So I find myself listening to Nevermind again for the first time in donkey's years, prompted by Lord knows what. Nirvana were just about the first band I loved where the chief pleasure was no longer cerebral but physical. Before them, I was into the blustery pablum of U2, the religiose Americana of REM, the sticky Freudian surrealism of The Cure, the psychedelic polemic of Levitation. But, listening to a John Peel one evening in 1992 or thereabouts, I heard a session from a band that John was getting pretty animated about. The song was called, I think, Return Of The Rat, and it was a cover version of a song by The Wipers (I later discovered). I wouldn't say that my world changed there and then, but something about the singer, something about the music’s forward rush, stayed with me. So when I later read an ecstatic live review of their Reading show in the MM, a bell went off. I would take a punt on their debut album.
Fast forward to now. Watching what passes for a rock band on this year’s MTV Awards neatly exemplifies Nirvana’s unique place in the culture. Has ever a rock band so effectively combined the brutal power of hardcore punk with the silky pop nous of The Beatles? 'Course not. And since then, there have been heavier bands, and there have been poppier bands. But those that have had chart-success have been more nakedly commerical than anyone ever accused Nirvana of being. And those that rock tend to be willfully obtuse. Fair enough I suppose: you wouldn't want to find yourself accidentally becoming Bush or Nickelback. Even Nirvana's grunge contemporaries were almost nothing like them, owing more to classic hard rock than to the punk and alternative music that were Nirvana’s well-spring.
Listening to Nevermind now, I’m struck by how raw it is. This is odd, because for the longest time, it was an excepted truth that Nevermind was an album perhaps too smooth for its own good, that everything had been covered in an expensive studio sheen, that the band were embarrassed to sound so chart-friendly, that In Utero would be their comforting return to the ‘real’. Well, sure. But this perception owes more, I think, to the precision-tooled ecomomy and power of the songwriting, a great leap forward from the reliance on the sludge riffs and guttural screams that had made Bleach such a physically draining experience, than the production, which after a small lifetime of The Killers and other identikally produced bands, sounds incredibly dynamic.
It seems to me that if Nevermind has been recorded today, it would have been mastered with far less dynamic range than is the fashion. Some bits are quiet, there’s often a raggedness to the guitar-playing that would send Panic! At The Disco or, heaven help us all, All-American Rejects whimpering back to the pro-tools. (Talking of dynamic range, am I the only one bugged by this notion that Nirvana simply ripped off The Pixies' quiet loud quiet loud trick? The bridges into LOUD in Nirvana are, more often than not, better designed and more exciting. And anyway, who gave Pixies the patent on that dynamic? It’s been a staple of classical music for just about the whole of the 20th c. And where in Pixies can Drain You’s colossal break-down and build-up and thrilling pay-off be found?) A track like Drain You is, of course, structurally similar to an epic techno track: establish the theme, strip it all away, signal that the noise is massing, build as gradually as possible, then stand well back as a skin-tingling mind-fuck overwhelms the listener.
And I’d forgotten, or never noticed, the brazen appeal to non-jocks and the girls who like them, and can see now how depressing it was for Kurt that it was precisely not this crowd who formed the core of their new audience. How strange it must be for a band whose main love had been alternative rock and pop – Sonic Youth, Pixies, Raincoats, Melvins, hardcore - to face the fact that their sound was exactly what the hair metal-loving hordes were after. I guess they weren’t to know: who could have predicted that super-sleek super-heavy punk rock would have such a massive appeal. Famously, In Bloom sneers at exactly the kind of fan Kurt despised. But there are all kings of lyrics placing a universe of distance between Kurt and the lick-my-lovepump crowd: “I’m so horny/that’s OK, my will is good”. What with the nerd glasses and the dress-wearing, Kurt could hardly have been more ambivalent about the iconography of rock
Side 2 is still the killer for me. The thrash of Territorial Pissings, the aforementioned break-down of Drain You, the melodic genius of On A Plain (and the harmonies on “Love myself better than you”), the visceral Stay Away, the haunted Something In The Way – I prefer these to most of the hits on side 1.
Now I’m going to listen to In Utero, which I thought I knew better but which could also turn out to be as fresh and hard as a steel daisy. But I might not write about that, since that would mean owning up to all manner of experimentally tortured behaviour at University, and I’m not quite sure you or I am ready for that.