Experiencing Nirvana – Grunge In Europe, 1989 (Bazillion Points)
It’s been Twenty four years exactly since Nirvana hit the UK for the first time. Sub Pop head honcho, Bruce Pavitt has produced a book of photographs and writings from Nirvana’s first European tour in November 1989 and it is about to hit the presses in the US next month and then the UK early next year.
It is one man’s document of the not so calm before the storm, a unique pictorial essay capturing a fledgling band developing into one of the most vital bands of our time.
I was lucky enough to have been present at most of the UK dates. Back in 1989, I was eighteen and living in Manchester having moved there the year before. I was not there to go to college or study anything, I wanted to be a part of something else. I wanted to move, to go forward. I wanted freedom and to travel, but most of all I wanted to experience music.
I spent two years in Manchester, hitch hiked all over the UK and Europe going to gigs. There were a lot of people doing it. Gigs are such a visceral experience where the intensity of feeling is amplified by the shared nature of it. No matter what town I ended up, there were friends there who had made the same journey for the same reasons. Music.
Eastern Bloc record shop used to be situated at the entrance to Affleck’s Palace, an indoor indie market selling the latest clothes, culture and sounds. Sub Pop were marketing their bands heavily in the UK through their singles club and the sheer amount of great albums they were releasing. Bleach had just been released and there was hype going on in the music press (NME, MelodyMaker ,Sounds). Mudhoney, Soundgarden, The Fluid, TAD, Nirvana, Green River and The Screaming Trees were all featured on the Sub Pop 200 Compilation album. Mudhoney’s single, Touch Me I’m Sick, was a massive release that year and compared to what was happening in the music scene in the UK at the time, it was fresh and exciting.
We would ‘follow’ whole tours. The Pixies, Jane’s Addiction, Throwing Muses, The Sundays, Galaxie 500, Every day a new city. Every day a new challenge of getting there and getting in (‘blagging it’ on the guest list most night). A new adventure with new experiences. It’s also hard when your stuck for hours in the cold rain on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. I hitch-hiked out of necessity, not romance of the road but from that necessity I discovered the romance. One ill-fated Mudhoney European tour ended for me when four days in, I had my passport and Interail ticket stolen from backstage and had to hitch back to the UK.
My house mate Alan (Pictured above with the blond dreadlocks & Gary of Wiija Records/Rough Trade) was my mentor throughout those years, turning me on to bands like Butthole Surfers, Loop, World Domination Enterprises and The Cocteau Twins. Alan had been ‘following’ bands for years before I turned up and knew the ‘score’ more than I did, me being the Welsh farm boy from the Gwenlais valley. If it wasn’t for Alan I wouldn’t have seen Nirvana. We made plans to go to every date, even the ones in Europe.
We talked our way into the first shows and got to know the tour manager, Edwin, who hired us to ‘man the merch’ each night for the price of tee-shirt. An added bonus as far we were concerned, we were going to be there anyway.
In 1989, Nirvana were yet to be what they became. They were good but Mudhoney were better. TAD were heavier in all respects and a better live band, in my opinion. But there was something about them. They were still a ‘HeavyPunkRock’ band with glimmers of pop sensibility like, ‘About A Girl’. They were unpredictable with most nights descending into instrument breaking and a leap into the drums to finish the set for good.
The first date of the tour at Newcastle Riverside was cut short when Chris caught a bottle in the face, ending the set a few songs in. At Manchester Poly the next night, they were wound so tight and ready to burst. It wasn’t until their debut London show at the School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS), that shit blew up. Mudhoney had played there with Soundgarden earlier in the year and the place went off with bodies flying off the speakers, stage invasions and ‘punkrock’ chaos (The term, ‘Grunge’ hadn’t been coined at that point), it was beautiful.
Nirvana and TAD’s gig at SOAS was equally incredible with a hot sweaty crowd going mental for the music and when Kurt let off a fire extinguisher on stage at the end, It felt special. It felt like something was about to happen, a change. I remember a moment at the last British gig in Norwich before they headed over the channel (They returned for one date, ‘Lamefest’ with Mudhoney at the Astoria after Europe. Pic below), I tried to chat to Kurt about his home and whether he was enjoying the tour but he didn’t want to talk, he very unhappy and homesick a lot of the time it seemed. Whereas Chad and Chris (Noveselic) were hilarious, all the time! They were like kids, excited to be on their first trip to the UK.
I ended up not going over the Europe for that leg of the tour (skint probably) and hooked up with everyone at the Astoria for ‘Lamefest’. In between manning the merch stand in the foyer, I watched most bands from the side of the stage. Nirvana were on first because of losing the coin toss that decides such things, and they were late getting to the venue from the ferry, so they pretty much walked straight on stage. Their set was tense and messy but when they began playing baseball with their instruments, everyone went mental, mass stage-diving including Tad Doyle (He’s a BIG guy!), having the time of their lives.
This book is a massive reminder of those halcyon days, presented with insightful diary entry style prose and a youthful naivety exists in the vivid snapshots of lesser known iconic moments in music history. There isn’t much that hasn’t been said about Nirvana. Scores of books cover their career from varying authentic perspectives but this book is different.
It doesn’t get much more intimate and authentic.
You can pre-order the book here. www.experiencingnirvana.com.
All photos copyright Bruce Pavitt.
All words by Philip Allen. More work by Philip can be found in his Louder Than War archive.