On September 24, 1991, Nirvana released their second album Nevermind and made a dent in the music universe. Although it wasn’t an immediate success, in four months the album would go on to topple Michael Jackson from the top of the Billboard charts and bring about a rock ‘n’ roll renaissance. Suddenly grunge was on every music executive’s lips and in every music listener’s cassette collection. The seminal album catapulted Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic of the three-piece band into global stardom, leading Rolling Stone to later declare that Nevermind was “the album that guaranteed the nineties would not suck”.
Before its release, grunge had meant grime, or the muck caught in the shower drain. In journalist Everett True’s 1989 article in the rock music newspaper Melody Maker (arguably the first to showcase the musical underground taking shape in Seattle), when singer Mark Arm referred to “the streets of Seattle being paved with grunge”, he was using the term disparagingly. Grunge: the opposite of gold. Worthless.
Today, twenty-five years and more than 30 million copies later, you can go to any major city in the world and still find teenagers in Nirvana T-shirts. Nirvana posters still adorn the walls of college dorms. Surely, a band that started in the backwaters of Aberdeen, Washington, and had only three albums to their name, should have been forgotten in the blitzkrieg of digital music. After all, many of the band’s contemporaries like Guns N’ Roses, Metallica, Van Halen, Def Leppard, Pearl Jam and Aerosmith have little relevance to today’s youth. What is it about Nirvana that still strikes a chord with them?
Perhaps the answer lies in how the band came to be. It bears remembering that the 1980s was the decade of synthesised pop music and big-hair glam rock. Rockstars at the time had become cartoons with huge egos. They marketed themselves as loud and reckless demi-gods but were hawking clichéd fantasies of groupies, guitar tomfoolery and drugs. The average alienated teen couldn’t relate to these excesses because they belonged to the aspirations of the Baby Boomer generation.
There was a generation gap to be filled and it was filled by independent record labels like Sub Pop in Seattle which signed bands such as Nirvana, Mudhoney, Soundgarden and Sonic Youth who would otherwise have simmered on the local scene. It was this slow but steady tectonic shift in the underground that made the “Seattle sound”. As Glenn Branca of the band Theoretical Girls explained in an interview, “So in the ’80s you had this gigantic underground movement. Now, eventually that underground movement would turn into Nirvana, you know. I mean Nirvana didn’t sell 10 million records because they were so f**king great, which they were, but that audience had been building for more than ten years.”
Nirvana’s first album Bleach (released by Sub Pop) was a sleeper hit, which was frequently played on American college radio stations. It was an early representative of the grunge of Seattle and is perhaps the most incendiary of Nirvana’s albums. However, Cobain was frustrated with Sub Pop’s decision to not promote Bleach as much as other bands on the label and signed up with Geffen Records for their next release, Nevermind.
Neither the band nor the label could have predicted the attention that the album would garner. Geffen were aiming to sell 2,50,000 copies in total but, thanks to the music video for Smells Like Teen Spirit getting significant airplay on MTV, soon Nevermind was selling 4,00,000 copies a week. Smells like Teen Spirit became an instant anthem and Come as you are, Territorial pissings and Drain you quickly followed. “The record came out and people heard about it,” Dave Grohl, who played the drums, said. “Then the Smells Like Teen Spirit video came out and people saw what we were doing – we were f**king s**t up and having fun. And I think that’s pretty much what every kid in the world wants: to be able to feel like they’re f**king something up and getting away with it.”
Kids were indeed happy to see that someone like them was playing amazing songs while dressed in cheap sneakers and unfashionable clothes (how ironic that this disregard for fashion would go on to be so fashionable that even today flannel shirts and ripped jeans are considered “in”). Nirvana’s deafening, sludgy riffs were the perfect soundtrack to their teenage angst: the alienation, the frustration and the inchoate anger. There was no empty posing and artifice. Cobain’s primal scream was the shriek of the first monkey shot into space.
