Looking Back at Nirvana’s Nevermind, 20 Years Later

Nirvana in Seattle on Halloween 1991.

Has it really been 20 years since Nevermind? My sources tell me that it has, and September 24, 1991 was the day. An album that would literally define a generation was released.

Nirvana’s major-label debut with Geffen Records has sold over 26 million copies worldwide, striking a major chord with rock fans. This helped to catapult what had been a regional, Seattle-based phenomenon into the mainstream, for better or worse.

Nevermind was iconic not only for its music, but for the stunning visual on the front cover. Simple, yet powerfully stated.

Nevermind was Nirvana at their polished best. The band, originally formed in 1987 as “Fecal Matter” (among other names) was the brainchild of Kurt Cobain, whose musical ideology embodied fierce independence, and a definite sense of punk rock, anti-mainstream attitude, sensibility, and sound.

Looking back, the early 1990s was an amazing time for music, and particularly alternative rock. The Seattle scene was thriving, and it shows in the timeline of releases..

  • Pearl Jam's debut album on Epic Records has sold close to 10 million copies worldwide.

    August 21, 1990 – Alice in Chains release Facelift (RIAA Certified 2x Platinum)

  • August 27, 1991 – Pearl Jam releases Ten (RIAA Certified 13x Platinum)
  • October 8, 1991 – Soundgarden releases Badmotorfinger (RIAA certified 2x Platinum)

Nirvana’s debut album Bleach (1989) embodied many of the traits that the band aspired to, but Cobain and bassist Krist Novoselic felt that they could do better. Bleach was as abrasive as a rock album could be, but it did show a softer side in the poppy “About a Girl”. As Cobain stated in the 1992’s Nevermind, It’s an Interview,

Bleach just seemed to be really one-dimensional,” he said, “It has the same format, all the songs are slow, and grungy, and they’re tuned down to really slow notes, and I screamed a lot. But at the same time that we were recording Bleach, we had a lot more songs like About a Girl, like Polly was written about that same time too, but we just chose to put the more abrasive songs on the Bleach album. So it really wasn’t a matter of evolving, within a year – we’ve always liked pop music, and always had a few songs like that. “

In the spring of 1990, Nirvana worked with producer Butch Vig in Madison, WI to record many of the songs that ended up on Nevermind, including “Lithium”, “Polly”, and “Pay to Play” (an early version of “Stay Away”). Not long after recording the tracks, which were intended to be the band’s sophomore album with Sub Pop, the band hit a few road bumps that led to a change in strategy. In Novoselic’s words:

“Right after we finished recording the record we went on this eight week tour of the U.S. starting in Madison…We were gonna record a few more songs in Seattle, and the album was supposed to come out in September of 1990. Well, right after we got off that tour, that’s when we lost Chad, so there was uncertainty with that – if we wanted to do anything, we wanted to do it with a new drummer.”

According to Novoselic, Channing’s departure was amicable, a mutual split due to musical differences. With Channing gone, Dave Grohl would eventually take the mantle as the band’s next full-time drummer. Grohl’s power drumming was just what the band needed. “If I could choose between bringing [Led Zeppelin’s] John Bonham back to life, or Dave Grohl, I would choose Dave Grohl,” Cobain said in Nevermind, It’s an Interview.

Powerful words, but from the opening snare hit in “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to the final cymbal crash in the hidden track “Endless, Nameless”, Grohl firmly establishes himself on this album as possibly one of the greatest power drummers ever.

Nevermind’s dual identity as a pop album with a immeasurably heavy edge showed in the album’s production. Producer Butch Vig used plenty of chorus effects on Cobain’s voice to add the extra sparkle for the pop listener, later giving way to Andy Wallace, who re-mixed Vig’s work and made the guitars and drums sound even heavier.

The Melvins' 1993 album Stoner Witch was the band's first on a major-label.

The list of bands influenced or affected by the massive success of Nevermind goes on for days. Not long after Nevermind’s big success, the Melvins found themselves in high demand, eventually signing a major-label deal with Atlantic Records.  The Melvins were a big influence on Nirvana’s sound, and Nirvana was actually formed after Cobain and Novoselic met while watching the Melvins practice in Aberdeen, WA. Nirvana had ushered in a new era of rock music, and struck a death knell for the glam rock bands that dominated much of the 1980s.

Nirvana’s music seems as relevant as ever in the modern day. The feeling of disillusionment, a need to reject aspects of society rings true with many today who deal with war, unemployment, and poverty that ravage our society today. While a great rock album may not cure what plagues our society, it might help ease the pain caused by such bad situations. And it certainly never hurts to rock out, a little, right?

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2 responses to “Looking Back at Nirvana’s Nevermind, 20 Years Later

  1. Pingback: [Movie Preview] Moneyball Starring Brad Pitt | The Rock.

  2. Pingback: [Album Review] Staind – (Self-titled) | The Rock.

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