Before Nirvana was Nirvana, founding members Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic went through a number of unapproachable band names before deciding they needed something “beautiful and nice,” in Cobain’s words. Thus, in 1987, Nirvana was born.
The band released their first album, Bleach, in 1989. According to the interview Cobain gave Spin a few years after the album’s release, it was a last minute effort, not as thoughtfully executed as those that would follow.
That would change in 1990, when Nirvana signed to DGC Records at the behest of Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, who was currently signed to the label. The album Nevermind was the band’s first effort released with the company. It became and remains DGC’s bestselling record of all time, falling into the hands of 25 millions fans worldwide.
The lineup that eventually turned out Nirvana’s most popular and arguably definitive album came together only shortly before they began recording. The duo of Cobain, on vocals and guitar, and Novoselic, on bass, struggled through a number of drummers before finding Dave Grohl, fresh off the breakup of Scream. He was a perfect fit, and the sessions began.
A few of the tracks that appear on Nevermind had been on the band’s regular playlist for years, including “In Bloom,” which opens with distinctive, hammering electric guitar, and “Breed.”
Others reached completion only shortly before the album itself. “On a Plain” and “Stay Away” underwent numerous alterations in lyrics, some of which were finalized only minutes before the last take. Initially, the band worked with producer Butch Vig, having appreciated the “heavy” sound he had created on earlier collaborations.
At the end of the recording session, however, the band was unhappy with the mixing and brought in producer Andy Wallace, who had done work with Slayer. While seemingly happy with his work at the time, the band expressed dissatisfaction with its highly-produced sound years later. Cobain is quoted in the biography Come As You Are, by Michael Azerrad, as saying, “Looking back on the production of Nevermind, I’m embarrassed by it now.”
Thanks to the popularity of singles like “Smells like Teen Spirit,” the album had a strong fan base even before its release. On hearing the song, producer
Vig recalls thinking, “it was awesome sounding. I was pacing around the room, trying not to jump up and down in ecstasy.”
With its now iconic opening riff and a chorus that is as catchy as any of the best pop songs, “Smells like Teen Spirit” garnered enough appeal to spawn covers in the most unlikely of places. Just this year, the song was performed live by Miley Cyrus, resulting in a version that quickly climbed Rolling Stone’s “Worst Covers” chart. A version that has yet to appear on any “Worst of” lists is performed by the Muppets Barbershop Quartet in the recently released movie, The Muppets.
Nirvana’s follow-up singles, “Come As You Are,” “Lithium,” and “In Bloom” garnered enough popularity and radio/television time to push Nevermind to the top of the Billboard charts only a few short months after it’s release in the fall of 1991.
The use of pedal effects and double-tracked vocals on “Come As You Are” set a new standard for the sound of alternative rock. “Lithium,” like many of the tracks on the album, showcases the bands practice of contrasting quiet verses with crashing choruses, propelled by power chords and inarticulate vocals. Cobain was so effective as Nirvana’s singer because on a single track he could be compelling both as an earnest, delicate vocalist as well as a raging punk rocker.
As a band, Nirvana gave voice to a generation of frustrated Gen-Xers. The highs and lows of the music, the emotional velocity of it, flexed cultural muscles pressed into dormancy by an earlier generation. What the band managed to do on Nevermind was consolidate those emotions into something relatable and combustible. The album gave a sound and, perhaps unexpectedly and unwillingly, a face to a generation who recognized a large part of themselves in Nirvana’s music.