15 Ways to Nirvana: Albums That Shaped the Band

black_flag_warNirvana frontman Kurt Cobain was 27 years old when he ended his life in his Seattle home on April 5, 1994 – leaving this earth perhaps the most iconic cultural figure of his time. As Cobain biographer Charles R. Cross emphasized, ‘He isn’t the last star in rock ’n’ roll, but he is the last true Rock Star that we’ve had to date who earned Icon status. He existed in a period that is now lost to history, when a rock artist could be played on all formats of radio, when rock was the dominant musical form.’

The tragic story of Nirvana’s rise and fall, and grunge’s parallel emergence from underground cult to worldwide phenomenon, have been duly told and retold over the years. This article instead looks closely at the musical building blocks that set the foundation for Nirvana, illuminated by 15 selected albums, in an attempt to grasp the essence of their subsequent sound – and thus get a little closer to explaining their unlikely success.

As Cobain himself said, ‘I think we sound like The Knack and the Bay City Rollers being molested by Black Flag and Black Sabbath.’ An assessment not without accuracy or charm.

Nirvana leaned against the obvious persuasions of hardcore and hard rock, but this was interspersed with a broad and more commercially friendly side that appealed far beyond the inner clique. Sub Pop’s Jonathan Poneman put it this way, ‘Part of what was so captivating about Nirvana’s music was not so much its stunning originality, but its remarkable fusion of so many different strands of influence.’

Kurt Cobain was very open to the music he liked and took inspiration from, and shared passing lists of Nirvana’s favorite bands, albums, and songs. Such was the case in this famous paper in which Kurt scribbled down Nirvana’s Top 50 favorite albums – a list that has led many fans to increase the volume of the album collection.

Top-50-by-Nirvana

These were not necessarily Cobain’s favorites, but rather 15 bands and albums that are co-responsible for laying the musical groundwork for Nirvana – and by extension, for the development of the alternative rock into the ’90s.

* * *

black_sabbath_bsBlack Sabbath:
Black Sabbath (1970)
Black Sabbath were the foundation for what would become heavy metal, and, naturally enough, their debut album is one of rock’s dark mastodons. The rainy intro opens the gates to a post-industrial wasteland in 1970 Birmingham, with a resonance that carried itself to the ears of a couple of boy ears on the west coast 10-15 years later.

Black Sabbath‘s leaden sound spawned many bastard children over the years, not least of which includes Nirvana’s debut album. Bleach plods though the same muddy tracks – which would help define grunge in the late 1980s.

 

 

 

iggy_raw_powerIggy & The Stooges:
Raw Power (1973)
Iggy Pop was one of Cobain’s role models, with similarities in both music and attitude. Iggy was a demon on the stage, writhing on the floor, rolling around in broken glass; he was as an out of control force of ‘raw power’, destructive drug use and uncontainable energy. Cobain absorbed this persona into Nirvana, not least in their early gigs where anarchy and chaos were prevailing forces. Musically, of course, proto-punk machinery from Detroit also had an obvious effect on Nirvana. The Stooges – and Raw Power especially – are punk rock required reading.

 

 

 

kiss_destroyerKiss:
Destroyer (1976)
There’s an obvious superficial distance between the cynical, flannel-clad Seattle rockers’, and pyrotechnically-aided arena rock of four men dressed like superheroes. Yet Kiss was an integral part of growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, and they offered a sense of escapism to the misfit youth of the time. Like it or not, Nirvana has roots elementary school scribbles of Starchild. They recorded a cover of ”Do You Love Me” off of Destroyer, which also includes “Detroit Rock City” – later paraphrased as “Sub Pop Rock City” by Soundgarden. And as fate would have it, on a December’s day in 2013, Kiss and Nirvana were both inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

 

 

SEX PISTOLS_NEVERMINDSex Pistols:
Never Mind The Bollocks Here’s The Sex Pistols (1977)
With their first and only album, Sex Pistols sent shock waves into the establishment, catapulting punk into a mass movement that shaped culture and opened up opportunities for a new generation of artists in its wake – a similar effect to what Nirvana would repeat 15 years later. Could it be a coincidence that Nevermind and Never Mind the Bollocks… made their greatest mark not by shaping musical trends but in shaking the music industry and the cultural establishment? Both mark the boiling over point of an underground phenomenon – the beginning of a new era where the boundaries between alternative and mainstream became more porous. A game-changing work of its time and a killer plate of punk rock to boot.

