music / Hall Of Fame

411 Music Hall Of Fame Class Of 2008: Nirvana

February 14, 2008 | Posted by Mitch Michaels


• Sold over 50 million albums worldwide.
• Five platinum and three multi-platinum albums, including the diamond Nevermind.
• Four #1 albums.
• Nine Top 40 Rock hits, including “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, which reached #6 on the Hot 100.
• Won a Grammy award for Best Alternative Music Performance (1995).
• Brought alternative music and “grunge” to the mainstream.
• Revolutionized radio.

When DGC Records signed alternative act Nirvana to their fold, they were hoping the band’s next album could move somewhere around 250,000 copies. That lofty expectation came from the success of the label’s other alt-rock niche acts, specifically Sonic Youth, who had a hand in bringing Nirvana up from the indies to the land of the majors. DGC was no doubt proud, then, when Nevermind debuted at #144 on the Billboard charts. DGC was also probably surprised when Nevermind began selling out all over Nirvana’s home region of the American northwest, to the point that the label was rumored to halt production on all of their other albums just to satisfy the growing demand. But DGC had to be SHOCKED when, four months after it hit shelves, Nevermind knocked Michael Jackson’s Dangerous from the top of the Billboard charts, going platinum in the process. Of course, DGC’s shock couldn’t have been anything compared to the old guard of radio rock, who saw the mainstream rock and pop rug pulled out from under their feet, seemingly in an instant. I’m sure many were left bewildered, mutter “What the fuck happened?” Well, here’s kinda sorta how it went.

Nirvana played their first show (as Nirvana) in March of 1988. The band formed around vocalist/guitarist Kurt Cobain and bassist Krist Novoselic, a pair of Aberdeen, Washington 20-somethings who bonded through their love of grunge/metal band The Melvins, who were also local to the Washington area. Cobain and Novoselic both brought an odd array of influences to the band: while both were fans of underground hardcore punk, there was also an appreciation for the heavy metal of bands like Black Sabbath and even the pop melodies of The Beatles in the music Nirvana would create. It would be this unique blend that would make Nirvana such an ear-catching band.

Nirvana went through several drummers (including The Melvins’ Dale Crover) before settling on Chad Channing, who completed the line-up in the summer of 1988. Later that year, the band issued their first single, a cover of Dutch rock band Shocking Blue’s “Love Buzz”, via indie label Sub Pop. Only a couple years old at the time, Sub Pop had already become notable for helping get Soundgarden off the ground. The “Love Buzz” single is of historic note because it was the first record issued in Sub Pop’s popular Single Of The Month club.

In 1989, Nirvana released their debut album, Bleach, also via Sub Pop. The album, an abrasive mix of Melvins-type punk and 70’s hard rock providing a sludgy backdrop to Kurt Cobain’s burgeoning songwriting ability, was produced by Jack Endino, who had made a name recently through his work with both Soundgarden and Mudhoney. Bleach (which initially sold a respectable 30,000 records) was recorded for a little over $600 ($606.17 to be exact, as is noted on the album sleeve). Jason Everman, a friend of both drummer Channing and Cobain, paid for the recording and, as a result, received an album credit as guitarist. The band brought Everman along as a second guitarist on their first US tour, but he was fired shortly after.

Following the promotion for Bleach, Nirvana became disenchanted with Sub Pop, feeling the label was trying to keep a short leash on the band. The band began recording tracks with producer Butch Vig, who was also working with The Smashing Pumpkins on their breakthrough Gish at the time. Vig took a much more elaborate approach to his production, making his much more commercial Nirvana demos stand in stark contrast to the lo-fi Jack Endino material.

The Butch Vig sessions are also notable for being Nirvana’s last with Chad Channing, as neither Cobain nor Krist Novoselic felt he was holding up his end on the drums. Channing was fired and replaced by a series of drummers (including a returning Dale Crover and Mudhoney’s Dan Peters), until Nirvana was introduced to Dave Grohl via The Melvins’ Buzz Osborne. Grohl was looking for a new band following the dissolution of his D.C. area hardcore act Scream. A try-out later and Nirvana had found their permanent drummer.

After issuing a pair of post-Bleach singles (including “Sliver”), Nirvana left Sub Pop and signed on to major label DGC at the behest of Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon. DGC was one of several labels interested in Nirvana, as the band had generated quite a lot of buzz on the college rock circuit with Bleach and their unpredictable live shows. The band brought along Butch Vig and recorded their first DGC album outside of Los Angeles in late 1990. The finished result, Nevermind, took over two months to record and cost around $27,000 to make. Nevermind featured a much more relatable sound than the band’s first album. For one thing, the band had much more experience playing the songs before they were recorded, plus, Grohl proved to be a much better fit behind the drum kit than Channing. Another big difference was Vig’s production which, combined with mixing work by Andy Wallace (Slayer), resulted in a very glossy, slick album. This became a point of contention in later years, with Cobain at times reviling Vig’s “commercial” sounding work and at other times praising it as “perfect”.

Production issues aside, Nevermind was released in September of 1991 to relatively good reviews. The set even managed to crack the Billboard 200 upon its review, a real surprise for DGC, who saw alternative music as a niche market. However, that was only the beginning. As the band toured all over North America and Europe, Nevermind began to catch fire. The lead single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, began heavy rotation on both radio and MTV. The simple rock number and its “alternative gymnasium” video became the anthem for the nation’s disaffected youth, a growing group that felt at odds with the “good times” hair metal and cock rock that permeated the radio at that time.

