"John Lennon was definitely my favourite Beatle... Paul McCartney embarrasses me:" Why The Beatles meant so much to Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, and changed his life forever

Kurt Cobain and The Beatles
(Image credit: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc/Getty Images | Bettmann/Getty Images)

"I don’t value music much. I like The Beatles, but I hate Paul McCartney."

It's February 1989, and conducting an interview for a magazine called The Daily alongside Jason Everman, his band's new guitarist, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain is trying a little too hard to make an impression. Interviewer Phil West is told that Cobain likes Led Zeppelin but hates Robert Plant, likes The Who but hates Roger Daltrey, and is currently going through a phase of writing "gay pop songs", some of which he suggests will very likely end up on the follow-up to his band's Sub Pop debut album Bleach.

Three years later, those "gay pop songs", as heard on Nevermind, will land Nirvana at the top of the Billboard chart. And Kurt Cobain's love of The Beatles will be a factor in elevating the Aberdeen, Washington band above their alt. rock peers. In fact, it was Cobain's love of The Beatles which first drew Nevermind producer Butch Vig to the band.

"I’d heard Bleach, and to be honest, I was not that impressed," Vig told this writer. "But the one song that stood out to me, that I think everybody has recognised, was About A Girl. Most of the record was very one-dimensional, but that song showed someone capable of writing a brilliant pop song, with the melodies and the lyrics and the chord progression, it was like a Beatles song. And looking back now, that was sort of the shape of what was to come, because Kurt’s songwriting had started to grow a bit more sophisticated."

Famously, Cobain claimed that he wrote About A Girl, a sweet and tender love song for his then-girlfriend, after spending an afternoon listening to Meet The Beatles!, the group's second US album.

During the recording of Nevermind, Vig used Cobain's love of The Beatles to encourage him to double-track his vocals. Interviewed by Rick Beato earlier this year, Vig revealed Cobain was originally against the idea, considering it to be "cheating", but that he manipulated the singer into complying by referencing John Lennon's use of the technique.

"I kept saying we’re making a record – you know, this is not a live in the studio representation of what you do. We want this to sound widescreen, we want this to sound big and lush. We want this to sound as good as anything else on the radio and he said, 'Yeah, I get it.’ But he just didn’t want to do it."

"Finally, when it came time to double the vocals on the first song, I said, You should go double your vocals. John Lennon did it on everything. I knew he loved John Lennon, so he’s like, ‘Okay, Butch'."

"John Lennon was definitely my favorite Beatle, hands down," Cobain told Rolling Stone in 1993. "I don’t know who wrote what parts of what Beatles songs, but Paul McCartney embarrasses me. Lennon was obviously disturbed [laughs]. So I could relate to that."

Somewhat ironically, the only two known recordings of Cobain singing Beatles songs feature him singing Paul McCartney songs, though as was customary, both songs were credited to Lennon-McCartney. One of the very first recordings of Cobain singing, taped by his aunt Mari, who introduced him to the band's records, found him singing Hey Jude, aged two. A much later home recording, posthumously uncovered by film-maker Brett Morgen while putting together Montage of Heck, his 2015 documentary about Cobain's life, saw Cobain covering And I Love Her... and it's not hard to hear the connection to About A Girl.

Listen to Kurt Cobain singing below And I Love Her below:

The Beatles' In My Life was played at Cobain’s memorial service in April 1994. During a BBC Radio 2 show titled Dave Grohl: My Beatles, Nirvana's former drummer said, "That day, after everyone had said their piece, this... came over the speakers. And everyone got to celebrate Kurt’s love of The Beatles one last time together."

Almost two decades later, in 2013, Grohl and the remaining members of Nirvana would come together again to play onstage with Paul McCartney in Seattle, backing the former Beatle on new fewer than seven songs, including Get Back, Helter Skelter, and Cut Me Some Slack, the song that Grohl, Krist Novoselic, Pat Smear and McCartney recorded in a single day for Grohl's Sound City documentary.

"That day was really funny," Grohl told Rolling Stone, "because honestly, Krist (Novoselic) and Pat (Smear) had never met Paul (McCartney) before and they were very nervous – they were terrified. The Beatles meant the same thing to all of us. I mean, without the Beatles we wouldn’t be who we are."

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.