Nirvana and “Nevermind”: the album that defined a generation

Nirvana didn’t set out to define a generation of music fans, but that’s exactly what they did with their album 1991 classic, “Nevermind.”

The group’s debut, 1989’s “Bleach,” had served its purpose. The band built an underground fan base, toured across the country, and generally enjoyed their first taste of being a true professional outlet. The LP did not top the charts or generate radio hits, but it was not expected to do so. That kind of thing didn’t happen in a band like Nirvana…or so they thought.

Aside from the natural evolution that comes with more time as a band, Nirvana’s biggest difference between album one and two was behind the kit. Drummer Chad Channing left, replaced by Dave Grohl, who joined the band in 1990. The newcomer’s hard-hitting style instantly added to Nirvana’s sound.

“It flowed, it sounded good, it was immediate,” bassist Krist Novoselic later detailed to Uncut. “It just fit; there was no discomfort. Dave is such a good musician that he rose to the occasion, or we did, however it happened. It seemed natural, and it was easy to hang out with Dave.”

The band had also decided to sign to a major label, leaving Seattle’s indie Sub Pop to join David Geffen’s DGC. “Geffen had a good track record,” said the leader. Kurt Cobain to NME, highlighting his work with Sonic Youth. “They gave us total artistic control and they don’t seem to want us to do anything that would damage our credibility.”

Armed with some previously recorded demos, along with a handful of new tracks, the trio retreated to Southern California in May 1991 and teamed up with producer Butch Vig. At rehearsal, the first song they played for him was a tune called “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” “I was floored,” Vig later admitted to Entertainment Weekly. “It was very good. I just remember getting up and sweating and trying to act cool. I was just like, ‘Hmmm, play it again,’ but I was thinking, ‘Shit, that was awesome.

Soon the band was recording at Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, California. The venue brought its own distinctive atmosphere to the project.

“We just went there because it was cheap,” Grohl admitted to the BBC 6 decades later. “We had never been. And we walked in, and we thought it was a dump when we saw it.” Still, the studio quickly proved perfect for what Nirvana was trying to capture. “The room was just linoleum tiles and a soundboard drilled into the wall. It wasn’t fancy, but it didn’t need to be, because it sounded great. It was completely real.”

The recording process moved quickly, with the band routinely requiring only a few takes to record a track. Although the atmosphere remained generally positive throughout, there were still occasional moments of stress.

“Kurt would have intense mood swings and just shut down. He would just sit in a corner and disappear into his own space,” Vig recalled to Billboard. “Krist was like, ‘He just gets into these moods and he’ll be out in a bit.’ So we’d find something to do for a couple of hours, adjust the drums or work on the bass sounds, and all of a sudden Kurt would take the guitar from him, ‘Let’s go.’ He just had to assess when the time was right to go for the shots.”

Lyrically, the material maintained a clearly anti-commercial attitude.

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” was inspired by a rowdy night of social activism. For “Come as You Are,” Cobain kept things intentionally confusing. “The lines in the song are really contradictory,” he explained on 1991’s “Nevermind, It’s an Interview.” “It’s just about people and how they’re expected to act.”

In “In Bloom”, the leader addressed his harsh words to “rednecks” and “macho men”. “I just don’t like abusive people,” the singer explained matter-of-factly.

An important element of the grunge movement would be the disenfranchisement of young people at the dawn of the Gulf War, a sentiment that resonated prominently in the words of “Breed.” “He was helpless when he was 12 years old, when Reagan was elected, and there was nothing he could do about it,” Cobain explained. “But now this generation is growing up and they are in their 20s; They’re not taking it.”

Throughout “Nevermind,” Nirvana tapped into a sentiment that had been permeating the subculture of the time.

“It was a record that people could put on and for 45 minutes they could… figure it out,” Grohl later opined to Rhythm magazine. “Whatever they were mad about, they could yell; if they were sad, maybe they could be cheered up.”

When the album was finished, the rumor began to spread within the music industry. Still, the band kept expectations in check.

“We thought, ‘Hopefully, we’ll make it as successful as a band like Sonic Youth, and they’ll each have their own apartment!’ That was the extent of our ambitions,” Grohl admitted decades later.

Released on September 24, 1991, “Nevermind” began a slow path to immortality. The album debuted at number 144 on the Billboard chart, but as word of mouth began to spread, the LP continued to climb higher. Things accelerated even further when MTV moved the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” music video into heavy rotation.

“I think at first they printed 100,000 copies, and they were gone in the first week,” Grohl recalled of the growing fervor. “Then we were selling 150,000 copies a week, and we got to a point where we couldn’t believe it anymore. People told us these things and it was fun, like winning a ridiculous contest where you never knew you had entered and didn’t care if you won or lost.”

Even as the band’s star rose, Cobain maintained his loser mentality. When asked about the rise of grunge during a November 1991 interview with Riff Raff magazine, the frontman opined that punk was the last great rock movement. “There will never be another musical revolution,” he declared at the time. “The only musical revolution that will happen is that people will finally appreciate all music.”

In 1992, “musical revolution” was exactly the term used to describe Nirvana’s assault on the mainstream. On January 11, “Nevermind” reached number 1 on the Billboard chart, displacing Michael Jackson’s Dangerous from the top spot. The achievement would have seemed ridiculous just a year earlier, but in that time grunge had become the rage of the day around the world, and Nirvana were the reluctant kings of the genre. “Nevermind” would eventually sell over 30 million copies worldwide.

“It was never our intention to become a big rock phenomenon,” Grohl reflected a couple of years later, “and I think that not being the goal saved our asses. We just made this record, put it out and went on tour. We never imagined something like this. When things settled down and we finished the tour, when we stopped and sat down, we couldn’t believe it. We just thought, ‘God, look what happened.’”

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Nirvana and “Nevermind”: the album that defined a generation

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