You’d have to be living on the moon, not to know that this week we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the release of Nirvana’s seminal album ‘Nevermind’. An album that changed the face of alternative Rock and ushered the Seattle Grunge scene into the mainstream.
Released on September 24th 1991, Nevermind was the bands second studio album, but the first to be released on Geffen Records imprint DGC Records, upon the recommendation of its management company Gold Mountain, who had also managed fellow alt rock band and Nirvana’s musical inspiration Sonic Youth.
Comprised of band members Kurt Cobain (vocals/bass), Krist Novoselic (guitar) and Dave Grohl (Drums), the band had previously been signed to Seattle independent label Sub Pop and had recorded their first album Bleach in June 1989, which failed to chart in the U.S. Cobain blamed Sub Pop for the albums failure. Claiming the label had forced him to comform to their Grunge ideals and sound. Never allowing him to express his creativity and songwriting in the direction that he had envisioned. Because of this Cobain stated that 80 percent of the lyrics were actually written the night before they were recorded.
In the spring of 1990 the band began working on their second album, which was to be released through Sub Pop. Tentatively titled Sheep, Butch Vig was brought in to Produce the album. Vig, having recorded original Grunge outfit Killdozer’s classic album God Hears Pleas of the Innocent, was regarded as an authority on the sound by Sub Pop. That April, the band travelled out to his Smart Studios, in Madison Wiscontin to begin recording the album.
Eight tracks were recorded during that period. ‘In Bloom’, ‘Immodium’ (later renamed ‘Breed’), ‘Pay to Play’ (eventually renamed ‘Stay Away’ and given new lyrics), ‘Polly’, ‘Dive’ (Only ever released as a B-Side to ‘Sliver’), ‘Here she Comes Now’, ‘Sappy’ and ‘Lithium’. Although they had planned to record more tracks with Vig and Sub pop, kurt had actually physically damaged his vocal chords while recording ‘Lithium’ and they had no choice but to shut down recording.
At this time Sub pop had began to experience increasing financial difficulties, due partly to the small niche Seattle grunge scene that the label operated within and also a run of unsuccessful commercial releases which had left the independent company with no choice but to sign up as a subsidary for a major label. When this became apparent to Nirvana, Cobain had an idea; Lets just cut out the middle man. They started shopping around for a new label, using the tracks they had recorded with Vig as a demo. The recording soon started circulating among the major labels and creating a buzz about the band. Geffen rushed to sign the band before anyone else had a chance to decide if the three piece were a safe bet to snap up.
Although a number of Producers for the album were suggested, the band were adamant that Butch Vig was still the ideal man for the job and he was hired to complete the project. The album was given a budget of $65,000 and the band were told to report to Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, California to resume work on Sheep, which had now been retitled ‘Nevermind’!
The band couldn’t afford Gas money to actually get from Seattle to LA so decided that they would fund the journey by performing a gig in the OK Hotel in Seattle, Washington, the night before they left. It was at this gig that Nirvana finally felt ready to perform a new track that they had been working on. A track that was inspired by the Music of the Pixies, a band that had always fascinated Cobain.
‘I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it. When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily that I should have been in that band—or at least a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.’
That track was ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. little did they know that that track would kick start their careers beyond their wildest dreams.
The title for the track came to Cobain when Kathleen Hanna, at the time the lead singer of the Riot Grrrl punk band Bikini Kill, had spray painted the words “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on his wall. As they had been discussing Punk and anarchism, Kurt, in the true essense of Rock N Roll irony saw it as having some sort of revolutionary meaning when in fact she actually meant that Kurt smelt of Teen Spirit, which was a popular deodorant at the time.
When the band arrived in California they spent a few days in preproduction where Vig helped them to improve some of the song arrangement before they started recording, getting them into the habit of working for eight to ten hours per days, a routine that they would stick to rigidly. When they started recording They’d take three tries at the instrumental takes, if the track still wasn’t up to spec they’d move onto another track and come back to it a few days later. They found that this ‘sleep on it’ philosophy, helped them achieve the perfect sound they’d envishioned for each track, as it would be rolling around their sub conscience minds until, between them, they’d figured out the correct arrangement.
Although grohl and Novoselic finished their drums and bass tracks reletively quickly it took Cobain much longer on guitar, overdubs and lyrics which were often finished minutes before recording. Vig would often mix the tracks together to create overdubs. He’d often have to persuade Cobain to record additional takes for these overdubs as the singer didn’t like recording tracks multiple takes. Vig would tell him repeatably that if it was good enough for John Lennon, it was good enough for Kurt Cobain.
