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Nirvana band members Krist Novoselic (left) and Kurt Cobain performing at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards.
|Origin||Aberdeen, Washington, United States|
|Genres||Alternative rock, grunge|
|Labels||Sub Pop, DGC|
|Associated acts||Fecal Matter, Foo Fighters|
Nirvana band members Krist Novoselic (left) and Kurt Cobain performing at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards.
|Origin||Aberdeen, Washington, United States|
|Genres||Alternative rock, grunge|
|Labels||Sub Pop, DGC|
|Associated acts||Fecal Matter, Foo Fighters|
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.
In the late 1980s Nirvana established itself as part of the Seattle grunge scene, releasing its first album Bleach for the independent record label Sub Pop in 1989. The band eventually came to develop a sound that relied on dynamic contrasts, often between quiet verses and loud, heavy choruses. After signing to major label DGC Records, Nirvana found unexpected success with "Smells Like Teen Spirit", the first single from the band's second album Nevermind (1991). Nirvana's sudden success widely popularized alternative rock as a whole, and the band's frontman Cobain found himself referred to in the media as the "spokesman of a generation", with Nirvana being considered the "flagship band" of Generation X. Nirvana's third studio album In Utero (1993), challenged the group's audience, featuring an abrasive, less-mainstream sound. The album didn't match the sales figures of Nevermind but was still a commercial success.
Nirvana's brief run ended following the death of Kurt Cobain in 1994, but various posthumous releases have been issued since, overseen by Novoselic, Grohl, and Cobain's widow Courtney Love. Since its debut, the band has sold over 25 million records in the United States alone, and over 75 million records worldwide.
Cobain and Novoselic met while attending Aberdeen High, although they never connected, according to Cobain. The pair eventually became friends while frequenting the practice space of the Melvins. Cobain wanted to form a band with Novoselic, but Novoselic did not respond to his overtures, which included handing him a demo tape of his project Fecal Matter. Three years after the two first met, Novoselic notified Cobain that he had finally listened to the Fecal Matter demo Cobain had given him, and suggested they start a group. The pair recruited Bob McFadden on drums, but after a month the project fell apart. In winter of 1987, Cobain and Novoselic recruited drummer Aaron Burckhard. The trio practiced material from Cobain's Fecal Matter tape, but started writing new material soon after forming.
During its initial months, the band went through a series of names, starting with Skid Row and including Pen Cap Chew, Bliss, and Ted Ed Fred. The group finally settled on Nirvana, 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". With Novoselic and Cobain having moved to Tacoma and Olympia, Washington, respectively, the two temporarily lost contact with Burckhard. The pair instead practiced with Dale Crover of the Melvins, and Nirvana recorded its first demos in January 1988. In early 1988, Crover moved to San Francisco but recommended Dave Foster to the band as his replacement on drums. Foster's tenure with Nirvana lasted only a few months; during a stint in jail, he was replaced by a returning Burckhard, who himself didn't stay with the band after telling Cobain he was too hung over to practice one day. Cobain and Novoselic put an ad in Seattle music publication The Rocket seeking a replacement drummer which only yielded unsatisfactory responses. Meanwhile, a mutual friend introduced the pair to Chad Channing, and the three musicians agreed to jam together. Channing continued to jam with Cobain and Novoselic, although the drummer noted, "They never actually said 'Ok, you're in.'", and Channing played his first show with the group that May.
Nirvana released its first single, "Love Buzz", in November 1988 on the Seattle independent record label Sub Pop. The following month, the band began recording its debut album, Bleach, with local producer Jack Endino. 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. The money for the recording sessions for Bleach, listed as $606.17 on the album sleeve, was supplied by Jason Everman, who was subsequently brought into the band as the second guitarist. Though Everman did not actually play on the album, he received a credit on Bleach because, according to Novoselic, they "wanted to make him feel more at home in the band". Just prior to the album's release, Nirvana insisted on signing an extended contract with Sub Pop, making the band the first to do so with the label.
