Thursday, April 26, 2007

Where To Start With... Nirvana

[from Kerrang!, 2007]

DAVE GROHL recently said, “People think Nirvana travelled with a black cloud following us, and it’s absolutely not true.” Kurt Cobain’s tragic suicide threatens to overshadow his group’s brief blaze of glory, but they remain a crucial flashpoint in rock history. Fusing metal, punk, and pop with a deft underground sensibility and multi-platinum success, Nirvana became uneasy celebrities with 1991’s ‘Nevermind’ – the album that ‘broke’ grunge to America. Wilting in the limelight, Cobain was an awkward anti-rockstar, railing against rock’s sexism and homophobia, at his new ‘jock’ fanbase (the sort of kids who bullied him at school) and, ultimately, himself – a man just too-sensitive to handle the pressure. But it was that very sensitivity that connected so profoundly with Nirvana’s fans. Today, Kurt’s haunted blue eyes stare out from countless tee-shirts, worn by kids too young to remember Cobain as anything other than a Pretty Rockstar Corpse. But the fierce intelligence and passion of Nirvana’s music hasn’t dimmed in the years since, and none of their multitudinous followers ever spliced acrid emotion and brutal melody so brilliantly.



(GEFFEN, 1991)

POLISHING COBAIN’S fertile melodicism to a gleaming napalm shine, this was a subversive treat. A blast of high-impact pop played with punk fury and metallic precision, Novoselic’s colossal bass, Grohl’s pulverising drums and Cobain’s howl offsetting the strychnine-sweet harmonies. Almost every track could have been released as a single; those that were, are among rock’s very greatest tunes.



(GEFFEN, 1994)

WITH STEVE Albini at the controls, Cobain drew upon the raw angst wrought by their newfound fame. Moments of blood-stained beauty (‘All Apologies’) nestle alongside acrid sludge (‘Milk It’) and self-lacerating pop (‘Heart Shaped Box’), angst, art and autobiography blurring into an uncompromising, uncomfortable mess. The sound of a breakdown, captured in unflinching verite style.



(SUB POP, 1989)

RECORDED FOR $606, Nirvana’s debut portrayed a band in thrall to friends The Melvins’ stunning sludge-core sound, tempering the uncut grunge with Kurt’s budding knack for pop songwriting. Scuzzier and heavier than what came after, ‘Bleach’ thrums with downtuned menace and ennui and Cobain’s acidic lyrics, but ‘About A Girl’ points to a more palatable future.



(GEFFEN, 1992)

WITH ‘NEVERMIND’ still selling and no follow-up on the horizon, Geffen released this stopgap compilation of out-takes and rarities. A mixed bag of ugly grunge and brash pop, it acquainted new fans to Nirvana’s more self-indulgent side, but also featured bona-fide classics ‘Sliver’ and ‘Aneurysm’. Also includes covers of songs by Kurt’s beloved Vaselines, Glaswegian indie-tykes who probably still live off royalty payments from this album.



(GEFFEN, 1994)

WORTH BUYING for Bowie cover ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ alone, and the Meat Puppets covers (featuring the Puppets themselves) are great, as is the blood-curdling take on Leadbelly’s ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’. Otherwise, Unplugged presents lesser versions of Nirvana classics for Coldplay-loving yuppies who couldn’t see past ‘Nevermind’’s metallic noise and truly appreciate Cobain’s genius. Their loss.



THEIR DEBUT 7”, a limited pressing of 1000 on Seattle label Sub Pop: a metallic cover of Shocking Blue’s bubblegum curio that’s heavy, and heavily ‘pop’.

FIND IT: ‘Bleach’, 1990


MORE BEATLES than Black Sabbath, Kurt’s gathers the courage to record an acoustic ditty, discovering a hitherto-hidden gift for bittersweet melody.

FIND IT: ‘Bleach’, 1990


HEAVY SLUDGE riffage in extremis, over which Kurt snarls, “You’re in high school again,” like that were the worst fate imaginable. “And no recess!”

FIND IT: ‘Bleach’, 1990


KURT’S WHITE-TRASH roots show on this Melvins-esque stomp, the lyric dissecting grim, alcoholic realities of life in a trailer park. The sense of alienation is palpable.

FIND IT: ‘Bleach’, 1990


KURT’S SINGALONG howl of “Gramma take me home!” touches on childhood terror of abandonment. The fusion of melody and distortion coined the Nevermind blueprint.

FIND IT: ‘Incesticide’, 1992


MORE ALIENATION, as Kurt – a most feminised rocker – sings of a girl smothered by her parents’ unrealistic expectations, to a nagging, harmony-drenched crunch.

