What’s Left? Re-examining the Live Record 1989 Part One

Like a lot of ever-so-slightly, teeny-tinily fixated Nirvana fans, I’ve listened to quite a few live concerts by this point. What I hadn’t noticed was how solidly constructed Nirvana set-lists were. I admit I expected to see that prior to the In Utero tour set-lists flexed and varied more often. Instead I’ve had to discard my expectation and observe what I’m actually seeing. What I like about data is that its primarily about pattern recognition; taking familiar information (like the set-lists on NirvanaGuide.com) and rearranging it thus bringing out new visions. I’d never placed list after list of Nirvana sets alongside one another before. Doing so is allowing me a fresh insight into what whole tours, entire years, entire spans of Nirvana’s existence looked like as live experiences and what is most likely missing from the live record.

1989, as a year, had one abiding feature; School. That song kicked off 41 of the fully known set-lists, interrupted only by Dive and Spank Thru early in the year then a brief jam toward the end. The abandonment of Nirvana’s earliest unreleased songs from January 23, 1988, later featured on Incesticide, was absolute. The sense is of a band reinforcing existing recognition — Spank Thru, Love Buzz, Bleach — taking time to refresh viable spares — Vendetagainst and Blandest — and to work up fresh material — Stain, Sappy, Been a Son, Polly.

Like when we examined 1993-1994, it’s clear that Nirvana knew how to kick-off a show, the greatest rigidity in set-lists is in the openers. It seems to have been a way of ratcheting up the crowd’s excitement, or of geeing up the band, getting them loose, relaxed, over any nerves. In the full set-lists available, from June 23 until July 18, Jason Everman’s final gig, the opening trio is School, Floyd the Barber, Love Buzz for eight shows. The resumption of live shows on August 26 inaugurates what would, with one last change (Spank Thru, for the only time, was the opener on this show), be the core unit in 33 set-lists; School, Scoff, Love Buzz, Floyd the Barber, Dive — Sept 30 until Dec 3 this is the running order of Nirvana originals.

During that two month spell, following Dive, there seems to have been a desire to stage a mid-set break, a breather after what is a fairly intense opening barrage. Polly, and briefly Sappy or About a Girl, gentler songs all, are regularly song six through from August 26 in Seattle right the way until November 15 in Germany. It’s clear, however, that after the opening salvoes with which each concert began, it was rare that a set-list solidified for more than a few shows in a row. As an example, for five shows between October 25 to 30, the first ten songs are in identical order. This corresponds to the final shows of the U.K. tour prior to the move into Europe. This initiated some shifting of orders, a little more diversity; the first seven songs are unchanged until November 15, song eight and song nine meanwhile shift between some combination About a Girl, Spank Thru and Mr. Moustache.

Other ‘units’ of songs existed even in the far shorter set-lists of 1989 (as compared to the twenty plus song 1993-94 extravaganzas.) Negative Creep was followed directly by Blew on thirty-eight occasions, separated by one song on a further two occasions. Those two songs also formed the closing couplet on two-thirds of those occasions. Another unit worthy of mention is the About a Girl/Spank Thru pairing, in one order or the other; they appeared alongside one another 22 times, in fact there’s only one occasion in any of the 43 full set-lists where About a Girl features but Spank Thru doesn’t. On 29 occasions Polly and Big Cheese appeared together, from Polly’s second appearance right the way until end of December.

What’s clearest is Nirvana’s professional stagecraft at work. They worked, throughout the extant record of 1989, to rev up the crowds before breaking into unreleased, just released, whatever took their fancy. That’s where the talent and quality of the band becomes visible, in their ability not just to hone a set-list but then to have the confidence and swagger to simply change the sets over and over again. Basically, while the first part of a set was rigid, the second half was utterly diverse. With sincere apologies for my shorthand, take a look at the next graphic:

Set-Lists May-Dec 1989

The first eight songs of each set were, with exceptions, predictable. The songs after that…Well, in 34 shows the band only manages to finish three consecutive shows in the same number of songs. I’ve scoured these set-lists and the concluding spells of each of these gigs always shift. Oct 27 and 28 are the only two dates where the set list stays the same — but Nirvana still whacked a couple of extras on the end of the latter date.

If you want to know how I spend a lot of nights, well, perhaps you can tell from these obsessively resorted set-lists — a tragic tale I think you’ll agree. But, having noted the Negative Creep/Blew pairing, that led me to a further clustering effect present almost throughout the extant set-lists for 1989; in 28 of 34 shows those songs appeared with Been a Son and/or Stain but, again, this didn’t guarantee it would definitely be one, or the other, or in a specific order:

Set-List_Conclusions_Aug-Dec 1989

That’s where Nirvana were at in late 1989, so well drilled they could flip and switch as they wished.


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