No less dangerous

A box set featuring previously unreleased material sheds new light on Nirvana's dark yet dazzling career, says Rob Nash
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In early 1988, three young men walk into the Reciprocal studio in Seattle. The singer-guitarist and bassist are unknown to the up-and-coming producer at the mixing desk, though their band have played on local radio and at parties and small gigs. He agreed to the session when they called him up and said: "It's time we recorded something. And we have the drummer from The Melvins playing with us."

In early 1988, three young men walk into the Reciprocal studio in Seattle. The singer-guitarist and bassist are unknown to the up-and-coming producer at the mixing desk, though their band have played on local radio and at parties and small gigs. He agreed to the session when they called him up and said: "It's time we recorded something. And we have the drummer from The Melvins playing with us."

"Which was really what got Nirvana in the door," that producer, Jack Endino, recalls. "Dale Crover, the drummer from The Melvins, was even back then regarded very highly on the Seattle music scene for his drumming abilities. He was one of the best drummers in the area, and I thought, 'If Dale is playing with these guys, they must be all right. They can't be total amateurs. It must be something reasonably decent, or Dale wouldn't be involved.'

"They showed up and we recorded 10 songs in one afternoon, their first real demo. Two of them ended up remixed later and we put them on Bleach, and five of them ended up on Incesticide; one of them has not been issued because there was a better version of it done later, and the last two that never came out are on this box set: 'If You Must' and 'Pen Cap Chew', the first and last songs from that demo session that day, 23 January 1988."

Though "If You Must" will be familiar to Nirvana completists, "Pen Cap Chew" is likely to be a new experience when you hear it on the new Nirvana box set, With the Lights Out, which is released on Monday. Endino was a consultant on the project, which has finally become possible after a rapprochement this year between the two main interested parties: Courtney Love on the one side, and Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl, the Nirvana bassist and drummer, on the other. Over three CDs and a DVD, it collates 81 Nirvana tracks, 68 of them technically previously unreleased; in real terms, 20 tracks are likely to be unfamiliar to hard-core Nirvana fans, the others being demo versions and studio out-takes and B-sides.

Endino's first impressions were of a businesslike and talented group that wanted to progress. "I thought they were nice people," he says, "and surprisingly good, considering that I'd never heard of them and they were completely out of left-field. I was particularly taken with Kurt's voice: I thought he had 'a good scream', which is something, you know? A lot of people have very bad rock screams; they just do it and it isn't very good, and what are you going to do? But Kurt had potentially a very interesting voice. There was a convincing growl to it; it just struck me."

It's hard to think of a Nirvana song that doesn't have a "hey", an "oh" or a "yeah" that conveys a welter of emotion. Among the new tracks on the box set, an archetypal example is the sustained "ooh", rising from minor to major third, at the start of "Blandest", an early composition with a trademark piece of Cobain bathos in the lyric: "And the situation isn't quite as intense as I thought."

And Endino found other qualities to admire in the neophyte grunger. "I always liked his guitar-playing," he recalls fondly. "I think he's underrated. There's something about his guitar-playing that has a certain intent to it, that is interesting even though he was maybe not the most technically skilled player in the noodly-noodly guitar-player sense. He was more of a basic Neil Young - maybe," he chuckles, "Angus Young - kind of guitar-player. That appealed to me, too: it was the Eighties, and we were all getting very tired of Eighties metal. Kurt was much more of a primitive on the guitar. The pop element hadn't come to the fore yet - it wasn't clear from that session that he would start writing pop tunes."

It was nearly a year later that Endino and Nirvana reconvened to record the bulk of Bleach, their debut LP, having done the "Love Buzz" single together in the summer. Endino remembers the Bleach sessions as "fun; easy, very straightforward". "Sub Pop wanted them to do an EP," he continues, "but the band wanted to do a full album, so they borrowed some money from their friend Jason Everman, who wasn't in the band yet, but he loaned them the $600 [£320]. So they said, 'OK, we've got $600 to spend; we need to record really fast.' It was over the course of five or six days, right around the holidays at the end of 1988 - I think we may have even been in the studio on Christmas Eve. They'd come in in the evening and we'd do four or five hours. They just banged it out - they had it all figured out; they were rehearsed. They would do the songs in one or two takes; he'd get the vocals as one overdub, that would be it, and then on to the next song. So it was a pretty easy record to make.

