NIRVANA'S 'Nevermind' is to be re-released, 20 years after it sparked a musical revolution. Fiona Sturges salutes an album that changed her generation.
On 24 September 1991, Nirvana released their second album, Nevermind. Three weeks earlier, I had arrived in London from a remote corner of the West Country, in search of work, music and independence. I had heard about this alternative band from Aberdeen, in Washington state – they had earned passing mentions in the music press for some years – though their music hadn't filtered down to darkest Devon. Intrigued by this new scene known as "grunge", I started going to the 100 Club for Sub Pop nights – named after the label that first signed Nirvana (they subsequently defected to Geffen) – where DJs restricted their playlists to bands on the label which was now a by-word for outsider cool.
It was there that I first heard "Smells Like Teen Spirit", the first single from Nevermind, and was shaken to the bottom of my new Dr Martens boots. It was both bleak and exhilarating, its lulling, lethargic verse giving way to a now immortal chorus of distortion-filled fury.
I subsequently discovered that this vein of inchoate rage travelled through every song on Nevermind, from the heavy-duty punk of "Territorial Pissings" to the quieter, warped beauty of "Polly". The production, by Butch Vig, may have been pristine but that didn't stop Nevermind sounding authentic and primal. The combination of cleanliness and feedback, of underground and mainstream appeal, was precisely what made it successful. At the time, it didn't sound like anything else around and, to my youthful ears, it wiped away all that had come before it.
If this sounds a little dramatic, you have to understand that at the time Guns'N'Roses were the biggest rock band in the world. If you didn't have a hotline to the underground, and were looking for a soundtrack for your teenage rebellion, they, along with their hard-rocking peers Anthrax, Mötley Crüe and Metallica, were pretty much all that was on offer. These bands might have had the volume, but they were singing about things to which the average tortured teen could never relate. They were, for the most part, cartoon bands pedalling clichéd fantasies of sex, drugs 'n' rock'n'roll.
Nevermind, in contrast, was teenage agony distilled. Though well into his twenties, the singer Kurt Cobain was the embodiment of the damaged, self-loathing youth, overwhelmed at the cruelty and hypocrisy of the world and unable to find a place in it. His lyrics didn't always make sense ("A mullato, an albino, a mosquito, my libido" he howled in "Smells Like Teen Spirit") but his shredded voice slapped you in the face with its urgency and desolation.
Now that I am older and have heard more music, I know that Nirvana's sound was far from original. Cobain was never less than candid about the bands from whom he borrowed, from Sonic Youth and the Pixies to lesser-known acts including the Melvins, Vaselines and Meat Puppets. What was clever about Nevermind was its fusion of these influences into a coherent set of songs that spoke directly to the alienated and disaffected.
If Nevermind's impact on the individual was profound, its significance on the music scene was akin to an earthquake. In the same way that punk had rendered prog rock ludicrous in the mid-Seventies, when Nevermind arrived Guns'N'Roses and their hair-metal peers were left looking like the bloated, self-parodying, extravagant dinosaurs they had become. Small wonder Cobain and the Guns'N'Roses singer, Axl Rose, frequently came to blows.
Nevermind also signalled the beginning of the end of musical tribalism. Prior to its release, music fans largely aligned themselves with particular genres, adopting mannerisms and wearing clothes as signifiers of their allegiance. Hip-hop, rave and rock were, with the exception of the odd crossover acts such as Red Hot Chili Peppers, separate entities. Nevermind changed all that.
Liking Nirvana was acceptable, no matter who you were or how you dressed. For the first time you would see rappers, ravers and rockers attending the same gigs and clubs, many of them wearing Nirvana T-shirts. While the grunge purists remained discernible by their flannel shirts, faded t-shirts and defiantly unwashed hair, the Nirvana T-shirt logo – a childish rendering of a smiley face on a black background – was as ubiquitous among teenagers and twentysomethings as blue jeans and trainers.
Ultimately, and to the Cobain's despair, everyone loved Nevermind. In a few months, Cobain went from being a low-key figure struggling to get his music heard to being one of the most recognisable figures in rock. In January 1992, Nevermind knocked Michael Jackson's Dangerous from the top of the Billboard chart and the band appeared on Letterman. The underground had, for the first time in pop history, gone overground.
Many bands attempted to capitalise on the success of Nirvana, even though the scene that they had helped to build in Seattle, where Sub Pop was based, had dissolved within a year of the release of Nevermind. Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and Stone Temple Pilots were among the copycat bands who found varying degrees of success in the early and mid-Nineties, though none managed to produce anything with a modicum of the potency that characterised Nevermind. That the likes of Bush, Muse, Puddle of Mudd and Lil' Wayne have expressed debts to the album would suggest that its influence may not always be desirable.
By the summer of 1992, Nevermind was so ubiquitous that it had become almost unlistenable. The album was everywhere: in record shops, cafés, clubs, bars and blasting out of every passing car. The story of Nirvana became, in Cobain's view, a Faustian fable. The band had signed a contract with the devil (in this case Geffen) and they were paying the price by seeing their music overplayed, cheapened and misunderstood.
On 5 April 1994, possibly tormented by the contradiction of his position as an outsider worshipped by the masses, crippled by drug addiction and a chronic stomach condition, Cobain shot himself. His death made The Nine O'Clock News.
Twenty years on, it is virtually impossible to separate grunge from its most successful and yet most tragic figures. The mythology that has surrounded Cobain only seems to grow, helped in no small way by a music industry and media that periodically feeds it with reissued recordings, books, documentaries and exhibitions.
Nevermind has sold more than 30 million copies in the two decades since its release. Cobain would be appalled. He would also have hated all this nostalgia over a short-lived scene that blew up two decades ago. The notion of a "super deluxe" edition of Nevermind, like the one that is due for release at the end of the month, would undoubtedly have stuck in his craw.
Still, it would be churlish to begrudge Nirvana fans a chance to re-visit an album that shifted the musical world on its axis. Listen to Nevermind today and it still sounds exhilarating, authentic and like nothing else being made. How many albums can you say that about today?