This week, Billboard is publishing a series of lists and articles celebrating the music of 20 years ago. Our 2002 Week continues here with a look at one of the strangest hits of 2002 — an unearthed new single from a legendary ’90s band that had ceased to exist eight years earlier, yet felt eerily at home in the modern rock radio of the day.
The most anticipated rock single of 2002 was not by Red Hot Chili Peppers or Audioslave or Coldplay. It wasn’t even a single – at least not initially. For a few months, it was a B-side. Then it was a memory, a battleground, and finally, a hit.
Eight years after it was tracked, Nirvana‘s “You Know You’re Right” ruled Billboard‘s Alternative Airplay chart for four weeks in October and November: their longest-ever reign on that chart. That it did so well was a testament to Kurt Cobain’s bone-deep sense of songcraft – and the still-sizable fanbase Nirvana had established before Cobain’s April 1994 suicide.
Cynically or not, its success could also be taken as an indictment of the state of rock radio at the time. Whether or not Nirvana and their peers single-handedly pushed glam metal off its perch, in 2002 there was little evidence of a similar revolution. Rap-rock was at an ebb; nu-metal’s provocateurs were easing into balladry; the revanchist phenomenon of garage-inflected rock ‘n’ roll — all those “The” bands — had scored a ton of magazine covers but few real stateside hits. The alt-rock gold rush Nirvana had inadvertently inaugurated had long since vacated, and any direction, from the glossy pop-punk of Good Charlotte to Chevelle’s bruise-black alternative metal, was possible. Nevertheless, “You Know You’re Right” fit snugly into this unsettled milieu, a world partly of Nirvana’s making.
Back in January 1994, Billboard published a front-page report on the state of modern rock radio. It noted that the November prior, the format had reached its largest audience, and the piece detailed four different strains of the style on the airwaves. Nirvana was slotted into the “heritage modern rock” quadrant, reserved for “the format pioneers”: an accurate but still astonishing designation for a band with just three albums. That month, though, the band was less concerned with expanding their territory than just knocking something out on tape. With a European tour just a couple months away, they booked some time with Seattle-based engineer/producer Adam Kasper—between work on Pearl Jam’s Vs. and Soundgarden’s Superunknown—at Robert Lang Studios, a (literally) underground concern near Dave Grohl’s house. If the trio got a B-side out of the deal, the sessions would be a success.
The first couple of days, Cobain was unaccounted for, so Grohl and Krist Novoselic alternated jamming with working out a few of Grohl’s compositions, some of which (“Big Me,” “February Stars”) would become alt-rock staples for his post-Nirvana project Foo Fighters. When Cobain finally showed, he was ready to work on one song: “Kurt’s Tune #1”. Despite the anonymous title, his bandmates were familiar with it: they’d bashed it out at a few soundchecks as well as a Chicago concert the previous fall. In typical Cobain style, the lyrics were left to the last minute. Aggressive passivity (“I will move away from here/You won’t be afraid of fear”) gives way to uterine imagery (“I’m so warm and calm inside”) and one of Kurt’s trademark sardonicisms (“things have never been so swell”). As usual, his instinctive approach and trademark yowl created additional ambiguities: there are ghost words here. (Is he singing she just wants to love himself? On the chorus, does he shout pain? Or just hey?)
A few takes later, the band had something complete, something bludgeoning and cathartic. Cobain could find bleakness at any volume, but rarely had his band been so despairingly heavy, front to back. Had it been released as a single at the time—though again, that was not the plan—it might have represented a defense of alternative rock: sarcasm as weapon, rather than workwear.
As a single in 2002, it felt like the reminder of a debt. The Beatles’ entire recording ccareer could fit between Nirvana’s last studio single and “You Know You’re Right,” and yet the trio slammed into the charts like no time had passed. At one point, Novoselic felt compelled to note that the final mix was practically identical to how the song sounded in ‘94. It’s understandable why he did that: sonically, there are a few minor prophecies here. Grohl and Cobain hashed out a tactile crawl (owing more than a little to Alice in Chains’ “Would?”) that could later be spotted in the clammy hands of Godsmack and Disturbed. The affectless, brittle chime that begins the track (probably coaxed from Cobain’s bridge) is cousin to the guitar-harmonic ostinato that begins Puddle of Mudd’s 2001 #5 Hot 100 evergreen “Blurry.” (Coincidentally, Grohl employed harmonics during the dropout in Foo Fighters’ “All My Life,” which would succeed “You Know You’re Right” at No. 1 on Alternative Airplay.)
