Nirvana – on the way up

On the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind album, I find it fascinating to look back to the early 90’s for several reasons. 

Nirvana’s success was a big transitional period in music, and I find these times in pop culture history fascinating. I used to be a lot more in touch with the music scene in the days of yore, and remember at the time before Nirvana broke through the sense that things were due for a change, but nobody was quite sure what the next big thing would be.

I also love to hear stories about an artist’s road to success, and Nirvana’s was chronicled well in Heavier Than Heaven, the exemplary biography of Kurt Cobain by Charles R. Cross. 

It was at a Nirvana gig at the Seattle Off Ramp on November 25, 1990 that the major labels came out in force, hoping to sign the band. They were originally going to sign with a label called Charisma, then signed with the David Geffen Company at the last moment on the recommendation of label-mates and friends Sonic Youth. Nirvana’s previous label, Sub-Pop, got paid off with $75,000 and 2% of Nirvana’s next two albums.

Originally, Nirvana’s major label debut was going to be called Sheep, then Cobain decided to call it Nevermind in early June. As Cross wrote, the title had several meanings: “It was a metaphor for his attitude about life; it was grammatically incorrect, combining two words into one; and it came from ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ which was becoming the most-talked-about song fo the [album] sessions.”

As far as the label’s expectations, Sonic Youth had sold 118,000 copies of their album Goo, and if Nevermind sold half that, Geffen would have been happy. Cobain had told Michael Azerrad, who wrote the book Come As You Are, that “The most exciting time for a band is right before they become really popular,” and I’m sure this is true for many bands, and it’s also why a lot of debut albums from bands are so exciting. You’re not aware of all the bullsh*t you have to deal with, or what kind of treachery there is in the business, and it’s often a last moment of innocence before bands become jaded and cynical.

Nevermind came out on September 24, and broke the top forty on November 2 at #35. At one point the album was totally sold out for several weeks because Geffen only pressed 46, 251 copies.

It wasn’t long before the writing was on the wall for the hair bands. Doing research for my metal book, Bang Your Head, I found a great artifact, the February 1992 issue of Rip magazine, which was the hair band digest for about ten years. Sebastian Bach from Skid Row is on the cover, and so is Nirvana in a little box. “People have called our record perfect,” Chris Novoselic told the magazine. “That’s bad.”

By the time Nirvana played a Halloween show in Seattle, Nevermind went gold. The album went to #1 in January 1992, and when they played the last date of the Nevermind tour, the album had already hit double platinum, and a whole new musical movement was in full swing.