'Nevermind' at 25: Why Nirvana's Breakthrough Was (And Wasn't) Revolutionary

Courtesy of UMG

In the '80s, before tastemakers from L.A. and NYC thought to pay attention, the Pacific Northwest became a breeding ground for cool bands making weird noises for their own amusement. They didn't all bake sludgy metal into crunchy punk-rock crusts, thereby creating the musical meatloaf later dubbed grunge, but that's the sound that captured the world's imagination. This had a lot to do with Nirvana.

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The trio blew the doors off the so-called Seattle scene -- and became the biggest rock band of its generation -- with Nevermind, released a quarter-century ago on Sept. 24, 1991. Famously expected to sell 200,000 copies, the album went platinum by November and topped the Billboard 200 in early 1992, dethroning Michael Jackson’sDangerous.

The significance was apparent almost immediately. Even before leader Kurt Cobain took his own life in April 1994, plenty of rock fans could recite the basic story that’s been told ever since: little band from Aberdeen, Wash., emerges virtuous from the indie underground and renders hedonistic hair metal obsolete.

Whatever truth lies in this narrative, Nevermind confirmed as many classic rock 'n' roll conventions as it destroyed. It was no fluke that Nirvana was the Seattle band that blew up, and when they cracked MTV with “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the disc’s incendiary lead single, it wasn't exactly a case of some backwater band imposing its will on a reluctant mainstream. The machinery was there for something to happen. Warrant’s “Cherry Pie” was turning poison, and Poison wasn’t much better off.

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Recorded mainly at Sound City in Van Nuys, California -- the classic rock bastion where groups like Fleetwood Mac and Tom Petty had made some of their best records -- Nevermind is an album built for mass appeal. It was funded by $120,000 of Geffen money -- almost twice its original budget, and more than 200 times Nirvana’s budget for Bleach, the debut they released on Sub Pop two years earlier. This might’ve seemed excessive if they didn’t have material to justify the cost.

The songs on Nevermind are dynamic, well arranged, and distinct from one another. Even gnarlier cuts like “Territorial Pissing” and “Stay Away” are practically bubblegum compared to something like Mudhoney’s 1988 debut EP Superfuzz Bigmuff, one of the non-Nirvana recordings sometimes held up as grunge’s apotheosis. Anyone who thinks that EP’s leadoff track, “Touch Me I’m Sick,” could’ve upset pop culture like “Teen Spirit” did needs to have their head examined.

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Mudhoney were great, though, and they ultimately wound up on a major -- just like Soundgarden and Screaming Trees, fellow Seattle groups that actually made their big-league debuts before Nirvana did. (Also on majors at the time: Jane’s Addiction, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and R.E.M.) In theory, either of them could’ve been the ones responsible for your grandmother knowing the word “grunge,” but the former’s witchy metal and the latter’s spooky, brooding psych-rock were a little too dark to spark the revolution.

Not even Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam, who dropped Ten about a month before Nevermind, could hang with Nirvana. Vedder seemed more curmudgeonly than actively fueled by discomfort -- Nirvana’s greatest strength. Next to Cobain’s alternately shimmering and punishing “Lithium” and “Come As You Are,” which bore the influence of his beloved Pixies, Pearl Jam singles like “Alive” and “Even Flow” felt overly beholden to classic rock.

In a 1991 interview with journalist Roy Trakin, Cobain denied sweetening Nirvana’s sound for Nevermind. “We've always been fans of pop music,” Kurt said, explaining that half of the songs had been written circa Bleach but left off. At the time of that first album, Cobain said, they simply wanted to make an abrasive record. With Nevermind, they were game for throwing in a few more hooks. When they came so naturally, how could they not? Check out the prickly pop-punk nuggets “Breed” and “Drain You” or the heavy garage groover “Lounge Act” -- all three could’ve been singles if the follow-ups to “Teen Spirit” weren’t so strong.

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If Nirvana was at all hesitant about making radio-friendly music, producer Butch Vig knew just how to ease their mind. In an interview with The Guardian, Vig remembered how he talked Cobain into double-tracking his vocals.

“He was reluctant to do so because he thought it sounded too fake,” Vig said. “I said: ‘Well, John Lennon double-tracked his vocals.’ And as soon as I said that, Kurt said: ‘OK.’ He pretty much double-tracked all the vocals after that.”

Cobain was a massive Beatles fan, and as his famous Top 50 albums list shows, he also dug the hardcore punk of Bad Brains and Black Flag, the vintage blues of Leadbelly, the dinosaur rock of Aerosmith, and even the Scottish indie-pop of The Vaselines. He didn’t automatically fault anyone for “selling out” -- not when The Clash and Sex Pistols had been on majors and he’d himself picked Geffen because Sonic Youth got there first.

In his 2013 keynote address at SXSW, Grohl remembered how Kurt once told an A&R man, "We want to be the biggest band in the world." “I laughed,” Grohl said. “I thought he was fucking kidding. He wasn't.”

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Of course he wasn’t. Cobain got famous for the same reasons most pop stars do: He was talented, extremely good-looking, charismatic, and driven. He also had some intangible quality that made fans feel like they knew him, even if he only revealed himself in coded little increments. For as antithetical to celebrity culture as Nirvana was supposed to be, Cobain’s emergence as public figure didn’t exactly hurt the band’s prospects. (It’s hard to imagine supermarket tabloids ever getting all worked up about who Mark Lanegan or Chris Cornell was dating.)

None of this stuff -- not Vig’s slick production, not Cobain’s desire to be huge, not the soap opera that Kurt’s life became -- detract from Nevermind. Given double the budget, no other band in Seattle or elsewhere could’ve made these songs. In addition to the music being amazing, the lyrics hinted at Kurt’s sarcastic humor (“Sell the kids for food”), dark fascinations (the whole of “Polly”), fears of normality (“I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care”), contempt for humanity (“gotta find a way, a better way”), and acknowledgments of what the band was getting itself into (“monkey see, monkey do”).

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For fun, go back and actually read the lyrics to “Teen Spirit." With all the “we” stuff in the chorus, it really does seem like Cobain, a man constantly described as a reluctant spokesman, was trying to say something about his ineffectual, apathetic generation. Then he made a video where a bunch of knuckleheads smash up the pep rally, just in case you didn’t feel like figuring out what that something was.

He was, in other words, a songwriter at the peak of his powers using all available resources to get his music heard by lots of people. Call him a rebel, but that’s the oldest story in the book.


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