And then there was Cobain’s voice: as thin and malleable as a sheet of, uh, lithium. It was an ideal raw material for the practitioners of what became known as post-grunge. If those bands got grief for how streamlined their angst sounded, well, that was how radio grunge sounded to them. Musing on Nirvana’s legacy in 2011, what came to mind for Seether bassist Dale Stewart was everyone it inspired. “I think it’s because the music is really simple and the melodies are strong,” he said. “I think in many ways, it made music accessible to kids.” In a 2020 radio interview, Puddle of Mudd lead singer Wes Scantlin was asked about a clutch of iconic grunge acts, including Nirvana. “All of [those bands] are all wonderful artists and just simplified music, in my opinion,” he responded. “I appreciate and I celebrate his life, but I could not play any of the solos that Eddie Van Halen did.” He could, however, cover Nirvana. (Some of the time, anyway.)
Of course, there was another reason “You Know You’re Right” fit so snugly onto modern-rock radio: Nirvana and their grunge peers never really left it. Grohl, Eddie Vedder, Chris Cornell: they were still chart mainstays. (Pearl Jam and Foo Fighters both even had Adam Kasper behind the boards for their 2002 albums.) Even the peripatetic Novoselic got in on the action, with his alt-rock supertrio Eyes Adrift releasing their first (and only) album in September. In December of 2001, MTV News, noting an ongoing lawsuit between Courtney Love and Kurt’s bandmates, reported that their Diamond-certified breakthrough album Nevermind was routinely selling over 200,000 copies a year. The sound that made Nirvana a heritage modern rock act ensured that they would appear on – and influence – the format for years to come.
But Courtney Love saw “You Know You’re Right” as key to extending Nirvana’s relevance for younger generations. As work on a proposed Nirvana box set picked up in 2001, she sued to dissolve the LLC she had formed with Novoselic and Grohl after Cobain’s death. One of the points of contention was “You Know You’re Right,” the tapes for which Novoselic had taken home after the Kasper sessions. Kurt’s bandmates saw “You Know You’re Right” — a rare example of a completed, unreleased track in a catalogue that had thus far resisted much excavation — as a potential jewel for the set. Love maintained that a box release would dampen the song’s impact, and proposed a greatest-hits disc that featured the song. To be sure, she had long understood the power of the track: her band Hole performed it during a 1995 MTV Unplugged session as “You’ve Got No Right”, and in March 2002 Love reportedly played the song in full at a one-off DJ gig in London.
The parties settled before trial: the finished mix of “You Know You’re Right” would lead off a single-disc hits compilation, and a home demo would appear on what would be 2004’s multimedia set With the Lights Out. The single would make its Alternative Airplay debut on October 12, 2002, finding a host of fellow travelers (Pearl Jam, Chris Cornell’s new concern Audioslave), acolytes (Seether, Puddle of Mudd — whose “She Hates Me” was essentially their “About a Girl”), and the new-garage buzz bands (The Strokes, The Hives, The White Stripes, and the UK music mags’ “new Nirvana”: The Vines). As was mandatory by then, Dave Grohl was well represented, with appearances by Foo Fighters and Queens of the Stone Age, on whose 2002 album Songs for the Deaf he drummed, and which was co-produced by… Adam Kasper.
Twenty years on, Nirvana (and Cobain) have only strengthened their hold on popular culture. Their concise and brilliant catalog, paired with Cobain’s devastating exit, have made them supra-musical icons in a way that, say, the long-running and reliably great Pearl Jam is not. Cobain’s written and sonic marginalia continue to be excavated and parsed, from the 2002 book Journals to 2015’s album and documentary Montage of Heck. In the last three years, three separate comic-book movies have deployed Nirvana compositions, with Matt Reeves’ The Batman powering Nevermind closer “Something in the Way” – the opposite of “You Know You’re Right” in terms of decibels, if not despair – onto the Hot 100, their first appearance on the chart since “Right,” nearly two decades before.
Just as Love had hoped, new generations continue to find common cause with Kurt Cobain: if not specifically via the pitch-black emesis of “You Know You’re Right,” then the pain-pronged expedience that willed it into terrifying being. In a 2020 Kerrang! interview, Alternative airplay charttopper and recent guitar enthusiast Machine Gun Kelly gushed about Cobain in terms essentially identical to Scantlin’s. “Kurt didn’t give a fuck how he sounded, he gave a fuck how he felt… where the fuck was I going to learn how to play like Steve Vai? I couldn’t… give me three chords, though, and tell me to show you how I feel, and I bet you I will.”