NIrvana: Nevermind – [Record 12]
Nevermind: is the second studio album by the American rock band Nirvana, released on September 24, 1991. Produced by Butch Vig, Nevermind was the group’s first release on DGC Records. Frontman Kurt Cobain sought to make music outside the restrictive confines of the Seattle grunge scene, drawing influence from groups such as the Pixies and their use of song volume dynamics. Most of the album was written in 1990-1991, though “Polly” was written sometime in 1987 or 1988. “Smells like Teen Spirit” was written in January or February 1991 according to Dave Grohl.
Despite low commercial expectations by the band and its record label, Nevermind became a surprise success in late 1991, largely due to the popularity of its first single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. By January 1992, it had replaced Michael Jackson’s album Dangerous at number one on the Billboard 200 chart. The album also produced three other successful singles: “Come as You Are”, “Lithium”, and “In Bloom”. The Recording Industry Association of America has certified the album Diamond (over 10 million copies shipped), and the album has sold over 30 million copies worldwide. Nevermind was responsible for bringing alternative rock to a large mainstream audience, and has been ranked highly on lists of the greatest albums of all time by publications such as Rolling Stone and Time.
1, Smells Like Teen Spirit.
2, In Bloom.
3, Come As You ARe.
7, Territorial Pissing.
8, Drain You.
9, Lounge Act.
10, Stay Away.
11, On A Plain.
12, Something in the Way.
Background: Nirvana was a band from Aberdeen, Washington, formed by Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic, that had signed to Seattle independent record label Sub Pop. The group released its debut album Bleach in 1989, with Chad Channing on drums. However, Channing left Nirvana in 1990, and the band was in need of a permanent drummer. During a show by hardcore punk band Scream, the group’s drummer, Dave Grohl, impressed Novoselic and Cobain. When Scream unexpectedly disbanded, Grohl contacted Novoselic, made his way to Seattle, and was soon invited to join the band. Novoselic said in retrospect that when Grohl joined the band, everything “fell into place”.
Meanwhile Cobain was writing a number of new songs. At the time Cobain was listening to bands like R.E.M., The Smithereens, and the Pixies. Feeling disillusioned by the heavy detuned rock popular in the Seattle grunge scene upon which Sub Pop had built its image, Cobain—inspired by his contemporary listening habits—began writing songs that were more melodic. A key development was the single “Sliver”, released on Sub Pop in 1990 (before Grohl joined the band), which Cobain said “was like a statement in a way. I had to write a pop song and release it on a single to prepare people for the next record. I wanted to write more songs like that.” Grohl said that the band at that point often made the analogy of likening their music to children’s music, in that the band tried to make its songs as simple as possible.
By the start of the 1990s, Sub Pop was experiencing financial difficulties. With rumors that Sub Pop would sign up as a subsidiary for a major label, the band decided to “cut out the middleman” and start to look for a major label. A number of labels courted the band, but Nirvana ultimately signed with Geffen Records imprint DGC Records based upon the recommendation of its management company Gold Mountain, who also managed the band’s idols (and recent Geffen signings) Sonic Youth, and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon.
Recording and Production: In early 1990, Nirvana began planning its second album for Sub Pop, tentatively titled Sheep. For the album, Sub Pop head Bruce Pavitt suggested Butch Vig as a potential producer. Nirvana particularly liked Vig’s work with Killdozer and called Vig up to tell him, “We want to sound as heavy as that record.” In April 1990, the band traveled out to Vig’s Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin to begin work on the album. Most of the basic song arrangements were completed by that time, but Cobain was still working on lyrics and the band was unsure of which songs to record. Ultimately, eight songs were recorded: “Immodium” (later renamed “Breed”), “Dive” (later released as the B-side to “Sliver”), “In Bloom”, “Pay to Play” (eventually renamed “Stay Away” and given a new set of lyrics), “Sappy”, “Lithium”, “Here She Comes Now” (released on Velvet Underground Tribute Album: Heaven and Hell Volume 1), and “Polly”. The band had planned to record more tracks, but Cobain severely strained his voice on “Lithium,” forcing Nirvana to shut down recording. Vig was told that the group would come back to record more songs, but the producer did not hear anything for a while. Instead, Nirvana used the sessions as a demo tape to shop for a new label. Within a few months, the tape was circulating amongst major labels, creating a buzz around the group.
