Nirvana established themselves on the alternative Seattle grunge rock scene in the late 1980s. They built a sound upon time changes, switching from dark loud moods to uplifting lighter choruses that gave them anthemic power. They became spokesmen for ‘Generation X’ with Cobain labelled its spokesman, which was never his intention. Punk only in so far as they encouraged others to create music in their image they were a struggling outfit in Aberdeen, on the fringes of Seattle’s mainstream when Cobain and his friend Novoselic flirted with such embryonic garage bands as Fecal Matter and Pen Cap Chew.
Nirvana was the name chosen because it represented something healthier to aspire to than mere negative energy. Their debut disc Bleach (1989) was recorded with local man Jack Endino for the legendary Sub Pop label and for all its naïve amalgamation of Black Sabbath riffs and Mudhoney proto-grunge they retained a classic pop element that found resolution in melody rather than plain attitude. Moreover at this stage they couldn’t have guessed that three of their albums would figure in Rolling Stone’s Greatest of All Time list, with Nevermind itself being chosen as the ultimate tip of the 1990s by that esteemed publication.
It’s no surprise that Bleach is Sub Pop’s biggest selling disc though the outfit’s first single ‘Love Buzz’ was actually penned by Shocking Blue’s Dutch guitarist Robbie van Leeuwen. The Beatle-esque ‘About a Girl’ and the semi-autobiographical furore of ‘Negative Creep’ became the album’s live calling cards and set them up well for 1991’s landmark event – the ever thrilling Nevermind (1991).
Here the dynamic time shifts come good, partly thanks to producer Butch Vig’s ability to translate the band’s sometime ornery mood into effective and coherent dynamite – with new drummer Dave Grohl (ex-Scream, born Ohio) on board they certainly sounded tougher - and ensure everything fell into place.
For those who dug in it was possible to note Cobain’s obsession with Sonic Youth, though his aim was to conjure a fearsome collision between The Knack, Bay City Rollers (!) and Black Flag with a side order of Aerosmith. An iconoclast with a common touch Cobain still wasn’t prepared for the sudden acclaim awarded to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ which ripped through the American underground, ducked for cover in Europe and then blasted in the air like an atomic bomb, dragging alterative rock in its wake and triggering massive sales on the parent album.
By now Cobain was established as a young maverick. Slight in build and generally reticent in nature when he hit stage he could make pronouncements about detesting homophobia, racism and sexism and speak to an audience in a language they understood. The album itself just gives and gives. ‘Polly’, ‘In Bloom’, ‘Drain You’, ‘On A Plain’ and the immortal ‘Come As You Are’ ensure that this is a definitive must-have disc.
We also point you towards the 20th Anniversary edition with bonus tracks; B-sides, BBC sessions and fascinating rehearsal pieces that show us how committed Nirvana were to their work. As the album soared to #3 on the Billboard Top 200 (it eventually went 10 million Diamond in the US and 4xPlatinum in the UK) it was obvious that a phenomenon was born, one where everything is just right, from the swimming baby on the cover to the beautiful acoustic ‘Something in the Way.’
Following the compilation, Insecticide (1992), a fine, arcane and often obscure set of demos and darn strange covers, we come to the business of In Utero (1993). Now, following Nevermind would have defeated most people but these three guys swapped Sound City in Van Nuys for some funky cabin in snowbound Minnesota and simply blew us away again with Steve Albini lending a polished, chromatic plate to their riffs and rhythms with R.E.M. accomplice Scott Litt adding his studio magic dust to ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ and ‘All Apologies’. This album has sold over 15 million copies already, remarkable considering they made it in six days (Kurt’s vocals were done in six hours) in freezing isolation. ‘Milk It’ and the anti-rape song ‘Rape Me’ ushered in a spirit of screaming controversy but there are reflective moments, portals to a deafening and troubled sound that indicated teenage angst had been replaced by rock star angst. It’s another classic for sure and has gathered praise in the passing years with the realisation that this contains some of Cobain’s most lucid and heartfelt writing while the musical aspects are astonishingly potent. Everyone’s got their favourite track in these parts:’ how about ‘Pennyroyal Tea’, issued as a single after Cobain’s death, flipped with ‘I Hate Myself and I Want to Die’ (working title for the album, in fact) offering an insight into some bleak humour that wasn’t meant to be taken seriously.
Kurt’s death, which had an impact reminiscent of John Lennon’s assassination, sent shock waves through the rock-speaking world, especially since his highly public relationship with wife Courtney Love had made the duo anti-celebrities.
In Utero is available in multi-formats, including vinyl and box set as befits a recording event that again topped the US charts and followed suit in the UK and Sweden and is a masterpiece in its own right.