"They were very particular about what they wanted, though, sound-wise; they told me exactly what they wanted. We were using some old rock records as a reference, in terms of not wanting to get a big, reverb-y sound - they wanted a dry, crunchy, Seventies rock sound for that record, Æ la Thin Lizzy or AC/DC. I happened to have a copy of AC/DC's For Those About to Rock on vinyl in the studio, and there was a turntable, and we would play that and go, 'OK, we've got some good guitar sounds here'. Which is why that record, Bleach, is a crunchy, in-your-face, dry record."

The box set opens with a shambolic cover of Led Zeppelin's "Heartbreaker" that Endino reckons is from 1984-5. Covers of Led Zep's "Moby Dick" and "Immigrant Song" also crop up later. "Heartbreaker" is a risky opening gambit, Endino thinks. "It's bold, because you're probably not going to listen to it more than once. But the track list is chronological, so that's where it has to go. I think it's funny. You need to listen to it on headphones - you can hear Krist Novoselic in the background, going," he puts on high-pitched voice: "'Play the solo! Play the solo!' There's funny stuff going on, and it tells you what goofballs they were. I think it's Krist audible at the beginning saying, 'I don't know how to play it.'"

The chronological arrangement is a stroke of genius. "I was pushing for that from the beginning," Endino says. "When it came down to it, there was so much of the rarities and out-takes material to pick from that the chronological thing started to make sense. It tells a story."

Indeed, the real value of this box set is not as music per se, but as a historical and biographical document. You can follow the development of Cobain's songwriting and the band's playing and relate it to known events in his life and their career. You can hear Cobain messing about with a four-track in 1988, experimenting with sound effects and discovering, on "Clean Up before She Comes", the technique of multitracking vocal harmonies, which he would use to such potent effect.

Then there are the three Leadbelly covers from an aborted 1989 Nirvana/Screaming Trees collaboration. The first, "They Hung Him on a Cross", is a particular treat, a solo vocals/guitar effort by Cobain, which shows how well he could work that folk-blues style, long before Leadbelly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" was recorded for Nirvana's Unplugged.

"Old Age", from 1991, presumably could have ended up on Nevermind. It deserves to have done. It is one of those slower, melodic Cobain compositions of stunning, simple brilliance, contrasting strongly with the bludgeoning noise of the tracks that surround it.

The third disc gives a sense of Cobain's torment, as he aggressively charges through demos of tracks for In Utero, such as "Milk It" and "Rape Me", and out-takes such as "I Hate Myself and I Want to Die" (his original title for In Utero). It is harrowing listening. "Things start to get a little grim," Endino agrees. "I'd put that down to the pressure, the drugs, the domestic situation. Kurt was getting ragged around the edges. Disc three starts with that version of 'Rape Me' I recorded, which has Frances [Cobain's baby daughter] crying on it. That wasn't overdubbed; she was in the studio with Kurt and Courtney while we were re- cording the vocal track. I think the baby was on Kurt's lap as he was singing into the mic." That was the last time Endino would record with Nirvana.

At the end of disc three, before the 1994 acoustic versions of "You Know You're Right" and "All Apologies" that close the album, comes "Do Re Mi". Though he can look back with equanimity now, there is a tinge of regret when Endino says: "'Do Re Mi' is one that would have been amazing." It is a wistful number, powerfully moving in hindsight, with striking syncopation between guitar and vocal and a simple descending-scale figure in the bridge. Cobain's voice is reedy and cracked.

But what is striking about those last tracks on With the Lights Out, recorded in 1994, is that they seem to show a chink of light, as if Cobain has found a way to move on from the horrors of his awful 1993 that sapped his creativity.

That is Nirvana's lasting legacy. While Cobain's style of lyrics was wholly original, in the end, it's all about the melody. "I think Kurt's biggest contribution," Endino summarises, "was reminding people of the importance of melody in the vocal lines. If you listen to all of the classic Nirvana songs, there's a guitar riff, but there's always a really strong melody, which is completely different from the guitar riff. Which, in popular music, especially in rock, a lot of people had forgotten about.

"In terms of making a classic pop song with hooks, regardless of how loud the band is or how distorted the guitars are or how heavy the playing is, if you've got the melody on top, you've still got a pop song. That was the brilliant thing about Nirvana: Kurt had a sense of melody. Even then, when he was doing that heavy sludge-rock that he was recording with me at first, he had interesting melodies on top of those guitar riffs. It wasn't really pop music yet, but the interesting melodies were there. He had a knack for melody, and that's what I think was the secret weapon."

'With the Lights Out' is out on Geffen/UME on Monday

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