Nirvana's 'Nevermind' at 25: Kurt Loder, John Norris & Other MTV Staff Look Back
It's hard to imagine it now, but when Nirvana's major-label debut, Nevermind, dropped on September 24, 1991, it didn't split the world in two and refashion rock overnight. The band's label, Geffen/DGC, had such low expectations, in fact, that it shipped less than 50,000 copies, assuming that the loud/quiet mix of punk and pop songcraft from the then-little-known Seattle trio might not immediately catch on.
The rest, of course, is rock mythology. In the year's since it has sold nearly 25 million copies around the world and helped cement the band's reputation as one of the most iconic rock acts of modern times. But what did it feel like when the world first heard those signature quick strums from guitarist/singer Kurt Cobain and bashy drum playing by Dave Grohl over Krist Novoselic's doomy bassline in "Smells Like Teen Spirit?" Did the molecules in the air really shift, did the hair stand up on your arms, or was it just another rock band wearing dirty sneakers and thrift store sweaters loudly moping about feeling left out?
On the 25th anniversary of the album's release Billboard spoke to some former MTV News staffers who were in the eye of the hurricane a quarter century ago to get their take on what they saw, heard and felt that lifetime ago.
What do you recall about the first time you heard "Teen Spirit?"
Michael Alex (Producer, MTV News): I started at MTV in January 1989 and some of the first things I produced were the station's first Pixies interview, Jane's Addiction was happening, R.E.M. was huge and Guns N' Roses had yet to be so dysfunctional that they couldn't do anything. And then this video ["Teen Spirit'] comes along and it's two things: it's a tremendous rock and roll song that everyone gets immediately. It's so obviously an authentic stop-what-you're-doing song with a video that's fantastic. These kids looks real, the janitor is strange, there's something about Kurt Cobain. You're just like, "oh s--t."
Matt Pinfield (former "120 Minutes" Host, SiriusXM DJ (Lithium channel), author All These Things That I've Done): I was the program director at WHTG [in New Jersey] and I had already been banging "Sliver" [from the band's debut album, Bleach] and when I got the 7" single of "Teen Spirit" -- which I still have -- I remember just putting it on and playing it on the radio for the first time and saying, "holy s--t!" The dynamic between the three guys was one of those great moments in time when you knew something really special was happening. I remember getting together with a bunch of people at a CBGB showcase and we were all standing on the sidewalk discussing the record, the song, the lyrics... just sitting there talking about it you could really feel something was changing at that moment.
Did everyone at the channel get on board right away with the video or did it take a minute?
John Norris (former MTV News correspondent, host Hangin' With MTV): I remember that it was so different from everything else that had dominated the channel in the years leading up to that, but that it also crept up on people. The label didn't give it a big push... there wasn't this idea that "this is going to be the next big thing." One of the great things about it was that it happened seemingly organically. It was the real thing. I started as a correspondent in 1990 and around the time Nevermind came out I had this kind of lame early-TRL kind of show called Hangin' With MTV and it was driven by what was happening on the pop charts. It was a countdown of videos and when a record like "Teen Spirit" encroached on Mariah Carey, Michael Jackson and Boyz II Men... it was unlike anything I'd heard before.
Kurt Loder (MTV News reporter, host The Week in Rock): [Director] Sam Bayer’s video was a perfect encapsulation of the record’s near-anarchic spirit, and a reprise of the original near-anarchic spirit of rock & roll itself.
Riki Rachtman (former host Headbangers Ball): I loved Nirvana. When they came out I always looked at them as a rock band, I never thought of them as "grunge." My whole thing was that if you were playing a video during the daytime you can't play it on Headbanger's Ball, because it was a different vibe. It wa supposed to be more underground, but we played it because it was huge.
Alex: It was immediately the most important thing the channel was playing. In the MTV newsroom people who didn't care about rock and roll stopped to watch every single time it was on. You could be a Mariah Carey or George Michael person and it had you immediately. For a period of time it was "Teen Spirit" and that was all everyone wanted to talk about. No one knew the lyrics... we did a piece where we asked people to sing the lyrics and no one knew the words. Everyone wanted to talk about it. Tori Amos said the first time she heard it her blood felt like it would stand up and salute.
What struck you about Nevermind the first time you heard it?
