Nirvana – Just how big were they?
It’s been twenty years…that’s right I’m starting another piece with a retrospective. Do I permanently live in the past? Probably. Everything in my wardrobe feels like it’s from twenty years ago. I still listen to bands from my teen years and it still sounds ‘like teen spirit’ but they look like fortysomethings. Fortunately I’m not typing this on a twenty year old PC or researching this with twenty year old dial-up internet or you’d be waiting twenty years to read this. Now wait…where was I? Ah yes, it’s been twenty years. Twenty years since Nirvana released the album In Utero.
It’s an interesting anniversary because it’s not their finest album. I prefer the raw, yet versatile, Bleach which was made on a budget of $606.17 in just thirty hours of recording time (13 Tracks!!! – If I break that down, it’s just two hours per song and four hours of beer drinking – Crazy!). And like most, I enjoy that ground-breaking chart-topping sound they had refined for Nevermind. Their chord boxes (usually four chords in a simple to play structure) were easy to learn on guitar too. What this meant was, like the Beatles before them, every aspiring rock musician could emulate them easily and impress friends and woo damsels.
What this anniversary makes me think of is not of In Utero itself or lead singer Kurt Cobain’s untimely death but of their legacy. To some extent this genre of music (we’ll call it ‘Grunge’ but it doesn’t quite cover all the bases) was already in existence but no band had truly grabbed it by the scruff of the neck and called it theirs. You see on the east coast of the states you had the kings of post-punk alternative, the Pixies who were at the peak of their powers and dominating college radio. On the west coast was a band that were very much post-funk. The catchy bass hooks and guitar twang of the Red Hot Chili Peppers was melded with a powerful rhythm section to well and truly put the offbeat into rock music. Now what we had was two very different bands but as I watched the Pixies open for the Chili Peppers at Phoenix Park in 2004, I realised that they weren’t so dissimilar. They were both trying to move music on and create that new sound but each in a slightly different direction. The only thing missing from that Phoenix Park gig was of course Kurt Cobain & Nirvana.
I now realise what those bands in the Pacific Northwest were up to. They were doing their utmost to fuse those two ideas together and create a new direction for rock and none were more successful than Nirvana. Don’t get me wrong, Nirvana weren’t even my favourite band from that part of the world. At sixteen, I thought Pearl Jam were the bees knees and later I noticed that each of my friends took a shine to their own favourites from Seattle. Whether it was Soundgarden, Alice in Chains or Mudhoney, they all influenced many bands and aspiring guitarists but you can’t help but come back to Nirvana as the driving force. The proof is quite literally that while each of us had our favourites, we all had Nevermind in our record collection. Nirvana were the common denominator and when they knocked Michael Jackson, the king of pop, off the top of the charts in 1992 then that new sound had well and truly arrived.
It’s still hard to gauge just how big Nirvana were or are. Over 80 Million record sales says they were massive but it’s the unseen influence their music has provided that has done just as much for the industry. They officially ended when Kurt Cobain joined ‘The 27 Club’ in 1994 and like the ‘First man on the moon’ and ‘shooting of JFK’ moments, I still remember where I was when I found out that the singer had met his end. Will there be another ‘Nirvana moment’ in the future? I hope so and it might come from a twenty year old that goes out and buys a twentieth anniversary copy of In Utero today.