.S. alone. The album also managed the impressive feat of usurping Michael Jackson’s position at the top of the U.S. Billboard 200.
RADIO FRIENDLY UNIT SHIFTER
By the time that Nirvana had begun recording their third and final studio album, the band had become a pop culture phenomenon. Cobain had even been ascribed the title, ‘the John Lennon of the Northwest’. New elements of his life had gone public, not only his relationship with Courtney Love, lead singer of the band Hole, but also the two’s dependency on heroin.
Cobain was angry at both the scrutiny his life fell under and the sound of Nevermind, which he felt was too commercial. For their next album, titled In Utero, he expressed a desire to take Nirvana back to their hard rock roots. The band also began to embrace more conventional song-writing techniques. Many of the tracks focus around a specific theme, whereas with Nevermind Cobain took lines from the many poems he had written over the course of two years. One of In Utero’s best-known tracks, Heart Shaped Box, was inspired by his relationship with Courtney Love.
It took Nirvana two weeks to record In Utero. R.E.M’s producer Scott Litt mixed some of the songs to make them more ‘radio friendly’. This is particularly ironic considering one of In Utero’s songs was given the bitterly self-aware title Radio Friendly Unit Shifter. The album was released in 1993 and sold 5 million copies in the United States.
THE DAY GRUNGE MUSIC DIED
After extensive negotiations with MTV, Nirvana agreed to play an acoustic set as part of its Unplugged series. Nirvana’s now seminal set differed greatly from those of previous artists such as Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton. Rather than playing their most commercially successful material, Nirvana played lesser-known songs and several covers, most notably David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World.
The stripped back acoustic setting allowed Cobain to truly display not only his repertoire of musical influences but also his trademark voice. The contrast was truly apparent, as Cobain went from a fragile hoarse whisper to guttural howls. Attendees felt pain in Cobain’s music and, as it later became apparent, Cobain was in a great amount of pain. MTV Unplugged was one of Nirvana’s last televised performances. On April 5th 1994, Kurt Cobain died from a self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head.
Cobain’s death sent shockwaves through not only the music industry but also Nirvana’s legion of fans. The controversial circumstances surrounding his death caused speculation that continues to this day. MTV Unplugged was released in November 1994 to critical acclaim. Q Magazine praised Nirvana’s acoustic set, stating that the band sounded, "most moving, possessed of a ragged glory." Bittersweet praise of MTV Unplugged would reflect on the band’s limitless potential, had their tenure not been cut short.
Grunge may be over but its spirit lives on in modern punk bands such as Slaves and IDLES. Do you think you have what it takes to inspire a new generation?Contact Kore Studios today about our tailored studio sessions, and ‘Come as You Are’ to record your next album.