How Nirvana gave birth to a rock'n'roll revolution

a portrait of nirvana in the early 90s
(Image credit: Getty Images)

You cannot overstate the influence Nirvana have had on the geography of music since the release of Nevermind in 1991. In the UK, the trio made alternative, heavy music dominate the mainstream for the first time since punk. In the US they did the same… for the first time ever. In one fell swoop metal, rock and indie were irrevocably altered – not entirely for the good – and the doors to the charts were smashed open for a legion of bands that would include The Offspring, Green Day and even Weezer.

Kurt Cobain was born on February 20, 1967 and had a tumultuous childhood that included his parents divorcing when he was eight-years-old, leading to an itinerant existence that saw him passed from one relative to another. By his teens he was as at ease with the tuneful pop rock that his father listened to such as The Beatles as he was with the burgeoning US hardcore scene. Both schools of music would influence his writing style. 

At 18 Cobain was living in Aberdeen, a small town in Washington state, 100 miles from Seattle, where he met Krist Novoselic. The pair, linked by a love of punk and metal, formed a band with Cobain on drums and Novoselic on bass. They worked their way through a variety of singers (including the Melvins’ Dale Crover), but it wasn’t long before they decided to bump the enigmatic and handsome Cobain up to guitar-playing frontman. 

By 1987 they had settled on Chad Channing as a drummer and Nirvana as a name – an improvement on some of their earlier handles which included Fecal Matter and the Stiff Woodies.

Heavy touring in the mould of their heroes Black Flag, and a demo produced by Jack Endino, paid dividends in getting Nirvana a single released on Sub Pop in 1988 – a cover of Shocking Blue’s LoveBuzz

The single, while nothing special in its own right, led to them recording their debut album, Bleach, for the same label for a meagre £450. Recorded by Endino on an eight-track recorder, the frenetic but simple black and white sleeve art reflects the music perfectly. 

Although a patchy album at best, the stand out tracks are shining examples of proto-grunge and preview Cobain’s uncanny knack of being able to marry horrific noise with his gift for penning catchy riffs. 

About A Girl is a melancholy but hook-heavy first glimpse at Cobain’s pop nous and is thrown into sharp relief by the chaos that surrounds it, the most notable being Negative Creep – a straight up hardcore throat-shredder, nodding toward the lyrical concerns of Nevermind

The album, which was influenced by Killdozer, Black Sabbath and Mudhoney, garnered critical plaudits on this side of the pond but also celebrity fans in Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. back at home. This was enough to whet the appetite of major labels and Nirvana eventually signed a modestly lucrative deal with Geffen that would give them a bigger budget for their second album.

The drummer came from the Washington DC hardcore scene, and specifically the band Scream. He was their ideal third member, despite initially not wanting to relocate to Seattle. The band and production team started recording new material in 1990. It took six weeks to complete. 

Geffen, who were already unhappy with the choice of (the relatively inexperienced) Vig as producer drafted in Andy Wallace (the guy responsible for the apocalyptic final sheen on Slayer’s Seasons In The Abyss) to tinker with the sound. The decision was a pricey one, raising the cost of the album to £500,000. Of course it was also the wisest decision the David Geffen Company would ever make, as the album would earn £50 million in the next two years.

Smells Like Teen Spirit has, put simply, probably the most instantly recognisable and catchy rock intro to anyone under the age of 35 in the western world and is up there with Back In Black, Whole Lotta Love and Smoke On The Water for anyone older. Its clanging four-chord motif caused the world’s ears to prick up before Grohl’s armour-piercing tattoo signalled the start of the last great revolution in rock music – grunge. 

The song became the ubiquitous anthem of Generation X slackers everywhere and a Top 10 hit on both sides of the pond. The album – which, in a massively symbolic victory, knocked Michael Jackson’s comeback effort Dangerous off the top of the UK charts – is a taut and muscular beast dripping with hit singles. Released on another major label it could have easily become the grunge Thriller, with practically every track being released as a single.

As it was, the follow-up Come As You Are with its bass riff plundered from Killing Joke’s Eighties and its more downbeat, introspective feel, might have seemed like an odd choice but only served to aid Nirvana’s crossover into a mainstream market. 