The band went on a European tour and found that the post-punk audience of Britain was especially receptive to their unique sound. Miti Adhikari, a native of Kolkata, was the chief sound engineer for the iconic Maida Vale Studios at BBC Radio for 34 years and fondly remembers recording Nirvana during this peak. “They came into the studio on the cusp of being the most famous band in the world,” he said. “The buzz around them was huge but they could still walk the streets of London unnoticed. They had a very strong work ethic and we proceeded to do the recording without any distraction. It became clear very early on that there was mutual trust and respect and the recording went very well. Afterwards, we went to the pub and relaxed over beer and fish and chips.”
Much of Nevermind’s success was down to Cobain’s songwriting, which had a childlike profundity that resonated with most listeners. This was no accident. While Bleach had a more punk sound and lyrics made on the fly, for Nevermind Cobain wanted to write “ultimate pop songs” with catchy melodies. He was as much a fan of The Beatles as he was of The Pixies and, as such, wanted to employ a loud-quiet-loud dynamic in the songs. An aural manipulation that guaranteed satisfaction.
In fact, in a 1993 interview, Cobain said, “People expect a more thematic angle with our music…they always want to read into it and before I was just using pieces of poetry and just garbled, just garbage, you know, stuff that would just spew out of me at the time. And a lot of times when I write lyrics, it’s just at the last second because I’m really lazy and then I find myself having to come up with explanations for it.” Be that as it may, on hearing the song Polly, Bob Dylan was prompted to remark of Cobain, “That kid has heart.”
Not everyone was happy with Nevermind though. Nirvana’s early fans saw the album’s slick production as a betrayal of their punk roots. Even Dave Grohl said that “working with Butch Vig [producer] on Nevermind there was a lot more attention paid to perfection; with In Utero [third album] there was none. I think it has a lot more character – there are a lot more flaws”. The proof, however, was in the pudding. After all, it was the careful combination of cleanliness and distortion, of underground and mainstream appeal, that ultimately made it successful. Grunge was proof that substance and sales were not mutually exclusive.
As Adhikari maintains, “They did not make alternative music mainstream. They made mainstream music irrelevant. Nirvana were able to connect all the strands of music together.”
Nevermind brought punk to the masses and ignited an entire generation. Its success broke the levee and helped launch a thousand alternative bands. “It’s quite crazy to think how drastically different music was before them,” said Rohan Ganguli, guitarist for The Supersonics (whose critically acclaimed album Maby Baking was produced by Adhikari on his return to India). “Almost like a marker in the timeline for music, pre-Nirvana and post-Nirvana. Their bleakness was a breath of fresh air. Their ability to say the truth without any delusional hope was almost brutal.”
Besides inspiring other musicians, Nirvana also made progressive attitudes – such as gender equality, anti-racism and LGBT rights – cool among a lot of music fans who were previously aping the idiocy of “Cock rock” heavy metal. Cobain was perhaps the first male rockstar to come out as a feminist and openly mocked any sexists or racists in the audience. That might not seem like much now but at the time it was a big deal.
The problem with becoming the “voice of a generation” is that at some point everyone expects you to be some Oracle figure who has all the answers. Cobain didn’t have any because he was busy battling his own demons. He wanted recognition but got fame instead. Here was the outsider who was worshipped by the masses, a reluctant poster child for misunderstood kids who hung on his every word. The media increasingly pried into his private life and passed judgement on his habits and relations. Perhaps the pressure of constantly being under public scrutiny and Cobain’s diminishing passion for music got too much to take and culminated in his suicide in 1994. Nirvana disbanded. Dave Grohl went on to form The Foo Fighters and Krist Novoselic joined politics.
Some say that Nirvana were overhyped and only got famous due to Cobain’s widely publicised suicide. Perhaps they should consider that every now and then an artistic endeavour can really capture the imagination of the zeitgeist for reasons that no one truly understands. According to Suyasha Sen of the band The Ganesh Talkies, “They might have been around for a short while but whatever they recorded and released was honest and deeply intimate. Any music made with such utmost sincerity will always stand the test of time, much like Nevermind.”
Garrulous hip-hop, sterile EDM and dopey pop music rule the charts these days. The mainstream is back again and – thanks to YouTube, social media and mobile phones – has a bigger base than ever before. It seems the 1990s, as a decade, was the last gasp of guitar rock as a potent art form and even if Nirvana didn’t start the fire, they definitely helped spread it.