Friday, September 23, 2011

Happy Birthday, Nevermind!

Tomorrow, the 24th of September, will be the official 20th anniversary of the release of Nevermind, the greatest album ever made by one of the greatest bands of my generation, Nirvana.  Nevermind was the first major-label release by Nirvana and one of the most commercially successful albums of the 90's.  It launched Nirvana from being a local Seattle band with a large underground following and modest aspirations into super stardom, international fame and critical acclaim.  It also helped to put grunge music on the map and made Seattle the new Hollywood, in terms of being a musical hot spot, for a decade.  It also began a troubled and tragic journey for singer and songwriter Kurt Cobain that saw him struggle with addiction and depression and ultimately take his own life on April 5th, 1994, just over 3 1/2 years after the release of this album and the bands meteoric rise to fame and fortune.

For anyone who isn't familiar with the Seattle rock scene in the 90's and what "grunge" is, here's a quick primer.  Grunge is a style of music that was influenced by elements of both punk rock and heavy metal, but didn't really sound much like either.  It could be fast and loud or slow and melodic, it featured vocals that could be restrained and emotional one minute and turn into angry screams the next.  Grunge was an all-encompassing term for the post-post-modern rock music that came from a diverse collection of musicians in the Seattle area and it fell under the umbrella of "alternative rock".  Grunge and the "Seattle sound" were carried primarily on the backs of the "Big 4" of grunge music - Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden and, of course, Nirvana.  Looking at those 4 bands and how different their sounds are, you can see that it's difficult to label grunge as simply as "the guitars sound like this, the vocals sound like this" and so on.  It was as much an image and an identity as it was a style of music.  Fans of grunge were known for wearing flannel shirts, worn-out jeans, faded T-Shirts and the like.  "Grunge" was as much a description of the appearance of the musicians and their fans as it was a description of the sound.  Of course, this was basically just typical dress for working-class kids growing up in Washington state.  They didn't start wearing flannels and sock hats because they wanted to make them popular, they wore them because they kept you warm.

For years, grunge was Seattle's best-kept musical secret.  It was a scene with a big underground following and a slew of great bands who were packing out clubs and shows and had ambitions of rock stardom like every other band, but being so far away from the center of activity in Hollywood, it was hard to get anyone to pay attention to them.  One of the biggest things that helped to change that was an independent record label called Sub Pop.  Formed in the late 80's from the ashes of a local fanzine of the same name, Sub Pop records was the starting point for most of the biggest bands to come out of Seattle.  They signed Nirvana and released their song "Love Buzz" as a single before putting the band in the studio to record their full-length debut album, "Bleach", in 1989.  The local success of "Bleach", along with support from the British music press, helped attract the attention of Geffen Records, who signed Nirvana to the DGC label in 1990.

Nirvana had already recorded much of the music for "Nevermind" with producer Butch Vig while they were signed to Sub Pop records.  A few of the songs had different titles, "Breed" was originally called "Immodium", "Stay Away" was originally recorded as "Pay to Play" with different lyrics and a couple of the songs from that session would be released as B-sides or on compilations.  Still, though, the band had laid the foundation for their next studio album before they moved to a major label and, most importantly, they had established a good working relationship with Butch Vig.

When Nirvana finally signed with DGC in 1990, they were given a list of producers to choose from to record their album, but the band chose to continue working with Vig, who they respected and felt comfortable with.  With a budget of $65,000, Nirvana moved to Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, CA, and began working on "Nevermind".

The original title for "Nevermind" was going to be "Sheep" - an inside joke about the fair-weather fans the band expected to get simply by having an album released on a major label - but decided instead to go with "Nevermind" as it better reflected the apathetic attitude of Kurt Cobain during the writing and recording process.

