Originally published in The Music Network – September, 2011
Twenty years ago today, Nirvana’s second album Nevermind was released to an unsuspecting public, and the course of popular music was irreversibly altered. That’s how the history books tell it: the dynamo that was Nirvana burst onto a scene ripe with hair-metal bands and plastic pop stars and made music ‘real’ again.
In truth, Nevermind’s success was a slow climb; it debuted on the Billboard 200 at an albeit impressive #144, and took four months to reach the number one spot. An initial paltry shipping of just 46,251 copies to American record stores shows the modest hopes initially pinned on the album (in the subsequent days Geffen scrambled to produce and ship stock quickly enough) and the term ‘surprise success’ was quickly applied.
The band were dragged through the world of corporate rock, the pressure mounting until Kurt Cobain sought to end it all; a definitive statement that should have signalled the end of punk rock as a concept. How could this possibly be misinterpreted? Rather easily, it seems.
There’s this myth of lifelong depression that goes along with both the act of suicide and the story of Kurt Cobain. A consequence of Cobain’s violent and self-imposed end is that Nirvana’s music has been recast with that same depressed, no-hoper sheen. Nevermind is a pop record. There are scant examples of Cobain’s overriding depression (which was, according to all reliable sources, less all-encompassing than the myth suggests) – Polly, the album’s darkest and most harrowing tale ultimately ends in a victory.
The first three songs mention guns – an unfortunate and accidentally prescient fact – but elsewhere on the album, lyrics are opaque and masked with sarcasm.Something In The Way – the haunting, hushed tale of Cobain living underneath a bridge – was less factual than figurative, while On A Plain was nonsense pop.Lithium tackled religious indoctrination, Drain You was a twisted love song about co-dependence and In Bloom mocked the type of gun-toting rednecks that Cobain grew up around, and who would later make up a large, unwanted element of their fanbase. Nursery rhyme melodies and a soft/ loud dynamic pinched from The Pixies made this music palatable to the masses, while Cobain’s flaxen-haired, scruffy good looks made the band stand out in a sea of flannel. And of course, the album was undeniably excellent.
Kurt Cobain was not an indie hero thrust against his will into a corporate world of rock in which he wished to play no part. Nirvana willfully drove their own destiny. Cobain’s diary shows how savvy and commercially aware he was; letters to record companies, pages of release plans and various press releases penned by Cobain showed an artist in full control of his business interests. The band took the first possible chance to jump from indie label Sub Pop to a major. They knowingly signed with Gold Mountain management, one of the largest management companies in the country. They appeared on late night television, on MTV, they did the major label touring circuit willingly. The pressure became enormous, but at no point were the band acting under corporate duress.
There’s a charming story on the Nevermind Classic Albums documentary, which explains how quickly the band’s day-to-day situation shifted. Cobain and Grohl drove from Seattle to Wisconsin (where Butch Vig’s studio was located) to begin the Nevermind sessions. They were forced to play a show beforehand to pay for the petrol, and their car was so beaten-up it kept breaking down every few kilometres. The pair were so frustrated at the constant delays that they pulled to the side of the highway and spent half an hour stoning the vehicle into submission. Less than a year later the band was in Australia, their album was at number one in America (displacing Michael Jackson’s Dangerous in the ultimate symbolic victory), and an almost certainly apocryphal tale has Cobain in an Australian bank withdrawing money – only to realise his first flood of royalties had come in. He went white as he counted the zeroes in his bank account.
Twenty years later, almost every aspect of Nirvana’s legacy has been spun into legend. Almost the only thing that hasn’t been twisted into clichéd simplicity is the music, which still sounds so vital, even as Smells Like Teen Spirit sits between Queen and Bryan Adams on heritage rock stations.
The most exciting thing to potentially come from this reissue is that, for all its ubiquity, most of Nevermind will be unfamiliar to a whole generation. The reductive revisionism that plagues the band and Cobain could well keep the record in public consciousness; as kids are drawn to the striking, iconic cover art and the alluring back-story, it will undoubtedly be the music on Nevermindthat keeps them interested. There are two other albums, a slew of B-sides and live concert recordings and an excellent MTV Unplugged session to explore from there, but Nevermind remains the ultimate entry point, and the band’s definitive statement.
Nirvana 20th Anniversary Remastered (Deluxe Edition) is out now as a 2CD pack and on 180g vinyl.