After signing to DGC, a number of producers for the album were suggested, including Scott Litt, David Briggs, and Don Dixon, but Nirvana still wanted Butch Vig. Novoselic noted in 2001 that the band was already nervous about recording on a major label, and the producers suggested by DGC wanted percentage points for working on the album. Instead, the band held out for Vig, with whom they felt comfortable collaborating. Afforded a budget of $65,000, Nirvana recorded Nevermind at Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, California in May and June 1991. Nirvana was originally set to record the album during March and April 1991, but the date kept getting pushed back in spite of the band’s eagerness to begin the sessions. To earn gas money to get to Los Angeles, Nirvana played a show where they performed “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for the first time. The band sent Vig some rehearsal tapes prior to the sessions that featured songs recorded previously at Smart Studios, along with some new ones including “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Come as You Are”.
When the group arrived in California, Nirvana did a few days of pre-production where the band and Vig tightened up some of the song arrangements. The only recording carried over from the Smart Studios sessions was the song “Polly”, which included cymbal crashes performed by Chad Channing. Once recording commenced, the band worked eight to ten hours a day. The band members tended to take two or three tries at instrumental takes; if the takes were not satisfactory at that point, they would move on to something else. The group had rehearsed the songs so much before recording started that often only a few takes were needed. Novoselic and Grohl finished their bass and drum tracks in a matter of days, but Cobain had to work longer on guitar overdubs, singing, and particularly lyrics (which sometimes were finished mere minutes before recording). Cobain’s phrasing was so consistent on various takes that Vig would mix the takes together to create overdubs. Vig says that he often had to trick Cobain into recording additional takes for overdubs since the singer was averse to performing multiple takes. In particular, Vig convinced Cobain to double-track his vocals on the song “In Bloom” by telling him “John Lennon did it.” While the sessions went well generally, Vig said Cobain would become moody and difficult at times: “He’d be great for an hour, and then he’d sit in a corner and say nothing for an hour.”
After the recording sessions were completed, Vig and the band set out to mix the album. However, after a few days, both Vig and the band members realized that they were unhappy with how the mixes were turning out. As a result, they decided to call in someone else to oversee the mixing, with Geffen Records imprint DGC supplying a list of possible options. The list contained several familiar names, including Scott Litt (known for his work with R.E.M.) and Ed Stasium (known for his work with The Smithereens). However, Cobain feared that bringing in known mixers would result in the album sounding like the work of those bands. Instead, Cobain chose Andy Wallace (who had co-produced Slayer’s 1990 album Seasons in the Abyss) from the bottom of the list. Novoselic recalled, “We said, ‘right on,’ because those Slayer records were so heavy.” Wallace ran the songs through various special effects boxes and tweaked the drum sounds, completing about one mix per day. Both Wallace and Vig noted years later that upon hearing Wallace’s work the band loved the mixes. After the album’s release, however, members of Nirvana expressed dissatisfaction with the polished sound the mixer had given Nevermind. Cobain said in Come as You Are, “Looking back on the production of Nevermind, I’m embarrassed by it now. It’s closer to a Mötley Crüe record than it is a punk rock record.”
Nevermind was mastered on the afternoon of August 2 at The Mastering Lab in Hollywood, California. Howie Weinberg started working alone when no one else showed up at the appointed time in the studio; by the time Nirvana, Andy Wallace, and Gary Gersh arrived, Weinberg had mastered most of the album. One of the songs mastered at the session, a hidden track called “Endless, Nameless” intended to appear at the end of “Something in the Way”, was accidentally left off initial pressings of the album. Weinberg recalled, “In the beginning, it was kind of a verbal thing to put that track at the end. Maybe I misconstrued their instructions, so you can call it my mistake if you want. Maybe I didn’t write it down when Nirvana or the record company said to do it. So, when they pressed the first twenty thousand or so CDs, albums, and cassettes, it wasn’t on there.” When the band discovered the song’s omission after listening to its copy of the album, Cobain called Weinberg and demanded he rectify the mistake. Weinberg complied and added about ten minutes of silence between the end of “Something in the Way” and the start of the hidden track on future pressings of the album.
Music: Cobain, Nirvana’s main songwriter, fashioned chord sequences using primarily power chords and wrote songs that combined pop hooks with dissonant guitar riffs. His aim for Nevermind’s material was to sound like the “The Knack and the Bay City Rollers getting molested by Black Flag and Black Sabbath”. Many of the songs on Nevermind feature shifts in dynamics, where the band changes from quiet verses to loud choruses. Dave Grohl said this approach originated during a four-month period prior to the recording of the album, where the band would experiment with extreme dynamics during regular jam sessions.
