NEVERMIND – 22 YEARS ON
A group of us were hanging around playing football, while waiting for an older lad. He turned up, something had changed – he looked different. Gone was the Ellesse tracksuit top and tracksuit bottoms, he was now wearing loose stonewash jeans and a lumberjack shirt. How he expected to keep goal in that get-up, heaven only knows. Grunge had arrived – it had gone mainstream.
Although released in ‘91, Nevermind probably impacted on small towns throughout ‘93. This was not the information age, the internet was some ways off – it took time for cultures to filter through.
If you had to point to a moment when the world woke up to Nirvana, it was the video for the album’s lead off single – Smells Like Teen Spirit. The song, born out of the band’s attempt to play Boston’s More Than A Felling. The effect Teen Spirit had was huge. A song a guitar beginner could learn – the verse has only two notes. The riff would be played in every guitar store by young and old, it showed the world in very much the same way as punk did – you didn’t have to be a virtuoso to be a guitarist in a rock ’n’ roll band.
The fretboard gymnastics of Eddie Van Halen, Slash, and the twin guitar assault in Metallica was now seen as indulgent and passé by some quarters. Listening to it today, for the first time in years, it hits like a train – it still sounds special.
Grunge – probably a term made up by marketing to sell more records, was used for all those greasy long-haired bands who seemed to be from the Pacific North West, who sung of angst, played sloppy guitar through fuzz pedals – the antithesis of the poodle haired rock bands that dominated the radio and music video at the time. Nirvana were its poster boys, much to Kurt Cobain’s hatred.
Nevermind changed everything, and until his suicide in 1994, Cobain was a spokesman for Generation X, something again he didn’t ask for or want. His look was adopted by every disillusioned teenager. Overnight it seemed that everyone had grown their hair to a length which could be tucked behind their ears, some even dyed it blonde.
Nevermind was a breath of fresh air, well, not fresh air but a dirty, polluted smoke filled air – pop songs played very loudly; quiet verses, loud choruses. The song formula taken from a band Cobain loved – The Pixies. Where as The Pixies had a tubby front man with a sensible haircut, Nirvana had a blue eyed, bleached blonde, long haired singer songwriter who looked like a surfer, albeit a pale surfer. Somebody who girls could lust after and teenage boys, often perceived to be disaffected and directionless, could relate.
Cobain rarely talked of his songs meanings, perhaps we learn everything we need to know from the songs themselves. What is known, is that he spent some time homeless as a young adult and lived under the North Aberdeen Bridge, near his hometown. Something In The Way tells of that brief experience.
An important aspect which is overlooked, is that Nirvana were a gender-free band. Rock ‘n’ roll is filled with testosterone and macho posturing – this was absent in their rhetoric and music. Nirvana had left wing ideologies, but dressed like rednecks, while the hair metal bands celebrated misogyny while smothered in lipstick and hairspray. Jocks would blast the record’s songs out from all corners, proving their level of intelligence and understanding of the subject within. Once music is released, the listener cannot be chosen – this new audience was everything Cobain was not. The band now appealed to the sort of human beings he despised.
So, what was Nevermind up against in 1991? Quite a pedigree – Screamadelica; Creation records defining release, Blue Lines; the only truly great British hip hop record, (invented trip-hop) U2’s Achtung Baby, R.E.M’s Out Of Time, and unit shifters by Simply Red and jock rockers Red Hot Chilli Peppers.
Cobain didn’t like the finished product. His voice was doubled tracked on many of the songs, digital effects were added, and samples were added to beef up Dave Grohl’s drumming. Not very punk. Reviews were split into two camps: those who loved it, and those who had a disdain for it.
Whatever the thoughts are on the records production, the killer hooks, infectious melodies and explosive dynamics cannot be denied. There is an incredible songwriter at work throughout – passion and intensity that couldn’t be manufactured. Nevermind went on to become the most influential rock album of the ‘90s. To quote Kurt Cobain: “A good song is the most important thing, it’s the only way to really touch someone.” His songs did in 1991 – his songs do in 2013.