Prior to Nirvana, alternative music was consigned to specialty sections of record stores, and major labels considered it to be, at the very most, a tax write-off. After 1991's Nevermind, nothing was ever quite the same, for better and for worse.
Nirvana was an American rock band that was formed by singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain and bassist Krist Novoselic in Aberdeen, Washington in 1987. Nirvana went through a succession of drummers, the longest-lasting being Dave Grohl, who joined the band in 1990. The band established itself as part of the Seattle music scene, releasing its first album Bleach for the independent record label Sub Pop in 1989. After signing to major label DGC Records, Nirvana found unexpected success with "Smells Like Teen Spirit", the band's lead single from its second album Nevermind (1991). Subsequently, Nirvana entered into the mainstream, bringing along with it a subgenre of alternative rock called grunge. As Nirvana's frontman, Kurt Cobain found himself referred to in the media as the "spokesman of a generation," with Nirvana being considered the "flagship band" of Generation X. Cobain was uncomfortable with the attention and placed his focus on the band's music, believing the band's message and artistic vision to have been misinterpreted by the public, challenging the band's audience with its third studio album In Utero (1993). Nirvana's brief run ended following the death of Cobain in 1994, but the band's influence and popularity endured in the years that followed. In 2002, "You Know You're Right", an unfinished demo from the band's final recording session, topped radio playlists around the world. Since their debut, the band has sold over twenty-five million albums in the US alone, and over fifty million worldwide.
Cobain and Novoselic met in 1985. Both were fans of the Melvins, and frequented the band's practice space. After a couple of false starts at forming their own band, the duo recruited drummer Aaron Burckhard, creating the first incarnation of what would eventually become Nirvana. Cobain later described the sound of the band when they first started as "a Gang of Four and Scratch Acid ripoff." Within a few months, Burckhard was fired from the band. He was temporarily replaced by Dale Crover of the Melvins, who played on the band's first demos. Dave Foster then began a brief tenure as the band's drummer. During its initial months, the band went through a series of names, including Pen Cap Chew, and Ted Ed Fred. The band finally settled on Nirvana in early 1988, which Cobain said was chosen because "I wanted a name that was kind of beautiful or nice and pretty instead of a mean, raunchy punk rock name like the Angry Samoans." The name Nirvana had already been trademarked by a Los Angeles band and almost derailed the release of Nevermind when the L.A. band's attorney, Walter Wiggins, Jr. threatened to sue any station that played songs from the Seattle based band. The matter was resolved in a federal court when both bands were allowed to use the name. The L.A. based band later sold the rights to the name to the Seattle group. Nirvana played their first show under the name that March. A couple of months later, the band finally settled on a drummer, Chad Channing.
Nirvana's first release was the single "Love Buzz/Big Cheese" in 1988 on Seattle independent record label Sub Pop. The following year, the band released its first album, Bleach. To record Bleach, the band turned to noted local producer Jack Endino, who had recorded the band's first studio demos. Bleach was highly influenced by the heavy dirge-rock of the Melvins and Mudhoney, 1980s punk rock, and the 1970s heavy metal of Black Sabbath. Novoselic noted in a 2001 interview with Rolling Stone that the band had played a tape in their van while on tour that had an album by The Smithereens on one side and an album by the black metal band Celtic Frost on the other, and noted that the combination probably played an influence as well. Bleach became a favorite of college radio stations nationally. The money for the recording sessions for Bleach, listed as $606.17 on the album sleeve, was supplied by Jason Everman. Everman was introduced to Cobain by Dylan Carlson, but had known Channing since the fifth grade. Everman began hanging out with the band, and offered to lend the money to them for the recording. Though Everman did not actually play on the album, he was credited for playing guitar on Bleach because, according to Novoselic, they "wanted to make him feel more at home in the band." After the album was completed, Everman had a brief stay with the band as a second guitar player, but was fired following their first US tour.
