My Friends: Nirvana and Live Support 1987-1994 Part One

Studying this much Nirvana data for so long, I keep seeing things I simply want to look at and digest in more detail — often what you’re seeing is me working it through in my own mind rather than simply a thoroughly digested entry, certainly I rarely know the conclusion before I start. What I wanted to do today was examine the bands with whom Nirvana played either as support or supported by. I was curious who Nirvana had spent most time with.

To conduct this survey, as ever, I owe a strong debt of gratitude to the work of the Nirvana Live Guide — the data they’ve made available to fans is incredible, I’m just enjoying myself manipulating the information to hopefully show neat little patterns, trends and facts. Today’s post came about because I was so amused by many of the band names I saw popping up on the Guide and wanted to look more closely and acknowledge the role of other bands in the Nirvana story. I know it’s always the same, we barely notice the band that comes on before the band we’ve come to see, but for an awful lot of their existence Nirvana weren’t even that second-string band; they were just another name on a list of unknown quantities.

As a proviso, I ignored the festivals, the sheer quantity of bands on different stages, not necessarily sharing contact and so forth, the festivals were impossible to deal with. Of course this does, for example, influence the statistics for appearances alongside Sonic Youth. I confined this study, with the exception of a benefit/festival or two with as many as five or six bands appearing, to occasions where it was just a normal gig, two-three bands altogether.

With regard to the absolute numbers, fact number one is the headline figure of 234 unique bands with whom Nirvana played over the course of their time in existence. What’s even more interesting is how few of those bands Nirvana played with more than once. In the table below I set the bar at four times even to allow entry to the list:

Bands Nirvana Played with Most 1987-1994

A mere 36 of those 234 bands are known to have played more than four shows with Nirvana; that’s a remarkable number of connections for Nirvana to be making, band after band, year after year with their peak as live performers coinciding with their peak of shared stages; ending up playing with 56-66 bands a year is quite phenomenal, massive turn-over in support. It emphasises how much of a minor presence Nirvana were until remarkably late in their career in that they clearly had little or no control over who they ended up on stage with, they took every chance, came on before or after absolutely anyone — this did change once fame hit.

The trend over time is unsurprising both because of the fall-off in Nirvana’s activity in later years and also the fact they were no longer playing band showcases or taking any chance to get on stage but were actively selecting the company they kept. It’s still notable, however, how thoroughly things changed; in 1992, 1993 and 1994 they play with so few other artists that one has to go all the way back to 1987 to find a year they forged so few on-stage connections. Notice also how, as the total number of bands declines, the number of bands with whom Nirvana played more than once in a year actually did increase suggesting it was deliberate commercial/contractual arrangements, the business in other words, rather than just ‘nature’ that created this pattern:

Individual Bands per Year 1987-1994

Michael Gira was quoted at one point, I’m doing this from memory, saying that the reason Sonic Youth succeeded while Swans remained a strictly underground flavour was that he went round the country making enemies while Sonic Youth made so many friends. In the case of Nirvana they seem to have spent time with anyone who was anyone in the North-west, on top of a whole batch of names elsewhere primarily American but with solid and persistent connections to international favourites. There are so many bands they’re on stage with. It can’t have hurt either that, with no disrespect intended, the fact the vast majority of bands on the list are either complete, or as near-as, unknowns would have emphasised Nirvana’s quality and superiority — it’s easy to stand out and draw attention when stood alongside more minor acts.

For those of you with a penchant for numerology and spookiness, by the way, note the total for 1992 then the sum of 1993-1994 — oooooo…Fear the nonsensical but eerie…


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