In Bloom has a rock-solid, lighters-aloft, singalong chorus that – ironically – lampooned the sort of people who like lighters-aloft singalong choruses. But rockers such as this and Breed were thrown into sharp relief by the intense and brooding unplugged numbers like Polly, an anti-ballad based on the rape and torture of a local girl.

But it isn’t all doom and gloom. Nevermind is a mainly upbeat record and undeserving of the miserablist tag that some people attach to it. Territorial Pissings and On A Plain are positive, in arrangement and sound at least, and full of pop inklings. 

While perhaps a little bit too polished (something that is a lot more noticeable listening to it now), the album is undeniably the most important of the 90s and, regrettably, the main amplification factor in Cobain’s worsening depression, slide into drug addiction and eventual suicide. If ever the old cliché, ‘Be careful of what you wish for’ applied to anyone, it applied to Kurt. He wished for Nevermind and in the end it killed him.

At first the band relished their time in the spotlight; their videos on heavy MTV rotation; main stage slots at huge festivals; and their photographs adorning the covers of music magazines the world over. But the honeymoon period for the band as international rock stars didn’t last long. Cobain had married his girlfriend Courtney Love from the band Hole and both began using heroin regularly – according to industry and press rumours. 

She fell pregnant with their first child but rumours persisted that she was still using drugs. These were strengthened by claims in an article in Vanity Fair, the cover of which showed a naked and heavily pregnant Love smoking a cigarette. The drugs led to the first of many visits to the hospital for Cobain, and the first of many cancelled gigs for the fans. 

To be fair, a certain amount of the bad press surrounding his wife stemmed from ‘Yoko Ono Syndrome’ and Love, drugs or not, gave birth to a healthy girl, Frances Bean, in August 1992. Geffen got tired of waiting round for Nirvana’s third album and cashed in on the success of Nevermind by rushing out a patchy rarities disc, Incesticide which, along with Oh, The Guilt (a split single shared with the Jesus Lizard), just about plugged the gap until In Utero came out the following year.

By this stage Cobain had realised that he didn’t actually want the fame that had been thrust upon him, and that it would be impossible for him to return to the fun, underground days of Bleach. He planned to scupper his career by releasing an almost unlistenable new album. 

He chose Steve Albini for several reasons – not only did he have impeccable indie credentials, having been in the highly influential Big Black, but he had also recorded albums by some of his favourite groups, including the Pixies and the Jesus Lizard. Kurt also knew that he could rely on Albini to preside over a monumentally disjointed and noise saturated recording. 

After the studio sessions ended, the troubled singer suffered a heroin overdose and when he returned home the police had to be called after he threatened to kill himself.

As Cobain’s personal life unravelled, so too did his music one. Geffen were said to be very unhappy with Albini’s job on what was to be Nirvana’s last studio album, viewing it as a purposeful attempt to lose them money. 

They took control of the masters and handed them to seasoned alt rock producer Scott Litt. The album, although dividing critical opinion at the time, stands up as one of the most forward- looking rock records of the post-punk era, combining the emotional distress of Joy Division, the abrasiveness of the Pixies and occasional flashes of Nevermind’s pop brilliance. 

Sure-fire chart stormers such as Heart Shaped Box and All Apologies made harrowingly uneasy bedfellows with the sonic terrorism of Milk It and Gallons Of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through The Strip. Whatever your take on this record, as the last statement of a man at the end of his tether In Utero is up there with Closer and The Holy Bible in crackling intensity.

After the album came out, it initially seemed that things were on the mend. Sales, though not good, were nowhere near as bad as feared and the group completed a full tour after hiring ex-Germs member Pat Smear to beef up the guitar sound. They also recorded an amazingly memorable session for the MTV Unplugged show. 

However, after a gig in Rome, Cobain tried to kill himself with tranquillisers and alcohol. On returning home, another foiled suicide attempt persuaded Love and other friends to instigate an ‘intervention’ which persuaded him to go into rehab to deal with his heroin addiction.

He escaped from the centre and returned to his now-empty home to commit suicide on April 5th. A single, self-inflicted blast from a shotgun killed him and his body was discovered three days later by an electrician who had come to install an alarm system.

Drummer Dave Grohl and bassist Krist Novoselic were faced with a career change and a devastating loss at the same time.

How Nirvana Changed The Face Of Rock Music Forever