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Smells like a classic album: Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ changed the sonic game 30 years ago

UPDATED: Fri., Sept. 24, 2021

Exceeding the hype in the music industry is rare. Weeks before Nirvana’s “Nevermind” dropped on Sept. 24, 1991, the buzz was ubiquitous. “Are you familiar with the Nirvana album?” Courtney Love asked me just before “Nevermind” was released. Love gushed about the album and Cobain, calling him a saint and salt of the earth. Love went on ad nauseum about “Nevermind.”

“You have to hear the album,” Nitzer Ebb vocalist Douglas McCarthy told me about a month before “Nevermind” saw the light of day. “It just commands your attention.” McCarthy, then a DGC labelmate, was spot on. I remember popping in the CD, and from the first urgent notes of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” I was captivated. I sat down and stared at the speakers, just like I did when I initially experienced Sonic Youth’s “Daydream Nation” in 1988.

After a number of spins of “Nevermind” and catching the trio at a small Philadelphia club, my projection was 200,000 copies and the potential to pack 3,000-capacity theaters. I had no idea the zeitgeist had arrived, and the hair metal bubble was about to be pricked by three young punks. All of a sudden, spandex and albums by Cinderella and Warrant were in the bargain bins, and flannel was marketed in mainstream shops.

It was the only time I experienced a tangible musical and cultural shift. A new wave of music crashed the landscape like a tsunami. It all came together for Nirvana at the same time. Cobain wrote the finest songs of his short career, the band finally found its drummer, Dave Grohl, and producer Butch Vig catapulted the band out of lo-fi land with Pavement and Guided by Voices by adding some sheen to the production.

Vig, the drummer of Garbage who has produced the Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth and Green Day, had no idea that the album would sell millions of copies and become a sonic game changer, which would influence myriad recording artists. “I never would have guessed that it would be that successful,” Vig said. “I was contacted by Jonathan (Poneman) of Sub Pop. He sent me a copy of Nirvana’s (debut) “Bleach,” and I was unimpressed.

“The record was one-dimensional except ‘About a Girl,’ which is like a Lennon-McCartney composition. Nirvana came to my studio for Sub Pop, and we recorded eight tracks. Kurt clearly raised the bar as a songwriter. He wrote more melodically with more interesting song structures. Then he said to me one day, ‘Hey, Butch, I got the best drummer in the world. Just wait until you hear Dave Grohl hit the drums.’ It was all coming together. I figured we would make this cool indie rock record, and maybe it will sell 500,000 copies. I had no idea that this zeitgeist moment was about to happen and change my life.”

Cobain’s life was changed by the Melvins. The sludge rockers had a huge impact on Cobain, and he became close friends with Melvins vocalist-guitarist Buzz Osborne, who thought that “Nevermind” would sell a couple hundred thousand. “But I never guessed it would have that done as well as it did,” Osborne said. “I’m terrible at that kind of stuff, but it’s their best record. The songs are there.

“But I never know what will sell. Look at Green Day’s ‘Dookie.’ When I first heard it, I thought, ‘Who is going to buy this bleeping garbage? This is bleeping crap that sounds like a bad version of the Descendents and the Dickies. Nobody would be fooled by this crap, I thought, but I was wrong. But ‘Nevermind’ is really that good.”

Cobain loved classic rock. The word has always been that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a Pixies ripoff, but the riff owes more to the Blue Oyster Cult’s “Godzilla” and Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” than anything the Pixies crafted. Cobain also listened to quite a bit of the Smithereens while writing and recording “Nevermind.” However, Smithereens late singer-songwriter Pat DiNizio was disgusted by Nirvana’s success.

“I don’t want to give them any more press than they already have or make people think we need to talk about them to validate our existence,” DiNizio told me in 1993 after Cobain appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone with a “Corporate Rock Still Sucks” T-shirt. “But he is corporate rock.

“The great irony is that despite his wishes, he has become the embodiment of corporate rock, as has Eddie Vedder and that guy (late vocalist Scott Weiland) from Stone Temple Pilots who embodied to me the worst aspects of ’70s corporate rock. I have to endure that again after having lived through it the first time.”

DiNizio voiced his contempt through the song “Sick of Seattle.” “Feeling so tired / And grungy and scared / Tired of flannel / And growing my hair / Tired of going nowhere / And I’m sick of Seattle.”

It wasn’t just DiNizio who thumbed his nose at Nirvana. During a show in autumn of 1991 in Philadelphia, Bob Mould stopped mid-show and delivered an angry diatribe slamming Nirvana’s success. Mould came off as bitter wondering why his former band, Husker Du, never enjoyed the kind of commercial success Nirvana scored.