 

 

cheap_trickCheap Trick:
Cheap Trick (1977)
‘I’ll be the first to admit that we’re the ’90s version of Cheap Trick or the Knack’ stated Kurt Cobain in his liner notes for the compilation album Incesticide. Cheap Trick had a penchant for British pop invasion (think The Kinks) which they used as the foundation for their fusion of power pop and hard rock, with a dash of punk. Their eponymous debut is chopped a bit rougher than their later more radio friendly sound. If you’re wondering whether Cobain was referencing the same Knack that produced the one hit wonder, “My Sharona”, you’d be right. In the Cobain biography Heavier Than Heaven Kurt meets up with a friend in 1988: ‘There’s this great record that I’ve discovered that you HAVE to hear. Kurt pulled out Get the Knack. Romero thought Kurt was being sarcastic, and inquired, ‘Are you serious?’ ‘You’ve got to listen to this – it’s an awesome pop album,’ was Kurt’s deadpan reply.’

 

neil_young_rust_never_sleepsNeil Young & Crazy Horse:
Rust Never Sleeps (1979)
‘It’s better to burn out than fade away.’ The stanza, taken from Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)”, is the penultimate line of Kurt Cobain’s suicide not. Young would dedicate the entirety of his 1994 album Sleeps With Angels to Cobain. Like Iggy Pop, Young had been trying to contact Cobain shortly before he died. In Young’s autobiography, he writes: “I, coincidentally, had been trying two reach him through our offices to tell him That I thought he was great and he should do exactly what he thought he should do and fuck everybody else…” Neil Young was early to popularize the flannel shirt as the preferred rock uniform. The echo of his thundering guitar rang deep into the forests the northwest, earning him the title, ‘Grandfather Of Grunge.’

 

 

young_marble_giants_youthYoung Marble Giants:
Colossal Youth (1980)
Minimalist and magical: Young Marble Giants’ first album from 1980 is a something of a forgotten masterpiece, and it has its natural place here as a representative of the British post-punk that Cobain felt most at home in. Far from the angry, snot-nosed punk image his stage persona let on, Cobain shared much of their introversion, as well as their self-destructiveness. Together with their Scottish counterparts, The Vaselines, these Welsh were among Cobain’s most relatable artists. In an interview with MTV Brazil in 1993 Kurt Cobain underlines that he was ‘heavily influenced by them’ – less in sound than in terms of ‘their emotions, the feeling, the sincerity and their fantastic songwriting.’

 

 

 

flipper_genrericFlipper:
Album – Generic Flipper (1982)
Kurt Cobain could make a band cool by simply muttering their name in passing – as he did The Vaselines – or by sporting a concert T-shirt in public – as he did with his well-worn Flipper shirt. And glory to him for that – if there’s a band that deserves to be lifted out of obscurity, it’s Flipper. The San Francisco band’s epic debut from 1982 check’s every box in the rock handbook: rule breaking, destructive, infantile and reckless. Flipper slowly cranked their songs through a meat grinder, without fully knowing what would come out the other side. En route, they stumbled upon such punk anthems as “Sex Bomb” while blazing a magnificent trail to madness.

 

 

 

black_flag_my_warBlack Flag:
My War (1984)
As pioneers of American underground rock into the ’80s, and originators of the California hardcore sound, Black Flag is obvious primary school curriculum for Nirvana. On their later album, My War, the band took punk into a slower, heavier and more militant territory. This had a clear effect on bands like Melvins and Nirvana. Black Flag frontman Greg Ginn started the SST label in 1978, which went on to become one of the most important publishers of the ’80s – and a role model for Sub Pop’s rise some years later.