Loder: How well-crafted the songs were, how slick-yet-muscular the production was, how it all rocked so hard, as if rock were something the band had just invented.
Pinfield: I used to drive to the radio station 40 minutes each way and listen to the record and it just had this incredible, insane, beautiful energy... I fell in love with it. There were a lot of great records in that era, but there was something beautifully raw, but heavy about it at the same time. [Oasis'] Noel Gallagher said it was Nevermind that allowed him to start a band and have great pop melodies over distorted guitars and noise. The beauty of it was the sum of the three parts where it all came together.
It's hard to think of now because of the ubiquity of videos on YouTube and Vevo, but at the time MTV was one of the only places to see music videos. A lot of them were slick, but Nirvana was challenging, how did they fit into the mix of GNR, Mariah Carey and George Michael?
Alex: There was clarity and it was so strong and authentic and one of the fundamental values of MTV was that you had to love something... everyone registered that this was the real deal for someone and it was so big that it had to be acknowledged. There was not a drop of phoniness to it.
Norris: "Teen Spirit" ended up on the countdown every day and it was amazing and emblematic of the culture clash of pop and this thing that all of a sudden became a significant pop act. When it blew up it was like, "what's he singing?" Nobody could make out the lyrics. We did a thing on the show where we had a lyric crawl so people could learn the lyrics and within two days of that version going up we got a cease and desist letter from Geffen which basically said "we didn't make this record so could do a lyric crawl." If Kurt had wanted the lyrics out there he would have put them out.
Rachtman: My first impression of the video was that everything was toned down: the colors were yellow and drabby. Here was a guy who was apathetic, lethargic, just playing music. They were MTV's darling even though they didn't want to be.
Riki, you had one of the most iconic moments with Kurt when he came on Headbanger's Ball in that prom dress shortly after the album came out. What do you remember about that day?
Rachtman: The joy of that job was when I got to meet some of the people who made the music, not as a fan, but as a... I was never a "journalist," but you know [what I mean]. When he came out there in that big yellow dress I didn't get that it was, "I thought it was a ball so I wore a ball gown." That's why you see my hand on my forehead, like "oh yeah." I'm so low key, not because I was uncomfortable but because I was like, "yeah, whatever." But I've never stopped liking Nirvana.
When did you realize it was about more than "Teen Spirit?"
Alex: "Teen Spirit" was an event, then the smoke clears and the blast radius is revealed and you realize that the album is filled with fantastic songs... "Come as You Are," if you heard just those two and you don't get it you don't work here. If you don't get that between those two songs there's a whole new world... we all know about Seattle and grunge and if you didn't know that world had expanded in a meaningful, powerful way. It was the realization that they had all these other songs and they weren't this unbelievable one-hit wonder but the full package that helped them build the long-term, meaningful momentum that made everyone willing to invest. And then they kept making videos and we were like 'thank you, thank you, thank you!'
Does Nevermind deserve the exalted place it has earned?
Loder: Who’s to say? I think it’s a great rock album by a great rock band. The last time I listened to “Smells like Teen Spirit,” it was still pretty ferocious. [I'm] not necessarily inclined to want to speak to people whose music I like. The music usually speaks for itself.
Alex: I never really saw anything like that. The next big thing was when Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC happened in terms of the world changing, but it didn't have that universal love and respect and on the musical level, no. [Past MTV legends such as] Madonna never did anything like that. Peter Gabriel's audience didn't have that pull for emotional teenagers who felt misunderstood and were lining up to walk the earth with someone who understood you.
Rachtman: People like to say "grunge killed heavy metal." If your music scene was so weak that it could get killed by one band from Seattle then your music scene sucked. Nobody said Alice in Chains or Soundgarden killed rock. Did they change fashion? Sure. All of a sudden you saw less pyro and lights and everything was more toned down, which was not a bad thing. Fashion changed, everything changed.
Pinfield: It was a bulldozer that made a lot of other things irrelevant and [opened things up] for all these bands not afraid to say they were in pain and have flaws. It was one of the most beautiful moments of all time and it changed my life. I don't know if a bald guy form New Jersey who was a music geek that cared so much would have gotten a shot on MTV if it wasn't for Nevermind. I still have the 4X platinum plaque of the record on my wall. I look at that and I go, "this is what changed my entire life."