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Not to be confused with another British Isles-based psychedelic outfit, this NIRVANA were formed in Aberdeen, Washington, USA in 1987 by singer/songwriter/guitarist Kurt Cobain and bassist Krist Novoselic. Recruiting drummer Chad Channing, they soon became a talking point and pivotal band in nearby Seattle where the likes of SOUNDGARDEN and MUDHONEY were major players in the emerging grunge scene. Whereas those bands dealt in raw garage punk/metal, NIRVANA immediately stood out from the pack by dint of the subtle pop melodies which Cobain craftily incorporated into his songs. They almost immediately gained a reputation for their ferocious live shows which drew comparisons with early WHO, if only for their sheer nihilistic energy, invariably ending in trashed equipment. Signing, of course, with the hub of the Seattle scene, Sub Pop Records, NIRVANA released their debut single `Love Buzz’ (an old Shocking Blue number) in October 1988.
The 1989 album BLEACH {*8}, fast became a seminal Sub Pop release alongside MUDHONEY’s “Superfuzz Bigmuff” and TAD’s “God’s Balls”. A darkly brooding, often savagely angry collection, driven by bass and fuzz and interspersed with pockets of melody, Bleach buried the imaginary line between punk and metal. The likes of `School’ and the throbbing `Negative Creep’ saw Kurt lapse into his trademark howl, an enraged, blood-curdling shriek, almost primal in its intensity. Conversely, `About A Girl’, was an achingly melodic semi-acoustic shuffle, as steeped in hurt as the rest of the album, but more resigned than angry. New guitarist Jason Everman had contributed to the record’s sonic bludgeon as well as paying for recording costs, although he soon parted ways (he went on to play with the much hyped MINDFUNK) with Cobain and Novoselic over the ever reliable “musical differences”. Bleach was heartily received by the indie/metal press, NIRVANA embarking on a heavy round of touring, first in the States, then Europe. Following the departure of Channing, MUDHONEY’s Dan Peters joined briefly and was involved with the `Sliver’ single, a brilliant chunk of pop-noise which further enhanced NIRVANA’s underground kudos and raised expectations for a follow-up album to fever pitch.
NEVERMIND (1991) {*10} let down no-one, except possibly the anally-retentive “saddoes” who accused the band of selling out to a major label (Geffen). Released immediately after a blinding set at the Reading festival (where NIRVANA, who probably drew the most frenetic crowd reaction of the day, had to make do with a paltry afternoon slot; the following year they’d be headlining), and with appetites whetted via import copies of `Smells Like Teen Spirit’, the record was met with an ecstatic press reaction. While the album brought the grunge phenomenon into the mainstream, NIRVANA had already moved on to a blistering power pop/punk sound, best evidenced in the sardonic fury of the aforementioned `Smells…’. Here was an anthem for a new blank generation, for all the people who’d given up before even starting; Cobain had condensed the collective frustration/despair/apathy into an incendiary slice of pop genius not witnessed since The SEX PISTOLS’ heyday. `Come As You Are’ was another piece of semi-acoustic bruised beauty, while `Territorial Pissings’ was as extreme as the record went, a rabid blast of hardcore punk introduced with a sarcastic send-up pilfered from the YOUNGBLOODS’ 60s love ’n’ peace classic `Get Together’. Most of the other tracks lay somewhere in between, Cobain never letting up the intensity level for a minute, whether on the deceptively breezy `In Bloom’ or the stinging `Breed’. For a three-piece (the drum seat had now been filled by Dave Grohl, ex-Scream), the group made one hell of a racket, but it was a racket which was never less than 100% focused, the Grohl/Novoselic rhythmic powerhouse underpinning every track with diamond-edged precision.
It’s fair to say that Nevermind literally changed the face of music, American indie bands coming to dominate the scene until the arrival of Brit-pop icons OASIS in the mid-90s. Cobain was heralded as the spokesman of a generation, although it was a role he was both unwilling and unable to cope with. As the inevitable, punishing round of touring ensued, the singer’s health began to suffer once more; never the healthiest of people, Cobain suffered from a chronic stomach complaint as well as narcolepsy, a condition which causes the sufferer to sleep for excessive periods of time. What’s more, he was concerned that the irony of his lyrics was lost on his growing legions of fans (which now included the macho “jocks” whom Cobain so despised) who now doted on his every word. Amid all this confusion, he was married to HOLE’s Courtney Love on February 24, 1992, the couple almost losing custody of their new-born child, Frances, later that summer following revelations of drug abuse.
The end of the year saw the release of a compilation of rare material, INCESTICIDE (1992) {*7}. This included two storming VASELINES covers, `Molly’s Lips’ and `Son Of A Gun’, plus other registered B-sides. Rumours of Cobain’s heroin abuse were rife, however, and the singer overdosed twice the following year. In between times (mid-93), another Scottish connection arrived when Big John (of GOODBYE MR MACKENZIE and ex-EXPLOITED) filled in if there were any hitches.
