Nirvana's 'Nevermind' turns 20


Tuesday 11 October 2011 10:42

Twenty years ago, a naked baby diving after a dollar bill turned the rock world upside down, and Nirvana's "Nevermind", the record immortalised by that image, became the soundtrack for a generation.

"Nevermind"'s release in late September 1991 also sucked Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain into a whirlwind that he would not get out of alive.

Two decades on, Universal is marking the anniversary with the release Monday of a remastered box set of the album, complete with bonus tracks and demos.

These include several pre-"Nevermind" recordings made at Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin, with Chad Channing at the drums - before Dave Grohl took over for the recording of the album, and Nirvana's distinctive sound took shape.

Another nugget: the so-called "Devonshire Mixes", a version of the album as it was originally mixed by the band's producer Butch Vig.

Also featured is the film of a concert in Los Angeles on Halloween, a month after the album hit the shelves, possibly one of the last carefree moments before Nirvana realised they had shot through the barrier separating the indie rock world from the music mainstream.

When the album came out, Nirvana was a minor punk-rock band, having released a first album "Bleach" on the Sub Pop indie label to a small audience.

Back in 1991, the rock world was dominated by "hair metal", a genre defined by the permed hairdos and long guitar solos of bands like Guns N'Roses.

Nirvana's new label Geffen was caught off guard by the runaway success of "Nevermind", spurred by an enthusiastic MTV airing the video of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" virtually on a loop.

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The record company initially ordered 40,000 copies of the album. One million were sold in the first six weeks.

To keep pace with demand, Geffen was forced to delay other releases to free up space on its production lines. "Nevermind" went on to sell 30 million copies worldwide.

"Generation X"

In the space of a few months, the world discovered a new concept: "grunge".

Teenagers the world over let their hair fall in lank locks over their chequered lumberjack shirts, dreaming of Seattle, capital of Washington state and the cradle of the movement.

Generation X, the millions of youths who had grown up in the shadow of the baby-boomers, unhappy with the cut-and-thrust values of the 1980s but facing uncertain economic times themselves, had suddenly found a voice.

"'Nevermind' came along at exactly the right time," writes Michael Azerrad, in "Come as you are: The story of Nirvana."

"This was music by and for a whole new group of young people who had been overlooked, ignored or condescended to."

In December 2011, the band performed at the Trans Musicales, a rock festival in western France to a wild audience who had travelled from across Europe.

They packed a kind of energy that we'd kind of lost in the music world at the time," recalled the festival director Jean-Louis Brossard.

"It made me think of the Clash, the Sex Pistols - but the difference was that in the days of punk there were lots of amazing bands, whereas Nirvana was alone at the top of the pile."

"Kurt was the soul of the band. On stage you could feel his energy, you could share it. It wasn't just a good time, it was more than that."

But Kurt Cobain would soon feel trapped by the sudden and colossal public exposure that success brought - and was especially pained by the tabloid tracking of him and his wife the singer Courtney Love.

He was also unhappy to count hard rock fans among his followers, having always rejected the macho values and commercialism he associated with the genre.

But he suffered rejection from the punk-rock world he came from, which saw Nirvana's success as a betrayal of its roots.

Cobain plunged into substance abuse and depression, even planning to entitle the band's new album "I hate myself and I want to die".

"Nevermind's" successor, finally titled "In Utero", was released in September 1993. Six months later, on April 5, 1994, Kurt Cobain shot himself in the head.

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