We recently marked the fifth anniversary of the death of Amy Winehouse in Headliner, and in the same year we are now fast approaching the 25th anniversary of the truly remarkable album, Nevermind, by Nirvana. It’s very well documented that Winehouse joined the fabled 27 Club, a poignant collection of musicians whose struggles with addictions and/or depression would not allow them to reach 30 years of age. The soul sensation is in good company with the likes of Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Nirvana’s reluctant voice of a generation, Kurt Cobain.
Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse’s parallels go far beyond passing away at the same age. They both made music that was entirely their own, and possessed personalities and fashion sensibilities that defied the mainstream, and made them beloved among their fans (Nirvana fans gather each year at Wishkah River in Washington, where Cobain's ashes were scattered, to pay tribute on the anniversary of his death).
But most vitally, their contributions to music were both immeasurable and lasting. That is most encapsulated in Nirvana's second album, Nevermind, released on 24th September 1991. It followed Bleach, Nirvana's debut, which made waves within Seattle's grunge scene, but Nevermind was on a whole other level. Cobain, the band’s chief songwriter, was less interested in straight punk music, and became fascinated with alternative rock bands such as the Pixies, REM, and the Melvins. He began writing songs of a more melodic nature to reflect this, and particularly emulating the Pixies' approach of contrasting quiet sections with very loud choruses, verses, and bridge sections. Nirvana released the single Sliver in 1990 to prepare fans for their change in sound.
COME AS YOU ARE
With drummer, Chad Channing, leaving the group around this time, a big moment was the recruitment of Dave Grohl, who would record drums with the band for the first time on Nevermind. The band decided to work with producer, Butch Vig, at the suggestion of their label’s owner, Bruce Pavitt, of Sub Pop. At this time, the as yet unrecorded album was going by the name Sheep, a stab at the herd mentality of the music industry and the consumers of it.
Butch Vig told Headliner that, initially, working with Nirvana was a smooth process:
“The recording of Nevermind was actually really easy; we did the whole record in 16 days," he said. "Everyone thinks Nirvana had a slacker mentality, but that’s not true at all – they wanted to make a great sounding record, and once Dave Grohl joined the band, they were just rock solid tight.”
Bassist, Kris Novoselic, and Grohl finished recording their parts in a matter of days; Cobain, meanwhile, would often finish the lyrics for songs five minutes before recording his vocals. The main point of contention rested with overdubs – Cobain was completely averse to recording multiple takes, perceiving it to be a pop music technique. Vig often had to trick him into recording them, and was only able to convince Cobain to record overdubs on the song In Bloom by telling him, 'John Lennon did it'.
“Something In the Way was the only song on the record that was overdubbed start to end,” Vig told us. “We started with Kurt’s guitar and vocal, then we’d add stuff on top of that. The album was very traditionally recorded.”
Vig’s success in convincing the band to compromise on some of their desire to use only pure punk rock recording techniques was instrumental in the huge commercial success of Nevermind – without the inclusion of subtleties like overdubs, it’s possible the album wouldn’t have such an all-encompassing appeal. And also very noteworthy was the rapport he established with Cobain, who was said to either be very motivated during the sessions, or sat in the corner, not saying a word to anyone for an hour. The band were also displeased with the mixing of the album by Andy Wallace, with Cobain saying it sounded 'closer to a Mötley Crüe record than a punk rock record'.
Cobain came up with the idea of the underwater baby cover photo while watching a programme about water births with Dave Grohl. Now signed with major label, Geffen, Nirvana’s management were concerned about the photo, and set about finding a less graphic photograph to use. However they relented when Cobain made it clear he would accept either only the original picture, or the same one with a sticker covering the penis saying 'if you’re offended by this, you must be a closet paedophile'.
The staff at Geffen had relatively modest targets for Nevermind – they hoped that if everyone worked hard, they could sell around 250,000 copies. Instead, they found themselves putting all other album production on hold as they scrambled to meet demand for the album, as lead single, Smells Like Teen Spirit, became exponentially huge in popularity. MTV had originally only planned to show the song’s music video on late night alternative shows, but quickly began airing it during the daytime, as Nevermind became certified gold, Novoselic said of this success: "Yeah, I was happy about it. It was pretty cool. It was kind of neat. But I don't give a shit about some kind of achievement like that. It's cool—I guess."
The pinnacle of Nevermind's success came when it pipped Michael Jackson off the top of the Billboard 100 in November 1991, selling approximately 300,000 copies a week. The legendary songs Come As You Are, Lithium, and In Bloom would follow the success of Smells Like Teen Spirit as they were released as singles. Today, it has sold more than 12 million copies worldwide. In terms of impact, the release of Nevermind has been compared to the explosion of rock and roll in the 1950s – Nirvana made alternative rock and grunge a commercially viable genre that was neither exclusively for a mainstream audience or the band’s indie following. Rock music would simply not be where it is today without it.
In particular, it is one of the few pivotal albums that became the voice of a generation. When placing Nevermind at number 17 in their greatest albums of all time list, Rolling Stone wrote that '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.'
Smells Like Teen Spirit is regarded as one of the greatest punk anthems ever written. Since its release, the music was heavily imitated, and can still be heard in hundreds of bands today; Cobain’s gravelly voice, his use of chorus pedals in verses and distortion pedals in the chorus, and the nuance and contrast in his songwriting. Not to mention Novoselic’s detuned bass playing and Grohl’s hard-hitting drumming, which had such a galvanising effect on the group.
We strongly urge you to honour Nevermind with a start to finish listen as we celebrate its 25th birthday. To remember a truly game changing band, and Kurt Cobain, one of music’s best loved anti-heroes, 27 forever.