Nirvana: Bleach – [Record 37]
Bleach: is the debut studio album by the American rock band Nirvana, released in June 1989 through the independent record label Sub Pop. The main recording sessions took place at Reciprocal Recording in Seattle, Washington between December 1988 and January 1989.
Bleach was well received by critics, but failed to chart in the U.S. upon its original release. The album was re-released internationally by Geffen Records in 1992 following the success of Nirvana’s second album, Nevermind (1991). The re-release debuted at number 89 on the Billboard 200, and peaked at number 33 on the UK Albums Chart and 34 on the Australian albums chart. In 2009 Sub Pop released a 20th anniversary edition of Bleach featuring a live recording of a Nirvana show in Portland, Oregon from 1990 as extra material. Since its release in 1989, Bleach has sold over 1.7 million units in the United States alone. It is Sub Pop’s best-selling release to date.
2. Floyd the Barber.
3. About a Girl.
5. Love Buzz.
6. Paper Cuts.
7. Negative Creep.
9. Swap Meet.
10. Mr. Moustache.
12. Big Cheese.
Recording: Following the release of its debut single “Love Buzz” on Sub Pop in November 1988, Nirvana practiced for two to three weeks in preparation for recording a full-length album, even though Sub Pop had only requested an EP. The main sessions for Bleach took place at Reciprocal Recording Studios in Seattle, with local producer Jack Endino.
Nirvana began recording with a five-hour session on December 24, 1988. The band recorded again on December 29–31, and on January 14 and 24. Three of the album’s songs – “Floyd the Barber”, “Paper Cuts” and “Downer” – were recorded during a previous session at Reciprocal Studios in 1988, featuring Dale Crover on drums. Despite attempts to re-record them with new drummer Chad Channing, the band ultimately decided to remix the versions recorded with Crover for the final version of Bleach. “Big Long Now” was omitted from the album because vocalist/guitarist Kurt Cobain felt “there was already enough slow heavy stuff on Bleach, and he ‘didn’t want that song to go out'”, according to Endino. The album was edited and sequenced, but Sub Pop head Bruce Pavitt ordered that the album be completely re-sequenced. The record was further delayed for several months until Sub Pop was able to secure sufficient funds to issue it.
Nirvana songwriter Kurt Cobain felt pressured to create music for Bleach that conformed to the grunge music style favored by his record label and the contemporary Seattle music scene. The album is regarded as quite negative and bleak; Cobain claimed that most of the lyrics were written the night before recording while he was feeling “pissed off”, and that he did not regard them highly.
Endino billed the band thirty hours of recording at $606.17. Jason Everman, a guitarist who was impressed by Nirvana’s demo with Dale Crover, supplied the money. He briefly joined the group as second guitarist. Everman was credited as a guitarist on the album sleeve, and is the other guitarist on the cover of the album, even though he did not perform on the record. Bassist Krist Novoselic explained, “We just wanted to make him feel at home in the band.”
Music: According to Cobain, the music on Bleach conformed with the grunge genre Sub Pop heavily endorsed. “There was this pressure from Sub Pop and the grunge scene to play ‘rock music'”, Cobain said, and noted that he “[stripped] it down and [made] it sound like Aerosmith.” Cobain also felt he had to fit the expectations of the grunge sound to build a fanbase, and hence suppressed his arty and pop songwriting traits while crafting the record. Krist Novoselic said in a 2001 interview with Rolling Stone that the band had played a tape in their tour van that had an album by The Smithereens on one side and one by the extreme metal band Celtic Frost on the other, and noted that the combination probably played an influence as well. The songs were described as “deliberately bleak, claustrophobic, and lyrically sparse, with none of the manic derangement or sense of release of the live performance”. Cobain said that the song structures were “one–dimensional”, and said that he sought to present a more “polished and urbane side of happy”.
Describing the various songs on Bleach, Christopher Sandford wrote: “‘Paper Cuts’ includes a folk-influence melody and ponderous rhythm of an early Led Zeppelin number; ‘Mr. Moustache’ addressed itself on Nirvana’s male fans; ‘Downer’ showed the same exceptional contempt for the group’s audience”. Sandford felt “School” – which features only four lines of lyrics – was memorable for its chorus that “served as the rip”. While “Scoff” is “a parting salvo at [Cobain’s parents]”, “Negative Creep” was written by Cobain about himself. According to Sandford, “About a Girl” has a “chiming melody and ironic chorus”. In Sounds magazine, Keith Cameron said the song “was exhilarating and it was exciting because that was the nature of the music, but there was also an almost palpable sense of danger, that this whole thing could fall apart any second. There was never any relaxation from the first note to the last”. In his book Nirvana: The Stories Behind Every Song, Chuck Crisafulli writes that the song “stands out in the Cobain canon as a song with a very specific genesis and a very real subject”.
