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Back Tracks: Nirvana

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Seventeen years ago today, Generation X lost an icon when Kurt Cobain, the talented, troubled frontman for Nirvana, took his own life in his Seattle home. Nirvana were three albums into their career, but had already redefined music for an entire cachet of disaffected youth. The genre that came to be known as grunge music, based on frequently alternating dynamics, heavy distortion and angst-filled lyrics, was forged largely under the songwriting tactics of Cobain, who very reluctantly accepted (and consequently struggled under) his mantle as the voice of a generation.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the band’s major-label debut, Nevermind, which spawned the iconic single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and, famously, became the album that dislodged Michael Jackson’s Dangerous from the top of the Billboard charts (a landmark that’s come to signal the defining moment of the grunge movement). This author finds it inconceivable that the powers-that-be at Geffen/UMe wouldn’t be thinking of reissuing the album for the two-decade mark (especially with the exact anniversary falling in November, just in time for the box set frenzy associated with the fourth quarter) – but in the meantime, let’s honor one of rock’s fallen icons with a Back Tracks devoted to the music of Nirvana. It’s a journey that takes us from a burgeoning indie label to a thriving major, through a few challenging records, and peaks not only after Cobain died but with a protracted legal battle that held off catalogue action for a considerable length of time.

We discuss all the pretty songs of Nirvana after the jump.

Bleach (Sub Pop, 1989 – reissued Sub Pop/Geffen, 1992/expanded Sub Pop, 2009)

Though Nirvana guitarist Cobain and bassist Krist Novoselic went to high school together, they never interacted musically until Cobain gave Novoselic a demo tape of his own material, recorded with his first band, Fecal Matter. By the end of 1987 they were working on material with drummer Aaron Burckhard, but he would soon be replaced by a seemingly endless revolving cast of percussionists, including Dale Crover of fellow Seattle band The Melvins. Ultimately, Chad Channing stuck with the band long enough through live sets and, eventually, the studio. Seattle indie label Sub Pop had the band cut a single, a cover of Dutch rock band Shocking Blue’s “Love Buzz,” and though the label requested an EP, the band supplied a full album’s worth of material with producer Jack Endino. (The entire session famously cost $606.17 for 30 hours of recording time, a fact printed on the album sleeve.)

Bleach was a far more stereotypical album than the rest of the band’s catalogue; Sub Pop reportedly wanted a record that would conform heavily to the angry, raw grunge sound, and Cobain complied, although he felt he was capable of better songwriting, adding to the angst-heavy sound of the record. (He was, of course, right.) Notable tracks included “About a Girl,” a relatively poppy tune which addressed the unsteady relationship between Cobain and then-girlfriend Tracy Marander, and “Blew,” which was ultimately released as an EP on Tupelo Records in 1989.

At some 40,000 copies sold, the album was a success for both the band and the burgeoning label – it’s still Sub Pop’s top seller – but things would quickly sour after a failed tour and disagreements between Nirvana and their label as to how to promote the record. Cobain was also leaning toward a more accessible songwriting style, and the stage was set for a revolution in more ways than one.

Sub Pop reissued Bleach in 1992 after Nirvana took off (Geffen, the band’s label at the time, handled international distribution). This issue, released in a folding cardboard case, included two extra tracks, the unreleased “Downer” and “Big Cheese,” the B-side to the “Love Buzz” single. A 20th anniversary edition in 2009 featured a bonus live disc from a live set in Portland, Oregon in 1990.

Nevermind (DGC, 1991)

The trio that made up Nirvana in 1990 – Cobain, Novoselic and Channing – began recording demos with producer Butch Vig (then formerly of obscure rock band Fire Town, whose sole release on Atlantic was a stiff). Those demos promptly leaked, drawing the interest of major labels. But not everything was looking up just yet; Channing began to express disillusionment with the band and broke off with them. After auditioning several drummers, Cobain and Novoselic decided on Dave Grohl, whose hardcore punk outfit Scream had just broken up. Grohl’s heavy-duty style was just what the band needed, and that momentum – coupled with interest from David Geffen’s DGC Records – propelled them into the major leagues.

Though DGC gave Nirvana a list of producers for Nevermind, the band stuck with Vig. This time, Cobain came with a far more accessible set of songs, including “In Bloom” (a satirical look at outsider culture), “Lithium” (which abstractly addressed religion) and the accessible “Come As You Are.” All in all, the band recorded an album that sounded, in Cobain’s words, “like The Bay City Rollers getting molested by Black Flag.” (And that was before Andy Wallace’s ultra-polished final mix!)