 

 

 

husker_du_new_dayHüsker Dü:
New Day Rising (1985)
New Day Rising marks an important transition for the power trio of Hüsker Dü. Without losing their frenetic power and strength, here they write pop-flavored melodies that shine through the layers of treble fuzz, albeit not overpoweringly. With a little more polishing, New Day Rising could have been the Nevermind of the ’80s. As Krist Novoselic admitted, ‘Nirvana’s blend of pop, punk and metal was nothing new, Hüsker Dü did it before us.’ From the same circuit and time period, it is also worthy to mention the parallel developments by The Replacements, Butthole Surfers, and Meat Puppets – all of whom were significant fertilizers for the ripening of Nirvana.

 

 

beat_happening_jamboreeBeat Happening:
Jamboree (1988)
Sub Pop rapidly grew into a multinational brand in the ’90s, but they initially came from a proud tradition of strong underground labels from the heyday of SST, Touch & Go – and K Records in nearby Olympia, Washington. K was formed in 1982 by Calvin Johnson, the frontman of Beat Happening. Lo-fi aesthetics dominated the label’s releases, casually produced by friends and acquaintances in the region, which helped chart course for the “alternative revolution” and the rise of indie rock as a mainstream phenomenon. Musically, there is a certain distance between the compact guitar rock of Nirvana and the more quirky indie pop of Beat Happenings, but the relationship can be illustrated by this quote from the band: ‘We are Beat Happening, and we do not do Nirvana covers. They do Beat Happening covers, so let’s get that straight.’

 

 

killdozer_twelveKilldozer:
Twelve Point Buck (1989)
Madison, Wisconsin band Killdozer ruled the 1980s underground, along with acts like Butthole Surfers, Laughing Hyenas, and Scratch Acid (pre-Jesus Lizard). Their slow, sludgy punk-on-downers sound distinguished them as early predecessors to grunge, especially for the periphery scene outside of Seattle. The band became known for its original and unexpected cover songs – such as a throaty rendition Don McLean’s “American Pie” – a talent Cobain and Co. also became known for after the live recording, MTV Unplugged in New York. They worked repeatedly with technician Butch Vig in Madison’s Smart Studios. As a result of hearing Killdozer’s 1989 LP Twelve Point Buck, Nirvana hired Vig to work on In Utero. After Cobain’s death, Killdozer also record 1995’s God Hears Pleas of the Innocent with Steve Albini.

 

dead_moon_graveyardDead Moon:
In The Graveyard (1988)
Barbarous garage rock has a long history in the Pacific Northwest, with bands such as The Kingsmen (“Louie Louie”) and The Sonics as key originators. Portland-band Dead Moon push forward this rich legacy and remind us that neither Nirvana, nor grunge as a whole, appeared from nowhere. Unlike Nirvana and the landslide that followed in their wake, the Dead Moon remained in the garage while the other left the scene in limousines. And there they still had it pretty good until dissolving in 2006.

 

 

 

pixies_surferPixies:
Surfer Rosa (1988)
Telling the story behind “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Kurt Cobain confessed, ‘I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying two rip off the Pixies.’ And indeed, Nevermind shares countless similarities with Pixies, in song structure and, notably, in the powerful soft-loud dynamics that Nirvana would further perfect. Sound engineer and producer Steve Albini was commissioned to produce In Utero as a result of his signature work on Surfer Rosa.

 

 

 

melvins_ozmaMelvins:
Ozma (1989)
Seattle rock’s anomalous emergence came out nowhere, and in a matter of years the city’s musical profile transitioned from a loser-like sense of coolness to streamlined factory for mass culture. But one band never changed. Melvins were heavier, stickier and gloomier than all the others – and they were among Cobain’s biggest musical influences, especially noticeable on Bleach. Melvins would later serve as role models for an even heavier, slower and more somber drone rock formulated by bands like Earth and Sunn O))). Melvins have definitely left a heavy imprint in the rock history books, and their first two albums are authentic sludge rock at its best.