Cobain told Sounds journalist John Robb about the lyrics for the then about to be released Bleach in one of his first interviews ‘”When I write a song the lyrics are the least important thing. I can go through two or three different subjects in a song and the title can mean absolutely nothing at all. Sometimes I try to make things harder for myself, just to try to make myself a bit more angry. I try out a few subconscious things I suppose, like conflicts with other people. Most of the lyrics on the ‘Bleach’ album are about my life in Aberdeen.”
Cobain told Spin in 1993 that on Bleach he “didn’t give a flying fuck what the lyrics were about”, and claimed that 80 percent of the lyrics were written the night before recording. He was often still working on the words on the drive to the recording studio. He explained: “It was like I’m pissed off. Don’t know what about. Let’s just scream negative lyrics, and as long as they’re not sexist and don’t get too embarrassing it’ll be okay. I don’t hold any of those lyrics dear to me.” Nirvana biographer Michael Azerrad noted that, nevertheless, many of the songs on the album reflected Cobain and various incidents in his life. “Mr. Moustache” was inspired by Cobain’s dislike of macho behavior, while “School” was a critique of the Seattle music scene, particularly Sub Pop.
Release and promotion: The album cover was photographed by Cobain’s then-girlfriend Tracy Marander during a concert at the Reko Muse art gallery in Olympia, Washington. On February 25, 1989, Nirvana played at venues on the west coast, including the University of Washington. The group began its first European tour, a double headliner with the band Tad, at the Riverside venue in Newcastle upon Tyne on 23 October 1989. On December 3, they played a “triumphant” set at the London Astoria. Christopher Sandford related: “when the style pundits noted Cobain’s ‘patent lumberjack shirts and ugly fifties geometric-patterned jerseys’, seeing an example of ‘low-couture chic’ they missed the point that flannel shirts and sweaters were everyday dress in the marine climate of the Northwest”. Cobain took note and said that he never intended to start a fad or act as a role model.
The album’s working title was Too Many Humans. It was renamed Bleach after Cobain found an AIDS prevention poster while Nirvana was driving through San Francisco. The poster advised heroin addicts to bleach their needles before use, featuring the slogan “Bleach Your Works”. In Australia, Bleach was released on Waterfront Records and re-issued on various colored covers and colored vinyl prior to 1992.
Due to increasing dissatisfaction with Everman over the course of the tour to promote Bleach, Nirvana canceled the last few dates and drove back to Washington. No one told Everman he was fired at the time, while Everman later claimed that he actually quit the group. Although Sub Pop did not promote Bleach as much as other releases, it was a steady seller. However, Cobain was upset by the label’s lack of promotion and distribution for the album.
In April 1992, following the success of Nirvana’s second album Nevermind, Sub Pop released a remastered version of Bleach on LP, CD and cassette, adding two extra tracks. Geffen Records handled the international release. The CD version was packaged in a cardboard foldout case that included a bonus booklet filled with photos of the band from 1987–1990. For the 20th anniversary of the album, Sub Pop released on November 3, 2009 a deluxe reissue of Bleach featuring a March 2009 remastering from the original tapes by George Marino and a live recording of a 1990 show at Portland, Oregon’s Pine Street Theatre.
Reception: The album has received critical acclaim since its release. Anthony Carew from the About.com Guide said that the album “define[d] the entire decade of the ’90s”, and awarded it four out of five stars. Stephen Thomas Erlewine of Allmusic gave the album three and a half out of five stars, noting that “Kurt Cobain illustrated signs of his considerable songcraft, particularly on the minor-key ballad ‘About a Girl’ and the dense churn of ‘Blew'”. He also said that “it’s a debut from a band that shows potential but haven’t yet achieved it.” NME’s Edwin Pouncey said that the album was the “biggest, baddest sound that Sub Pop have so far managed to unearth. So primitive that they manage to make label mates Mudhoney sound like Genesis, Nirvana turn up the volume and spit and claw their way to the top of the musical garbage heap”, and gave it an eight out of ten rating. Bleach was considered by Rolling Stone as “a moderate hit on college radio and the underground/DIY circuit.”
Before Nevermind was released, Bleach had sold 40,000 units in North America. The 1992 re-release of the album was more successful on the charts, with Bleach eventually reaching number 89 at the Billboard 200, number 33 on the UK album charts, number 34 on the Australian Recording Industry Association chart, and number 24 on the Finland charts. Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994 also led to a resurgence of popularity, with Bleach entering the Top Pop Catalog chart at number six in the week following his death, and eventually earning the top spot on May 7. The 2009 deluxe edition entered the Catalog Albums chart at number seven. Bleach was certified Platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America in February 1995, and has sold an estimated 1.7 million units in the United States. It has also been certified Gold by the Canadian Recording Industry Association. It is Sub Pop’s best-selling release.