Nevermind The Last Three Decades, Here's Nirvana

Sept 23, 2021

It's always a disconcerting feeling when you realise you've become that middle-aged guy reminiscing about classic bands of your youth in the same way those middle-aged guys you remember used to go on about watching Led Zeppelin and the Stones in their heyday. The disconcertion comes to the fore because when you tap into those memories, the best of them still feel fresh and present, so it's a sobering realisation that three decades have passed since those moments seared their way into your brain.

But anyway. Enough old man talk.

The Reading Festival, 23rd August 1991. My first festival experience. Typical British Bank Holiday weather: overcast, little chance of sun, maybe a spot or two of rain, although a deluge was fortunately unlikely. The expected highlights for me that day were Dinosaur Jr and Sonic Youth, two of my current favourites at that time. Chapterhouse were also of interest as their debut album Pearl had been on rotation for a few months. Nirvana, for me at least, were a relatively unknown quantity. I was only really familiar with the bubblegum punk of 'Sliver', perhaps not the most indicative track in hindsight, but certainly engaging enough for me to make sure I didn't want to miss their set.

Babes In Toyland set the tone for the day with a raucous, fiery performance but it was Nirvana's mid-afternoon slot that became instantly legendary, arguably kickstarting their upwards trajectory, a real 'you had to be there' moment (and I'm so glad I was). It remains one of the most stunning performances I've ever seen from a band whose material I was not overly familiar with, the mix of ferocity, chaos and humour (Tony the interpretive dancer! Dave Grohl referring to the entry fee being a "forty pound squid"!) providing a crash course in the brilliance of this largely (at that point) unknown band from Seattle. It was the moment that Kurt Cobain thrashed out the opening chords of 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' that everything changed, as if the clouds parted and everyone there suddenly saw the light. An astonishing song, evident from that performance alone, it was literally jaw-dropping, prompting me at its conclusion to turn to my friend and mutter "Fucking hell!" in near disbelief. Cobain ended the show by jumping headfirst into Grohl's drumkit, dislocating his shoulder in the process. Nothing was the same after that.

Chapterhouse were next on the bill and their dreamy shoegaze schtick couldn't hold a candle to what everyone had just witnessed, and there's always been a sneaking feeling that the band themselves knew it. Dinosaur Jr and Sonic Youth drew bigger crowds (the ground literally shook when J Mascis and co burst into 'Freak Scene') but that day will always be Nirvana's (I can't comment on Iggy Pop's performance as I'd snuck backstage with my friends to gawp at indie celebrities!).

It was a month then to the release date of Nirvana's second album, Nevermind, in the UK on 23rd September 1991 (you'll see the 'official' release day listed as the 24th elsewhere because back then US releases came out on a Tuesday, but in the UK it was always on Mondays). In between that time there was a palpable buzz  about the band if you were reading NME or Melody Maker (the source of info for discerning music fans in those pre-internet days) and catching John Peel playing 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' on his Sunday night show (wishing I had a blank tape to hand!) had the same visceral effect on me as it did the first time, which only served to increase the anticipation for the album.

It was straight down to the local record shop after school on release day (the 23rd!) to get a copy of Nevermind (on cassette!), along with two other significant new albums out the same day (Primal Scream's game-changing Screamadelica, and Pixies' 'final' longplayer, Trompe Le Monde). Nevermind was the first in the cassette player though, and pretty much stayed there for the next few months. At the time I doubt I could have explained why that album connected to me on such a fundamental level, although with the benefit of hindsight it becomes clearer, which more seasoned commentators have pointed out over the course of the last three decades. Sure, on the surface there were the infectious loud/quiet chorus/verse dynamics and Cobain's instinctive melodic sensibility that melded the pop with the punk, but there was something deeper than that. Even though the lyrics were rarely direct (in the same way as Bowie did, Cobain often utilized William Burroughs' Cut-Up technique when writing lyrics) there was definite feeling conveyed that seemed to capture the experience of Generation X in the late 1980s and early 1990s - disaffected, disengaged, disillusioned, the sense that our generation wasn't heading anywhere and wasn't going to have the cultural same impact as our parent's generation in the fabled 1960s. Seemingly throwaway lines like "What the hell am I trying to say?" in 'On A Plain', "And just maybe I'm to blame for all I've heard, but I'm not sure" in 'Lithium' or even "Oh well, whatever, never mind" in 'Teen Spirit' took on a resonance that was perhaps completely unexpected by Cobain (who very much struggled with being a 'spokesman for a generation'). But there was an honesty at the core of the music, even if Butch Vig's polished production ensured it found a far larger audience than it would have otherwise, and compared to what was considered popular rock music at the time (often dubbed, disparagingly - but perhaps correctly - 'hair metal') it was like breaking through a wall to find, well, some sort of musical nirvana.

Their rise wasn't instant, but the UK was on board much more quickly than the US, and there was a period when the band were on our shores, around the time 'Teen Spirit' was released as a single in November '91, where it was like watching the fuse burn towards the dynamite, with Nirvana's subversive television appearances as they made their way across the country (Cobain describing Courtney Love as "the best fuck in the world" on The Word, or fellating the microphone during a baritone rendering of Teen Spirit' on Top Of The Pops) becoming integral parts of the growing legend. After this point global superstardom and riches beckoned, even if Cobain insisted on looking like he dressed himself in Oxfam (Grunge chic!) and gradually the tabloids become involved as rumours swirled about excessive drug use and Cobain's apparently fractious relationship with Love; in other words, exactly the kind of thing the gossip mongers lapped up.

Nirvana returned to Reading in 1992 as final night headliners, their position at the top confirmed via another unforgettable performance, but sadly it was the last time they played in the UK. Everyone knows the story of what came afterwards, and how we lost one of the most talented musicians of all time to a mix of addiction and depression in a era where mental health issues were generally ignored where possible (until it was too late). If you'd been there since the beginning of their meteoric ascent to stardom, as I had (give or take), the end was devastating and difficult to comprehend - someone we'd looked to for guidance and wisdom (and Cobain was - flaws aside - a smart, progressive thinker) had decided the better option was to check out rather than stick around.

The fallout from that is another story for another time. What I'll always remember most fondly about Nirvana - aside from the timelessness of their music - is that period of months at the end of 1991 when they were breaking down barriers and making things seem possible that would have been unthinkable beforehand. Looking back now it's quite apparent how much of a sea change moment in musical history it was - and who knows what the shape of popular culture would be without their legacy - but at the time we had no idea of what was to come, we just thrilled at watching an 'indie band' kick down the doors on their own terms, and I'll always be grateful that I was the right age to get caught up in that unique ride.


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