1991 the year that punk broke
I feel stupid and contagious, here we are now entertain us, a mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido, vay, vay, a denial, I’m worst at what I do best and for this gift I feel blessed. I found it hard, it was hard to find, oh well, whatever, Nevermind.From inlay of 20th anniversary deluxe edition of Nevermind.
On 24 September 1991, Nirvana released their second album, Nevermind on Geffen Records and turned the rock world on its head.
Produced by Butch Vig and the first to feature new drummer Dave Grohl who had replaced Chad Channing, this album was a more polished, radio-friendly sound to their debut album, Bleach.
Prior to the album coming out I had never heard of Nirvana, in fact I was totally unaware of the US underground scene as towards the late 1980s and early 1990s I was listening to a variety of heavy metal like Metallica, Megadeth, Iron Maiden, Guns N’Roses, Queensryche and even the funk metal crossover appeal with the likes of Living Colour and Faith No More.
By the summer of 1991, the biggest albums I was listening were the Black album by Metallica and Use Your Illusion 1 and 2 by Guns N’ Roses. Incredible to think that nearly a week later Nevermind was soon to be released.
At the end of September the album shot straight into the UK chart at no.36 but would probably have sold more at the time if Geffen had pressed enough copies in the UK, only 6,000 at the time of release. Priority seemed to have been more towards Guns N’Roses double album by them.
I came across Nevermind reading about it in the metal press. I was a bit sceptical at the time but somehow, I was intrigued by this band Nirvana. I hadn’t even heard Smells Like Teen Spirit. I really was in a bubble but on sheer impulse alone, I bought the album, and I was blown away with it.
The impact the album had on me was incredible from the start when it begins with the Pixies inspired Smells Like Teen Spirit to the end with the spin chilling Something In the Way, suddenly when you leave the CD running on a bit longer than normal that you get the fright of your life when from out of nowhere the chaotic feedback of Endless, Nameless starts howling through the speakers.
In a short space of time the overblown hype of the Guns N’Roses double album would soon gather dust in my collection while I embraced the new sound that was coming from the alternative rock world.
When Kurt Cobain talked about the influences of the record from the likes of Pixies, REM and The Melvins I started to take notice. When I told one of my colleagues in work that I was getting into Nirvana he recommended two Pixies albums to me, Doolittle and Bossanova.
Both albums I took to straight away and I could see where Cobain was coming from when he cited the band as an influence especially with the quiet-loud-quiet dynamic.
The album really does celebrate everything about music – mainstream pop, punk inspired hard rock and even acoustic numbers like Polly and Something in the Way.
In the winter of 1991, the band were due to play Belfast for the first time at Conor Hall which is part of the Art College. Ticket was on £6.50. But promotional duties got in the way of that gig and they were scheduled to perform on the Jonathan Ross show instead which meant the Belfast show got cancelled.
The final European dates of 1991 were cancelled in December as the band were exhausted with touring and promotion of Nevermind. Thankfully, they did come to Belfast and it was worth the wait when they came in the summer of 1992 playing at the much larger King’s Hall.
One only wonders if the gig at Conor Hall had never been cancelled it would have been some gig.
By 1992 the album had become an unexpected critical and commercial success reaching number one in the Billboard charts and knocking off Michael Jackson from the top spot.
Legacy of the album
The full effect of the album began to change my taste in music. While still liking metal I didn’t quite abandon it overnight and go the other direction. I was suddenly finding new bands to get into – Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Screaming Trees, Smashing Pumpkins, Rage Against The Machine, Jane’s Addiction, Sonic Youth, Belly, Pavement, Helmet to name but a few.
Pearl Jam were often accused of jumping on the grunge bandwagon. In fact, Ten was released a month before Nevermind. You could say I got into Nirvana first and then Pearl Jam followed. For me this wasn’t a Rolling Stones vs Beatles moment. I could appreciate both bands for what they were.
The shift in music also changed how I viewed music at home. For so long, U2 were my favourite Irish band but after Nevermind came out I would discover bands like Therapy? whose influence owed more to the US underground scene and also Ash who were at the same concert I was at when Nirvana came to Belfast in the summer of 1992.
The cultural impact
Nirvana’s breakthrough sparked a media frenzy eager to bring the band to the masses.
Their infamous world live debut on Channel 4’s The Word performing Smells Like Teen Spirit on 11 August a few weeks prior to the debut at the Reading Festival, had Kurt Cobain opening declaring to everyone “I want everyone in this room to know that Courtney Love, the lead singer of the sensational pop group Hole, is the best f**k in the world”.
By the autumn of 1991 the band were invited to perform on BBC’s Top of the Pops. I was never a fan of the format because you knew that the acts on it were lip syncing and not performing live.
When Nirvana were asking to lip sync to Smells Like Teen Spirit they refused but what we got instead was the band barely pretend to play their instruments while Kurt changed the opening lines of the song to: “Load up on drugs, kill your friends” while singing in a very deep Morrissey-like voice.
It was very funny and not something the Top of the Pops audience would be used to.
On the Tonight With Jonathan Ross they were supposed to play Lithium but instead broke out into a very loud and raucous version of Territorial Pissings, finishing by thrashing the stage and leaving only the sound of feedback in their wake. Ross was probably stunned at what he had just witnessed and probably wouldn’t have known the difference that they played a totally different song to what was expected!
In 1992 Dave Markey directed 1991: The Year Punk Broke featuring Nirvana’s label mates Sonic Youth on their European tour of that year. The film also features Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr., Babes in Toyland, Gumball and The Ramones. In many ways it kind of gives credit that Nirvana were the trailblazers for the new alternative scene coming from the States.
Also released in 1992 was the romantic comedy Singles written and directed by Cameron Crowe. While the film focuses on a group of young Gen X’ers in Seattle at the height of the grunge phenomenon it is very noticeable that Nirvana are not even name checked nor appear in the movie. Instead, it focuses on the likes of Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. For me this wasn’t a bad thing. I didn’t think much of the movie but the soundtrack was excellent.
By 1993, grunge and alterative rock had really taken a foothold. Even the BBC documentary No Nirvana which showcased the best of the US alternative scene was maybe a bit late catching on as by the time I had seen the programme most of the bands on it I was already listening to.
The pun in the title No Nirvana was very telling but you could tell by watching that that were more fantastic bands out that that deserved some success and recognition.
Thirty years later and this album still is my favourite of all time. It was a case of right time and place when it was released. It changed how I listened to music and introduced me to other bands that I would probably never have dreamed of listening to.
You can watch the really excellent documentary, When Nirvana Came to Britain, which aired on BBC recently. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000zx9h