Do you remember where you were on September 24th, 1991? That is, if you were even alive, since it was a quarter century ago. I was in class at community college in my home town. As usual I was hanging out on the soccer field, guitar in hand, hanging with my usual band of freaks, geeks, stoners, punks, metalheads, and the like. The buzz around campus was this song ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ that was not only all over MTV, but also becoming an actual hit song on the radio.
I know these are foreign concepts today in a time when music is portable everywhere, but at this time the commercial radio charts were ruled by Michael, Madonna, Prince, Paula Abdul, Bryan Adams and others. The rock bands that were big at this time included Guns ‘N Roses, Aerosmith, U2 and REM, not really the voice of the youth back then. Even Metallica’s Black Album (Elektra) was just taking hold. But a spunky little band from Olympia, Washington raised on equal parts Beatles, Black Sabbath, and The Pixies were about to change the landscape of music forever. Somehow this band improbably had a record that within a few weeks went from underground sensation, to a bona-fide national sensation and a household name. The band is Nirvana and the album was of course, Nevermind, which turned twenty-five years old today.
Although we concede that the ascent of Nirvana to the cultural zeitgeist was unlikely, it wasn’t a total fluke as some have been fast to report. At the time right before Nevermind hit, the band had been out a few years, and had been on the radar of the media and college radio. Bleach (Sub Pop) was credible rock album with raw catchy songs, and a strong punk influence, making the trio a buzz band. Powerhouse drummer Dave Grohl joined before the new album writing began and made a huge impact on their sound. Bassist Krist Novoselic worked tirelessly to improve his playing like never before. Band leader Kurt Cobain was already well-known in the industry as a rising talent, but was feeling uneasy about “selling out” when they signed a huge new record deal that propelled them out of the shadows. Seattle was already proving to be breeding ground of the new wave of rock gods. Thanks to taste-making Sub-Pop label, Seattle was already dubbed “next LA or New York” by the press. Prior to 1990, local heroes Soundgarden and Alice In Chains had already begun their crossover metal and rock climb to mass appeal. Prominent bands from the “The Evergreen State” with releases the same year as Nevermind included Bikini Kill, The Melvins, Mudhoney, Skin Yard, Tad, Screaming Trees, the epic supergroup tribute album Temple Of The Dog, and the début album by a little band named Pearl Jam. Although these bands were united by location, similar bands on the rise at this time regionally and nationally like Hole, Smashing Pumpkins, Pond, and Nymphs were also releasing essential albums and affecting college radio, garnering rave reviews around the same time.
The album itself was propelled by the ‘….Teen Spirit’ single, and served as the mainstream introduction to the band. Having left Sub Pop’s respected doors for big-time powerhouse label Geffen/DGC meant big budget promotion, press, and radio push. The song was everywhere in no time. A little punk, kind of hard rock sounding with some outwardly gibberish, but ironic for the time lyrics that were instantly imprinted on your brain. The song itself was one of the last songs written for the album, just a week before entering the studio to record it. Much like his hero Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath and their first hit ‘Paranoid’, Cobain came up with the song as an afterthought and never expected it rate high, let alone be the lead track on the album. Surely that notion must have seemed preposterous to him at the time. The song was inspired by his love of The Pixies and almost a joke from the first riff, to the words, to the video concept. The joke however, was soon on Cobain.
Those who got past the ‘…Teen Spirit’ track and the bizarre, but now iconic album cover were treated to an impressive record, with huge hit songs, but also strong album tracks that were a leap in maturity in terms of riffs, lyrics and talent. ‘Come As You Are’, ‘Lithium’ and ‘In Bloom’ may not be the first taste the masses were fed, but surely these lasting examples of the bands’ best songcraft and made a huge impact. Deep cuts like ‘Breed’, ‘Polly’, ‘Something In The Way’, ‘Lounge Act’, ‘On A Plain’, and ‘Territorial Pissings’ are often cited as beloved favorites by press and often covered by other prominent acts of today. The album had the classic disaffection of youth, but the urgency and desperation that hit you like a brick to the head. As much as Cobain especially wanted to stay tied to his love of punk, the albums’ crisp pro-level production by Butch Vig gave the album a sheen that Cobain later criticized, but made it much more palpable for radio rock fans to digest than Bleach would have ever been.
The cultural impact of Nevermind and Cobain have never been clearer in this lens. The album was the perfect storm of the right band, the talent in the writing, the music industry’s desire to be a king-maker, the need of the press to make a golden god out of Cobain. If you were already a punk by 1991, or a metalhead into heavier music that summer, Nirvana would have little real effect on you. If you were like me, you bought the album soon after release, out of curiosity more than anything else. Nirvana didn’t restore punk to a former glory, or were the first underground band to ever “come out of nowhere to rule the charts”. However, if you were of a certain age, especially those 90s teens to early 20s when Nevermind hit, you can appreciate how seismic this release was to their lives. Not only bands of the same ilk went big after this album dropped, but in a way Cobain’s goal of drawing attention to his punk idols and alt-rock legends did actually come true. In retrospect, before his death Cobain begrudged his masterpiece as less impressive and less true to his vision when viewed against Bleach or In Utero. But to a generation of music fans and young artists that reached from dark garages all over the world, to the very fabric of pop culture, Nevermind’s legacy is still being felt in 2016, perhaps more than ever.
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