So…You waded through the umpteen tables and figures across the last three articles and the message came through loud and clear? Wow, I do hope so. This exercise represents several weeks of data work and trying to formulate the right words to express the quest. The question I was asking at the start was very simple “did Nirvana, when performing live, have a preference for Side A or Side B of their albums or was it fairly random?” The answer was pretty emphatic:
Oh, but hang on…There’s a kicker. Until Nirvana had recorded and worked out each album, there was no Side A or Side B — the orders didn’t exist yet. So, if we really want to see how powerfully Nirvana invested in the organisation of their albums, what we should be looking at is how dominant Side A was if we only consider shows that were on or after the dates their three studio albums came out. Those dates are June 15, 1989 for Bleach; Sept 24, 1991 for Nevermind; Sept 13, 1993 for In Utero respectively. We could push the date back slightly by trolling old magazine articles to find when the album song listings were revealed but we’d only be moving the date by a matter of weeks. Upon these dates the structure of Side A and Side B was publically and absolutely set in stone for each album — does that affect how dominant Side A or Side B of each album was?
The answer is yes, take a look:
The answer is absolutely crystal-clear; Nirvana played more songs from Side A 93% of the time and more or equal an amazing 99% of the time; there are only six occasions ever, after the dates of each album release, where Nirvana favoured Side B, that’s despite the fact that Side B of Nevermind and Side B of In Utero were longer by one song each. The six shows are:
Nevermind — September 27, 1991; November 6, 1991; November 29, 1991; February 22, 1992; August 6, 1993
In Utero — February 14, 1994
This isn’t a commentary on the aesthetic preference of fans for one side or the other, it’s a demonstration that, of 417 potential opportunities, Nirvana deviated only six times — the band had committed to a certain list of songs to constitute Side A and Side B and as far as can be told that same decision that was made on vinyl was also made on stage too. This isn’t an attempt to declare that Side A was all genius (In Bloom versus Drain You) or on suitability of individual songs (why was Polly anymore appropriate or inappropriate than Something in the Way as a mid-set breather?) or that Side B was leftovers and filler. Nirvana committed to twelve songs per album (plus two bonus tracks) and all their albums are great…What we are saying here is that they put a lot more of the songs they played more often on Side A. It does raise the question whether it’s a case of decisions being made by individuals or the band en masse which might explain the absolutely rigid result here as the consequence of compromise — that’s interesting in and of itself but I can’t answer that.
So, we’ve established is that when playing live, Nirvana favoured their chosen Side A over their chosen Side B on Bleach, on Nevermind and on In Utero. In the case of Bleach this result could be wished away by saying Side A was longer by two songs plus it’s a fact that the band arranged the record with their favourites first. In the case of Nevermind and In Utero, Side B was longer to the tune of one bonus track in each case yet the band’s favouritism toward Side A persisted suggesting there was an underlying reason they did so. If we really want to emphasise the coherence of Side A, here’s the stats for how many times Nirvana played the WHOLE of Side A or Side B:
Remember, again, at this point that this isn’t a case of declaring “better or worse”, it’s simply a demonstration of two things; firstly, the band’s own preference for what to play, and secondly, the tight link between the division of their albums (as primarily tape or vinyl entities) and their performances in concert. Nor am I saying that the band consciously sat down and said “OK, let’s play this much from this side of X album, this much from Y album…”
What I am saying is that the band consciously chose a certain bunch of songs to be Side A or Side B of an album. If we can agree on that point then there are two perspectives that follow from the facts above and the articles the last three days. Either, on the one hand, Nirvana front-loaded their albums with their most commercial songs, the songs that appealed most to their record labels and audiences then agreed (under some kind of pressure) to focus on those songs…OR, on the other hand, Nirvana front-loaded their albums with the majority of songs they knew to be their finest and their favourites and when heading out on stage played the songs they most wanted to play.
It’s your call. My personal opinion is that Nirvana were never forced to play anything. They simply put their ‘best foot first’ on both their albums and at their shows, the unconscious result being a constant, unrelenting and undeviating tendency to play Side A. As reinforcement for that view, look at the articles this past month trying to fill the gaps in the live set-lists; Nirvana were usually very rigid at the start of their shows — they knew how to open — then they would go astray, flex, vary and change toward the back halves of shows. It’s simply far easier to pick one’s top six than one’s top twelve, it’s easier to know where to start than where to finish.