Following the release of Bleach in June 1989, Nirvana embarked on its first national tour, and the album became a favorite of college radio stations. Due to increasing dissatisfaction with Everman over the course of the tour, Nirvana canceled the last few dates and drove back to Washington. No one told Everman he was fired at the time, while Everman later claimed that he actually quit the group. Although Sub Pop did not promote Bleach as much as other releases, it was a steady seller, and had initial sales of 40,000 copies. However, Cobain was upset by the label's lack of promotion and distribution for the album. In late 1989, the band recorded the Blew EP with producer Steve Fisk.
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. As bootlegs of Nirvana's demos with Vig began to circulate in the music industry and draw attention from major labels, Channing left the band. That July, the band recorded the single "Sliver" with Mudhoney drummer Dan Peters. Nirvana asked Dale Crover to fill in on drums for a seven-date American West Coast tour with Sonic Youth that August. In September 1990, Buzz Osborne of the Melvins introduced the band to Dave Grohl, who was looking for a new band following the sudden break-up of Washington, 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 since no indie label could buy the group out of its contract. 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. The group was 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, production shifted to Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, Los Angeles, California. For two months, the band worked through a variety of songs in its catalog. Some of the songs, such as "In Bloom" and "Breed", had been in Nirvana'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 it toured Europe during late 1991, the band found that its 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. In January 1992, the album displaced Michael Jackson's Dangerous at number one on the Billboard album charts, and also topped the charts in numerous other countries. 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." The album would eventually sell over seven million copies in the United States.
Citing exhaustion, Nirvana decided not to undertake another American tour in support of Nevermind, instead opting to make only a handful of performances later that year. In March 1992, Cobain sought to reorganize the group's songwriting royalties (which to this point had been split equally) so that they were more representative of the fact that he wrote the majority of the music. Grohl and Novoselic did not object to Cobain's request, but when the frontman asked for the agreement to be retroactive to the release of Nevermind, the disagreements between the two sides came close to breaking up the band. After a week of tension, Cobain ended up receiving a retroactive share of 75 percent of the royalties, and bad feelings about the situation remained within the group afterward. Amid rumors that the band was disbanding due to Cobain's health, Nirvana headlined the closing night of England's 1992 Reading Festival, where Cobain personally programmed the performance lineup. Nirvana's performance at Reading is often regarded by the press as one of the most memorable of the group's career. A few days later, Nirvana performed at the MTV Video Music Awards where, despite the network's refusal to let the band play the new song "Rape Me" during the broadcast, Cobain strummed and sang the first few bars of the song before breaking into "Lithium". At the ceremony, the band received awards for the Best Alternative Video and Best New Artist categories.
DGC had hoped to have a new Nirvana album by the band ready for a late 1992 holiday season release; since work on it proceeded slowly, the label released the compilation album Incesticide in December 1992. A joint venture between DGC and Sub Pop, Incesticide collected various rare Nirvana recordings and was intended to provide the material for a better price and at better quality than was available via bootleg copies. As Nevermind had been out for 15 months and had yielded a fourth single, "In Bloom", by that point, Geffen/DGC opted not to heavily promote Incesticide, which was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America the following February.
In February 1993, Nirvana released "Puss"/"Oh, the Guilt", a split single with The Jesus Lizard, on the independent label Touch & Go. Meanwhile, the group chose Steve Albini, who had a reputation as a principled and opinionated individual in the American independent music scene, to record its third album. While there was speculation that the band chose Albini to record the album due to his underground credentials, 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. Nirvana traveled to Pachyderm Studio in Cannon Falls, Minnesota in that February to record the album. 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.
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." In Utero went on to sell over 3.5 million copies in the United States. That October, Nirvana embarked on its first 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. In November 1993, Nirvana recorded a performance for the television program MTV Unplugged. Augmented by Smear and cellist Lori Goldston, the band sought to veer from the typical approach to the show, opting to stay away from playing its most recognizable songs. Instead, Nirvana performed several covers, and invited Cris and Curt Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets to join the group for renditions of three of their songs.
