A Brief History of Nirvana


Aberdeen, Washington, USA 1985 Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic become friends while hanging out at the practice space of the band The Melvins. Both attended Aberdeen High School and both loved punk rock and making music. However, when Cobain asked Novoselic if he wanted to start a band, Novoselic never showed interest. So Cobain started another wonderfully named band Fecal Matter. Meanwhile, he had dropped out of high school and was struggling to make money on his own. Fecal Matter did manage to record a demo tape, however. After Novoselic eventually heard the demo tape, he particularly loved the song “Spank Thru,” so much that he now was interested in starting a band with Cobain. In late 1986, the two started jamming above the hair salon Novoselic’s mom owned. Since Cobain was fascinated with Buddhist philosophy, he chose to name the band Nirvana, although at one point they were also called Skid Row and Ted Ed Fred. He later described nirvana as “freedom from pain, suffering, and the external world.” So to him, the name fit well for doing what he loved- making music. Plus, he “wanted a name that was kind of beautiful…instead of a mean, raunchy punk name like the Angry Samoans.” Nirvana had a hard time keeping drummers in its early days. For a short while, Bob McFadden played drums for them. Then in early 1987, Aaron Burckhard played a few shows with them. However, after Cobain moved east to Olympia and Novoselic moved east to Tacoma, it became harder for the three of them to practice together. Instead, Cobain and Novoselic practiced with Dale Crover of the Melvins, and actually recorded Nirvana’s first demo with him in January 1988. After Crover moved to San Francisco, Dave Foster joined the band on drums. But he was only around for a few months after going to jail. Burckhard temporarily returned but was unreliable, so Cobain and Novoselic finally just put an ad in the Seattle newspaper The Rocket. Surprisingly, that got them no leads, but a dude named Chad Channing just starting showing up to practices to jam with them and sort of became the drummer of the band that way. So count that, that’s five drummers so far. By the summer of 1988, Nirvana was constantly playing shows and touring the region. Cobain, who was in poverty and actually experienced homelessness off and on since he dropped out of high school, was starting to get frustrated not being able to draw crowds or make money from his passion. The band had also been recording demos with producer Jack Endino, who played those demos to Jonathan Poneman, who just so happened to be one of the dudes who founded the Seattle-based independent record label Sub Pop. I’m assuming you’ve heard of it? Poneman decided to release one of those songs on the label. That song was a cover of Shocking Blue’s “Love Buzz.” Sub Pop released it in December 1988, and marketed Nirvana as a bunch of logging-town hicks, which Cobain and Novoselic of course hated. However, they got some press from it, giving their first-ever interview with John Robb in the UK-based Sounds magazine. In January 1989, Nirvana began recording their first full-length album, Bleach, for just over $600. Jack Endino again helped them produce it. Cobain wrote most of the music and all the lyrics. He liked catchy hooks and melodies, but he also liked heavy distortion, big riffs, and thunderous bass and rhythms. The style of Bleach, a sort of blend between punk, metal and a bit of indie rock, became known as “grunge.” And it wasn’t just Nirvana making music like this at the time. Several other bands from the Pacific Northwest, like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Alice in Chains, and the aforementioned Melvins, were all part of this new so-called grunge movement in the late 1980s. Kurt: …there happens to be a lot of good bands coming out of Seattle right now. A lot of good bands. And it’s just by chance I guess. It’s luck. I don’t know. Krist: It’s odd. It’s just all these bands at the right place at the right time. Anyway, Bleach was released on June 15, 1989, and got really positive reviews. The band went on their first national tour to promote the album, and because of that, it steadily became a hit on college radio. The album eventually sold more than 40,000 copies, so yeah, they were still underground, man. Meanwhile, in 1990 Cobain met Courtney Love, singer of the band Hole. They would eventually get married. Nirvana soon caught the attention of Butch Vig, a producer based in Madison, Wisconsin. He invited them there to record some new stuff. In April 1990, Nirvana began recording a follow-up to Bleach. During the sessions, Channing got upset he wasn’t allowed to be more involved in the songwriting, and Cobain and Novoselic became disappointed in his drumming, so they parted ways. In July, they recorded the single “Silver” with Mudhoney drummer Dan Peters. That makes six drummers so far now. Oh, and Dale Crover filled in on drums for a tour later that summer. And finally, the seventh drummer of Nirvana is the one you all probably already know about. Dave Grohl. Buzz Osborne of the Melvins introduced Grohl to Cobain and Novoselic, and the two were immediately impressed by his abilities. Finally, they had found their drummer! Boy did Grohl pick a good time to join the band, by the way. Shortly thereafter, they signed to DGC Records, a major label record company. In the spring of 1991, Nirvana recorded