The 20th anniversary of the Nevermind album


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Nick Statham's feature on the Nirvina album that became a global phenonenom

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The 20th anniversary of the Nevermind album

  1. 1. Forum House | Stirling Road | Chichester | PO19 7DNFreelance journalism course article by Nick StathamTRAIL BLAZERSNIRVANA- ‘NEVERMIND’ 20 YEARS ONThis month sees the twentieth anniversary of Nirvana’s seminal Nevermind album. Arecord which - despite its meagre initial pressing of 46,251 copies - became a globalphenomenon, catapulting its unsuspecting creators to international superstardom andredefining the rock scene of the early 1990s.At the centre of this near-accidental revolution was Kurt Cobain, Nick Statham, looksat how the troubled genius behind the nineties most incendiary rock ‘n’ roll bandbrought about the extinction of the poodle haired ‘rawk’ bands of the era andpopularised an approach to the guitar that was entirely at odds with the predominant‘shred rules’, technique fixated mentality of the time.“We’re just musically and rhythmically retarded. We play so hard that we can’ttune our guitars fast enough. People can relate to that.” – Kurt Cobain, 1991.Anyone who was a fan of hard rock / heavy metal back in the late eighties couldprobably predict with some accuracy which names would appear in the ‘best guitarist’category in mags like Kerrang and Raw when the results of the annual readers pollswere published at the end of each year.Richie Sambora, Eddie Van Halen and Slash represented perhaps the morecommerical end of the spectrum, Kirk Hammet, Marty Friedman, and Kerry Kinginvariably got the nod from the thrash and speed fraternity while the virtuosofetishists would vote for Vai, Satriani or Malmsteen.Those names cover a lot of musical ground from the glossy anthemic rock of Bon Jovito the unrelenting thrash of Slayer, but rock fans of every stripe evidently reveredguitarists who could speed their way through a fiddly guitar solo.The alternative scene had its own (anti) heroes of course, in the likes of Sonic Youth’sLee Ranaldo and the Pixies’ Joey Santiago, for example, but they remained relatively‘underground’ concerns, and won few converts among the rather conservative ranksof heavy rock fans.At the turn of the nineties the two scenes were very much separate from – andsuspicious of- one another. Rockers viewed alternative acts as too fey, arty andpretentious to deliver the visceral thrills they craved, while the alternative crowdgenerally saw rockers as either embarrassing corporate poodles or metal meatheads.Despite signing a major label deal and a building music industry buzz, the Nirvana ofearly 1991 vintage saw themselves as firmly on the Pixies/Sonic Youth/ Mudhoneyside of the dividing line. Commercially they had no expectations beyond becoming –at best – a moderately successful alternative rock outfit.As Charles R Cross writes in his Cobain biog ‘Heavier Than Heaven’: ‘Nirvana weresigned to DGC, a smaller imprint of the Geffen label having only a few employees Forum House | Stirling Road | Chichester | PO19 7DN
  2. 2. Forum House | Stirling Road | Chichester | PO19 7DNand just a couple of hit acts. In contrast Geffen had Guns N’ Roses, the mostsuccessful rock group of the era’.Kurt Cobain had made no secret of the fact that Nirvana’s first album on DCG wouldfocus more on their pop sensibilities than ‘Bleach’, their sludgy debut on (now)legendary Seattle indie label Sub Pop. “I think it’s a fine mixture of radio-friendlyaccessible crap and still reminding you of what our ‘Bleach’ album sounds like andwhat we sound like live. It’s still heavy. In every interview over the last two yearswe’ve been practically warning everyone that we’re writing more pop songs, so Idon’t think it’ll be a surprise to anyone when it’s released”. He commented of theupcoming album, provisionally entitled ‘Sheep’, but eventually christened‘Nevermind’.The lead off single from the record was a song called ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’,which Cobain would later describe as his “attempt to rip off the Pixies’. KristNovoselic rembers them both worrying that people were’ really going to nail us’ forapproximating the Boston alt.rock heroes somewhat too closely. Not that it soundslike any particular Pixies song specifically, rather it was their oft used quiet verse/loud chorus approach that Kurt was beginning to incorporate into Nirvana’s sound.‘We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard’ hetold Rolling Stone.The band had gone into the studio convinced that ‘Lithium’ was the potential hit. ‘Ithought ‘Teen Spirit’ was just another album cut but it soon became clear it would bethe special song on the record.” Dave Grohl told journalist Paul Brannigan.‘Special’ or not though, alternative acts just didn’t have massive, chart eating singlesat that time. “There was no world domination ambition because that just didn’thappen, that wasn’t alllowed to happen. I thought it might get on (MTV’S) 120minutes and allow us to tour with Sonic Youth, but no one thought it was a hit singleas that was just unimaginable” Grohl continued.Despite intial reticence MTV did begin to feature the Teen Spirit video on ‘120Minutes’ and a couple of months after its release it went into regular rotation as one ofthe channel’s first ‘Buzz Bin’ videos.The snowballing success of ‘Teen Spirit’ and its ‘pep rally from hell’ video began tofuel sales of Nevermind, which took two weeks to register in the Billboard Top 200,but entered at No.144 when it did chart, rising to No.109 the following week, No.65on the third week, then hitting No.35 on 2 November.On January 11 1992, Nevermind hit the number one spot , dislodging MichaelJackson’s ‘Dangerous’ album, having also overtaken Guns N Roses’ ‘Use YourIllusion’ double set on the way. By eclipsing not just the biggest rock band of the time but also arguably the biggestartist of all time it became clear that ‘Nevermind’ had become a phenomenon.Freelance journalism course article by Nick Statham Forum House | Stirling Road | Chichester | PO19 7DN
