It is a tale hard to put into words. The memories are there and the songs remain the same. The music speaks louder than the words of others. Arrangements of primal guitar riffs, verse, chorus and crescendo, melody, rhyme and feedback is what it is all about. It just happens that the wider circumstances and global phenomenon surrounding this band continually generates intrigue, mystery and intense adulation.
So much has been written and spoken about Nirvana. Driven to create and express himself through his songs, it remains so ironic, for a band that in their early days seemed so set on bucking the trends, were ultimately to become this huge bandwagon for so many to relate and aspire to.
“Oh well whatever Nevermind” As I listen to the closing verse of Smells Like Teen Spirit, it is hard to imagine the position Nirvana found themselves in on the release of Nevermind, catapulted into an arena of mainstream fame, fashion and identity somewhat opposed to their coded and somewhat alternate reality, yet firmly rooted in their small town meets Seattle, grass roots and emerging music scene mentality.
Nevermind is an album close to my heart, listened to perhaps more than any other. Like so many, my teenage pitfalls and tribulations were played out to a soundtrack of Nirvana and associated bands usually played on cassette or vinyl and bought from an array of independent record stores that today are no longer, or struggle to survive. Aware of, and rejecting the more superficial impact and attitudes of a host of classic rock artists, and the dominant and stale US marketing machine, Nirvana cried out into the spotlight, offering an intensely different and way more personal and comfortable relationship with their music.
At times it appeared that this was impeccably planned and orchestrated to reflect Cobain and his band mates opinions and sarcasm; alternatively a plethora of sociological coincidences paved the way for Nirvana to become the flagship of their generation following in the footsteps of Sonic Youth and Mudhoney, and a surge of independent bands from the UK. There’s always been angst ridden, disillusioned teenagers, but Nirvana filled a vacuum for kids looking for some excitement and something to believe in.
Having earned the recognition of the big labels, Geffen had paid the band out of Sub Pop and agreed an initial pressing of around 40,000 records, knowing little that it would go on to sell over a million records within weeks, and of its ensuing impact on the future musical landscape. The bigger production sound that Butch Vig and Andy Wallace achieved was a perfect match for the predominantly pop driven songs that were at the heart of the record, emphasized in surround sound quality by the punch of Krist Novoselic’s bass, Dave Grohl’s drumming, and the ethereal, almost psychedelic and at times blazing contribution from Kurt Cobain.
Imagine being a fly on the wall as the playbacks to tracks from the recording were listened to, and the realisation of just how good it sounds was becoming clear. Cranking up the volume and listening to Lounge Act as the vocals burst into the final verse and chorus, must have maybe indicated how pivotal and liberating this album would become. There were many great records from this era but few that consistently and seamlessly packed in so much energy and emotions. From the opening chords of the album to the frantic climax of hidden track Endless Nameless; the louder the better!
Nevermind is clearly the most accessible and acclaimed of Nirvana’s albums. This outburst of creativity defined the band in the midst of their most confident and self-assured period of their short spanning career. As a big fan I have repeatedly been struck by the expression of their music. Somehow you could always fit the words around whatever situation you were in at any given moment, such was the ambiguous nature and at times playful stringing together of lyrics. Because the music was so powerful everyone has their own experiences of that record. A very good friend of mine just told me that Nirvana took him to the microscopically thin line between pure divine beauty and absolute chaotic annihilation, a fitting tribute to the album.
The music with its quiet / loud structure and unique waves of overdrive and rhythm arrangements is epitomised as being beautifully simple; yet from the fragility of Lithium to the blistering guitar and bass drive of Breed – the album is full of complexities, twists, and moments of serenity. The stripped back sound of Polly and Something In The Way with their basic, yet tribal rhythms have both a haunting and enchanting quality that was later to be found at the heart of harder edged tracks when MTV Unplugged was aired.
Nevermind filled a vacuum; it needed little marketing and offered a fresh perspective and escapism from the superficial paradigm of corporate rock production. Fuelled by a somewhat naive sense of rebellion, truthfulness, and a lack of pretentiousness, Nirvana continued touring as the impact of the record grew, – a mixture of elation and bewilderment brewing within, as its success spiralled into a phenomenon. Relentless touring of Europe and the US had perfected their sound and the many bootleg recordings are testament to the synergy the band was achieving. Any haphazardness and carefree abandonment was translated in the studio into an un-faltering and accurate delivery.
“What the Hell am I trying to say” The self confessional, and almost surreal lyrics are at times hard to comprehend, yet the sheer power of Nirvana’s music had an incredible ability to get a reaction or encourage teenagers to pick up a guitar, inspired by the DIY ethic and the prominence of indie bands. The band were well placed to shine in the UK, and for Nirvana the Seattle scene seemed to fuse with the more mellow sounds of Scottish bands like Teenage Fanclub, The Pastels, The Vaselines, and Eugenius. The band have always been incredibly over analyzed as I am probably guilty of as I write this, but having once described his music as ‘your crossword puzzle’ Kurt Cobain managed to avoid revealing everything, and his cryptic charm only endeared him to his fans.
“Our little tribe has aways been and always will until the end” Emerging so quickly, prior to mobiles and the internet, Nevermind propelled itself into schools, colleges and radio stations, the songs stirring up a reaction which seemed entirely altered to anything that had gone before, or at least more relevant to the moment for a new breed of music fans. Ok I was easily sold, but hey… that band made some serious music, and I stayed with them all the way from the staggeringly good release of Bleach to the more alarming, but still at times beautifully delicate record, In Utero, and beyond as the music turned to a legacy which remains ever potent today.
Review also appears on my blog at Tom Manley Photography
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