 

 

 

Bjørn Hammershaug
Originally published on read.tidal.com October 12, 2014.

Reklamer

Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Live At The Fillmore East – March 6 & 7 1970 (Reprise, 2006)

Fri og bevare meg vel for en kveld det må ha vært for publikum på Fillmore East disse to marskveldene i 1970! Neil Young & Crazy Horse og Miles Davis med sitt funkadelic freakshow på en og samme billett. Lucky bastards! Vel, nå har vi endelig gleden av å ta del i noe av seansen vi andre også – 36 år senere.

Dylan-fans har i lang tid kost seg med den flotte Bootleg-serien, mens arkivene til Neil Young stort sett har samlet støv. Live At The Fillmore East er første utgivelse i Neil Young Archives Performance Series – og vi vet alle at det er mye gull som gjemmer seg i hans skuffer og skap. La oss håpe dette blir starten på en lang tradisjon.

Opptaket som foreligger er fantastisk. Lyden er upåklagelig og kunne vært tatt opp i går. Låtene mesterlige. Vi møter et band i full blomst. Alt er likevel ikke hallelujah med denne utgivelsen, men mer om det litt senere.

I 1970 turnerte Young med mesterverket Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, som danner tyngdepunktet også for denne konserten. Crazy Horse fremstår her i sin originale besetning; Talbot, Molina, Danny Whitten og med Jack Nitzche bak tangentene. De gir låtene en rufsete tyngde og en solid innpakning som særlig kler de to lange sporene; ”Cowgirl In The Sand” og ”Down By The River”.

Særlig interessant er samarbeidet mellom Whitten og Young, som fikk sin sørgelige slutt et par år senere. Whitten bidrar selv med sin egen ”Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown”, som framstår med en annen glød enn versjonen på Tonight’s The Night – da mer som et ekko over hans plutselige bortgang. Whitten/Young beveger seg langt over på den andre siden på Cowgirl og River, og tar lytteren med seg på en uslepen og vakker ferd der gitarene snakker samme språk. Ren nytelse fra start til slutt. Alle skal kjenne til disse to søylene i Youngs kanon, videre utlegninger bør derfor være unødvendige.

Ved siden av tittelkuttet på Everybody Knows…, får vi også høre to mer obskure låter fra Youngs rike katalog. ”Wonderin’” ble ikke festet på plate før på mer forglemmelige Everybody’s Rockin’ (1983) men stikker seg ut som en riktig så jovial gamperocker. Jeg møtte ”Winterlong” for første gang i Pixies’ versjon på innsamlingsplaten The Bridge, og den finnes på samleren Decade. En av Youngs glemte og mer underkjente perler.

Det er altså ikke så mye å gneldre på selve låtmaterialet – men det er et par andre ting som både undrer og irriterer en del. For det første, i motsetning til Dylans lekre bokser, så tilbyr godeste Neil en grådig lefse uten noe å snakke om av innleggshefte eller tilleggsmateriale. Hvor er den fete boken som burde vært obligatorisk? Nå følger det riktignok med en DVD, men det var unektelig en liten skuffelse å oppdage at den kun består av bilder fra konserten med lyden fra platen som følge. Noe mer graverende er det at halve konserten er utelatt. I følge det gamle avisutklippet i coveret startet det hele med ’Young opening alone, seated in a straight back chair…’ Hvorfor er ikke denne delen med? Er opptaket borte? Lyden for dårlig? Vi får ingen forklaring.

Derfor – når mesteren først fikk ut finger’n og startet med sitt arkivprosjekt er det litt forbasket at inntrykket virker litt slurvete. Men låtene, bandet, fremføringen og gløden – fremdeles av ypperste klasse.