  3. 3. Forum House | Stirling Road | Chichester | PO19 7DNAccounting for their shock breakthrough into the mainstream in ‘The Rough Guide toRock’ Essi Berelian wrote “Nirvana and particularly Cobain, had unwittingly filled amusical gulf. They took a hard-headed, punk influenced stance and fused it to a moremainstream, hard rock sound. Suddenly it was not just alternative kids who weretuning in, but everyone, including those they positively despised: jocks, misogynisticmetalheads, racist, homophobic rednecks.”While, anticipating the coming sea change in rock music, Jon Parales of The NewYork Times opined “Suddenly, all bets are off. No one has the inside track on whichof dozens, perhaps hundreds, of ornery, obstreperous, unkempt bands might nextappeal to the mall-walking millions.”Nevermind’s explosive, yet infectiously melodic sound had, at a stroke, rendered thespandex clad, coiffured likes of Poison, Motley Crue and Warrant at once ridiculousand irrelevant while opening the door for a plethora of underground and alternativeacts.Seattle, not LA, was the new centre of the rock world and bands such as Alice inChains, Soundgarden , and Pearl Jam (whom Kurt openly disliked and branded‘corporate alternative and cock-rock fusion’) sprang to prominence, while Cobainendorsed acts such as (early influence and mentors) The Melvins and Tad began toreceive hitherto unprecedented levels of attention.‘Both Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain influenced me to not get too caught upseeking technical perfection. They realized you can just go crazy, make a bunch ofnoise’ – Matt Bellamy of Muse.“I was intimidated by professional musicians. Heavy metal guitarists were very analand technical and promoted the fact they could play good” Cobain had told Frenchtelevision channel M6 in the aftermath of Nevermind’s success. But, although thisnew generation of rock bands eschewed the typical shred guitarists arsenal of sweeppicking, tapping, lightning fast legato runs and lengthy solos, it would be an oversimplification to say technique no longer mattered.Cobain may have at one time subscribed to the ‘Learn not to play your instrument’teachings of Seattle scene figurehead Calvin Johnson, but a reference to him as an‘elitist little fuck’ in an unsent letter to ex-girlfriend Tobi Vail, strongly suggests he’dgone on to develop a different musical philosophy!Budding guitarists may not need to devote endless hours diligently practising scalarexercises in order to play passable renditions of Nirvana’s most famous songs, butneither could a complete beginner pick up a guitar and begin belting out ‘Smell’s LikeTeen Spirit’ within the hour (OK, Negative Creep, maybe!).Freelance journalism course article by Nick Statham Forum House | Stirling Road | Chichester | PO19 7DN
  4. 4. Forum House | Stirling Road | Chichester | PO19 7DNEven Cobain’s simpler compositions like Polly require competent chord work, whilethe likes of In Bloom and (Bleach’s) ‘Blew’ feature deceptively tricky solos. The ‘antisolos’ of ‘Drain You’ and ‘In Utero’’s ‘Serve the Servants’ are also very difficult toreplicate convincingly.Subtle nuances and variations on a riff or theme are another a feature of his playing asyou’ll find if you delve into anything from Bleach’s ‘About a Girl’ to In Utero’s‘Dumb’.Like all bands that hit the heights of critical and commercial success, Nirvanainadvertently ‘inspired’ a slew of pale imitators and pointless copyists, unable tograsp that four chords and some vaguely depressive lyrics do not a genius recordmake - not without Cobain’s gift for melody, atmosphere, drama and texture withthose base musical materials, anyway.But Nirvana’s influence is broader than sound-alike bands such as Bush and Puddle ofMud. Speaking about his approach to the guitar, Matt Bellamy of Muse, whose soundowes as much to Queen and prog rock as any punk-ish ‘alternative’ band, stated ‘bothJimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain influenced me to not get too caught up seekingtechnical perfection. They realized you can just go crazy, make a bunch of noise …’While seventeen years on from Cobain’s suicide some of today’s most important andacclaimed acts from The Arcade Fire to Animal Collective cite Nirvana as aninfluence.The Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan probably summed up the attitude Nirvanabrought to guitar music best in a 1995 Guitar World column: ‘Playing in and of itself,does not mean a heck of a lot. But guitar playing within the context of great music andgreat songs is a big deal. We appreciate the guitar playing skills of Eric Clapton, JimiHendrix, Jimmy Page and others within the context of their songs. The downfall ofthe Yngwie Malmsteen school of playing has occurred because, ultimately, no onereally gives two shits about guitar playing in and of itself, except maybe other guitarplayers’.Or as Kurt put it ‘People have opened up to an appreciation of hard rock in punk, andit’s great that they’ve fused together.... Attitude is one thing. But a good song is themost important thing. It’s the only way to really touch someone’.We’ve found three examples of where we’ve detected Nirvana’s influence in thesongs of other bands who don’t fit the description of Nirvana copyists and whosemusic has found acclaim in its own right. Hopefully this will help you develop a feelfor Kurt’s playing style and how you can adapt it to create riffs and guitar lines withyour own individual stamp on them.Freelance journalism course article by Nick Statham Forum House | Stirling Road | Chichester | PO19 7DN