In early 1994, the band embarked on a European tour. In Rome, on the morning of March 4, Cobain's wife, Courtney 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. 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 August 1994, DGC announced that a double album titled Verse Chorus Verse featuring live material from throughout the group's career on one CD and its MTV Unplugged performance on another was due for release that November. However, Novoselic and Grohl found assembling the live material so soon after Cobain's death to be too emotionally overwhelming. With the career-spanning live portion postponed, MTV Unplugged in New York debuted at number one on the Billboard charts upon release in November 1994. A few weeks later the group's first full-length video, Live! Tonight! Sold Out!!, was released. The following year, MTV Unplugged in New York earned Nirvana a Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album. In 1996 DGC finally issued a Nirvana live album, From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah, which became the third Nirvana release in a row to debut at the top of the Billboard album chart.
In 1997, Novoselic, Grohl, and Courtney Love formed the limited liability corporation Nirvana LLC to oversee all Nirvana-related projects. A 45-track box set of Nirvana rarities was scheduled for release in October 2001. However, shortly before the release date, Love filed a suit to dissolve Nirvana LLC, and an injunction was issued preventing the release of any new Nirvana material until the case was resolved. Love contended that Cobain was the band, that Grohl and Novoselic were sidemen, and that she signed the partnership agreement originally under bad advice. Grohl and Novoselic countersued, asking the court to remove Love from the partnership and to replace her with another representative of Cobain's estate.
The day before the case was set to go to trial in October 2002, Love, Novoselic, and Grohl announced that they had reached a settlement. The settlement paved the way for the release of the compilation album Nirvana, which featured the previously unreleased track "You Know You're Right", the last song Nirvana recorded before Cobain's death. Nirvana was released later that month, debuting at number three on the Billboard album chart. 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. Sliver: The Best of the Box, which culled 19 tracks from the box set in addition to featuring three previously unreleased tracks, was released in late 2005.
In April 2006, Love announced that she had arranged to sell 25 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 DVD releases of Live! Tonight! Sold Out!! in 2006, and the full, uncut version of MTV Unplugged in New York in 2007. The band's performance at the 1992 Reading Festival was released on both CD and DVD as Live at Reading in November 2009. That same month, Sub Pop released a 20th anniversary deluxe edition of Bleach, which included a previously unreleased live concert from 1990. A 20th anniversary deluxe edition of Nevermind was released in September 2011.
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Cobain described the sound of Nirvana when it first started as "a Gang of Four and Scratch Acid ripoff". Later when Nirvana recorded Bleach, Cobain felt he had to fit the expectations of the Sub Pop grunge sound to build a fanbase, and hence suppressed his arty and pop songwriting traits while crafting the record in favor of a more rocking sound. Nirvana biographer Michael Azerrad argued, "Ironically, it was the restrictions of the Sub Pop sound helped the band find its musical identity". Azerrad stated that by acknowledging that its members had grown up listening to Black Sabbath and Aerosmith, the band was able to move on from its derivative early sound.
Nirvana utilized dynamic shifts that went from quiet to loud. Cobain had sought to mix heavy and pop musical sounds; he commented, "I wanted to be totally Led Zeppelin in a way and then be totally extreme punk rock and then do real wimpy pop songs". When Cobain heard the Pixies' 1988 album Surfer Rosa after recording Bleach, he felt it had the sound he wanted to achieve but until then was too intimidated to try. The Pixies' subsequent popularity encouraged Cobain to follow his instincts as a songwriter. Like the Pixies, Nirvana moved between "spare bass-and-drum grooves and shrill bursts of screaming guitar and vocals". Near the end of his life, Cobain noted the band had become bored by the formula, finding it limited, but he expressed doubts that the band was skilled enough to try other dynamics.
