Hands down the balance in Nirvana’s relationship was toward the latter by virtue of simple poverty. Books make much of Jack Endino’s shrugged remarks over the song Sappy and Nirvana’s lengthy time spent with it in January 1990 because it was such an exceptional event.
How exceptional? Well, Sappy received four takes, Radio Friendly Unit Shifter three takes, twenty-nine songs received two shots (list? Floyd the Barber, Spank Thru, Sifting, Mr. Moustache, Blew, Paper Cuts, Hairspray Queen, Dive, Polly, In Bloom, Lithium, Stay Away, On a Plain, Token Eastern Song, Even in his Youth, the whole of In Utero barring the aforementioned RFUS plus Serve the Servants, M.V. and I Hate Myself and I Want to Die.) In other words, Sappy is double the norm for a Nirvana song — one of only two songs Nirvana ever took more than two visits to pin down.
At first I did also think that, of the songs requiring two takes, songs that Nirvana ultimately used as b-sides (Spank Thru, Dive, Token Eastern Song, Even in his Youth, Sappy, M.V. and I Hate Myself and I Want to Die) were actually over-represented, that maybe there was a correlation between dissatisfaction with a piece and the number of tries the band had at it. That could be reinforced, as an argument, by suggesting that dissatisfaction with All Apologies and Radio Friendly Unit Shifter in January 1991 leads to them being ignored until long after the Nevermind sessions that spring/summer. It would suggest that Kurt Cobain’s preference was for songs that felt right in the moment, that having been honed in rehearsal came together rapidly in studio. Alternatively it would suggest that less practised songs were glued onto sessions as b-side fodder but often lead to frustrating underwhelming tracks needing a second shot regardless. Overall, however, I don’t think there’s enough to that as a suggestion.
What is visible is how few of Nirvana’s studio efforts required significant alteration or honing to give them their final shape. There are differences in attack and approach to pieces, lyrics shift lightly, some songs move tone but of those twenty-nine songs we’re looking at a bare handful that merit mention as substantially different takes.
The core are the shots at Sifting, Mr Moustache and Blew — all three were laid down in summer 1988 simply because the opportunity presented itself to whip up first shots at work in progress. Those three songs are radically different in lyrical approach as formulated on Bleach, Sifting moves from an extended instrumental to curtailed focused grunge song. Dive’s first take stands out for the video footage existing of the song being honed in studio, the band facing one another to take their cues as they’d not practised it so well it was yet together. The difference, however, is basically a minute of extra instrumental work partially accounted for by a slower approach. Lithium lost its acoustic vibe, Token Eastern Song gained added flourishes and jangly guitar in January 1991 while All Apologies was similarly buried in K Records pop territory. Is there much more to say about the duplicate takes? Not unless something revolutionary shows up on the In Utero Deluxe Edition this Autumn.
Again, look to Sappy for the big shifts in muscle and mood across Nirvana’s active years, it tracks the band’s motion so well. And, in terms of ‘missing material’, I think it suggests it’s the non-studio rehearsal sessions and the band’s ‘home work’ that hides any significant redevelopments and growth from first sketch to final piece.