Nirvana: 30 years of Nevermind, the record that changed rock

Nirvana: 30 years of Nevermind, the record that changed rock


On September 24, 1991 Nevermind was released, perhaps the most important album of the nineties. A whole generation of kids, just eighteen or so, would have discovered them a few months later, thanks to the video in heavy rotation on MTV

The historic cover of Nevermind by Nivrvana. “Load your guns and bring your friends. It's funny to lose and pretend. She is overwhelmed and self-confident. Oh no, I know a bad word ”. "Load up your guns and bring your friends. It’s fun to lose and to pretend. She's over bored and self-assured. Oh no, I know a dirty word ”. 30 years ago these words, those of Smells Like Teen Spirit, took us into the world of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. On September 24, 1991 Nevermind was released, perhaps the most important album of the nineties. A whole generation of kids, barely eighteen or so, would have discovered them a few months later, thanks to the video of that song that began to go in heavy rotation on MTV. It was a video in front of which you could not remain indifferent, you had to stop and watch it. In a school gym, shot with warm and muffled tones, a group of boys and some cheerleaders attended a concert. And in the foreground, with blurry images, appeared this young man with blond hair covering his face. He sang at the top of his voice, as if there was no tomorrow, as if it were his last cry. “I feel stupid and contagious. We are here, entertain us ”. "I feel stupid, and contagious, here we are now, entertain us".

It was only many years later that we would understand that, after all, Kurt Cobain didn't like that video, and didn't represent it at all. But it was something that broke every bank. After Smells Like Teen Spirit, and Nevermind, anyone who was a boy in the 90s would have seen rock, and music, in a completely different way. Today Nevermind has risen to the headlines for the controversy related to the cover: the child who was depicted there as a newborn accused the band of child pornography. A nonsense thing, as we shall see.

Between the more extreme Black Sabbath and the Beatles, but doing punk rock

“The sound of Kurt Cobain's guitar in Nirvana's Nevermind sets the tone for the whole rock music of the nineties ”had written Guitar Rock at the time. Nevermind is one of those works in which a series of astral conjunctions, a series of factors different from each other lead to a unique result. The pain of living for a guy like Kurt Cobain, which we told you about their first album, Blach, and the anger at the end of the relationship with his girlfriend of those times, Tobi Vail. The arrival in the band, alongside him and bassist Krist Novoselic, of the new drummer Dave Grohl (not surprisingly one of the most influential rock stars today, with his Foo Fighters) which brought to the band a more precise and more powerful drumming. And the production of Butch Vig (also today a rock guru, with his band, Garbage), who managed to make the sound of Nirvana at the same time harder, but also more pop, an organized chaos, a wall of sound where, however, the music is not an indistinct magma, but each element manages to stand out and shine with its own light. Of course, after the release of Nevermind, Nirvana said they were dissatisfied with the sound of the album, too clean and Cobain said he was embarrassed by the production, more similar, in his opinion, to that of a Mötley Crüe record than to that of a punk record. rock. But Butch Vig had made a masterpiece. Nirvana's music was a mix of catchy pop tunes and raging sonic assaults. Kurt Cobain's idea was to create a sound that combines The Knack and the Bay City Rollers with Black Flag, a sound that brings together the more extreme Black Sabbaths with the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, but doing punk rock. Cobain described his music to journalist Michael Azerrad in this way. Those passages between music played softly and then very loudly, a calm that prepared the storm, had already been made by bands like Hüsker Dü and Pixies. But no one had ever had the impact, even commercial, of Nirvana. Their influences also include Queen, Cheap Trick, The Melvins, The Breeders, Mudhoney, David Bowie, REM, Iggy Pop and Butthole Surfers.

Smells Like Teen Spirit

“We've had luckier because we write catchy songs and people remember them ”. This is what Cobain told Azerrad in his classic understatement. But Smells Like Teen Spirit is more than just a catchy song. And to think that Krist Novoselic, at the beginning, called that guitar riff ridiculous, and that seemed just one of the many songs that you rehearse, record and then, once you lose the cassette, get lost with this one. But that round of chords was easy to remember, and the song kept coming back to them. The first time Nirvana try to play it live, at the OK Hotel in Seattle on April 17, 1991, is the apotheosis. The audience goes crazy and the band realizes they have something special in their hands. Smells Like Teen Spirit is also the first song the band plays in front of Butch Vig when recording the record. The producer thinks it's a great song, he keeps telling them to play it again. In a few takes it is ready. Vig only suggests overdubbing the guitar at the time of the chorus. Cobain, at first, is reluctant: he would like to record everything live, as if it were in a concert. But the producer manages to convince him by explaining that John Lennon, an idol for Cobain, used to dub his vocals. And that, by overdubbing voices and guitars, the sound would have been more powerful. The title Smells Like Teen Spirit, on the other hand, comes from a good night in Cobain's apartment, an evening of hangover and broken furniture. Kathleen Hanna, of the Bikini Kill band (which included Tobi Vail, Cobain's girlfriend), before collapsing drunk, writes a few sentences with a marker on the wall. That "Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit" is meant to be an offense, it means that it smells of Teen Spirit, a deodorant in vogue in those years. Cobain does not know its existence and, a few months later, asks her if he can use that phrase as the title for his song.

