Friday, 24 June 2011

20-years since Nevermind

'So earlier this year I blogged about the 20th anniversary of one of my all-time favourite albums; Screamadelica by Primal Scream.

1991 was a seminal year for music and 2 of my other all-time favourite albums were also released that year; Bandwagonesque by Teenage Fanclub and the mighty Nevermind by Nirvana. Reports are out this week that Nevermind is set to get the deluxe, expanded and resmastered treatment this September. So I’ll save a Bandwagonesque blog for the future and focus on Nevermind for now.

1991 was a pretty good year to be a 15!

I discovered so many bands back then, swapping compilation tapes with guys like Grant Mitchell and Martin Callan, devouring the weekly musical press and listening to the Evening Session and the legendary John Peel.

I can’t quite remember exactly how or when I discovered Nirvana. I think it was probably through Grant who probably discovered them through their first album Bleach as Grant was (and is) a bit of a Sub Pop kid with his ear to the ground for new bands and obscure 7-inches. Grant was also well educated by a mutual friend David (Dava) Tough who was a few years older than us and he had an incredible knowledge of independent music that he passed on to kids in our year as Martin Callan (bass) and Scott Sneddon (drums) played in his bands Librarian and All Too Human.

What I do remember quite vividly is being in Glasgow City Centre with Grant and Davey Lamb one day, going into various record shops and Nevermind being played in every single one. There were also posters and billboards everywhere, not to mention t-shirts. Nirvana were everywhere. Nowadays loads of goth/emo kids hang out at Central Station. It used to be indie/Nirvana kids that hung out in Argyll Street outside HMV or at the Museum of Modern Art. I remember one cool girl with bleached blonde hair wearing a black Nirvana t-shirt with a smiley f**ked face and the words; flower sniffin, kitty petting, baby kissin, corporate rock whores. I thought she was beautiful but I never said hi, although she always smiled and recognised me as I walked by. She looked older and cooler.

I also remember a couple of legendary TV appearances. The first being Nirvana’s appearance on the classic youth show The Word that was on late on Friday nights on Channel 4. It was incredibly tacky at times, really cheesey, yet the music on the show was amazing. I think Jo Whiley was the booker...someone who went on to better things anyway. Teenagers used to come home from drinking cider, or stay up late with the TV on quiet in their room, lusting after Danni Behr, laughing at an up and coming Mark Lehmar (check his MC Hammer interview)and wondering how Terry Christian got a job. (that said, Christian is now doing some incredible work for independent and unsigned music in Manchester).

Cobain was in the early stage of his relationship with Courtney Love and promptly dedicated ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ to ‘Courtney Love, the best f*ck in the world.’ Watching this video back just makes me grin from ear to ear.

Cobain and Nirvana has a sense of excitement about them. A garage band who got massive yet remained fiercely independent, still releasing split singles with the likes of Jesus Lizard, still remaining true to their punk roots, singing the praises of (and ultimately turning thousands on to) The Vaselines, Captain Amercia/Eugenius, Teenage Fanclub, BMX Bandits (from Glasgow alone), Sonic Youth, Mudhoney, Daniel Johnston and the Meat Puppets.

‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was the song that kicked down doors for Nirvana and left them ajar for countless other alternative independent bands to follow; Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Dinosaur Jr....

Grohl still recalls in interviews how Cobain would order them to practice the infectious riff for hours on end until it was perfected. Well they got it and so did millions of teenagers and the record company and marketing men recognised it too.

The other legendary TV performance that I recall fondly was Nirvana appearing live on the Jonathan Ross Show. They were meant to be playing their current single 'Lithium' but instead they tore into the sheer punk of ‘Territorial Pissings’, kicking over their amps and smashing up their equipment, much to the amusement of Jonathan Ross. This was punk rock, yet the shock tactics that may have scared off some viewers only attracted more teenage kids looking to rebel.

But on to the album, Nevermind; the iconic cover, laden with singles, yet jam packed with amazing tracks from start to finish.

Nevermind is not an album I listen to that often to be honest. Mainly because all of the Nirvana albums I have (other than Bleach) are on vinyl. Somehow that makes the albums even more special.

My copy of Nevermind certainly displays signs of wear and tear, yet lovingly so. It is an album that still gives me a sense of anticipation, a buzz, when I take it out the sleeve and the needle hits the record.

The record starts, of course, with the single that catapulted Nirvana from tiny bars to stadiums, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ (see the video on The Word above).The riff explodes into action, before the bass holds it all together.

A lot of the lyrics to Nevermind were supposedly written last minute, while that may show at times, the fact that maybe not a great deal of care went into some of them, makes them even more special. The first words that come to mind, or the ones that need to come to mind during recording, can sometimes be the best.

And I forget just why I taste 
Oh yeah I guess it makes me smile 
I found it hard it's hard to find 
Oh well whatever nevermind 

While the 'here we are now, entertain us' was adopted as an athem for Generation X. 20 -years down the line it is hard to measure the impact this song and Nevermind as an album had on a generation of teenagers across the world. The loud guitars, lyrics, Cobain's punk rock attitude, the video(s)...everything combined. I think that generation were crying out for a band with meaning to grasp on to and Nirvana obliged.

In Bloom was also a single from the album. The run of singles propelled Nirvana skywards and their sense of humour was allowed to flourish in the videos that accompanied them, none more so than in the video for this one.

There is yet another huge riff, distorted, Cobain's voice straining to its raw best. Two songs into the album, both mention guns, although this one is in a sexual context (to me anyway). The video cuts between suited and bespectacled Nirvana on an Ed Sullivan-esque show, to them playing on the same show in dresses, smashing the place up and being and true to their punk roots. Perhaps a pop at Geffen for the stuff that the record company were enforcing on Nirvana.

