It is today 31 years since Nirvana released their second album “Nevermind”. It was the band’s first album on a major label, and of course there were expectations from the record company that Nirvana would bring home the bacon in a literal sense. In retrospect, many have claimed that they “just knew the album was going to be massive,” but was it really as guaranteed as many in hindsight claimed, including Kurt Cobain’s mother? The debut album “Bleach” from 1989 had sold only 40,000 copies, the world was clearly not ready for Nirvana in the late 80s. “Bleach” contains 2 songs that hint at what Kurt Cobain was capable of as a songwriter and composer, the very blueprint for how Nirvana songs were built up from then on. “Love Buzz” had furious fuzz on the chorus and quiet verses just like Cobain`s heroes Pixies did their songs, the song was a cover song, originally released by the Dutch band Shocking Blue. And not least the gorgeous pop gem “About A Girl” it showed how brilliant Kurt Cobain’s sense of melody and lyrics could be. The album was composed of punk, pop and hard rock, which would later get its hated label, grunge.
When Kurt Cobain on guitar and vocals, Krist Novoselic on bass and the newly hired unknown Dave Grohl on drums went to the studio in the spring of 1991, did they have expectations that at the end of the year, they were megagiga stars with an album that topped the sales charts worldwide?
On September 10, 1991, Nirvana released her first single from the album, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to little fanfare. It wasn’t the big hand grenade many, in hindsight again, wanted it to be, a bomb that wiped out an entire genre of hairmetallers in Los Angeles. The record company didn’t believe in it as a crossover song, they released it to prepare those who were already fans, and it was the next single “Come as you are” that was going to get Nirvana into the charts in the United States. No one predicted how “Smells Like Teen Spirit” slowly with surely climbed the charts during the fall of 1991, the fuse burned slowly towards the bomb just waiting to explode. Of course, it was MTV and the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” that helped the fuse burn faster and faster. That a song from a punk band from Seattle would make the crossover between radio stations in genres such as rock, hard rock, college stations and not least the pop mainstream was totally unexpected and unheard of for most people, not least the band and record company.
A new generation of youth rallied around Nirvana, genration X was born, and Kurt Cobain became their reluctant advocate and spokesperson. “Here we are now, entertain us!” became the slogan for an entire generation of young people disillusioned with Reagan and Bush` conservative America. On the 24th. of September 1991 the album “Nevermind” was released, and like the single, it wasn’t an instant bomb, “Nevermind” took quite a while to gather critical mass and become the massive album everyone just had to have. In the first week, the album sold only 6,000 copies and could easily have disappeared along with an entire genre of music that would never become more than an underground phenomenon from Seattle. Thanks to MTV, the album slowly but surely climbed to the top of the charts around the world. In the United States, the miracle happened that Nirvana pushed the king of pop, Michael Jackson, down from first place on the Billboard 200 chart on January 11, 1992. Perhaps the most amazing thing is that “Nevermind” has spent a total of 539 weeks on the Billboard 200 and to date has sold more than 30 million copies, making “Nevermind” one of the best-selling albums ever! The first single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” has since been mentioned as one of the best songs in history, “Kerrang!” named it number 1 on the list “Greatest Singles of All Time” and Rolling Stone Magazine put it in 9th place on the list “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”.
The sales figures and not least the legacy of “Nevermind” can still be felt, perhaps the last major shift in music in the history of the world. So, what made “Nevermind” so big? There are as many answers as there are music writers. Most people agree that the music world needed something new, the youth born in the early and mid-70s needed new heroes, the music was full of party pop with zero grasp of the gritty reality for youths on the early 90s. Young people who didn’t feel that the current music gave them anything, latched on to Nirvana and the ensuing grunge tsunami with both hands. All generations need an spokesperson, and Kurt Cobain became the reluctant guru of an entire generation of disillusioned Generation X kids. Kurt Cobain told the unspoken, dirty truth, without a filter. The crossing from punk to pop was ingenious, while at the same time irritating Cobain boundlessly that the pretty, sports-exercising, misogynistic guys he hated at school now came to the concerts and digged the music he hadn’t written for them.