The unbearably poignant Nirvana MTV Unplugged in New York (1994) is certainly one to cherish and rediscover. Covering David Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ is a masterstroke with Curt Kirkwood’s ‘Plateau’ and the traditional blues of ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’ adding to the occasion.
Since his death Nirvana have been brilliantly served with splendid anthologies like the Singles box and the live From the Muddy Banks of Wishka which is entirely electric and fantastic and captures the guts and fury of rock and roll as well as anything ever heard. Try ‘Lithium’ from Amsterdam or ‘Silver’ from Springfield, MA, marvel at the London taped ‘Breed’ and shed a tear over ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ cut in Los Angeles. Don’t overlook this item.
Nirvana (2002) is another essential compilation of hits with Platinum and chart topper by its name. Real fans didn’t forget.
With the Lights Out (2004) is another box to open and explore as over three hours of stand out music reveals an early version of Led Zeppelin’s Heartbreaker’, the alternate mix of ‘Return of the Rat’ and Butch Vig’s rough mixes of three cuts from Nevermind. That is just for starters. Sliver: The Best of the Box does a sterling cherry-picking job on the aforementioned rarities and curios.
It doesn’t end there either because Live at Reading (recorded in 1992 at the Reading Festival in England) captures the band in their absolute pomp or remains a rite of passage for experience for all those who witnessed Nirvana in full bloom. Let’s face it; their encores are better than most bands’ entire careers.
Icon from 2010 brings us up to speed with a remixed ‘Pennyroyal Tea’, plenty of recent nostalgia and a reminder of the times when Cobain enlisted female cellists, giving a tantalising hint of what he might have done next.
We’ll never know that and there isn’t much point in second-guessing him here – leave that to the biographers and the novelists and the filmmakers. What we do know and that truth, which we hold to be self-evident, is that Nirvana have left a vast legacy considering they only made three original studio albums. Amongst their blatant achievements they dragged the underground kicking and screaming into the open air and turned on older listeners to a quality of music they maybe thought died around 1978.
More importantly Nirvana educated a new generation and entertained them mentally and physically. They had a libidinous thrust that defined their era. Grohl and Novoselic have gone on to great things, Dave Grohl in creating the Foo Fighters and Krist Novoselic through his work with JAMPAC, and while they have continued to move forward themselves it’s to the spirit of Kurt Cobain that one so often returns.
This is one case where the legend really precedes the record itself. Cut for about 600 dollars in Jack Endino's studio over just a matter of days, this captures Nirvana at a formative stage, still indebted to the murk that became known as grunge, yet not quite finding their voice as songwriters. Which isn't to say that they were devoid of original material, since even at this stage Kurt Cobain illustrated signs of his considerable songcraft, particularly on the minor-key ballad "About a Girl" and the dense churn of "Blew."
A few songs come close to that level, but that's more a triumph of sound than structure, as "Negative Creep" and "School" get by on attitude and churn, while the cover of "Love Buzz" winds up being one of the highlights because this gives a true menace to their sound, thanks to its menacing melody. The rest of it sinks into the sludge, as the group itself winds up succumbing to grinding sub-metallic riffing that has little power, due to lack of riffs and lack of a good drummer. Bleach is more than a historical curiosity since it does have its share of great songs, but it isn't a lost classic -- it's a debut from a band that shows potential but haven't yet achieved it.
Words - Stephen Thomas Erlewine
This, the second album by Nirvana, has been called ‘a great modern punk record,” it’s a sentiment that is difficult to argue with. It became a huge commercial success largely due to the popularity of its first single, Smells Like Teen Spirit as well as the three others taken from the album that replaced Michael Jackson's Dangerous at No.1 on the Billboard charts - Come as You Are, Lithium, and In Bloom. It quickly sold ten million in America and has gone on to sell 39 million copies around the world.
In Utero was Nirvana’s last record, having been recorded in February 1993 before Kurt Cobain's death just fourteen months later. It’s a powerful record that starts out with some of the strongest songs including the two singles drawn from the album - Heart Shaped Box and Rape Me. The latter song was a double a-side with the album’s closer All Apologies on the other side. Cobain dedicated All Apologies to his wife Courtney Love and daughter, Frances Bean Cobain; it’s what adds an extra layer of poignancy to this song. In Utero is an uncompromising record, but would we expect anything less from Nirvana?
This acoustic show was taped in New York City on November 18, 1993 for the MTV’s Unplugged television series and aired on December 14, 1993. It was very different from the regular run of the mill shows in the Unplugged format as this featured a set list made up of lesser known material rather than a mechanical run through of the band’s hits – there’s everything from David Bowie to Lead Belly. It was also the first album to be released following the death of singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain.