Sell the kids for food. Weather changes moods. 
Spring is here again. Reproductive glands. 

 He's the one who likes all the pretty songs. 
And he likes to sing along. And he likes to shoot his gun. 
But he knows not what it mean. Knows not what it mean. And I say yeah. (x2) 

We can have some more. Nature is a whore. 
Bruises on the fruit. Tender age in bloom. 

'Come As You Are' was one of my favourites off this record when it came out. A little mellower, yet with Cobain still showcasing that beautiful raw voice, only in a slightly different way. Of course it wasn't all about Cobain, Nirvana were a true band. Dave Grohl exploding on drums throughout the album and Krist Novoselic keeping it all together on bass. Of course this song also mentions 'gun'. 

'Breed' is one of the punkiest songs on Nevermind and it was a real favourite of mine as a teenager. Listening to it now, it still is. The band tear through it, barely pausing for breath, Cobain spewing out lyrics, Grohl and Novoselic locked in a manic groove, distorted guitars for a solo. The 'I don't care' and 'I don't mind' lyrics were just ripe for teenagers to sing.

'Lithium' is just f**king brilliant. Taking the 'yeah yeah yeah's' from Cobain's beloved Beatles and turning them into something different altogether. Nirvana were tagged with the quiet-loud-quiet-loud brush at times by lazy journalists. In reality they were just a shit hot band that knew when to explode into action as they do to devastating effect in this song with the 'I'm not gonna crack' section.

I like it. I'm not gonna crack.
I miss you. I'm not gonna crack. 
I love you.I'm not gonna crack. 
I killed you. I'm not gonna crack. (x2)

'Polly' slows things down. This was a real common room favourite at school, with both this version and the electric version from Incesticide receiving equal blasts of love on the ghetto blasters. The song is allegedly (well quite clearly really) about the abduction, rape and torture of a girl who had been attending a rock show. 

'Territorial Pissings' is pure punk rock as demonstrated in the Jonathan Ross show video above. Cobain pushes his voice to breaking point screaming 'gotta find a way, a better way' before one of my favourite lyrics;

just because you're paranoid, don't mean they're not after you

If Side 1 of Nevermind is full of singles, Cobain cuts loose on Side 2, kicking off with 'Territorial Pissings' before going on to demonstrate his ability for melody with 'Drain You'. Listening to the lyrics now, it could easily be interpreted as a love song (no Courtney pun intended). 

'Lounge Act' is now possibly my favourite song from Nevermind. I just love the way it flows, the lyrics, the guitars and the hooks. Cobain is just in sensational form with his voice, just spitting out the lyrics towards the end.

And I've got this friend, you see

Who makes me feel and I
Wanted more than I could steal
I'll arrest myself, I'll wear a shield
I'll go outta my way to prove I still
Smell her on you

'Stay Away' is pure punk pop, for some reason it makes me smile. The lyrics are almost bubble gum pop with Cobain rhyming stuff of and Grohl responding, it is fast, furious and fun;

Monkey see, monkey do 
(I don't know why)
Rather be dead than cool 
(I don't know why)
every line ends in rhyme 
(I don't know why)
less is more, love is blind 
(I don't know why)

'On A Plain' is another fave of mine, the lyrics made me smile as a teenager and they still do. It's one of the poppier efforts from Nevermind. Pop isn't a word that may sit well with Nirvana fans, yet Cobain clearly had an ear for a hook and a riff. 

Some of the lyrics almost make fun of the fact that Cobain was still writing them during recording;

It is now time to make it unclear 
To write off lines that don't make sense 

And one more special message to go 
And then I'm done, and I can go home 

The song flows easily from start to finish and lyrics like the ones below hark back to childhood, the humour in the line 'the finest day I ever had, was when I learned to cry on demand' is maybe lost on some. The unplugged version is below.

I love myself better than you 
I know it's wrong so what should I do? 
The finest day that I've ever had 
Was when I learned to cry on commmand
I love myself better than you 
I know it's wrong so what should I do? 

'Something In The Way' ends Nevermind on a mellow and sombre note, in complete contrast the ferocious opening. Telling the tale of when Cobain was homeless and living under a bridge in Seattle. This song is perhaps an early indication of where Cobain was heading post In Utero.

So how do you sum up Nirvana and Nevermind. It is a quite staggering album, all the more so because of the band they went on to become and the icon that Cobain was and is to millions of music fans.

Listening to it again today I am reminded of the faith that you could place in a band like Nirvana. Cobain was funny, confused, passionate, a genuine music fan...all qualities that you would want in a front man. Nirvana became massive yet never sold out. They needed the leg up from a major label to reach the masses, yet they were still punk rock, covering The Vaselines and The Meat Puppets, playing by their own rules. I can only dream about the band that they would have become. It would have been interesting.

Looking at bands today, someone with Cobain's spirit is sadly missing from the music scene. He was a one-off of course, but there appear to be far to many artists and bands that will jump through hoops and play by the rules. 

I can only hope that the flourishing DIY and underground scenes throw up an artist like Cobain or a band like Nirvana to give hope to the millions of teenagers out there. In 1991 I had Cobain, Gillespie, Brown all speaking to me through music, but also teaching me by speaking passionately about their musical tastes. 

This blog could go on and on, I'll simply end by saying that Nevermind still has immense power and depth 20-years from its release. If you have a copy, dig it out.

1 comment:

Minimal My Ass said...

I liked your story. If i had to pick the most important album of past 20 years it would be Nevermind.