Nirvana's Bleach didn't make Sub Pop rich - it sold only 30,000 in the two years after its release - but it did intensify the music-press spotlight on Seattle. Within two and a half years, Nevermind, Nirvana's second, definitive album, had knocked Michael Jackson off the top of the US chart - it went on to sell more than 13 million copies - and the anthemic "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was a fixture on MTV. Sadly for Sub Pop, the band were then on Geffen.
Nirvana were formed by Kurt Cobain and bassist Krist Novoselic in their hometown of Aberdeen, Washington. In 1988, Endino passed their first demo to Sub Pop, while the band built up a live following in Seattle, where Soundgarden and Mudhoney were the cream of the punk-influenced "grunge" scene. But on a hype-fuelling press trip arranged by Sub Pop, Melody Maker's Everett True spotted Nirvana as "the real thing": "No rock star contrivance, no intellectual perspective, no master plan for world domination ... four guys in their early twenties from rural Washington who wanna rock".
Bleach was recorded in three days, with Chad Channing on drums. Second guitarist Jason Everman put up the $600; he left soon after and was never repaid. The Seattle Rocket said the album "carried an undeniable power that should reach even those too timid to turn the volume on their stereos up past 'two' ". Rolling Stone ignored it. (After Cobain's suicide in 1994, they acknowledged the oversight in a tribute issue and said the debut "still holds up as a triumph of focused musical aggression".)
Bleach came out in the UK in August 1989. "Assured playing, top-notch vocals and even (gasp) some fine, sweet harmonies," said Music Week. Sounds said that "a real air of menace informs every trusted shard in their lo- fi riff portfolio"; Cobain was "facially a hybrid of Charles Manson and Axl Rose, vocally a Lemmy after some disastrous elocution lessons". Everett True, Nirvana's champion and later Cobain's confidant, said that "far from being a melting potpourri of every loud noise imaginable, Nirvana craft their songs with ... diligence".
By 1992, Nirvana - with Dave Grohl on drums - were one of the biggest bands in the world, and the biggest influence on slacker style and attitude. Without selling out, they had (counterproductively) made grunge mainstream. Cobain's life - his marriage to, and child with, Courtney Love; his heroin use; his lyrics - came under scrutiny. The bleak In Utero came out in September 1993; seven months later, Cobain entered the pantheon of rock'n'roll martyrs by putting a gun to his head. MAEVE WALSH