Green On Red: L.A Noir

Da jeg ble oppmerksom på den nye amerikanske rocken på midten av 80-tallet var det som å bli slengt inn i et parallellunivers som det viste seg å være vanskelig å komme ut av. Etiketter som Zippo, Enigma og Frontier, og artister som Giant Sand, The Dream Syndicate og Thin White Rope ble dyrket. Noen av de mange artistene som åpenbarte seg ble senere berømte (REM), noen lever fremdeles i beste velgående (Giant Sand), enkelte var kortvarige gleder (Naked Prey, The Long Ryders), mens atter andre raskt vendte tilbake til glemselens daler (Rave-Ups, Dump Truck, Rank And File).

Green On Red startet opp som punkbandet The Serfers hjemme i Tucson på slutten av 1970-tallet, men endret navn og flyttet tidlig i karrieren til Los Angeles. De fant sin plass i Paisley Underground-scenen, sammen med blant andre The Bangles, True West, The Rain Parade og The Dream Syndicate. Det betyr countryrock, psykedelia, ringende gitarer, storby og ørken i skjønn forening, der hele dere katalog fram til 1987 står som hjørnesteiner i en rik periode av amerikansk gitarrock. Deres beste album, Gravity Talks, får behandles ved en senere anledning.

Les mer:
The Paisley Underground: Los Angeles’s 1980s psychedelic explosion (The Guardian)

Green On Red: s/t (Down There, 1982)
Green On Reds første utgivelse på Steve Wynns Down There Records føyer seg inn blant etikettens stilige EP-debutanter. Dere med god husk minnes sikkert Naked Preys oransje, Dream Syndicates grønne og Green On Reds røde. Den er merkbart spinklere i lyden enn deres senere produksjoner, men forsterket av de samme psykedeliske overtonene og den angstfulle nevrosen som dels kjennetegnet bandet fram til 1987.

Gitarene ligger gjemt bak Chris Cacavas’ alltid tilstedeværende tangenter, og man hører deres new wave/punk innflytelser plassert langt fram i lydbildet. Uferdige og vinglete øyeblikk til tross, fyrverkeriene ”Aspirin”, ”Apartment 6” og ”Black Night” bidrar til at Green On Reds debut står som et av deres mest markante utgivelser, med preg av både skranglepop og surfrock som de egentlig aldri spant skikkelig videre på. Jeg synes bloggen Detailed Twang beskriver stemningen best: ’A cool trip through a flickering, late-night Los Angeles where speed is plentiful and troubles come in bunches.’ Slik blir det bra musikk av.

Gas Food Lodging (Enigma, 1985)
Fra bakgater til landeveien: Det er en stund siden jeg har hørt Gas Food Lodging i sin helhet, men den har holdt seg overraskende bra. Selve låtene er jo av tidløs karakter, og lydbildet er fortsatt slitesterkt. Dream Syndicate-gitarist Paul B. Cutler var hentet inn som produsent, og med ham på laget framstod Green On Red med mindre psykedelisk garasjepreg, og som noe røffere i kantene enn på sine foregående utgivelser. De skjærende gitarene som også preget tidlig Syndicate ble mer markante, og den æren må nok tilfalle nytilsatte Chuck Prophet IV. Chis Cacavas’ el.piano ble erstattet med en fyldigere orgellyd, Dan Stuart skrev noen av sine beste låter og hele kvintetten virket rett og slett i solid form. Bare et par år senere falt jo bandet fra hverandre i en salig blanding av pills & booze & rock’n’roll.

’It seems that no one has any faith anymore, but isn’t that what we invented heroes for…’ Slik åpner platen med ”That’s What Dreams” som en leksjon i realistisk booze’n’roll: ’Guess I’ll just be poor the rest of my life, but that’s better than giving up the fight…’ Sammen med den rufsete dagen-derpå slageren ”Hair Of The Dog” og honky-tonken ”Black River” understreker Green On Red et bemerkelsesverdig sterk debutalbum.

