Which Songs Did Nirvana Play the Most? The Top X

As mentioned last week, it was Sappy that received the most notice in studio with multiple takes across four separate sessions placing it in a class of its own when it comes to Nirvana songs. Meanwhile, in another category of records, I was curious which songs were the staple diet of the Nirvana set-list between 1987-1994. The result was that, thanks to my colleague Shrikant Kabule, we created the full table of how many known performances were made across the years. This selection is the list of those songs known to have been played more than one hundred times.

Examining set lists had already identified Blew, About a Girl and School as the three tracks that survived from Bleach right through until Nirvana’s 1994 shows. School is the most impressive performer after all only 241 of Nirvana’s 369 known gigs possess full and complete set-lists; essentially, from the time it was written School featured including on quite a few partial set-lists. Tales of how nervous Kurt Cobain was of playing About a Girl don’t stop it being a similarly highly featured and beloved song for the band.

In past months I ranted about the way Nirvana gave near complete primacy to Side A rather than Side B of their albums when playing them live. The table below of most played songs shows that pattern holds in relation to Bleach where, of the six songs from that album that are played more than one hundred times, all are from Side A. The picture with Nevermind is slightly more mixed but not unsurprisingly. Firstly, the popularity of Drain You in concert is absolutely clear, in fact it’s only just behind Smells Like Teen Spirit, secondly, Territorial Pissings surprised me a little more but still, there it is as the seventeenth most played song. Just as noticeable though, the whole of Side A of Nevermind features on the list — Polly, Breed, SLTS, Lithium, CAYA, In Bloom.

Songs Played More than 100 Times

To some extent it’s still true that age makes a difference — the Bleach era songs, written prior to the big gap in set-lists in early 1989, are the only ones with sufficient opportunity to feature 200+ times — Polly was written as far back as 1987 and played from May 1989, Breed came along later in 1989. Yet, the tangle of creativity, Kurt Cobain’s peak writing years in 1990-1991, coincided with an explosion of touring allowing the appearances of his other songs to evade mere chronology; preferences begin to play a role. This, for example, explains why SLTS and Drain You, relatively late productions, should appear more than Lithium or In Bloom which, though featuring on the same album, made their first appearances a full year earlier — April 1990 as opposed to April 1991.

The gradual increase in Nirvana’s average set-list length also influences the results; head-liner status meant that even while many older songs were squeezed out to accomodate the In Utero era songs, a lot of songs survived because the set-lists in 1993-1994 were more than half a dozen songs longer than in 1990. The shorter set-lists and lower expectations in the early era made it more likely for songs to be flipped in and out regularly. Despite the lower number of shows after 1991, the set-lists had a greater regularity (particularly on the In Utero tour) so a core set of songs were able to rack up large numbers of appearances.

The table also emphasises how firmly focused on their albums Nirvana were; Spank Thru and Been a Son are the only non-album tracks to enter the list of songs played more than one hundred times. The popularity of the relatively slight Been a Son remains a mild mystery to me; it’s a song with the most solid presence on Nirvana posthumous releases on top of its multiple releases during Nirvana’s lifespan.


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