Cobain's rhythm guitar style, which relied on power chords, low-note riffs, and a loose right-hand technique, featured the key components to the band’s songs. Cobain would often initially play a song's verse riff in a clean tone, then double it with distorted guitars when he repeated the part. In some songs the guitar would be absent from the verses entirely to allow the drums and bass guitar to support the vocals, or it would only play sparse melodies like the two-note pattern used in "Smells Like Teen Spirit". Cobain rarely played standard guitar solos, opting to play slight variations of the song's melody as single note lines. Cobain's solos were mostly blues-based and out of tune, which music writer Jon Chappell described as "almost an iconoclastic parody of the traditional instrumental break", a quality typified by the note-for-note replication of the lead melody in "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and the atonal solo for "Breed".
Grohl's drumming "took Nirvana's sound to a new level of intensity". Azerrad stated that Grohl's "powerful drumming propelled the band to a whole new plane, visually as well as musically", noting, "Although Dave is a merciless basher, his parts are also distinctly musical—it wouldn't be difficult to figure out what song he was playing even without the rest of the music."
During live performances, Cobain and Novoselic would always tune their guitars to E flat. Cobain noted, "We play so hard we can't tune our guitars fast enough." The band made a habit of destroying its equipment after shows. Novoselic said he and Cobain created the "shtick" in order to get off of the stage sooner. Cobain stated it began as an expression of his frustration with Chad Channing making mistakes and dropping out entirely during performances.
Everett True said in 1989, "Nirvana songs treat the banal and pedestrian with a unique slant." Cobain came up with the basic components of each song (usually writing them on an acoustic guitar), as well as the singing style and the lyrics. He emphasized that Novoselic and Grohl "have a big part in deciding on how long a song should be and how many parts it should have. So I don't like to be considered the sole songwriter." When asked which part of the songs he would write first, Cobain responded, "I don’t know. I really don’t know. I guess I start with the verse and then go into the chorus."
Cobain usually wrote lyrics for songs minutes before recording them. Cobain said, "When I write a song the lyrics are the least important subject. I can go through two or three different subjects in a song and the title can mean absolutely nothing at all." Cobain told Spin in 1993 that he "didn't give a flying fuck" what the lyrics on Bleach were about, figuring "Let's just scream some negative lyrics and as long as they're not sexist and don't get too embarrassing it'll be okay", while the lyrics to Nevermind were taken from two years of poetry he had accumulated, which he cut up and chose lines he preferred from. In comparison, Cobain stated that the lyrics to In Utero were "more focused, they're almost built on themes". Cobain didn't write necessarily in a linear fashion, instead relying on juxtapositions of contradictory images to convey emotions and ideas. Often in his lyrics, Cobain would present an idea then reject it; the songwriter explained, "I'm such a nihilistic jerk half the time and other times I'm so vulnerable and sincere [. . . The songs are] like a mixture of both of them. That's how most people my age are."
Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote that 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". Following the release of Nevermind, "nothing was ever quite the same, for better and for worse". The success of Nevermind not only popularized grunge, but also established "the cultural and commercial viability of alternative rock in general". While other alternative bands had had hits before, Nirvana "broke down the doors forever", according to Erlewine. Erlewine further stated that Nirvana's breakthrough "didn't eliminate the underground", but rather "just gave it more exposure". In 1992, Jon Pareles of The New York Times reported that Nirvana's breakthrough had made others in the alternative scene impatient for achieving similar success, noting, "Suddenly, all bets are off. No one has the inside track on which of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of ornery, obstreperous, unkempt bands might next appeal to the mall-walking millions". Record company executives offered large advances and record deals to bands, and previous strategies of building audiences for alternative rock groups had been replaced by the opportunity to achieve mainstream popularity quickly.
Erlewine stated that Nirvana's breakthrough "popularized so-called 'Generation X' and 'slacker' culture". Immediately following Cobain's death, numerous headlines referred to Nirvana's frontman as "the voice of a generation", although he had rejected such labeling during his lifetime. Reflecting on Cobain's death over ten years later, MSNBC's Eric Olsen wrote, "In the intervening decade, Cobain, a small, frail but handsome man in life, has become an abstract Generation X icon, viewed by many as the 'last real rock star' [. . .] a messiah and martyr whose every utterance has been plundered and parsed".
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