Guitar World wrote, “Kurt Cobain’s guitar sound on Nirvana’s Nevermind set the tone for Nineties rock music.” On Nevermind, Cobain played a 1960s Fender Mustang, a Fender Jaguar with DiMarzio pickups, and a few Fender Stratocasters with humbucker bridge pickups. The guitarist used distortion and chorus pedals as his main effects, the latter used to generate a “watery” sound on “Come as You Are” and the pre-choruses of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Krist Novoselic tuned down his bass guitar one and a half steps to D flat “to get this fat-ass sound.”
Lyrics: Grohl said that Cobain told him, “Music comes first and lyrics come second,” and Grohl believes that above all Cobain focused on the melodies of his songs. Cobain was still working on the album’s lyrics well into the recording of Nevermind. Additionally, Cobain’s phrasing on the album is often difficult to understand. Vig asserted that clarity of Cobain’s singing was not paramount. Vig said, “Even though you couldn’t quite tell what he was singing about, you knew it was intense as hell.” Cobain would later complain when rock journalists attempted to decipher his singing and extract meaning from his lyrics, writing “Why in the hell do journalists insist on coming up with a second-rate Freudian evaluation of my lyrics, when 90 percent of the time they’ve transcribed them incorrectly?”
Charles R. Cross asserted in his 2001 biography of Kurt Cobain, Heavier Than Heaven, that many of the songs written for Nevermind were about Cobain’s dysfunctional relationship with Tobi Vail. After their relationship ended, Cobain began writing and painting violent scenes, many of which revealed hatred for himself and others. Songs written during this period were less violent, but still reflected anger absent from Cobain’s earlier songs. Cross wrote “In the four months following their break-up, Kurt would write a half dozen of his most memorable songs, all of them about Tobi Vail.” “Drain You” begins with the line “One baby to another said ‘I’m lucky to have met you,'” quoting what Vail had once told Cobain, and the line “It is now my duty to completely drain you” refers to the power Vail had over Kurt in their relationship. According to Novoselic, “‘Lounge Act’ is about Tobi,” and the song contains the line “I’ll arrest myself, I’ll wear a shield,” referring to Cobain having the K Records logo tattooed on his arm to impress Vail. Though “Lithium” had been written before Cobain knew Vail, the lyrics of the song were changed to reference her. Cobain also said in an interview with Musician that “some of my very personal experiences, like breaking up with girlfriends and having bad relationships, feeling that death void that the person in the song is feeling–very lonely, sick.”
Packaging: The album’s tentative title Sheep was something Cobain created as an inside joke directed towards the people he expected to buy the record. He wrote a fake advertisement for Sheep in his journal that read “Because you want to not; because everyone else is.” Novoselic said the inspiration for the title was the band’s cynicism about the public’s reaction to Operation Desert Storm. As recording sessions for the album were completed, Cobain grew tired of the title and suggested to Novoselic that the new album be named Nevermind. Cobain liked the title because it was a metaphor for his attitude on life, and because it was grammatically incorrect.
The Nevermind album cover shows a circumcised baby boy, alone underwater with a US dollar bill on a fishhook just out of his reach. According to Cobain, he conceived the idea while watching a television program on water births with Grohl. Cobain mentioned it to Geffen’s art director Robert Fisher. Fisher found some stock footage of underwater births but they were too graphic for the record company. Also, the stock house that controlled the photo of a swimming baby that they subsequently settled on wanted $7,500 a year for its use, so instead Fisher sent a photographer to a pool for babies to take pictures. Five shots resulted and the band settled on the image of a three-month-old infant named Spencer Elden, the son of the photographer’s friend. However, there was some concern because Elden’s penis was visible in the image. Geffen prepared an alternate cover without the penis, as they were afraid that it would offend people, but relented when Cobain made it clear that the only compromise he would accept was a sticker covering the penis that would say, “If you’re offended by this, you must be a closet pedophile.”
The back cover of the album features a photograph of a rubber monkey in front of a collage created by Cobain. The collage features photos of raw beef from a supermarket advertisement, images from Dante’s Inferno, and pictures of diseased vaginas from Cobain’s collection of medical photos. Cobain noted, “If you look real close, there is a picture of Kiss in the back standing on a slab of beef.” The album’s liner notes contain no complete song lyrics; instead, the liner contains random song lyrics and unused lyrical fragments that Cobain arranged into a poem.