Of course, Nevermind‘s massive hit was “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” perhaps the most popular example of the band’s songwriting dynamic – loud choruses juxtaposed with quiet, subdued verses – and a song greatly aided by a music video by first-time director Samuel Bayer, which received heavy rotation on MTV. Coupled with the band’s already-expanded alternative and college-rock fan base and increasing critical adulation, Nevermind far outsold the quarter-million copies DGC expected it to sell (the same amount as fellow indie act Sonic Youth’s major-label debut). All in all, the album sold over 10 million copies, and firmly solidified Nirvana’s place not only in the pop spotlight, but in the rock canon as well.

Hormoaning (DGC, 1992 – vinyl reissue, 2011)

Although Nirvana’s singles were full of B-sides, the rarest was the EP Hormoaning, released only in Australia and Japan and featuring two “Smells Like Teen Spirit” B-sides (“Aneurysm” and “Even in His Youth”) along with four covers (by artists as diverse as The Vaselines and Devo) from a BBC session with John Peel. It’s belatedly being reissued on vinyl in the U.S., 6,000 copies strong, for Record Store Day next week.

Incesticide (DGC/Sub Pop, 1992)

By the end of 1992, following a series of business renegotiations and a stressful tour and promotional cycle (more on all that later), work was proceeding slowly on the follow-up to Nevermind. So DGC, in collaboration with Sub Pop, released this stopgap compilation of B-sides and rarities (including some unreleased alternate versions of B-sides). Although it was not heavily promoted – the sales of Nevermind hadn’t fallen off terribly, even after four singles, and the label figured it best to not poke the bear, so to speak – it was still a relative success, and is beloved among collectors today for Cobain’s idiosyncratic liner notes that graced initial pressings.

In Utero (DGC, 1993)

How do you follow-up one of the biggest-selling records of the decade? Do you go for more of the same or dramatically attempt to change your sound? For Nirvana, it was extremely the latter. Working with principled producer Steve Albini (who’d helmed The Pixies’ Surfer Rosa), In Utero is raw and abrasive, to the point that rumors spread that it was unreleasable. (DGC firmly stood by the record, however; David Geffen himself called Newsweek‘s offices to refute an article to the contrary before the album’s release.) The songs are a bit more in-your-face and less radio-ready than its predecessor, although singles “Heart-Shaped Box,” “All Apologies” and “Rape Me” were rock radio successes. (The latter track, along with the record’s artwork, kept the album out of Walmart and Kmart stores, however.)

Despite its perceived inaccessibility (dampened slightly by some last-minute remixing by R.E.M. producer Scott Litt, at the band’s request – it was Cobain, not his label, who was uneasy with the record – and to the displeasure of the ever-opinionated Albini), the album was a critical and commercial success. The band embarked on a lengthy tour cut short by Cobain’s heroin overdose, leading to a subsequent stint in rehab. Unfortunately, not long after entering rehab, Cobain left for his house and shot himself.

MTV Unplugged in New York (DGC, 1994 – DVD released on Geffen, 2007)

One of the last great moments in Nirvana’s short, pivotal life as a band was their appearance on MTV Unplugged on November 18, 1993. The show, of course, had bands perform their songs in an acoustic setting, often with a few covers thrown in for good measure. Nirvana’s set was unlike any other performers, however, shying away from its hits and featuring six covers (including songs by Lead Belly, The Meat Puppets and David Bowie) in a 14-song set. The tense, taut set, captured in one take, proves that Nirvana were just as stunning in a stripped-down setting as they were with their amps turned up. (Indeed, having gone six times platinum, it’s the band’s biggest seller next to Nevermind.)

Two songs (original “Something in the Way” and Meat Puppets cover “Oh Me”) were excised from the original broadcast; the video was finally released in full on DVD in 2007. The disc included both broadcast and full versions of the performance, a 1999 documentary and several unreleased songs from the rehearsal.

Live! Tonight! Sold Out!! (Geffen Home Video, 1994 – DVD released 2006)

A live document personally assembled by Cobain (and left incomplete by his death), this set included performance footage from the band’s tours from 1991 to 1993, including the lauded Reading Festival in 1992 (see below), the Hollywood Rock Festival in Rio de Janiero, Top of the Pops and others. The eventual DVD release included some additional tracks from a 1991 show in Amsterdam.

Singles (Geffen, 1995)

This European box set collated, across six discs, the singles from Nevermind (“Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Come As You Are,” “In Bloom” and “Lithium”) and In Utero (“Heart-Shaped Box” and “Rape Me”) and their respective B-sides. (The intended third single from In Utero, “Pennyroyal Tea,” was cancelled and not included in the set.) Though it’s pricey as an import, it’s easy enough to track down, and worth it for the official non-LP B-sides, of which many alternate versions exist.

