Nirvana Live: 1987-1989

Tail end of last year we started looking at a chart showing the first appearances of Nirvana songs in concert as detailed at the Nirvana Live Guide — shall we continue?

New Originals_1987-1988

Naturally it’s worth disregarding the tranche of new songs in March — anything they played was by definition a new performance given it was Nirvana’s first show. What’s most noticeable really is how many of the songs emerging in 1987 and the first month of 1988 were simply discarded; Hairspray Queen, Aero Zeppelin (these two until 1992), Beeswax (until 1991), Downer, If You Must, Pen Cap Chew, Annorexorcist, Vendetagainst, Erectum/Raunchola — most of an album is thrown away by the end of January 1988. The speed with which new songs were appearing would be impressive were it not for the fact that the band wasn’t exactly overworked at the time so there was plenty of time to come up with new songs. The issue was perhaps one related to the nature of the songs being created — Nirvana’s 1987 identity lay in relatively complex new wave songs, with extremely long-winded lyrics, hardly conducive to fast preparation. To be fair, Kurt Cobain was honest in saying that he was hardly a constant or prolific writer, he relied on catching the moments of inspiration and getting them noted down, recorded, before they burnt out. 1987 still relied on three year old songs refreshed and reprised from their Fecal Matter form to flesh out the setlist. On the other hand, wow, almost every month Nirvana perform (and for which a set-list is available) there’s a new song featured. The band were moving at speed.

Of course, particularly in the early years, we’re looking at a record with gaps — a particularly low percentage of set-lists from 1987-1988 are present, even in 1989 only just over 50%. Given Mr. Moustache and Sifting were present in vestigial form back at the June 1988 recording sessions for the first Sub Pop single, it’s likely they made it onstage for the first time during the seven-eight shows seen between that recording session and the next full set-list on October 30. Likewise it seems unlikely that the apparent appearance of Blandest in July 1989 was the first or only time the song received an airing before its abandonment:

New Originals_1989

What’s also interesting is the ‘late’ arrival of a handful of the tracks from Bleach. A good portion of Bleach was written long before the album session, however, there was significant rewriting of Blew, Sifting and Mr. Moustache after their first appearance and as late as mid-December (evidenced by the footage captured on the With the Lights Out DVD.) Meanwhile, the fact Negative Creep and Scoff don’t make any showing of any sort until April-May 1989, though partially a consequence of the long gap in the record, also suggests that those two songs specifically were last minute hurried additions to Bleach; the brevity of their lyrics likewise.

The nearly uniform month by month drip of new songs is quite remarkable in 1989, December is the first month in which the band play that year (even if only a smattering of shows) in which they don’t chuck either a fresh original, or a rarity into the mix. It says a lot about their desire to keep the experience of playing entertaining that they vary their shows so much. It made sense in 1987 through early 1989 when the band were repeatedly replaying Washington State venues (take a look back at the maps on this blog) — they’d be seeing the same audiences quite regularly — yet, from mid-1989 they were setting off on their travels, the audiences were brand new to Nirvana’s performances, the knowledge and trade of Nirvana rarities was minimal, the only people who would know it was a new song, or an abandoned track, were the band. I feel that it was for the band’s own pleasure that they made these efforts to vary their performances.


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