Det er likevel side 2 på Gas Food Lodging som er bandets magnum opus. ”Easy Way Out”, ”Sixteen Ways”, ”The Drifter” og ”Sea Of Cortez” er alle sentrale låter innen skitten amerikansk hverdagsrealisme. De fortjener å bli spilt sammenhengende, helt til versjonen av protestklassikeren ”We Shall Overcome” bringer oss tilbake rundt leirbålet, etter en tunge ferd fra Seattle til Mexicogulfen. Her viser Green On Red sin tilhørighet, og de bør med rette plasseres et sted mellom Velvet og Creedence, Neil Young og Johnny Thunders, Hank og Stones. Dan Stuarts predikerende klagesang bærer fortellerstemmen om drapsmenn, sosial urettferdighet, fyll og elendighet. Sinte, troverdige og mørke historier fra USAs bakgater rulles frem med en fandenivoldsk energi og en seig knurring med jordnære røtter. Det er fra slike frø det vokser klassisk rock.

The Killer Inside Me (Mercury, 1987)
USA, 1987: Reagan-perioden drar seg mot slutten, økonomien er relativt svak, kriminaliteten og arbeidsledigheten høy, klasseskillet økende. Dette er den politiske og sosiale virkeligheten som vibrerer bak Green On Reds mørke odysse The Killer Inside Me.

Stemningen illustreres på omslaget. Bilkøen som slurer avgårde mot kveldsmørket, mens solen sukker langsomt farvel over neonglorien langs motorveien. Tittelen er hentet fra Jim Thompsons kritikerroste krimklassiker ved samme navn, om den paranoide og schizofrene politimannen Lou Ford. Han er en tilsynelatende sympatisk fyr som beskyttet av sitt presentable ytre begår en rekke ugjerninger. Boken er skrevet i første person, slik at leseren kommer tett under huden på drapsmannen. The Killer Inside Me anno 1987 er også en under-huden historie om drapsmenn, helter og andre skikkelser fra den amerikanske hverdagen.

Green On Red er rufsete og rå i formen, med Dan Stuarts piskende stemme i rollen som samfunnets anklager og småkårsfolkets forsvarer. Chris Cacavas, Chuck Prophet og Jack Waterson har blitt en tight gjeng, og rocker langt hardere enn det Green On Red tidligere hadde vist på plate. Her kommer det fra, både røttene til Neil Young & Crazy Horse på midten av 70-tallet iblandet en dose Exile On Maine Street. med rølperocken til The Replacements. Produsent Jim Dickinson sjonglerer lyden av rock, country og gospel og unngikk stort sett å skru den flate 80-tallssoundet som har ødelagt så mange fine utgivelser fra denne tiden.

Vi beveger oss inn i Clarkesville ’where the rich get richer and the poor get less’ og småbyen som symbol på vrangsiden av den amerikanske drømmen. Sosial kritikk er et tema som er gjennomgående for hele albumet. Her handler det om ’cheap labour’, om å bli hengt ’for the color of your skin or for the church you go in’. Det handler om å være ’a pilgrim in a no man’s land’ og om mannen som ’painted flagpoles for a living’. Det handler om rotløshet, der Mexico er eneste utvei. Det tyktflytende tittelsporet er en mektig avslutter. Etter en tung rundreise på det amerikanske kontinentet er vi tilbake i Clarkesville. Bare håpløsheten og oppgittheten er tilbake, og illusjonene er fraværende. ’There’s a light in your eyes that always finds the darkness in my soul.’

’I haven’t been sober lately’ tilstår Dan Stuart på et sted her, og ble sørgelig nok heller ikke edru på noen år etter sitt katarsis. Bandet ble spådd en lysende karriere etter Gas Food Lodging (1985), men The Killer Inside Me floppet for et større publikum. Medlemmene gikk også hvert til sitt, selv om navnet fortsatt bestod i en noen år. Dette er for meg deres virkelige svanesang. Solen stod aldri helt opp igjen for Green On Red.

Bjørn Hammershaug