In a late 1989 interview, Cobain noted that the band's music was changing. He said, "The early songs were really angry ... But as time goes on the songs are getting poppier and poppier as I get happier and happier. The songs are now about conflicts in relationships, emotional things with other human beings." In April 1990, the band began working with producer Butch Vig at Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin on recordings for the follow-up to Bleach. During the sessions, Cobain and Novoselic became disenchanted with Channing's drumming, and Channing expressed frustration at not being actively involved in songwriting. Not long after the sessions were complete, Channing left the band. After a few weeks with Dale Crover of the Melvins filling in, Nirvana hired Mudhoney drummer Dan Peters, with whom they recorded the song "Sliver" that was released as a single in 1990. A few weeks later, Buzz Osborne of the Melvins introduced them to Dave Grohl, who was looking for a new band following the sudden break-up of D.C. hardcore punks Scream. A few days after arriving in Seattle, Novoselic and Cobain auditioned Grohl, with Novoselic later stating, "We knew in two minutes that he was the right drummer."
Disenchanted with Sub Pop and with the Smart Studios sessions generating interest, Nirvana decided to look for a deal with a major record label. Following repeated recommendations by Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon, Nirvana signed to DGC Records in 1990. The band subsequently began recording its first major label album, Nevermind. They were offered a number of producers to choose from, but ultimately held out for Butch Vig. Rather than recording at Vig's Madison studio as they had in 1990, they shifted to Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, Los Angeles, California. For two months, the band worked through a variety of songs in their catalog. Some of the songs, including "In Bloom" and "Breed", had been in the band's repertoire for years, while others, including "On a Plain" and "Stay Away," lacked finished lyrics until mid-way through the recording process. After the recording sessions were completed, Vig and the band set out to mix the album. However, the recording sessions had run behind schedule and the resulting mixes were deemed unsatisfactory. Slayer mixer Andy Wallace was brought in to create the final mix. After the album's release, members of Nirvana expressed dissatisfaction with the polished sound the mixer had given Nevermind.
Initially, DGC Records was hoping to sell 250,000 copies of Nevermind, which was the same level they had achieved with Sonic Youth's Goo. However, the album's first single "Smells Like Teen Spirit" quickly gained momentum, thanks in part to significant airplay of the song's music video on MTV. As they toured Europe during late 1991, the band found that the shows were dangerously oversold, that television crews were becoming a constant presence onstage, and that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was almost omnipresent on radio and music television. By Christmas 1991, Nevermind was selling 400,000 copies a week in the US. On January 11, 1992, the album reached number one on the Billboard album charts, displacing Michael Jackson's album Dangerous. The album also topped the charts in numerous countries worldwide. The month Nevermind reached number one, Billboard proclaimed, "Nirvana is that rare band that has everything: critical acclaim, industry respect, pop radio appeal, and a rock-solid college/alternative base." In February 1992, following the band's Pacific Rim tour, Cobain married Hole frontwoman Courtney Love in Hawaii. Love gave birth to a daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, the following August. Citing exhaustion, the band decided not to undertake another U.S. tour in support of Nevermind, instead opting to make only a handful of performances later that year. Just days after Frances Bean's birth, Nirvana performed one of its best-known concerts, headlining at the Reading Festival in England. Amid rumors about Cobain's health and the possibility the band might break up, Cobain entered the stage in a wheelchair as a practical joke, then proceeded to get up and join the rest of the band in tearing through an assortment of old and new material. The performance ended up being one of the most memorable of their career.
Less than two weeks later, Nirvana performed at the MTV Video Music Awards. During the first rehearsal for the show, Cobain announced that they were going to play a new song during the broadcast, and the band rehearsed "Rape Me". MTV's executives were appalled by the song, and, according to show producer Amy Finnerty, the executives believed that the song was about them. They insisted that the band could not play "Rape Me," even threatening to throw Nirvana off the show and stop airing their videos entirely. After a series of intense discussions, MTV and Nirvana agreed that the band would play "Lithium", their latest single. When the band began their performance, Cobain strummed and sang the first few bars of "Rape Me" before breaking into "Lithium". Near the end of the song, frustrated that his amp had stopped functioning, Novoselic decided to toss his bass into the air for dramatic effect. He misjudged the landing, and the bass ended up bouncing off his forehead, causing him to stumble off the stage in a daze. As Cobain trashed their equipment, Grohl ran to the mic and began yelling "Hi, Axl!" repeatedly, referring to Guns N' Roses singer Axl Rose, with whom the band and Courtney had had a bizarre and bellicose encounter before the show.
Nirvana released Incesticide, a collection of rarities and B-sides, in December 1992. Many of Nirvana's radio sessions and unreleased early recordings were starting to circulate via trading circles and illegal bootlegs, so the album served to circumvent the bootleggers.