Release: Nevermind was released on September 24, 1991. American record stores received an initial shipment of 46,251 copies, while 35,000 copies were shipped in the United Kingdom, where Bleach had been successful. The lead single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” had been released on September 10 with the intention of being a base-building cut among alternative rock fans, while the next single “Come as You Are” would be the song that would possibly garner more attention. The band set out on a short American tour four days before the release date to support the album. Geffen Records hoped that Nevermind would sell around 250,000 copies, which was the same level the record company had achieved with Sonic Youth’s Geffen debut Goo. The best estimate was that if all involved worked hard, the record could possibly be certified Gold by September 1992.
The album debuted on the Billboard 200 at number 144. Geffen shipped about half of the initial US pressing to the American Northwest, where it sold out quickly and was unavailable for days. Geffen reputedly put production of all other albums on hold in order to fulfill demand in the region. Nevermind was already selling well but, over the next few months, the momentum increased significantly as “Smells Like Teen Spirit” unexpectedly became more and more popular. The song’s video had received a world premiere on MTV’s late night alternative show 120 Minutes but it soon proved so popular that the channel began playing it during the day. The record was soon certified gold, but the band was relatively uninterested in the achievement. Novoselic recalled, “Yeah I was happy about it. It was pretty cool. It was kind of neat. But I don’t give a shit about some kind of achievement like that. It’s cool—I guess.”
As the band set out for their European tour at the start of November 1991, Nevermind entered the Billboard Top 40 for the first time at number 35. By this point, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” had become a genuine hit and the album was selling so fast none of Geffen’s marketing strategies aimed at different sales levels could be enacted. Geffen president Ed Rosenblatt told The New York Times, “We didn’t do anything. It was just one of those ‘Get out of the way and duck’ records.” Nirvana found as they toured Europe during the end of 1991 that the shows were dangerously oversold, television crews became a constant presence onstage, and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was almost omnipresent on radio and music television.
Nevermind became Nirvana’s first number one album on January 11, 1992, replacing Michael Jackson at the top of the Billboard charts. By this time, Nevermind was selling approximately 300,000 copies a week. “Come as You Are” was finally released as the second single in March 1992, also becoming a hit; it peaked at number nine on the UK Singles Chart and at number 32 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. Two more singles, “Lithium” and “In Bloom”, were released from the album, which peaked at number 11 and 28 on the UK Singles Chart respectively.
Nevermind was certified Gold and Platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America in November 1991, and was certified Diamond in March 1999. It was also certified Diamond in Canada (1,000,000 units sold) by the Canadian Recording Industry Association in March 2001 and two times Platinum in the United Kingdom. In 1996, Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs released Nevermind on vinyl as part of its ANADISQ 200 series, and as a 24-carat gold Compact Disc. The CD pressings included “Endless, Nameless”. The LP version quickly sold out its limited pressing but the CD edition stayed in print for years. In 2009 Original Recordings Group released Nevermind on limited edition 180g blue vinyl and regular 180g black vinyl mastered and cut by Bernie Grundman from the original analogue tapes. It has been praised in reviews for sound quality. Nevermind had sold over 30 million copies worldwide by 2008.
2011 Deluxe and Super Deluxe Editions: In September 2011, in honor of the album’s 20th anniversary, Universal Music Enterprises released a 2-CD Deluxe Edition and a 4-CD/1-DVD Super Deluxe Edition of Nevermind. The first disc on both editions feature the original album with studio and live b-sides. The second disc on both editions features early recordings of sessions that featured songs that would later appear on the album, including the Smart Studio sessions and some band rehearsals recorded with a boombox. The second disc is rounded out by two BBC session recordings. The third disc, exclusive to the Super Deluxe Edition, features alternate mixes made by Butch Vig, dubbed the ‘Devonshire Mixes’, of all the songs on the album except “Polly” and “Endless, Nameless”. The fourth and fifth discs on the Super Deluxe Editions are CD and DVD versions of Live at the Paramount.
Critical reception: Geffen’s press promotion for Nevermind was lower than that typical of a major record label. The label’s publicist primarily targeted music publications with long lead times for publication as well as magazines in the Seattle area. The unexpectedly positive feedback from critics who had received the album convinced the label to consider increasing the album’s original print run.