“Amelodic” was how John Oates of Hall & Oates dismissed the music crafted by Nirvana during a 2012 chat. Ironically, Nirvana and Hall & Oates were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame during the same ceremony in 2014. Wayne Coyne of Flaming Lips has called “Nevermind” the most overrated album in rock history.

However, the album changed the course of music history. Bands like Poison’s career was placed on pause. Yet Poison frontman Bret Michaels had no issues with Nirvana.

“How could I hate Nirvana?” Michaels said to me in 2019. “I loved ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ I’ve always been grateful for everything, and I have such a positive attitude. I’ve had ups and downs in my life, but I’ve always bet on myself.”

KISS was impacted by grunge, but vocalist-bassist Gene Simmons never had anything but respect for Nirvana.

“They were a great band,” Simmons said. “It starts with their chordal structures and melodies. Some of those melodies are very Beatle-esque. Nirvana changed the culture. The bands that came out of Seattle, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden and especially Nirvana, were amazing.”

Speaking of Alice in Chains, vocalist-guitarist Jerry Cantrell knew “Nevermind” would be huge. “It’s a perfect record,” Cantrell said. “There are a handful of them in the history of rock. If you’re lucky, you’ll have one, and that was theirs. He (Cobain) threw a no-hitter with that one. That album connected with so many people.”

“Nevermind” also impacted the hip-hop community. “I remember the first time I heard ‘Nevermind,’ I was blown away,” Cypress Hill MC Sen Dog recalled. “I remember hearing it, and I knew it was the new wave of music. Nirvana was doing something different just like we were doing something different.”

The most lovely look back at “Nevermind,” the life of Cobain and his genius is from Teenage Fanclub vocalist-guitarist Norman Blake. The Fanclub topped Spin’s top album list of 1991 with its charming “Bandwagonesque.” “Nevermind” was third behind R.E.M.’s “Out of Time.” Blake and his bandmates, since they were often on the same circuit, were part of bills with Nirvana and became close with Cobain.

” ‘Nevermind’ still stands up,” Blake said. “It’s a tremendous album. When I think back about Kurt, I remember how much he loved punk rock, Motown and Daniel Johnston. Fame didn’t sit well with him. We knew Nirvana during the ‘Bleach’ period. I remember when everything blew up. All of that adulation. The fans genuinely loved what they experienced with ‘Nevermind’ and the shows on that tour.”

The conversation with Blake turned to what would have happened if Cobain hadn’t killed himself in April 1994. The same thing happened during a chat with Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore. There was no band Cobain respected more than Sonic Youth, a critical darling that sold enough albums to be a mainstay on DGC and a reason Nirvana signed to the label.

” ‘Nevermind’ is a great album,” Moore said. “There’s no doubt about that.” Moore knew immediately that Cobain was special. “Kurt’s sense of melody was so astute and so effective. Kurt always called what he did the B-word (the Beatles). That is to be experimental, yet melodic. It’s rare to meet a band that is able to inform and make experimental music that’s melodic.

“Sonic Youth toyed with that concept, but not to the extent of Nirvana. Nirvana was unique. Oasis thought they were as cool as Nirvana, but they weren’t. Oasis wrote some great songs. They put out one great album, but they didn’t have legs. Kurt did it even though he wasn’t mainstream. He was not about the Red Hot Chili Peppers or Pearl Jam. He loved Daniel Johnston.”

Part of what makes the eclectic “Nevermind,” from the brilliance of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the dark, angular sounds of “Come As You Are,” the surging “Breed,” the intense “Territorial Pissings” and the pretty ballad “Something in the Way” is that Cobain came from a real and honest place as a writer.

“Completely,” Moore said. “He was a really smart kid who was always very open and curious. He understood the magic of subversive art in a conservative forum. The emotion in his voice was not something you can fake. It was there from his childhood. If Nirvana had any other singer, we wouldn’t be talking about them today.”

The incomprehensible success changed Cobain even though his wife didn’t see it that way. “The cool thing is that he doesn’t take this teen revolution bleep seriously, or he would turn into Bono,” Love said after Nirvana broke Becoming a most reluctant spokesman for a generation didn’t help. The same can be said for Cobain’s horrible habit.

“I didn’t like the people around him and all of the drugs he was doing,” Osborne said. “You take the drugs out of the equation, and it’s a different story. If you take the drugs out of it, maybe you’re not talking to me about ‘Nevermind,’ maybe you’re talking to Kurt about the album today.”

Read the rest of this feature at spokesman.com/ae.

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