Nirvana Nevermind hits 20 years old

So ok… What is this doing here ?… well  I’m in Glasgow, Cobain loved a lot of bands from here… and the sounds and melodies of these bands, such as Teenage Fanclub, seem to resonate in the music Nirvana created. So with Nevermind turning 20 years old, this piece was written for The Northernline Website, a blog dedicated to the better side of life up North, gigs, cultural events and general musings on what is happening. This link should take you to other articles I have written for this blog.

Smells Like Teen Spirit Record 12"

It is a tale hard to put into words. The memories are there and the songs remain the same. The music speaks louder than the words of others. Music of primal guitar riffs, cryptic verse, crescendo, chorus and melody, with rhyme and feedback. It just happens that the wider circumstances and global phenomenon surrounding this band continually generates intrigue, mystery, and intense adulation.

So much has been written and spoken about Nirvana. Kurt Cobain was driven to create and express himself through his songs, yet it remains ironic that a band who in their early days seemed set on bucking trends, were ultimately to become this huge bandwagon for so many to relate and aspire to.

“Oh well whatever Nevermind” As I listen to the closing verse of Smells Like Teen Spirit, it is hard to imagine the position Nirvana found themselves in on the release of Nevermind, catapulted into an arena of mainstream fame, fashion and identity, far opposed from their coded and somewhat alternate reality, yet firmly rooted in their small town meets Seattle, grass root music scene mentality.

Nevermind is an album close to my heart, listened to perhaps more than any other. Like many, my teenage pitfalls and tribulations were played out to a soundtrack of Nirvana and associated bands, on cassettes or vinyl bought from an array of independent record stores that fuelled discovery. Aware of, and rejecting the more superficial impact and attitudes of a host of classic rock artists, and the dominant and stale US marketing machine, Nirvana cried out into the spotlight, offering an intensely different, way more personal and resonant relationship with their music.

At times it appeared that this was impeccably planned and orchestrated to reflect Cobain and his band mates opinions and sarcasm; alternatively a plethora of sociological coincidences paved the way for Nirvana to become the flagship of their movement following in the footsteps of Sonic Youth and Mudhoney, and a surge in independent bands from the UK. Nirvana offered a soundscape and ideology, filling a vacuum for a generation of kids looking for some excitement, and something to believe in.

Having earned the recognition of the big labels, Geffen had paid the band out of Sub Pop and agreed an initial pressing of around 40,000 records, knowing little that it would go on to sell over a million records within weeks, and of its ensuing impact. The bigger production sound that Butch Vig and Andy Wallace achieved was a perfect match for the predominantly pop driven songs that were at the heart of the record, emphasized in surround sound quality, by the punch of Krist Novoselic’s bass, Dave Grohl’s drumming, and the ethereal, almost psychedelic and at times blazing contribution from Kurt Cobain.

Imagine being a fly on the wall as the playback to tracks from the recording were listened to, and the realisation of just how good it sounds was becoming clear. Cranking up the volume and listening to Lounge Act as the vocals burst into the final verse and chorus, must have maybe indicated how pivotal and liberating this album would become. There were many great records from this era, but Nevermind stands out for seamlessly packing in so much energy and emotion. From the opening chords of the album to the frantic climax of hidden track Endless Nameless; the louder the better!

This outburst of creativity defined the band in the midst of their most confident and self-assured period of their short spanning career. As a big fan, the expression of their music became imprinted in my formative years. Somehow you could always fit the words around whatever situation you were in, at any given moment, such was the ambiguous nature and at times playful stringing together of lyrics. Because the music was so powerful everyone has their own experiences of that record. A very good friend of mine just told me that ‘Nirvana took him to the microscopically thin line between pure divine beauty and absolute chaotic annihilation’, one way of paying tribute to the band.

The music with its quiet / loud structure and unique waves of overdrive and rhythm arrangements is epitomised as being beautifully simple; yet from the fragility of Lithium to the blistering guitar and bass drive of Breed – the album is full of complexities, twists, and moments of serenity. The stripped back sound of Polly and Something in the way with their basic, yet tribal rhythms have both a haunting and enchanting quality that was later to be found at the heart of harder edged tracks when MTV Unplugged was aired.

Nevermind needed little marketing. It crossed boundaries offering a fresh perspective and escapism from the superficial paradigm of corporate rock production. Fuelled by a somewhat naive sense of rebellion, truthfulness, and a lack of pretentiousness, Nirvana continued touring as the impact of the record grew, – a mixture of elation and bewilderment brewing within, as its success spiralled into a phenomenon. Relentless touring of Europe and the US had perfected their sound and the many bootleg recordings are testament to the synergy the band was achieving.  Haphazardness and carefree abandonment was translated in the studio into an un-faltering and accurate delivery.

“What the Hell am I trying to say” The self confessional, and almost surreal lyrics are at times hard to comprehend, yet the sheer power of Nirvana’s music had an incredible ability to get a reaction or encourage teenagers to pick up a guitar, inspired by the DIY ethic and the prominence of indie band song-writing. The band were well placed to shine in the UK, and for Nirvana the Seattle scene seemed to fuse with the more mellow sounds of Scottish bands like Teenage Fanclub, The Pastels, The Vaselines, and Eugenius. Apparently Cobain once said that if he could be in any other band it would be The BMX Bandits; hailing from Bellshill oustside Glasgow, and comprising former members from a medley of these bands. Nirvana, lets face it, have always been incredibly over analyzed as I am probably guilty of as I write this, but having once described his music as ‘your crossword puzzle’ Kurt Cobain managed to avoid revealing everything, and his cryptic charm only endeared him to his fans.

“Our little tribe has aways been and always will until the end” Emerging so quickly, prior to mobiles and the internet, Nevermind propelled itself into schools, colleges and radio stations, the songs stirring up a reaction which seemed entirely altered to anything that had gone before, or at least more relevant to the moment. Ok I was easily sold, but … that band made some serious music, and I stayed with them all the way from the staggeringly good release of Bleach to the more alarming, but still at times beautifully delicate record In Utero, and beyond, as the music turned to a legacy which remains ever potent today.

Leave a Reply