In Bloom

Yet the story could also have been go another way. The first single from Nevermind was supposed to be In Bloom, the second track from the album and the fourth single from the album. Instant and catchy, it's a perfect single, and it's the classic Nirvana trademark, quiet verse and explosive chorus. The song was originally supposed to be called Knows Not What It Means, as Cobain obsessively repeats at the end of the chorus. The text can be interpreted as an attack on male chauvinists, those who abuse others. But it seems that Cobain is targeting casual fans, who sing the choruses in chorus without knowing what they are about. In Bloom, by the way, by its very nature it is one of the songs that always sparked the chorus of the audience live.

Come As You Are

And the first single could have been also Come As You Are. In fact, there was a strategy by Geffen Records according to which Come As You Are should have been the single dedicated to breaking into mainstream radio and Smells Like Teen Spirit the one for alternative rock radios. But, as we know, Teen Spirit broke through everywhere and Come As You Are became a great second single. The song is based on a riff very similar to Eighties, a song by Killing Joke, so much so that Kurt Cobain and the band feared a lawsuit by that group, which never came. Like As You Are, an immediate and irresistible piece, it is surrounded by an ambiguous and painful aura. Everything is inside that line, "I don't have a gun". It is a phrase that wants to communicate friendship, peaceful intentions, yet it took on another meaning after Cobain's suicide. The leader of Nirvana, in fact, killed himself using a rifle.


Lithium, the third single from Nevermind, is one of the greatest hits of Nirvana, one of their symbolic songs . It is probably the song that, during the recordings, costs the seat to the drummer Chad Channing, who is replaced in the race by Dave Grohl. It also risks costing Cobain his voice, who in the first recordings strengthened him so much that he was forced to stop. What appears to us today with a perfect anthem rock, a true classic, for the band was really an ugly beast. The musicians somehow accelerated the rhythm too much and so the heaviness that is one of the trademarks of Nevermind's Nirvana was missing. But Butch Vig, like Pulp Fiction's Mr. Wolf, solves problems. And he proposes to Dave Grohl, now in the saddle as a drummer, to play with the click - a metronome that helps keep time - on headphones. Lithium is the story of a boy depressed by the death of his girlfriend who takes refuge in religion in order not to commit suicide. But inside there is still the break with Tobi Vail and the days spent at the house of a friend, the son of two born again Christians.


Polly is the leanest song on the record, And it is even the most controversial. The song is inspired by a news story that happened in 1987: a fourteen-year-old girl was loaded on a truck by a man she had tortured and raped. The fact is that in Polly the story is told from the point of view of the rapist: Cobain obviously isn't on the man's side, he just plays the role. But, to a less attentive listener, this may seem questionable. In Polly there are only Cobain's voice and his guitar, no drums, no sound barrier. And there is a mistake in the middle of the song, when Cobain starts early to sing "Polly said". But he likes that thing, he decides to leave the song like that and sing it that way even live.

That famous cover and those senseless accusations

Spencer Elden poses again as in the cover by Nevermind. And then there is that famous cover, which has also remained in the history of rock. She returned to the news for the allegations of child pornography. In fact, at the center is a child, Spencer Elden, portrayed at 4 months, naked, immersed in a swimming pool in Pasadena, California, by photographer Kirk Weddle. In the photo that child seems attracted to a dollar bill attached to a hook (which had been added in post-production). Cobain had seen a documentary on water birth. And the meaning of a baby who is already attracted to money when he is born is very powerful. The child's parents were given a fee, and the boy was given platinum status. After thirty years, Elden sued for $ 150,000 against everyone involved in the operation; Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic, Courtney Love (Cobain's widow), photographer Weddle, art director Robert Fisher, Cobain's legacy curators and record companies. That cover, according to him, can be considered a child pornography content. Something absurd, given the clear irony of the image and the innocence of a newborn, moreover stylized by a very particular context. But it's also absurd because, at the age of 15, Elden had appeared in a documentary about the record, and at the New Musical Express he had said he was happy to have been part of that album. A couple of years later Elden had posed again to reproduce the photograph of the album, in Bermuda shorts, in the same swimming pool. And he also got Nevermind tattooed. It is not exactly the attitude of those who feel sexually exploited. But those dollars, which he prophetically pursued in that ironic image, must probably interest him a lot today.

The son of a spoiled America

That cover, that famous video, the face of Jesus Christ by Kurt Cobain. Everything, in the space of a few months, has become iconic, has exploded, has arrived everywhere. Success, as we know, overwhelmed Nirvana and especially Cobain. “I don't want to be a rock star, but it's not that I don't have enough courage to do it,” he said in the famous interview in Azerrad. Cobain had already understood everything, and his disenchantment can be read in two sentences. "Rock'n'roll has already turned into a trend, or something that people use to fuck". "They are the product of a spoiled America," said the leader of Nirvana. And maybe somehow we all are. And that's why Nirvana are part of us.

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