their second full-length album. You may have heard of it? It’s called Nevermind. Butch Vig produced it, and Andy Wallace mixed it. Nirvana actually ended up thinking Wallace mixed it TOO well. It was TOO polished. Uh-oh. Nevermind was released on September 24, 1991. While DGC was expecting this album to do well, boy were they surprised when the album sold out everywhere quickly. Thanks to the success of the catchy first single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on both radio and MTV, the album was a smash hit. It quickly made it to the top of the charts and took everyone by surprise. By February 1992, the album had already sold more than 3 million copies. Nirvana had went from underground darlings to household names in a span of just months. Even more surprised than the entire music industry of this sudden success was the band itself. It soon became clear the band didn’t know how to handle it, and they seemed to openly reject it whenever they were in the national spotlight. On November 2, 1991, Kurt Cobain appeared on MTV’s Headbangers Ball in drag. On November 28, the band totally trolled the BBC show Top of the Pops. Upset that they couldn’t play their instruments live, Cobain sang “Smells Like Teen Spirit” an octave lower and Novoselic kept throwing his bass into the air. In January 1992, Nirvana played Saturday Night Live. The performance ended with Novoselic and Grohl sharing a kiss. But despite their shenanigans, they kept getting bigger and bigger. Nevermind eventually became one of the biggest selling albums of all time, selling more than 30 million copies worldwide. Almost 11 million sold in the United States alone. It also featured the hits “Comes As You Are,” “Lithium,” and “In Bloom.” Almost single handedly, the album pushed grunge and even the entire alternative rock genre into the mainstream. Major record labels quickly signed a ton of other grunge bands, many from the Pacific Northwest, after Nevermind’s success. That success did take its toll on the band. There were rumours that Cobain and his now wife, Courtney Love, were regular heroin users. There was also a bit of conflict within the band over royalties, as Cobain wanted to retroactively get a higher percentage of the royalties since he mostly wrote the songs. Also, the band was just tired, and decided not to take a second American tour supporting Nevermind. Part of the reason why was because Cobain and Love would now soon have a child together to take care of. Frances Bean, who was born August 18th, 1992. Nirvana did headline England’s Reading Festival soon after that, on August 30th. Their performance in the festival is often considered among their best ever. Dana Carvey: And now for all of your lawn care needs, it’s Nirvana! (cheers) (playing “Rape Me,” then stopping and starting to play “Lithium”) A few days later, at the VMAs, Cobain trolled MTV by playing the first few bars of one of their new controversial songs, “Rape Me,” instead of playing what they were supposed to, the song “Lithium.” This, and a feud with Axl Rose backstage, kind of made MTV mad, you could say. By the end of 1992, folks were spreading rumours that Nirvana was about to break up. Their record label wanted to keep the momentum of Nevermind’s success going, however. It’s all about that money! On December 14, 1992, DGC Records released a hodgepodge of random tracks called Incesticide. It featured their 1990 single “Silver,” as well as B-sides, demos, covers, and even outtakes. Ok Hold on? I’m being told that this song is actually called Sliver. All these years I’ve been calling it Silver. Geez. I’m sorry about that. Grandma, take me home. Anyway, even Incesticide did surprisingly well, getting good reviews and reaching number 39 on the Billboard 200. Despite not getting much promotion, it sold more than half a million copies within its first two months of release. In February 1993, Nirvana decided to stay true to its indie roots, perhaps as another way to reject their mainstream success. They chose Steve Albini, an outspoken maverick who had major indie rock cred, to record their third album at Pachyderm Studio in Cannon Falls, Minnesota. They recorded and mixed the album in just two weeks. The band ended up not being that happy with some of the recordings, and went back to fix a few things later. But overall, this album had a much more raw and unproduced sound compared to Nevermind. In several ways, it sounded dramatically different. Although DGC Records didn’t seem to happy about how it turned out, it released anyway, on September 21, 1993. In Utero ended up being their third and final studio album, believe it or not. While not at the level of Nevermind, it was another smash hit, featuring the singles “All Apologies,” “Heart-Shaped Box,” “Rape Me,” and “Pennyroyal Tea.” It debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 chart, eventually selling more than 15 million copies worldwide. This despite stores like Walmart and Kmart not selling it due to the artwork on the back of the album being a bit offensive to some. And In Utero was Nirvana’s most critically acclaimed album yet. Author Christopher John Farley of Time Magazine put it best: “Despite the fears of some alternative music fans, Nirvana hasn’t gone mainstream, though this potent new album may once again force the mainstream to go Nirvana.” In September 1993, Nirvana appeared on Saturday Night Live for the second time, and in October, the band went on