Do you remember where you were the first time you heard Nirvana ? There are some from the Pacific Northwest that can claim that moment came prior to 1991, but for most that special instance came somewhere in the vicinity of Sept. 24, 1991, the day the band released their Nevermindalbum and began to change the landscape of music as most knew it. But before that fateful day, there was some groundwork to be laid.
While Nirvana’s Bleach arrived in the summer of 1989, it didn’t exactly put the band on the musical map out of the gate. It was just one of Sub Pop’s aggressive and heavily detuned rock albums at the time, but Kurt Cobain was yearning for something different. Inspired by the loud-quiet dynamic of college rock favorites the Pixies and feeling a little more confident in indulging his pop influences, Cobain and his bandmates began to work on new music. A song called “ Sliver “was released by Sub Pop in 1990 and proved to be a key track in the band’s evolution. Cobain recalled, “[It] was like a statement in a way.I had to write a pop song and release it on a single to prepare people for the next record. I wanted to write more songs like that.”
The band sought out a producer named Butch Vig, who had worked with a band called Killdozer. Vig, who would later form the band Garbage, met up with Nirvana in April 1990 at his Smart Studios in Madison, Wis., where they began to work on new music. Tracks like “ Breed ,” “ Stay Away ,” “ Lithium ” and “ Polly ” came about during this period, but tensions in the band came to a head when Cobain strained his voice while singing “Lithium” and an argument over Channing’s drumming style led to a parting of the ways. Production was shut down for a period and when they finally reconnected with Vig, the band had added former Scream drummer Dave Grohl on drums. According to Novoselic, they had shared a stage with Grohl’s former band Scream and liked what Grohl provided. When Scream split, the drummer contacted Krist Novoselic and the timing was just right. “Everything just fell into place,” said the bassist.
Using the sessions as a demo to shop for a new label, the band exited Sub Pop and found a new home and more backing at the Geffen imprint DGC. Given a budget of $65,000, the group decided to record the album at Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, Calif. To earn gas money just to make the trip, the band played a show where they performed the track “ Smells Like Teen Spirit ” for the first time. Though Nevermind would end up being a classic album, the band actually spent minimal time in the studio. The band would take two or three tries at the instrumentals of each track and if they weren’t up to snuff, they’d move on to another song.
As for the lyrical content, some of it came together at the last minute. Grohl said Cobain told him, “Music comes first and lyrics come second.” As such, the band focused more on melodies with the lyrics at time difficult to understand. Vig stated, “Even though you couldn’t quite tell what he was singing about, you knew it was as intense as hell.” Charles R. Cross stated in his Heavier Than Heaven Cobain biography that the singer pulled from his relationship woes with girlfriend Tobi Vail. “In the four months following their breakup, Kurt would write a half dozen of his most memorable songs, all of them about Tobi Vail,” said Cross. Tracks like “ Drain You ,” “ Lounge Act ” and even “Lithium,” which was penned prior to Vail but later changed to include a reference, had all referenced the relationship to some extent. Cobain told Musician, “Some of my very personal experiences, like breaking up with girlfriends and having bad relationships, feeling that death void that the person in the song is feeling — very lonely, sick.”
As stated, Nevermind arrived on Sept. 24, 1991, preceded a few weeks by the single “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Almost instantaneously, the track became a hit and some of the band’s Seattle peers began getting more of a fair shake at radio. Within a year, much of the hair metal and hard rock that had commanded the airwaves was being phased out in favor of the “grunge” style often attached to Nirvana.
“We’d been practicing for about three months. We were waiting to sign to DGC, and Dave [Grohl] and I were living in Olympia [Wash.], and Krist [Novoselic] was living in Tacoma [Wash.],” recalled Cobain to Rolling Stone . “We were driving up to Tacoma every night for practice, trying to write songs. I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it [smiles]. When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily I should have been in that band —or at least in a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard. ‘Teen Spirit’ was such a clichéd riff. It was so close to a Boston riff or ‘Louie, Louie.’ When I came up with the guitar part, Krist looked at me and said, ‘That is so ridiculous.’ I made the band play it for an hour and a half.” Ridiculous or not, it rang true with listeners. As for that title, it came from Bikini Kill vocalist Kathleen Hanna, who had spray painted “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirt” across his wall. The comment was made in reference to smelling the deodorant of Cobain’s girlfriend on him.
The Samuel Bayer-directed video for the song was initially played late night on MTV, but became so popular that it eventually was in heavy rotation during the day. And of course, the success of the song affected the album sales. Nevermind arrived at a modest No. 144 on the Billboard 200 Album Chart in September 1991. By November, the disc had entered the Top 40 for the first time and it finally reached No. 1 in January 1992. Meanwhile, Nevermind was certified Gold and Platinum by the RIAA in November 1991. Speaking about the popularity of the song and the giant fame that followed, Cobain would state, “It was so fast and explosive.I didn’t know how to deal with it. If there was a Rock Star 101 course, I would have liked to take it. It might have helped me.”
While “Smells Like Teen Spirit” became hugely popular, the band’s follow-up singles also did quite well. Released in March 1992, “ Come As You Are ” climbed to No. 3 Mainstream Rock and No. 3 Alternative. Cobain described the track as being contradictory, adding, “[It’s about] people and what they’re expecting you to act like.” “Lithium” followed in July 1992 and also became a major MTV favorite as well as doing well at radio. The song is about a man who turned to religion amid thoughts of suicide. Cobain stated that while the narrative was fictional, “I did infuse some of my personal experiences, like breaking up with girlfriends and having bad relationships.” As for “ In Bloom ,” the fourth single from the album was penned for people outside of the band’s music community who did not understand their message. Novoselic told Guitar World, “[It] originally sounded like a Bad Brains song. Then Kurt turned it into a pop song.”
Other standouts from the disc included “Polly,” the only song on the album that included portions of Channing’s drumming, the moody “Something in the Way,” “Drain You,” “Breed” and “ On a Plain .”