FIND IT: ‘Incesticide’, 1992


THE SONG that sold a million plaid shirts – a razor-sharp riff, intriguing lyrics and a chord change stolen from Boston swiftly make Nirvana the biggest band in the world.

FIND IT: ‘Nevermind’, 1991


‘TEEN SPIRIT’’S B-Side is a squalling, nightmarish anthem, a spidery riff drawing tighter as Kurt screams “She keeps it pumping straight to my heart,” dark drug references abounding.

FIND IT: ‘With The Lights Out’, 2004


WITH A loping bassline half-inched from Killing Joke, ‘CAYA’ was hypnotic, heavy on ‘radio friendly sheen’ – the sound of Nirvana stealthily seducing the mainstream.

FIND IT: ‘Nevermind’, 1991


NAMED FOR an anti-depressant, ‘Lithium’’s tale of loneliness and disaffection chimed along to their sweetest tune yet, riding hard on that crucial quiet/loud dynamic.

FIND IT: ‘Nevermind’, 1991


PROVING THEY could still bare their fangs, this was one of ‘Nevermind’’s three balls-out hardcore thrashes, a chaotic, revving, vaguely pro-feminist anthem.

FIND IT: ‘Nevermind’, 1991


COVERING PORTLAND punks The Wipers’ gloomy alienation anthem for BBC’s John Peel, Kurt nods in respect to hero Greg Sage and unleashes a killer barb-wire guitar solo.

FIND IT: ‘With The Lights Out’, 2004


HIDDEN AT the end of AIDS charity compilation No Alternative, this keening blast of melancholic pop mused subtly on patriarchal society via a doomed-love song.

FIND IT: ‘With The Lights Out’, 2004


BITING THE hand that feeds, a snarling, cynical Kurt counts the profits and costs of stardom and notes, “Teenage angst has paid off well”. He doesn’t sound happy about it.

FIND IT: ‘In Utero’, 1993


FREUD WOULD have had a field day with this lyric and its references to wombs, and suffocation, and love (the emotion), and Love (Courtney).

FIND IT: ‘In Utero’, 1993


MORE FREUDIAN angst, as Kurt howls of parasites, shit and suicide, over a chilling chainsaw-massacre riff. ‘In Utero’ at its brilliantly-bleak best.

FIND IT: ‘In Utero’, 1993


DEBUTED AT Reading ’92 and dedicated to Kurt’s newborn daughter, this achingly beautiful statement of confusion and resignation closed ‘In Utero’ on an uneasy calm.

FIND IT: ‘In Utero’, 1993


KURT SINGS Bowie’s haunting song of winning the world but losing your soul like it was his own, closing out with a glorious, sad, eloquent guitar solo.

FIND IT: ‘Unplugged In New York’, 1995


CLOSING THEIR landmark unplugged session, Kurt’s take on bluesman Leadbelly’s murder ballad is so wracked and from-the-heart it’ll leave you with an unshakeable chill.

FIND IT: ‘Unplugged In New York’, 1995


FRAGILE AND wracked, Kurt’s ‘last song’ is a happy-sad acoustic strum clouded by child-like confusion and yearning, an odd, affecting, unforgettable and magic thing.

FIND IT: ‘With The Lights Out’, 2004



“THEY’RE THE first band I truly loved and felt connected to on a personal level; they were anything but the pretentious cliched rock-stars of the time. The music wasn't complicated, it was raw, loud, honest and heavy as fuck. Kurt's voice was both vulnerable, melodic and chaotic but with none of the macho bullshit that's way too prevalent in a lot of metal. We'd just played a show in Southampton when we found out he’d died; it didn't seem real, like a bad joke no-one wanted to believe. I had a hard time dealing with it when we got off that tour and got home to Downpatrick. It honestly felt like losing a relative – it was surreal mourning someone I didn't personally know. As much as Kurt didn't want to be a role-model or spokes-person for anyone, Nirvana were a big deal in a lot of kids’ lives, and his death had a profound effect on us. There's not been a band since that have had such a following or made such an impact. I prefer to remember Nirvana for that exciting period when there were kids everywhere trying to emulate them and starting bands, not caring that they couldn't play a note. Half the bands that are playing today wouldn't exist if it wasn't for Nirvana. They changed the face of music completely and put heavy guitar bands onto mainstream radio. Metal owes them for making people wake up from up their hair-metal arses and rethink their lives! At the end of the day does anything sounds as great as when Teen Spirit comes on the PA at a club? Go take a history lesson in rock and get all their albums.”

(c) Stevie Chick 2007

1 comment:

DEfusion said...

Hi Stevie, I would like to discuss this post (and your other where to start with...) posts with you for a possible working relationship. But I couldn't find any contact details on your site, can you please get in touch with me via email?