Expectations for the album were modest at best.  Both the band and the label expected that the album would go gold at the most and would likely move around 250,000 copies, or roughly equal to the success of fellow DGC label mates Sonic Youth.  The album was released with little fanfare on September 24th, 1991.  DGC shipped just over 46,000 copies to American record stores and 35,000 more to the UK, where Nirvana had seen some success with their first album, "Bleach".  The first single on the album, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was released on September 10th as a move to garner some underground buzz and perhaps build a modest college/alt rock following enjoyed by bands like the aforementioned Sonic Youth.

Quite unexpectedly, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" caught fire and garnered a lot of attention in a short amount of time.  The video for the song premiered on MTV during the venerable late-night show 120 Minutes, but soon entered regular rotation during the day.  DGC sold out of it's first pressing of "Nevermind" within weeks as the album entered the Billboard 200 at #144.  DGC put all it's other projects on hold and focused on getting as many more copies of "Nevermind" out to the stores as quickly as they could to meet with this sudden and surprising demand.  Not long after, the album would be certified gold - meeting the most optimistic expectations for the record over it's entire commercial life within just a couple of months.  The band was characteristically underwhelmed at the unexpected success of the album.  Bassist Krist Novoselic recalled the moment, saying "Yeah I was happy about it. It was pretty cool. It was kind of neat. But I don't give a shit about some kind of achievement like that. It's cool—I guess."  This would be the attitude of the band towards most of the aspects of their rise to fame and the trappings of rock stardom, as well as the scene itself once they arrived.  Nirvana was never a band that was outwardly comfortable in it's own skin as rock stars.  They didn't embrace the spotlight and seemed to not only refuse to buy into their own hype, but to actively ignore it, lest they start to believe what they generally considered to be a bunch of fake praise and patronization.

In November, 1991, Nirvana began a European tour.  At the same time, "Nevermind" entered the Billboard Top 40 at #35.  "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was selling so fast that DGC abandoned it's marketing strategies for the single and album entirely and chose to simply "Duck and get out of the way" according to Geffen president Ed Rosenblatt.  On tour, Nirvana found themselves playing to shows that were extremely oversold.  Camera crews started becoming a constant presence and "Smells Like Teen Spirit" seemed to always be playing whenever you turned on a radio.

On January 11th, 1992, less than 4 months after it's release, "Nevermind" hit #1 on the Billboard charts, booting Michael Jackson's "Dangerous" to take the spot.  "Nevermind" was selling 300,000 copies a week at this point.  In March, 1992, the second single from the album, "Come As You Are" was released and peaked at #32 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart.  Two more singles, "Lithium" and "In Bloom" were released from the album as well.  "In Bloom" was particularly notable for it's video, which was a take-off on the Beatles playing the Ed Sullivan show with snippets of the band in drag, trashing their equipment and the stage set, peppered in around the main performance clip of them dressed as proper, conservative gentlemen with neat, short hair and fake, upbeat smiles.

"Nevermind" was certified gold and platinum by the RIAA in November, 1991.  It was certified diamond (10,000,000 copies sold) in March, 1999.  To date, "Nevermind" has sold over 30,000,000 copies worldwide.