It debuted at number one on the Billboard 200, and has become the group's biggest selling posthumous release as well as winning the Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album in 1996. There are covers of The Vaselines' Jesus Doesn't Want Me for a Sunbeam along with three covers of Meat Puppets Plateau, Oh Me and Lake of Fire. This is a record that is raw and the band are metaphorically naked while they play – just listen to Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World and it tells you more about the band than many of their own songs. Many think this signals the way that Nirvana was heading, sadly we’ll never really know if that’s true.
From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah is the second posthumous Nirvana record, an attempt to capture Nirvana at the peak of its powers on stage. That doesn't necessarily mean all the band's best-known songs are here -- "Come as You Are," "All Apologies," and "About a Girl" are all absent -- but it does mean that this is the closest representation to what Nirvana sounded like on-stage.
It may not be perfect and it's a little scattershot due to its varied source material (the tapes were recorded anywhere between 1989 and 1994), but it's still a terrific record, thanks to a sharp selection of performances and a set list that relies on B-sides, album tracks, and album favorites, highlighting the group at its best. It's not necessary, but it still finds a great band in top form.
Words - Stephen Thomas Erlewine.
Certain concerts create a legend as soon as the final note ceases to ring. Nirvana's headlining appearance at the 1992 Reading Festival is one of these shows, a concert that arrived at precisely the right moment and stands as testament to a band at the peak of its powers...and right before things started to turn sour within the Nirvana camp.
Despite the happy news of the birth of Frances Bean Cobain a mere 12 days before this August 30 festival, rumours swirled around Nirvana right up until the band hit the stage. Kurt Cobain took full advantage of these scurrilous stories, making his entrance in a hospital gown and wheelchair pushed by journalist Everett True. Cobain feebly reached for the microphone to croak out the opening lines of ""The Rose,"" only to collapse onto the stage, milking the drama for a moment before leading Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl through a ferocious ""Breed."
This impish sense of humor has been obscured over the years, lost under the weight of the band's tragic legacy, along with the fact that Nirvana could actually be fun as well as furious. Live at Reading brings all this roaring back. This is Nirvana's purest blast of rock & roll: there's a boundless, invigorating energy here and, just as importantly, there's a sense of joy to the performances, a joy that bubbles to the surface when Kurt laughs during the intro of ""Sliver"" but can be heard throughout the show, as the band rushes in tandem, pushing the tempos on ""Aneurysm"" and ""Territorial Pissings,"" ebbing and flowing as one. Hints of this could be heard on the live comp From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah, but this is a complete document of Nirvana in full flight and one of the greatest live rock & roll albums ever.
Words - Stephen Thomas Erlewine.
Nirvana and DGC released the rarities compilation Incesticide toward the end of 1992. Like any odds'n'sods collection, this is uneven, but that's its charm since it captures Nirvana's character better than any official album. After all, this was a band that was born equally from '70s sludge metal, bubblegum pop, post-punk artiness, and indie rock inclusiveness, each of which are apparent on this collection.
There are some non-entities here, particularly on the second side, but the plodding sub-metallic grind was part of their identity, one part of their multi-faceted character. Nirvana meant everything to everyone, from the jangle pop veterans to the garage rock ravers that worshipped the Stooges to stoner metal fetishes and indie rock bed-sits that adopted Sebadoh just as they outgrew Morrissey -- everybody loved Nirvana, and there's something for every kind fan here, thanks to murky sludge, Devo and Vaseline covers, BBC sessions, instrumentals, and limited-edition singles, plus sub-Melvins goop, everything visceral where Bleach was tame.
As with so many ‘greatest hits collections’ they are so often the point of entry for people wishing to explore an artists back catalogue – this album from Nirvana is no exception. This record has all the hits and many tracks that have become staple for radio stations with the good taste to programme one of the most essential bands in the history of rock. There’s also their final recording, "You Know You're Right," to go along with “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, “Lithium”, “Come As You Are” and even “The Man Who Sold The World” from the MTV Unplugged in New York album .
With the Lights Out is a box set, containing three CDs and one DVD, of previously rare or unreleased material, including b-sides, demos, rough rehearsal recordings and live recordings, from the American rock band Nirvana. It was released in November 2004. The title was taken from the lyric, "With the lights out, it's less dangerous" from the band's 1991 "Smells Like Teen Spirit" single.
With the Lights Out set a record for single week sales of any box set, with 105,760 units sold. As of 2007, it has sold over 925,000 units in the United States alone, according to Nielson SoundScan. It has also been certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).