its first tour of the United States in two years, letting obscure bands like Half Japanese and The Breeders open for them. Pat Smear, of the punk rock band Germs, joined them. In November, Nirvana recorded one of their most famous performances, which would later be released as an album, MTV Unplugged. For the performance, the band chose to not play their bigger hits, playing a lot of covers instead and stripping down the songs so much you could hear Lori Goldston play cello. By early 1994, Kurt Cobain had continued an on-again, off-again substance abuse cycle. As he was trying to stay clean, especially from heroin, Nirvana went on a European tour. That would end up being their final tour. Their final show in Munich, Germany, on March 1, 1994. On March 4, Courtney Love couldn’t wake up Kurt in their hotel room, and rushed him to the hospital. Cobain had went unconscious due to a combination of Rohypnol and alcohol. This wasn’t the first time drugs almost killed him. In July 1993 he had overdosed on heroin. That time, Love had injected him with naloxone to bring him back and he didn’t even go to the hospital. In fact, he performed a show right after that in New York City as if nothing had happened. Flash forward to April 8, 1994. An electrician coming to install security lighting found Cobain dead from an apparent self-inflicted shotgun wound in his Seattle home, an apparent suicide note next to him. While police determined it a suicide, that official ruling has been disputed by several researchers since. Tom Grant, the private investigator hired by Love to find Cobain after he left drug rehab, believes Cobain was murdered as the result of a conspiracy. No matter what did cause Cobain’s death, it completely shocked and devastated the world. Even bandmates Novoselic and Grohl did not see it coming. Cobain died at 27 years old, joining the so-called “27 Club,” a group of famous musicians who have all died since the 1960s at the age of 27. Without Kurt Cobain, Nirvana could not go on. Novoselic and Grohl broke up the band. Novoselic left music all together, turning to political activism. Grohl started a new project that would become the Foo Fighters, which ended up a pretty big deal in the rock world later on. Obviously, DGC still wanted to make some money, planning on releasing live albums after Cobain’s death. They released MTV Unplugged in New York- recordings of that live performance I told you about earlier- on November 1, 1994. It won a Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album in 1996 because that makes sense? Anyway, DGC also released another great live album called From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah on October 1, 1996. That one was a compilation of different live tracks throughout Nirvana’s career. Though there were other compilation albums, the only other one I’ll mention for this video is their self-titled compilation album released on October 29, 2002. This one stands out since it featured a previously unreleased track called “You Know You’re Right,” which ended up becoming another hit song for the band. The self-titled album also came after years of a legal dispute over the rights of the band’s music between Novoselic and Grohl and Courtney Love. DGC finally released the album after the three settled the dispute out of court. In 2012, Novoselic, Grohl, and Pat Smear joined Paul freaking McCartney for a concert raising money for those hurt by Hurricane Sandy. McCartney joined them again the following year for a concert in Seattle. In 2014, Nirvana joined the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The band has sold over 75 million records worldwide, making them one of the best-selling bands of all time. Rolling Stone magazine put them at number 30 on their most recent 100 Greatest Artists of All Time list. Despite being together less than eight years and releasing just three studio albums, Nirvana is often considered one of the greatest rock bands of all time. Their dynamic contrasts, changes in tempo within the same song, heavy yet strangely catchy choruses, unconventional song structures, and perfect blend of punk, metal, hard rock, and college rock, became ridiculously influential. Their sound, often called “grunge” and often associated with what’s known as The Seattle Sound, defined a generation. Nirvana almost single-handedly turned modern rock into a very profitable genre for the rest of the 1990s, as record labels threw lots of cash at bands that otherwise would have been ignored. I mean, I’m pretty sure a band called Butthole Surfers wouldn’t be signed by Capitol Records if it weren’t for Nirvana. Today, you can’t bring up grunge, Seattle, and Generation X without talking about Nirvana. I take that back. You can’t bring up MUSIC without talking about Nirvana. The first time I Iearned about Nirvana was after I heard that Kurt Cobain had committed suicide. I was in 6th grade, and I remember being surprised at how much of an effect this man had on so many young people around the world. I immediately bought as many Nirvana cassette tapes I could afford. One of the first websites I ever went to on my friend’s extremely slow dial up internet was Nirvana’s website, which is still active to this day. Anyway, yeah, one of my favorite bands who had a great effect on me. Which band should I do next? Let me know in the comments, and thanks for watching this whole thing.

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