Music has taken an interesting journey the last couple decades. We have seen the rise and fall of glam rock. Many of the bands that we, or our parents, grew up loving and following are now in their twilight years, gaining induction into the famed Rock-N-Roll Hall of Fame; paving the way for new, young acts to follow. Some of the bands we grew up changed the landscape of music forever. One of those bands is Nirvana. You see, without Nirvana there would definitely not be as big as it was; which means there would most likely be no alternative rock as we know it. Bands like Pearl Jam, Alice-N-Chains and Soundgarden, though dripping with awesomeness on there own, may have never achieved the mainstream success that they did without Kurt Cobain & Co. If that were the case, where would be today? What would have become of Creed? Nickelback? Seether? Would guitar based music be as prominent today as it is? Would it be okay, nay, dare I say cool, for rockers to speak about the angst and sadness in their lives, instead of just the traditional sex, drugs and rock-n-roll? Where would music be today without some of its greatest influencers? Where would we be without Nirvana?
Luckily, we don’t have to answer that question. Because in 1987, after knowing of each other in high school and on the local music scene, Kurt Cobain (vocals, guitar) and Krist Novoselic (bass) formed and band that would evolve to be Nirvana. They originally went through a number of drummers, eventually settling on Dave Grohl. The band had a good chance of never actually forming; Novoselic initially refuted Cobain’s attempts to start a band with his classmate. But, three years later, after hearing a tape from a band Cobain was in called Fecal Matter, Novoselic approached Cobain to start a group. Count that as one bullet dodged for the music industry. After going through numerous names, the band chose Nirvana, in which Cobain said, “I wanted a name that was kind of beautiful or nice and pretty instead of a mean, raunchy punk rock name like the Angry Samoans.”
Nirvana released its first single, “Love Buzz”, in November 1988 on the Seattle independent record label Sub Pop. They then began the recording process for their debut album, Bleach, the following month. Bleach had many influences, including the lamenting sounds of the Melvins and fellow Seattle based Sub Pop label-mates Mudhoney, Black Sabbath and 1980’s punk. Bleach contained popular tracks such as “About a Girl”, “Blew” and the aforementioned “Love Buzz”. The band felt pressure, mainly from their label, to produce music which conformed to the grunge genre that Sub Pop was pushing at the time. “There was this pressure from Sub Pop and the grunge scene to play ‘rock music’”, Cobain said, and noted that he “[stripped] it down and [made] it sound like Aerosmith.” Because of this, Cobain had to suppress most of the artistic creativeness he would showcase on subsequent releases. Bleach was well received by critics and peaked at number 89 on the Billboard 200. Since its release in 1989, Bleach has sold over 1.7 million units in the United States alone. It is Sub Pop’s best-selling release to date.
Cobain noticed that the sound of the band’s music was changing, going from the very angry feel of early releases to a more happy, poppier feel. Cobain stated in a late 1989 interview that “The songs are now about conflicts in relationships, emotional things with other human beings.” Around this time, Cobain and Novoselic were also growing weary of then drummer’s, Chad Channing, playing. For his part, Channing said that he was frustrated with not being an active participant in the songwriting process. Channing left the band just as they were gaining attention from major labels. n September 1990, Buzz Osborne of the Melvins introduced the band to Dave Grohl, who was looking for a new band following the sudden break-up of Washington, D.C. hardcore punks Scream. A few days after arriving in Seattle, Novoselic and Cobain auditioned Grohl, with Novoselic later stating, “We knew in two minutes that he was the right drummer.”
The band went on to sign with DGC Records, looking for major label representation since an indie outfit could not afford to buyout the band’s Sub Pop contract. Sticking with producer Butch Vig, who oversaw the initial sessions for the follow-up to Bleach, the band released their major-label debut, Nevermind, on September 24, 1991. The album contained many classic grunge/alternative rock songs; including singles “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, “Come As You Are”, “Lithium” and “In Bloom”. Though many media publications initially slept on the release, Nevermind went on to be a massive success, replacing Michael Jackson’s Dangerous as the number on album in the country and selling more than ten million copies since its release. The album not only made the Seattle based grunge movement popular nationally, but it also was the catalyst for the mainstream acceptance of alternative rock as a whole. Many of Nirvana’s contemporaries felt reduced to minuscule statuses because of the success of Nevermind. Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto commented: “It was like our record could have been a hobo pissing in the forest for the amount of impact it had. […] It felt like we were playing ukuleles all of a sudden because of the disparity of the impact of what they did.” The album and its singles have been included in numerous ‘best of’ lists. In 2005, the Library of Congress even added Nevermind to the National Recording Registry, which collects “culturally, historically or aesthetically important” sound recordings from the 20th century.
In September 1993, the band released their third album, In Utero. There was some contreversoy over the production and mixing of the record. DGC Records felt as if the album would not be commercial viable with sonic quality the first recording yielded. This cause widespread rumors throughout Nirvana’s fan base that the label was stripping the band of creative control. After bringing in another producer, the record was remixed and released. Though not as successful as Nevermind, In Utero did peak at number one on the Billboard 200 and it went on to sell more than five million records to date. The album contained hits singles such as “All Apologies”, “Heart-Shaped Box” and “Rape Me”. Retail chain stores namely Wal-Mart and Kmart refused to sell the album, though neither company stated issues with lyrics and/or controversial content.
Later that year, the band was recorded during the now classic performance on MTV UnPlugged. They were joined on stage by touring guitarist Pat Smear and cellist Lori Goldston. The band took an against the grain approach for the performance; instead of playing hits and favorites from their catalog, they played less popular tracks and a handful of covers. This formula seemed to have been received positively by fans and the industry alike, further giving the band a ‘by our own rules’ persona.
In early 1994, the band embarked on a European tour. In Rome, on the morning of March 4, Cobain’s wife, Courtney Love, found Cobain unconscious in their hotel room and he was rushed to the hospital. A doctor from the hospital told a press conference that Cobain had reacted to a combination of prescription Rohypnol and alcohol. The rest of the tour was canceled. In the ensuing weeks, Cobain’s heroin addiction resurfaced. An intervention was organized, and Cobain was convinced to admit himself into drug rehabilitation. After less than a week in rehabilitation, Cobain climbed over the wall of the facility and took a plane back to Seattle. A week later, on Friday, April 8, 1994, Cobain was found dead of a self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head at his Seattle home.
Since the death of Cobain his, and Nirvana’s, legacy not faded much in mainstream music. Immediately after the tragic events of Cobain’s demise there was a controversial legal battle for the band’s music rights between Novoselic, Grohl and Cobain’s newly widowed wife, Courtney Love. The music that the three fought over would remain an important fixture in grunge, alternative and all of rock music for years to come. In fact, it seems as if Cobain and Nirvana will live in forever through the band’s music. Grohl has gone on to start the commercially successful group the Foo Fighters, while Love also enjoyed a lucrative solo career. Novoselic has since dabbled in musical endeavors, perhaps most notably recording with ex-bandmate Grohl’s Foo Fighters.
Turn on any rock radio station that plays alternative and chances are you will hear Nirvana in heavy rotation even today. Whether it is the angst yelled chorus “Rape Me”, the arpeggio intro riff to “Heart-Shaped Box” or the classic anthem that is “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, it looks as if Nirvana will be a major mainstay in the hearts and ears of alternative forever. Cobain probably would not have had it any other way. In their all too brief career, he and Nirvana wrote many songs that fulfill our demands borrowed from his classic lyrics, “…here we are now, entertain us”!