Twenty five years ago today, Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dale Crover entered the studio with Jack Endino and recorded five of the songs that would end up on Incesticide.
Back last year I asked Jack Endino if, when listening to the songs he worked on that made it onto Incesticide, whether there were any moments that gave him a particular pride and he replied: “No. None of them were recorded or mixed with any time spent (due to budget), plus I had only been working as a recording engineer for three years at that point. The songs with Dale drumming were all mixed in a total of two hours… ten songs on the original 1/23/88 demo, do the math. It would have been nice to remix them with some care taken.” It’s interesting to me that I’ve listened to these songs for some eighteen years now and never had any complaint regarding the sound quality or its features, yet, to the ear of a trained recording engineer, it felt less satisfactory – maybe sometimes less sonic knowledge is aural bliss.
The stories regarding this first studio session are well known; Nirvana recorded at speed, just six hours or so of work, instrumental versions done first, then Kurt’s vocals, mixing done within two hours, out the door. The session was paid for from Kurt’s wages as a janitor hence the fade-ending to the song Pen Cap Chew because “the multitrack master tape ran out just at the start of the second chorus, and the band didn’t want to buy another reel, so more correctly the song is “permanently incomplete”, not “unfinished”. You can’t finish it when a third of the song is missing. I did the fade ending for the hell of it, just so they could listen to what was there less jarringly.” That same night the band played all the songs from the studio session in the precise same order with two more songs tacked on the end.
This is what intrigues me, the guesses that can be made based on the band’s behaviour. LiveNirvana contains a ‘set-list’ for one practice session prior to the January 23, 1988 studio visit and suggests there were two more preparatory sessions. The band knew before they arrived in studio that they needed to move quick; the banged through the instrumentals then Kurt did his vocals one after the other in just one take; that evening, having driven umpteen miles to a performance, they then ran through all the songs in precisely the same order. It suggests to me that between the January 3 practice and the January 23 session, the band actually planned out a clear order of what they were going to play and practiced it ensuring they could act smoothly in studio and explaining why they duplicated the studio running order that evening. The extrapolation that can be made from this is that one of the preceding practice sessions, if a recording ever turns up, should have the same (or a close) order. As a touch of support to this, in March when Dave Foster joins the band, the set list has curious similarities:
The top line is the January 23, 1988 performance – the bottom line and a bit is March 19, 1988. Note immediately that despite a change of drummer and a gap of three months the only changes to the opening five songs are Love Buzz has supplanted If You Must as the opener and Papercuts and Spank Thru swap fourth and fifth place. The next disconnect is interesting too; the next song in March was Hairspray Queen. On January 23, though the next full song played was Aero Zeppelin, in fact Nirvana attempted Hairspray Queen and stopped due to a broken string – if not for that accident of fate, the same song would have been in sixth place both nights. The next point of comparison is to look at Beeswax, Mexican Seafood, Aero Zeppelin and Pen Cap Chew as a unit – in January the broken string meant the band shunted that unit up by one song, in March they play those same four songs together, with Hairspray Queen back in place, with If You Must dropped in beforehand having been shoved out of its starting position. The only other change is that Beeswax and Aero Zeppelin have swapped positions. Now the band bring in the new songs; Big Cheese replaces Annorexorcist, Blew is squeezed into the longer set…But the ending is still pre-determined; Erectum is the big set closer with whatever jams and covers the band feel like shoved on the end (the band play Bad Moon Rising at the end in March.)
From the coincidences surrounding January 23, 1988 it’s therefore possible to extrapolate the decisions taken by the band before that date; to suggest a likely set-list for at least one practice prior to the session; to suggest that Kurt and Krist taught Dave Foster this specific set-list in practice after that date; and to suggest a likely set-list for the only other show the band played between January 23 and March 19.
As my tribute to Nirvana’s first studio session I thought I’d simply show how an event taking place so long ago could still inspire thought and consideration today. Happy twenty-fifth!