The “Nevermind” album is bridging powerful, energetic rock and punk with pop hooks. Sense, sensibility and fuzzpedals dominate the album. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” kicks the album off with “that guitar and drum into”, Dave Grohl does what Dave Grohl does best, and introduces himself to the world with one of the most ingenious drum breaks in history. The lyrics are not as easy to decrypt, but what did it matter, the song was brilliant!
Kurt Cobain’s pop sense continues with the gem “In Bloom” and continues with “Come As You Are” both lovely studies of how a verse can be quiet and gorgeous, and on the chorus the band runs the fuzz pedal at full throttle. “Breed” is a 3 minute fuzzfest with lovely drive.
Lithium is also a small gem, again it all starts quietly and calmly, before the anxiety takes over and the fuzz pedal passes through the floor. The fact that Lithium was used to treat bipolar people is a fact that gives the song even a deeper level of meaning. Page 1 of the vinyl concludes with the brutal “Polly,” a song written by Kurt Cobain after a 14-year-old girl was abducted and abused by a local man not far from the town where Kurt grew up.
Side 2 starts with “Territorial Pissings” just over 2 minutes of pure punk in which Kurt comes up with one of his best obervations on gender (he was a fierce feminist) “Never met a wise man, if so it’s a woman”. Enough said. “Drain You,” “Lounge Act” and “Stay Away” are pop disguised as punk, big choruses, rich drums and powerful bass drive the songs forward. Butch Wig’s production is so achingly good, getting so much sound and punch out of guitar, bass and drums is a masterpiece. So raw and brutal, while being crystal clear and radio friendly, it is perhaps one of “Nevermind’s” greatest hidden forces. On “On A Plain,” Cobain gives a little stick to himself when he sings: “Somewhere I’ve heard this before In a dream my memory has been stored, as a defense I’m neutered and spayed, what the hell am I trying to say?” Yes, what is he trying to say?
The album concludes with the gorgeous, quietly thoughtful “Something in The Way”, in which Kurt sings about a homeless person living under a bridge with a leaky tarpaulin. It could have been autobiographical, and maybe it was, he almost whispers out the words “something in the way? mmmmm” and “Nevermind” finish in the opposite way to how it started. From fuzz and party in the school gym to acoustic guitar, reflection and a question that many wish they could have asked Kurt Cobain, “is something in the way?”
The legacy of “Nevermind” is greater than what Kurt Cobain got to experience. Just over three years later, Kurt had said thank you to the world and was gone, one of the last things he did was quote his hero Neil Young “it’s better to burn out than to fade away” from “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” It’s a pity that the album “Nevermind” and the legacy of Cobain have been too much defined by a hype and suicide. “Nevermind” is a superbly good album, it is such an album that anyone with just over a medium interest in music should have in their collection. A classic on par with “Sgt. Pepper” and “Led Zeppelin IV,” a document from a time when albums mattered, when music had deeper meaning, and a time when music could appeal to an entire generation of youth. When was the last time we heard a fuzz guitar at the top of the charts? When was the last time you heard a hint of anger and resentment in a melody played at “normal” radio stations? Today you can do something you haven’t done in a long time, go home, put on “Nevermind” and listen through the whole album, from start to finish. Close your eyes and let the memories flow. For me, “Nevermind” takes me back to teenage angst, graduation and a relatively carefree existence, where the biggest challenge was “Who’s going to buy beer on Saturday?” Or you could check out the awesome fierce force of 3 musicians firing on all cylinders on their epic “live at Reading” from 1992. Just a few years later, we could all quote Kurt Cobain “Teenage anxgst has paid off well, now I’m bored and old” from “Serve the Servants” on the “In Utero” album. Happy Birthday “Nevermind”! My life would never have been the same without you!