For Nirvana's third album In Utero, the band brought in producer Steve Albini, well-known for his work on the Pixies album Surfer Rosa. As Nevermind had brought in a new audience of listeners who had little or no experience with the alternative, obscure, or experimental bands Nirvana saw as their forebears, bringing in Albini appeared to be a deliberate move on Nirvana's part to give the album a raw, less-polished sound. For example, one song on In Utero featuring long periods of shrill feedback noise was titled, ironically, "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter" (in the industry, a "radio-friendly unit shifter" describes an "ideal" album: one capable of heavy radio play and ultimately selling many copies, or "units"). However, Cobain insisted that Albini's sound was simply the one he had always wanted Nirvana to have: a "natural" recording without layers of studio trickery. The sessions with Albini were productive and notably quick, and the album was recorded and mixed in two weeks for a cost of $25,000 at Pachyderm Studio in Cannon Falls, Minnesota.
Several weeks after the completion of the recording sessions, stories ran in the Chicago Tribune and Newsweek that quoted sources claiming DGC considered the album "unreleasable". As a result, fans began to believe that the band's creative vision might be compromised by their label. While the stories about DGC shelving the album were untrue, the band actually was unhappy with certain aspects of Albini's mixes. Specifically, they thought the bass levels were too low, and Cobain felt that "Heart-Shaped Box" and "All Apologies" did not sound "perfect". Longtime R.E.M. producer Scott Litt was called in to help remix those two songs, with Cobain adding additional instrumentation and backing vocals. In Utero debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 album chart in September 1993. Time's Christopher John Farley wrote in his review of the album, "Despite the fears of some alternative-music fans, Nirvana hasn't gone mainstream, though this potent new album may once again force the mainstream to go Nirvana." Although commercially successful, the album did not achieve the same success as Nevermind. That fall, Nirvana embarked on its first major tour of the United States in two years. For the tour, the band added Pat Smear of the punk rock band Germs as a second guitarist.
Final months and Cobain's death
In November 1993, Nirvana, along with Smear, performed for MTV Unplugged. The band opted to stay away from their most recognizable songs, playing only two of their hits, "All Apologies" and "Come as You Are". Grohl later related, "We knew we didn't want to do an acoustic version of Teen Spirit. ... That would've been horrendously stupid." The setlist also included a few relatively obscure covers, with members of the Meat Puppets joining the band for covers of three of their songs. While rehearsals for the show had been problematic, MTV Unplugged producer Alex Coletti noted that the actual taping went exceedingly well, with every song performed in one take and with the complete set lasting under an hour, which were both unusual for Unplugged sessions. Following the band's set-ending performance of the folk song "Where Did You Sleep Last Night", arranged by Lead Belly, Coletti tried to convince the band to perform an encore. "Kurt said, 'I can't top that last song.' And when he said that, I backed off. 'Cause I knew he was right." The band's performance debuted on MTV on December 14, 1993. In early 1994, the band embarked on a European tour. Following a tour stop at Terminal Eins in Munich, Germany, on March 1, Cobain was diagnosed with bronchitis and severe laryngitis. The next night's show, at the same venue, was canceled. In Rome, on the morning of March 4, Love found Cobain unconscious in their hotel room and he was rushed to the hospital. A doctor from the hospital told a press conference that Cobain had reacted to a combination of prescription Rohypnol and alcohol. The rest of the tour was canceled, including a planned leg in the UK. In the ensuing weeks, Cobain's heroin addiction resurfaced. An intervention was organized, and Cobain was convinced to admit himself into drug rehabilitation. After less than a week in rehabilitation, Cobain climbed over the wall of the facility and took a plane back to Seattle. A week later, on Friday, April 8, 1994, Cobain was found dead of a self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head at his Seattle home.
In the years following Nirvana's disbanding, both surviving members remained musically active. Not long after Cobain's death, Grohl recorded a series of demos that eventually became the debut album for Foo Fighters. Foo Fighters became Grohl's main project, releasing many commercially successful records over the next decade. Beyond Foo Fighters, Grohl also drummed for numerous bands, including Paul McCartney, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Mike Watt, Queens of the Stone Age, Tenacious D, Nine Inch Nails, and Killing Joke. He also recorded an album of metal songs featuring many of his favorite early-80s metal singers under the name Probot. Grohl is now also the drummer for the supergroup Them Crooked Vultures.