From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah (DGC, 1996)

This live compilation, compiled by Novoselic and Grohl and named for a river in Cobain and Novoselic’s hometown of Aberdeen, Washington, was initially announced for a holiday 1994 release under the title Verse Chorus Verse. (The double-disc set was to include the Unplugged show as well.) Ultimately, the surviving members of the band expressed difficulty putting the set together so close to the death of Cobain, and it was held off until the fall of 1996. It was, predictably, a critical and commercial success, topping the Billboard charts. Vinyl enthusiasts will want to check out the LP version of this set, which features a bonus track of outtakes and concert banter.

Nirvana (DGC, 2002)

In the years after Nirvana disbanded, Novoselic and Grohl entered a partnership with Cobain’s widow, actress/musician Courtney Love, to oversee the band’s assets and catalogue affairs. Unfortunately, within years of the partnership, Love – whose outlandish behavior rivaled her late husband’s excesses in almost every way, and continues to do so to this day – attempted to force the others from Nirvana, LLC, arguing that they were mere “sidemen” to Cobain. The resulting lawsuit scuttled a proposed box set and nearly went to court until the fall of 2002, when a settlement was ironed out.

Ultimately, it turned out, the case largely hinged on one song, a 1994 track called “You Know You’re Right.” While the former Nirvana members thought it would fit well on the cancelled box set, Love felt that it was significant enough to appear on a larger release. Ultimately, her line of thinking prevailed; Nirvana, the band’s first hits compilation, featured the track on a compilation of tracks that spanned the band’s whole career, including Bleach, the Blew EP, Nevermind, Incesticide, In Utero and MTV Unplugged in New York. (There was one other “new” track on the set: the remix of “Pennyroyal Tea” commissioned for the cancelled single.)

With the Lights Out (DGC, 2004) / Sliver: The Best of the Box (DGC, 2005)

That Nirvana box set ultimately surfaced in 2004, featuring far more music across three CDs and a DVD. Of course, it achieved this through mostly through stuff that usually pads out a box set rather than creates one: cassette-dubbed demos, radio sessions, live material and the like. While almost none of it has ever seen official release, it’s sort of a bittersweet set, as plenty of posthumous anthologies are. That bittersweetness got more bitter with the release of Sliver, a single-disc distillation of the box with the inevitable three extra tracks. (One noteworthy extra on With the Lights Out actually appears on the iTunes version: the entirety of the promo disc Nevermind It’s an Interview (1992).)

Live at Reading (Geffen/UMe, 2009)

In 1992, Nirvana should have been riding high off Nevermind, and they sort of were. But they also sort of weren’t, thanks to band disputes over royalty distribution, health problems for Cobain and the needling interference of his new wife (the difficult transition to “famous rock band” notwithstanding). Something needed to be done to establish the band’s brilliance. Enter the headlining gig at the Reading Music Festival in England on August 30, 1992. Journalist Everett True began the show by pushing a seemingly frail Cobain out to the stage in a wheelchair, where the singer croaked through part of Bette Midler’s “The Rose” before feigning collapse. The mood was set – Nirvana weren’t going anywhere, and they had no problem mocking the fears of an adoring public – and the resultant show was arguably the band’s strongest, most significant ever. It was subsequently released on CD and DVD (with one extra track, “Love Buzz”) years later, and perhaps marks one of the best second steps (after Nevermind) into the band’s catalogue.

ICON (Geffen/UMe, 2010)

Essentially a cut-rate version of Nirvana, featuring only 11 tracks (all the band’s official singles of the DGC era). For extremely casual fans only. It’s odd and of course probably sad that ICON marks the latest Nirvana catalogue activity (Love has since sold half of her piece of the pie to Primary Wave Music Publishing), but with Nevermind‘s 20th anniversary looming, it’s probably only a matter of time before something is released from the honchos at UMe. Here we are now, Universal. Entertain us.

Written by Mike Duquette

April 5, 2011 at 22:29

3 Responses

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  1. What’s interesting about the “Icon” comp is that it can be found on the shelves of Walmart with the song title “Rape Me” printed ON THE FRONT COVER. Once upon a time Wallyworld forced Geffen to print up special CD artwork that referred to the song as “Waif Me” so as to not offend godfearing shoppers.


    April 6, 2011 at 09:59

  2. Quick correction, the live show on the Bleach reissue isn’t on a bonus disc but the same disc as the album.


    April 6, 2011 at 13:40

  3. Around these parts (Connecticut) the most exciting thing about the live “Wishkaw” album is the photo of Dave Grohl prominently wearing a T-shirt advertising Secret Sounds, the late great indie record store in Bridgeport.


    April 6, 2011 at 13:53

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