IN UTERO (1993) {*9} reflected the turmoil, an uncompromising wall of noise (courtesy of producer Steve Albini) characterising most of the album. The melodies were still here, you just had to dig deeper in the sludge to find them. Introspective, cathartic and a near suicide letter in a dozen chapters, Cobain discharges his demons on several stark and scary squalls (`Rape Me’, etc.), but the record’s main character was in acerbic songs such as `Heart-Shaped Box’, `Dumb’, `Pennyroyal Tea’ and final hit single `All Apologies’. For lovers of grunge in its true primal form, `Milk It’, `Radio Friendly Unit Shifter’ and a memorial to tragic, long-suffering Washington-born actress in `Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle’, would shake-up a few skulls.
Despite Geffen’s misgivings, the record was a transatlantic No.1, its success engendering another round of live work. After a final American show in January, the group set off for Europe, taking a break at the beginning of March. Cobain remained in Rome, where, on March 4, Courtney found him unconscious in their hotel room, the result of an attempted tranquilizer overdose. Although Kurt eventually recovered, the tour was abandoned and the couple returned to their Seattle home. Though it didn’t come as a complete surprise, the music world was stunned nonetheless when, on April 8, news broke that Cobain had finally killed himself, blowing his own head off with a shotgun. The most widely mourned rock’n’roll death since JOHN LENNON’s assassination, Cobain’s suicide even sparked off a series of “copycat” incidents in America by obsessive fans.
Posthumously released later that year, the acoustic MTV UNPLUGGED IN NEW YORK (1994) {*8} live set (recorded late in ‘93) was heavy going, a tragic poignancy underpinning the spare beauty of tracks like `Dumb’ and `Pennyroyal Tea’, while the heartrendingly resigned `All Apologies’ sounds like Cobain’s final goodbye to a world that he could no longer bear to be a part of. Alongside covers of BOWIE’s `The Man Who Sold The World’, LEADBELLY’s `Where Did You Sleep Last Night’ and The VASELINES `Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam’, the MEAT PUPPETS (brothers Curt & Cris Kirkwood) performed three dual cues: `Plateau’, `Oh Me’ and the excellent `Lake Of Fire’.
Eventually picking up the pieces, Grohl formed FOO FIGHTERS, turning his hand to guitar playing/songwriting and recruiting ex-GERMS (and p/t NIRVANA member) Pat Smear. After time spent campaigning for his native, war-torn Yugoslavia, Novoselic returned with his own band, SWEET 75, a collaboration with diminutive Venezuelan lesbian folk-singer, Yva Las Vegas. They finally released one unstartling eponymous SWEET 75 {*4} set in 1997, while the man can now be found in indie supergroup, Eyes Adrift, alongside the aforementioned Curt and Bud Gaugh (of SUBLIME).
Meanwhile, gone but not forgotten, NIRVANA’s live and electric posthumous chart-topper, FROM THE BANKS OF THE WISHKAH (1996) {*8} kept the money-ball rolling. Incidentally, the title refers to an old local teenage haunt of Kurt’s: the Wishkah River. It was a long time in coming but the inevitable box-set, WITH THE LIGHTS OUT {*7} finally arrived in late 2004, a compelling, painstakingly compiled and annotated (by SONIC YOUTH’s Thurston Moore) trawl of unreleased material including early demos, sketches Cobain recorded before his death, Nevermind outtakes, B-sides and compilation tracks. For those with a more casual interest in the band, a slimmed down version was released the following year: SLIVER: THE BEST OF THE BOX (2005) {*6}, increasing its marketability with a further three unreleased tracks including a pre-NIRVANA demo of `Spank Thru’. Both sets made the US charts, sitting either side of the Top 20. NIRVANA have covered a fair share of songs including `Here She Comes Now’ (The VELVET UNDERGROUND), `Do You Love Me?’ (KISS), `Turnaround’ (DEVO), `D-7’ and `Return Of The Rat’ (The WIPERS), `They Hung Him On A Cross’ , `Grey Goose’ and `Ain’t It A Shame’ (LEADBELLY), `Heartbreaker’, `Moby Dick’ and `Immigrant Song’ (LED ZEPPELIN) and `Seasons In The Sun’ (JACQUES BREL + Rod McKuen).
While there have several books on the singer and the mysteries surrounding his death (two by Ian Halperin and Max Wallace are essential: 1999’s `Who Killed Kurt Cobain?’ and 2004’s `Love And Death: The Murder Of Kurt Cobain), documentary films have seen light of day through Nick Bloomfield’s `Kurt & Courtney’ (1998) and `Kurt Cobain: About A Son’ (2006). One feels the final chapter of Kurt’s life is still out there somewhere as this publication goes to press.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/BG-GRD // rev-up MCS Apr2012/BG-GRD

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