You might have noticed that some people have been talking recently about an album that came out a couple of decades ago. Nirvana’s Nevermind undeniably changed the face of popular music. Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994 at the rather cliché age of 27 only served to heighten the legend: Nirvana were a one-off, the unique, authentic voice of Generation X. They were prodigies in flannel shirts and ripped jeans, erupting out of nowhere, inventing modern alternative rock en route, and then burning out instead of fading away – as Cobain’s suicide note put it.
Indeed, Nirvana were rampant self-mythologisers. The very title Nevermind casts Cobain as a Peter Pan figure, taking the listener on a journey not to a physical place but instead into an alien, and alienated, state of consciousness. And, like most myths, the Nirvana legend is based on the truth. It’s difficult to refute that in 1991 Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl dragged underground rock kicking and (literally) screaming into the mainstream, or that the establishment of grunge as what The New York Times called in 1992 ‘a musical genre, a fashion statement, a pop phenomenon’ – still frequently revived – was a direct consequence of Nevermind’s immediate popularity.
That’s not to say they did it alone, of course. In many ways the history of Nevermind is the history of grunge – where that rough, nihilistic sound came from, and where it went to later. The bands that influenced Nirvana, and those that were influenced by them, form a chain of influence and collaboration that ran through US alternative rock in the 1980s and early 1990s. Nirvana are best seen as the central link in that chain.
Nirvana – Dive
So, you own Nevermind. You like Nevermind. Well, this is better than most of it. The b-side of ‘Sliver’ (1990) is a churning mid-tempo masterpiece, which has Nirvana demonstrating their gift for combining heavy instrumentation with curiously beautiful melodies.
Meat Puppets – Plateau
‘Plateau’ was covered on Nirvana’s famous MTV Unplugged appearance, with guest instrumentation from Meat Puppets’ Cris and Curt Kirkwood. The original version from Meat Puppets II (1984) starts out similarly, but then, forty seconds from the end, erupts into a coruscating, spiralling guitar solo which elevates it far beyond Nirvana’s tribute.
Hüsker Dü – Don’t Want To Know If You Are Lonely
One of Kurt Cobain’s favourite bands and the original alternative power trio, Hüsker Dü seemed to anticipate everything Nirvana did about a decade beforehand. This track, off 1986’s Candy Apple Grey, takes the power-pop formulas of Cheap Trick and turns them upside down with blistering, noisy panache.
Mudhoney – Sweet Young Thing (Ain’t Sweet No More)
Mudhoney’s Mark Arm (apparently) popularised the term ‘grunge’, and his band were central to the formation of the Seattle scene in the late 1980s. Their most famous track is the scorching ‘Touch Me, I’m Sick’, but this slow-grinder is perhaps even better, and also provides an early example of a core lyrical preoccupation in the Seattle grunge scene: irresponsible parenting and corrupted, traumatic childhood.
Dinosaur Jr. – The Wagon
Listening to this track is one thing, but to get the full effect you need to watch the video, which captures in stop-motion clay the wide-eyed stoner ingenuity that characterises most of Dinosaur Jr.’s work. Their best tracks provide a light and playful East Coast alternative to the sludgier products of the Seattle scene.
Pearl Jam – Alive
Lighters out, please. In 1991, five hairy Seattle dudes did what Dave Grohl would later try and replicate with Foo Fighters: mixing grunge with the cockiest of cock-rock in order to fill as many stadia as possible. Nonetheless, despite some unfortunate by-products (for example, Nickelback), Pearl Jam’s Ten does make for a thrilling listen, as ‘Alive’, the band’s first single, ably demonstrates.
Pixies – Planet of Sound
Without the Pixies, there wouldn’t really be a Nirvana to speak of. Kurt Cobain told Rolling Stone that when he wrote ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, ‘I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies… I connected with that band so heavily I should have been in that band—or at least in a Pixies cover band.’ For their part, Pixies’ 1991 album Trompe le Monde displays a reciprocal influence to the Seattle grunge scene. ‘Planet of Sound’ in particular is a snarling track that emphasises the band’s harder side.
Throwing Muses – Red Shoes
Cryptically lyrical and starkly gorgeous, ‘Red Shoes’ is the alternative rock hit that never was. Throwing Muses shifted with 1991’s The Real Ramona into a sound with more commercial appeal, but which remained just beyond the reach of the mainstream, emphatically feminine and decidedly independent.
