Nirvana 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.
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.
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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 & 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.
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.
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 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 & 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:
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
Originally published on read.tidal.com October 12, 2014.