Perhaps the biggest affect that the completely unexpected success of "Nevermind" had on the music scene in general was the way it completely changed rock music in an immediate and permanent fashion.  "Nevermind" not only put Nirvana on the map, it put the city of Seattle and the entire grunge movement on the map as well.  Artists like Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden all signed major label deals and grunge music began to replace the previously popular "hair metal" rock of the 80's on rock radio.  Labels began signing any band that could imitate the "Seattle sound", including bands like Stone Temple Pilots.  Of course, this didn't earn Nirvana any fans in the current rock scene that they were unwittingly dismantling with their innovative sound and a famous feud between Kurt Cobain and Guns n Roses singer Axl Rose would gain media publicity.  Both bands were Geffen records label mates and Rose had asked Nirvana to open for them on 2 different occasions, which Cobain declined each time.  Cobain publicly criticized Guns n Roses, calling them "pathetic" and "untalented".  This led to an infamous confrontation between Rose and Cobain at an MTV VMA show where Rose called Cobain a "faggot" and challenged him to a fight.  Cobain just laughed at him and walked away, later saying he could only just laugh because he hadn't been in a situation like that since the 6th grade.  There was a great deal of animosity towards these new grunge acts by the "old guard" in the rock music scene, who were finding themselves becoming increasingly less popular as grunge music and it's imitators stole the spotlight, the fans, the record sales and ultimately, the label support away from them.  It could be argued that "Nevermind" was the shot that killed "Hair Metal" and moved rock music from the arena rock peacocking that had dominated the genre since the late 70's towards a focus on songwriting and substance over style.  Scarves, big hair, leather pants and gaudy accessories were replaced with flannels, old T-Shirts, faded jeans and utility boots.  Day-glo guitars were replaced with worn old Fenders and Gibsons.  Nirvana didn't set out to start a trend, they didn't set out to become mainstream.  They just did what they had always done, the way they had always done it, and the mainstream conformed to them.  The band that had actively sought to avoid following trends was now itself the trend.  No one was more annoyed by this than Cobain himself.

The story of Cobain's decent into depression, addiction and eventually suicide is well documented and tragic.  He was a guy who was never prepared to be as successful and idolized as he became.  He often talked about wanting to intentionally sabotage his own career so he could go back to just playing local clubs for a modest crowd of loyal fans and living a humble life away from the spotlight.  In fact, Nirvana's follow-up album, "In Utero" was intentionally produced with a rougher, less "commercial" sound and featured songs that were darker and intentionally written to not be as radio-friendly as "Smells Like Teen Spirit" because Cobain hoped the album would be panned, they would lose most of their fair-weather fans and he could return to a simpler life.  Unfortunately for Cobain and fortunately for fans of Nirvana, his songwriting ability is simply too good for Nirvana to ever not be the incredible band that they became.

20 years later and "Nevermind" still holds up.  20 years later and you still hear all the singles released from that album being played on rock radio.  20 years later and a new generation of fans, who weren't even born when Cobain killed himself, are discovering Nirvana and falling in love with their music.  20 years later and Nirvana still speaks to me and my generation in a way that is unique and personal and priceless.  In a very legitimate way, Nirvana is "Generation X's" version of the Beatles.  They were a voice of a generation, they were a sound that kids identified with who couldn't relate to the upbeat, arena rock of the 80's.  They were music for kids who felt like they didn't fit in with the mainstream.  Music by outcasts for outcasts.  20 years later and that identity is still there, that relate-ability is still there, that voice that expresses a frustration and despondency that no one else seems to understand is still there.  "Nevermind" is more than just an example of the style of music that came from Seattle, "Nevermind" is a musical portrait OF Seattle.  Just like the city itself, which sits under an almost constant cover of rain, "Nevermind" is dark, bleak and conveys an erosion of optimism, as if that optimism is literally being washed away by the unceasing rainfall.  It's cold, even while screaming with rage and angst.  It's sullen and brooding and bitingly sarcastic.  "Nevermind" was the voice of a generation that felt lost, disengaged, apathetic, ignored and frustrated.  Kurt might have believed that most of Nirvana's newfound fan base were simply glomming on to the latest fad or trend, but the reality is that the bulk of Nirvana's legions of fans were just kids who related to what Kurt was singing about.  People who felt the emotion in the music, understood the apathy and the acrimony.  20 years later, "Nevermind" is still relevant because that emotion is so real and honest and because the music is just so damn good.  "Nevermind" is a classic album, consistently ranked at the top of most music critic's top 10 lists and every day a new fan hears the album for the first time and becomes instantly hooked on it.

20 years later and "Nevermind" is still one of the best albums on the radio.  Happy 20th Birthday, "Nevermind", next year I'm gonna take you out and buy you a beer.

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