At first, Nevermind did not receive many reviews, and many publications ignored the album. Months after its release and after “Smells Like Teen Spirit” garnered airplay, print media organizations were “scrambling” to cover the phenomenon the album had become. However, by that point much of the attention fell on Cobain rather than the album itself. The reviews that did initially appear were largely positive. Karen Schoemer of The New York Times wrote, “With ‘Nevermind,’ Nirvana has certainly succeeded. There are enough intriguing textures, mood shifts, instrumental snippets and inventive word plays to provide for hours of entertainment.” Schoemer concluded, “‘Nevermind’ is more sophisticated and carefully produced than anything peer bands like Dinosaur Jr. and Mudhoney have yet offered.” Entertainment Weekly gave Nevermind an A– rating, and reviewer David Browne argued that on Nevermind, Nirvana “never entertain the notion” of wanting to sound “normal,” compared to other contemporary alternative bands. Concluding his very enthusiastic review for the British Melody Maker, Everett True wrote that “When Nirvana released Bleach all those years ago, the more sussed among us figured they had the potential to make an album that would blow every other contender away. My God have they proved us right.” Spin gave Nevermind a favorable review stating that “you’ll be humming all the songs for the rest of your life—or at least until your CD-tape-album wears out.” Select gave the album a four out of five rating and compared the band to Jane’s Addiction, Sonic Youth, and the Pixies stating that the album “proves that Nirvana truly belong in such high company.”
Some of the reviews were not entirely positive. Rolling Stone originally gave the album three out of five stars. Reviewer Ira Robbins wrote, “If Nirvana isn’t onto anything altogether new, Nevermind does possess the songs, character and confident spirit to be much more than a reformulation of college radio’s high-octane hits.” The Boston Globe was less enthusiastic about the album; reviewer Steve Morse wrote, “Most of Nevermind is packed with generic punk-pop that had been done by countless acts from Iggy Pop to the Red Hot Chili Peppers,” and added “the band has little or nothing to say, settling for moronic ramblings by singer-lyricist Cobain.”
Nevermind was voted as the best album of the year in The Village Voice Pazz & Jop critics’ poll; “Smells Like Teen Spirit” also topped the single of the year and video of the year polls. Nevermind topped the poll by a large majority, and Village Voice critic Robert Christgau wrote in his companion piece to the poll, “As a modest pop surprise they might have scored a modest victory, like De La Soul in 1990. Instead, their multi-platinum takeover constituted the first full-scale public validation of the Amerindie values—the noise, the toons, the ‘tude—the radder half of the [Pazz & Jop poll] electorate came up on.”
Legacy: Nevermind not only popularized the Seattle grunge movement, but also brought alternative rock as a whole into the mainstream, establishing its commercial and cultural viability. Nevermind’s success surprised Nirvana’s contemporaries, who felt dwarfed by its impact. Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto later commented: “It was like our record could have been a hobo pissing in the forest for the amount of impact it had. […] It felt like we were playing ukuleles all of a sudden because of the disparity of the impact of what they did”. In 1992, Jon Pareles of The New York Times described that in the aftermath of the album’s breakthrough, “Suddenly, all bets are off. No one has the inside track on which of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of ornery, obstreperous, unkempt bands might next appeal to the mall-walking millions”. Record company executives offered large advances and record deals to bands, and previous strategies of building audiences for alternative rock bands had been replaced by the opportunity to achieve mainstream popularity quickly.
Michael Azerrad argued in his Nirvana biography Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana (1993) that Nevermind marked an epochal generational shift in music similar to the rock-and-roll explosion in the 1950s and the end of the baby boomer generation’s dominance of the musical landscape. Azerrad wrote, “Nevermind came along at exactly the right time. This was music by, for, and about a whole new group of young people who had been overlooked, ignored, or condescended to.” In its citation placing it at number 17 in its 2003 list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, Rolling Stone said, “No album in recent history had such an overpowering impact on a generation—a nation of teens suddenly turned punk—and such a catastrophic effect on its main creator.”
Nevermind has continued to garner critical praise since its release. The album was listed at number 17 on Rolling Stone’s list “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time”. Rolling Stone also rated Nevermind as the number one best album of the 1990s, calling it the “album that guaranteed the nineties would not suck.” Time placed Nevermind, which writer Josh Tyrangiel called “the finest album of the 90s”, on its 2006 list of “The All-TIME 100 Albums”. Pitchfork named the album the sixth best of the decade, noting that “anyone who hates this record today is just trying to be cool, and needs to be trying harder.” In 2006, readers of Guitar World ranked Nevermind 8th on a list of the 100 Greatest Guitar Recordings. Entertainment Weekly named it the 10th best album of all time on their 2013 list. In 2005, the Library of Congress added Nevermind to the National Recording Registry, which collects “culturally, historically or aesthetically important” sound recordings from the 20th century.