With “Spirit” soaring up the Hot 100, Nirvana shows became regular sell-outs and Nevermind was selling a reported 400,000 copies a week. On January 11th, 1992, the album reached the top of the charts. The next month, Nevermind was certified triple platinum. The landmark set would go on to move over 26 million copies throughout the world and yield four Top 40 Rock hits.

With some bands, seemingly overnight success like that would go to their head. With Nirvana, it completely fucked with their minds. After all, in less than a year, the band had went from some local success in the alternative rock market of Seattle, Washington to “the hottest band in the world”. In response, Nirvana began to screw with the media at every turn. Kurt Cobain appeared for interviews in drag, the band constantly mocked their popularity and, on an infamous “Saturday Night Live” appearance, the band trashed their instruments and stage, culminating in a kiss between Novoselic and Grohl. The band seemingly both loved and despised their rock star status.

One rock star quality that didn’t escape the band, however, was drug abuse. Kurt Cobain, in particular, had a heck of a year after Nirvana broke. In February of 1992, he married Hole frontwoman Courtney Love, and the pair had a child in August of that year. In between, Kurt developed a serious heroin addiction. Cobain’s problems were so great that the band nixed a second US tour in support of Nevermind, citing exhaustion as the reason. Rumors of Cobain’s failing mental and physical health began appearing in the tabloids, and work on a follow-up album was delayed. DGC responded by releasing Incesticide, a collection of early singles and B-sides, to stave off fans. The album was a Top 40 hit, but seen merely as a placeholder for Nirvana’s imminent return.

Rumors of Cobain’s illnesses were seemingly brushed aside in August of 1992, when Nirvana played a historic set at England’s Reading Festival. Cobain was pushed onto stage in a wheelchair, referencing his rumored decline, but then hopped out and performed a blistering, crowd-pleasing set of Nirvana tunes. Dave Grohl later admitted that the band was worried that the performance wouldn’t go off, proving that not even the rest of the band could predict Cobain’s health and state-of-mind at that point. However, a successful performance at the MTV VMA’s just two weeks later did a good job at proving to Nirvana fans that everything was status quo.

Nirvana returned to the studio to work on their long-awaited follow-up, this time with producer Steve Albini, who had worked with the Pixies and Jesus Lizard. In Utero, released in the fall of 1993, seemed to be a deliberate reaction to the commercial success of Nevermind. While the band’s breakthrough had been polished and catchy, much of In Utero‘s material seemed deliberately rough, as if Nirvana was trying to isolate the fans who “liked all their pretty songs”. Early press for the album didn’t help, as claims surfaced that DGC had rejected the album and that Nirvana had been so unhappy with the Albini mixes that they’d brought in another engineer, Scott Litt (R.E.M.), to remaster the album. Cobain’s personal life seemed in shambles, as well. Not only were Kurt and his wife Courtney dealing with charges that they were unfit parents, but Kurt’s heroin addiction was reaching a critical point. Twice in the summer of 1993, Cobain was rushed to the hospital due to an overdose, though Nirvana’s camp managed to hide it from the press.

Commercially, all of this didn’t make much difference, as In Utero debuted at #1 on the charts. While the album wasn’t quite the monster success Nevermind had been, it produced two #1 Modern Rock singles (“Heart-Shaped Box”, “All Apologies/Rape Me”) and went on to sell over 5 million copies. A large tour followed, which saw Nirvana bring in ex-Germs guitarist Pat Smear as their second axe man. The band followed the tour with an historic appearance on MTV’s “Unplugged”, where the band played several of their songs and covers acoustically. That performance would be released on CD in 1994 and become Nirvana’s third #1 album.

Nirvana began the European leg of their In Utero tour in late February, 1994. On March 4th, Courtney Love awoke to an unconscious Cobain in Munich, Germany. Kurt had apparently tried to commit suicide through overdosing on Rohypnol. Nirvana managed to hide the suicide attempt rumors, but word of Cobain’s drug overdose eventually hit the states. Kurt returned to Washington a week later, but made the news again soon after when he locked himself in his bathroom and threatened suicide. Police had to be called to the singer’s house to talk him out. The band and Love had had enough at this point, and forced Kurt into an L.A. rehab center at the end of March. Cobain had other ideas, though, and jumped the facility’s fence after just a week. He returned to his home in Seattle, where he was found dead on April 8th, 1994. Official cause of death was suicide via a shotgun blast to the head. Toxicology reports show that Cobain’s blood contained a debilitating amount of heroin.

Cobain’s death would be the end of Nirvana. Both Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl would go on to other projects, most notably Grohl’s Foo Fighters, who have proven to be a huge commercial hit. A handful of Nirvana albums have been released since the band dissolved. A live set, From The Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah, reached #1 in 1996, and a best-of compilation, titled Nirvana, reached #3 in 2002. The set was bolstered by the unreleased “You Know You’re Right”, Nirvana’s final studio recording. The song reached #1 on both the Mainstream and Modern Rock charts.

Why Nirvana Was Selected:

Over the last thirty years, no band can claim to have had a mass effect on the music industry like Nirvana. The band kicked the doors in on rock music, bringing alternative to the mainstream, which allowed for the success of a multitude of acts. Still, none of these band’s could match the energy and mass appeal of Nirvana, who combined the angst of punk rock, the volume of metal and a pop sensibility that owes to legends like The Beatles.

Nirvana, with their anti-rock star nature and severely flawed frontman in Kurt Cobain, has become the icon of the 90’s, and their effect is still heard on the radio today. Every time you hear a soft verse followed by a loud chorus, you’re hearing Nirvana’s influence. Few recording artist’s can say that they changed the way music was both heard and made. Nirvana can say that without question.


article topics

Mitch Michaels
comments powered by Disqus