Vig found working with him very difficult at times. cobain would become moody and depressive. “He’d be great for an hour, and then he’d sit in a corner and say nothing for an hour.”
Once they had completed the recording sessions, it was time to mix the album. After a few days though, both Vig and Nirvana realised that they were unhappy with how the mixes were progressing. They realised that they needed to bring in someone else to oversee the process. They chose Andy Wallace, a relative unknown at the time. Wallace was fairly new to the game, having only ever co-produced Slayer’s 1990 album Seasons in the Abyss.
Wallaces technique was to run the tracks through different effect boxes and then tweak the drum sounds. He worked at an incredible pace, managing to complete on average, at least one track per day. When Vig and the band heard the finished mixes, they were all ecstatic at the time, though years later Cobain would say “Looking back on the production of Nevermind, I’m embarrassed by it now. It’s closer to a Mötley Crüe record than it is a punk rock record.”
On the afternoon of August 2nd Howie Weinberg arrived at the mastering lab in Hollywood, California to meet Nirvana, Andy wallace and Gary Gersh, to master the album. He waited for an hour before deciding to master it alone. Because of the no show by the band, Weinberg inadvertantly left the ‘Endless, Nameless’, secret track, which was supposed to appear at the end of ‘Something in the Way’, off the initial pressing. Twenty thousand copies of the album were actually pressed without the track. When the band discovered the error, Cobain called Weinberg and demanded that it be added to future pressing. Weinberg added 10 minutes of silence between ‘Something in the Way’ and ‘Endless, Nameless’ or the secret song as it was often known, meaning that record buyers would only find it if for some reason, they left the album playing after ‘the last’ track.
The first single of the album to be released was ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ on September 10th 1991. although it was intended to be the ‘fan base building’ track from the album, it wasn’t expected to be a major hit. DGC Records expected the follow up track ‘Come as You Are’ to be the track more likely to cross over into the mainstream. But Campus Radio and Modern Rock Radio stations picked up on the track and it was placed on heavy rotation, gaining the band a rapidly increasing fanbase. Soon people were rushing out to buy copies of the single in droves.
By the time Nevermind was released on September 24th 1991, the band had already gained a cult following, largely due to the Commercial success of the ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ Single, which was gaining more and more airplay by the day. The album debuted on the billboard 200 at number 144 and slowly started rising up the chart.
The video for ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ premiered on MTV’s late night alternative show 120 Minutes and become so popular that the channel began playing it around the clock. A snowball effect was forming around the track and it wasn’t long before it went Gold.
Nevermind soon entered the Billboard top 40 at number 35 and was flying off the shelves so quickly that geffin didn’t even have time to market it. Geffen president Ed Rosenblatt told The New York Times, “We didn’t do anything. It was just one of those ‘Get out of the way and duck’ records.”
On January 11, 1992, Nevermind reached number one on the Billboard top 100, selling 300,000 copies a week. ‘Come as You Are’ was released as a single in March 1992 peaking at number 32 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles. Two more singles ‘Lithium’ and ‘In Bloom’ followed.
Nevermind ushered in a new generation of music fans in their twenties and brought the Seattle Grunge scene into the mainstream. Michael Azerrad says in his Nirvana biography Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana (1993), “Nevermind came along at exactly the right time. This was music by, for, and about a whole new group of young people who had been overlooked, ignored, or condescended to.” Rolling Stone wrote in its entry for Nevermind on its 2003 list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, “No album in recent history had such an overpowering impact on a generation—a nation of teens suddenly turned punk—and such a catastrophic effect on its main creator.”
Twenty years later and Nirvana: Nevermind is still as relevant an album as it was in 1991. It was one the last great classic rock albums of the twentieth Century, an album that is as complicated and conflicted as Kurt Cobain himself was. And maybe thats the appeal, the same way that the Sex Pistol ‘Never Mind the Bolloucks’ appealled to the disalusioned youth of its time, so too does Nevermind. And I should know, i was there when Nirvana took the world by storm.
“Nevermind was definately an album we wanted to make. We have no regrets.” – Kurt Cobain (1993)
All songs written by Kurt Cobain except where noted.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Cobain, Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic) – 5:01
“In Bloom” – 4:14
“Come as You Are” – 3:39
“Breed” – 3:03
“Lithium” – 4:17
“Polly” – 2:57
“Territorial Pissings” – 2:22
“Drain You” – 3:43
“Lounge Act” – 2:36
“Stay Away” – 3:32
“On a Plain” – 3:16
“Something in the Way” – 3:55
“Endless, Nameless” (Cobain, Grohl, Novoselic) — 6:44 (hidden track on some copies of the record)