The Smashing Pumpkins – Bury Me
This is the hardest-rocking track on the Pumpkins’ debut album, Gish (1991), and shows off the ensemble playing that typifies their earlier work, before lead singer Billy Corgan began to dominate the band with a more experimental approach. James Iha’s guitar lines swing between metallic riffing and a lighter, more shoegazing sound, Jimmy Chamberlin’s jazz-influenced drums wreak disciplined chaos, and D’arcy Wretzky’s bass holds the whole thing together with impeccable cool. Masterful.
Babes In Toyland – Bruise Violet
Had Babes In Toyland formed in Seattle, they would have been the centre of the riot grrrl movement. As it was the all-female trio started making ferocious punk in Minneapolis in 1987, briefly including Courtney Love on bass, and made sure to stay well away from any scenes – which is just as well, otherwise lyrics like ‘you fucking bitch, I hope your insides rot’ might have led to some pretty unshakeable stereotyping.
Sonic Youth – 100%
Sonic Youth were already alternative rock icons by 1992, when their album Dirty saw them take a brief foray into the sounds of grunge. Bassist Kim Gordon, who wrote the lyrics to ‘100%’ (and borrowed a guitar from Keanu Reeves for the video) is another iconic female musician in a movement where women in bands, both as fierce singers and consummate instrumentalists, were the norm rather than the exception. In fact it’s quite surprising that, despite the abundant female presence in the early grunge movement, its modern cultural representation often reeks of unwashed beards and testosterone.
Beat Happening – Teenage Caveman
Beat Happening’s Jamboree (1988) was among Kurt Cobain’s favourite albums, even though he was later to call lead singer Calvin Johnson an ‘elitist little fuck’ for his animosity towards the mainstream as the head of Seattle’s K Records. ‘Teenage Caveman’, released in 1992, sees Beat Happening structuring their characteristically shambolic sound into a plaintive, fiercely naïve indie pop anthem.
The Jesus Lizard – Puss
Released as a split single with Nirvana’s ‘Oh, The Guilt’ in 1993, ‘Puss’ is heavy but surprisingly funky, forcing the distorted guitars and vocals of bands like Big Black into a densely-structured mess of a song which outshines Nirvana’s effort on the other side.
Bikini Kill – New Radio
The riot grrrl band. Hailing from Seattle, and combining the shrieking experimentalism of Lydia Lunch with a strong and irony-laden political consciousness, Bikini Kill redefined punk for the 1990s. Frontwoman Kathleen Hanna (later of Le Tigre) has influenced two generations of icons from Alanis Morrissette to Hayley Williams, but also inadvertently inspired Nirvana in 1991 by spray-painting the phrase ‘Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit’ on Cobain’s wall. ‘New Radio’ (1993), produced by Joan Jett, is a minute and a half of raucous brilliance.
The Breeders – Cannonball
The Breeders released Last Splash in 1993, by which time the music press had made grunge an international musical phenomenon – the album went platinum. ‘Cannonball’, Last Splash’s lead single, is a fascinating track, undeniably commercial, but constructed in the same esoteric way as songs by vocalist Kim Deal’s previous band Pixies.
Veruca Salt – Seether
The first single by Veruca Salt, who formed in 1993 in Chicago and supported Hole the next year, ‘Seether’ is another interesting collision of the alternative – in this case, riot grrrl – with the mainstream. A hit on MTV, ‘Seether’ was the harbinger of a wave of female-led grunge-lite bands breaking into the mainstream which would last for the rest of the decade.
Hole – Rock Star (Olympia)
Courtney Love is best known nowadays for her messy lifestyle, including last year being elected the Oxford University Conservative Association’s Officer for Rock ‘n’ Roll after turning up at the society’s ‘Port and Policy’ evening. But if you want to know why she’s worth your attention, listen to Live Through This (1994). ‘Olympia’ is a scathing attack on the ‘hipsters’ in the Washington scene, in which Love laments the decay of their original ideals: ‘Everyone’s the same – what do you do with a revolution?’ Live Through This, released four days after the discovery of Kurt Cobain’s body, marks the end of the grunge explosion begun by Nevermind: the Seattle scene had moved onwards and outwards into the wider world.
Mixer: Beyond Nevermind is also available on Spotify – click here to load the playlist.