One of the truly remarkable things about Nirvana is how brief their journey with us was. After a quiet debut on Sub Pop, they emerged 30 years ago today and were launched into reluctant superstardom, with that star fading with Kurt Cobain‘s death in 1994, just 2.5 years later.
Contrast that with drummer Dave Grohl‘s band Foo Fighters, whose band has now been around for 27 years. And as much as the Foo are legitimate Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, I think one would be hard-pressed to say they have had the same long-term impact of Nirvana. For a band that only released 3 studio records, that is astounding.
Nirvana didn’t launch grunge. People forget this, but Alice In Chains’ Facelift album was out in 1990, and “Man In The Box” was really the first huge song that featured the Seattle sound. Pearl Jam’s Ten was released a month before Nevermind. But if the beginning of grunge was a welcome alternative to the previously dominant glam rock from a bygone era, Nevermind ended it, once and for all.
I remember the instant I first heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which while given album of a generation status, was simply a perfect aggressive pop song. Kurt once said he was simply trying to write a Pixies’ song. The title came from graffiti in his apartment, sprayed by his friends. Once the subsequent singles, “Come as You Are” and “In Bloom,” were released, it was apparent this was a classic.
There really isn’t a single throwaway track, all of the non-singles are Deep Cuts that I still enjoy. There are two elements that particularly hold up. First, is the incredible percussion by Dave Grohl. Coming from a hardcore punk background, his heavy hitting punctuates the melodies in a way that stands out. Much of Dave’s reputation as a drummer, despite the fact he’s been a guitarist and vocalist for over 25 years, comes from how incredible his drum kit sounds on that album. It is apparent after the opening of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and continues through the record. The drums aren’t really the low-end here, they’re purposely given prominence and each track has a boost of energy from it.
This also calls to mind the production of Butch Vig. Vig is famous as the Producer of “Nevermind” as well as “Siamese Dream” from the Smashing Pumpkins (he’s also the drummer for Garbage). There is a tendency in the punk genre to produce “dirty,” to make it grimy, working-class, and lacking polish. For much of punk, this is part of the musical journey. Butch Vig took a much different path in producing this record. For a band with punk sympathies, he produced a solidly clean mix. Listening to it 30 years later, it is remarkable how the high-fidelity lends itself to the album’s quality. The band, especially Kurt, later lamented the production values of the record. I would push back on that idea, and say the clean production is part of what made the album sell over 10,000,000 copies. Nirvana would later go back to a lower-fidelity production with Steve Albini on In Utero, yet I often find myself wondering what it would have sounded like with Butch Vig back.
I was 14 when this album was released, and being that my musical tastes were expanding and becoming more eclectic, it was important in the expectations I had for sound. Of all the bands that came to define the 90s, Nirvana is at the top of the list (with a nod to Pearl Jam and Radiohead).
My Brother was the first to purchase the CD, even with the disturbing album cover, but I believe I ended up borrowing it all the time. It was such a great departure from the silly Poison/Motley Crue/etc rock that dominated the American rock scene in the late 1980s. There was no going back, and all of this awesomeness that was brewing in Seattle burst out in one big climax. That was also the impact of Nevermind, it brought other great bands along with them.
In the end, Kurt was never comfortable with Nirvana being the biggest rock band on the planet and spent his final years trying to back away from it. He turned down millions to tour with Metallica and Guns N’ Roses 1. But the album surely stands the test of time. And it is quite comforting to know that as I continue to age and my body aches every morning I wake up, Nirvana’s “Nevermind” still sounds as fresh as ever.
T.M. Schultze is a San Diego-based photographer, traveller, and writer. He writes, photographs, and draws things of the outdoors that have inspired humans for thousands of years. He co-authored the Photographer’s Guide to Joshua Tree Park which can be purchased here.