After the end of Nirvana, Novoselic formed Sweet 75. Later, he founded Eyes Adrift with Curt Kirkwood (of the Meat Puppets) and Bud Gaugh (formerly of Sublime). He also performed in a one-off band called the No WTO Combo with Kim Thayil of Soundgarden and Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys that coincided with the WTO Meeting of 1999. In December 2006, Novoselic replaced bass player Bruno DeSmartas in the band Flipper. Novoselic also became a political activist, founding the political action committee JAMPAC to support musicians' rights. In 2004, he released a book titled Of Grunge and Government: Let's Fix This Broken Democracy, which covered his musical past as well as his political endeavors.
Several Nirvana albums have been released since Cobain's death. The first came in November 1994 with the release of the band's performance for MTV Unplugged, MTV Unplugged in New York. Two weeks after the release of Unplugged in New York, a video compilation of Nirvana performances, titled Live! Tonight! Sold Out!!, was released. Cobain himself had compiled a significant part of the video, which documented much of the Nevermind tour. The original intention was to release the MTV Unplugged set in a double-disc package, along with a second disc of live electric material to balance the acoustic set. However, for the two surviving band members, sorting through Nirvana recordings so soon after Cobain's death became too emotionally overwhelming. The live disc, a compilation of Nirvana concert recordings, finally saw release in October 1996, titled From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah. In August 1997, online music news website Wall of Sound reported that Grohl and Novoselic were organizing a box set of Nirvana rarities. Four years later, the band's label announced that the box set was complete and would see release in September to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the release of Nevermind. However, shortly before the release date, Love filed an injunction to stop the box set's release and sued Grohl and Novoselic, claiming that Cobain's former band mates were hijacking Nirvana's legacy for their own personal interests. What followed was a protracted legal battle over the ownership of Nirvana's music that lasted for more than a year.
Much of the legal wrangling centered on a single unreleased song, "You Know You're Right", the band's final studio recording. Grohl and Novoselic wanted to include the song on the box set, essentially releasing all of the rarities at one time. Love, however, argued that the song was more important than just a generic "rarity", and should be included on a single-disc greatest hits compilation. After more than a year of often public and sometimes bizarre legal maneuvering, the parties settled, agreeing on the immediate release of the greatest hits package including "You Know You're Right", titled simply Nirvana. In turn, Love agreed to donate cassette demos recorded by Cobain for use on the box set. The compilation album, Nirvana, was released on October 29, 2002. On top of "You Know You're Right", the album contained hit singles from their three studio albums as well as several alternate mixes and recordings of familiar Nirvana songs. The box set, With the Lights Out, was finally released in November 2004. The release contained a vast array of early Cobain demos, rough rehearsal recordings, and live tracks recorded throughout the band's history. A best-of-the-box compilation titled Sliver: The Best of the Box was released in late 2005. The CD compiled nineteen tracks from the box set plus three previously unreleased tracks, including a version of the song "Spank Thru" from the 1985 Fecal Matter demo tape. In a 2002 interview with Jim DeRogatis, Love described the countless rehearsal tapes, demos, and bedroom recordings that were left behind after Cobain's death. In April 2006, Love announced that she had arranged to sell twenty-five percent of her stake in the Nirvana song catalog in a deal estimated at $50 million. The share of Nirvana's publishing was purchased by Primary Wave Music, which was founded by Larry Mestel, a former CEO of Virgin Records. In an accompanying statement, Love sought to assure Nirvana's fanbase that the music would not simply be licensed to the highest bidder, noting, "We are going to remain very tasteful and true to the spirit of Nirvana while taking the music to places it has never been before." Further releases have since been made. This includes the video Live! Tonight! Sold Out!!, a personal project of Cobain's first released on VHS in 1994, and later on DVD in 2006. Furthermore, a full uncut DVD version of MTV Unplugged in New York was released in 2007. Live at Reading, the band's 1992 performance at Reading Festival, was released on both CD and DVD in November 2009. Bleach was also reissued as a 20th anniversary deluxe edition on both CD and double 12-inch vinyl. This deluxe edition includes a previously unreleased live concert from February 9, 1990, at the Pine Street Theatre in Portland, Oregon.