The other week we looked at the songs Nirvana can be shown, on the existing evidence, to have played the most (https://nirvana-legacy.com/2013/06/05/which-songs-did-nirvana-play-the-most-the-top-x/), which songs they played most consistently over time (https://nirvana-legacy.com/2013/06/06/the-most-popular-nirvana-songs-another-measure/) and which album was most dominant (https://nirvana-legacy.com/2013/06/11/album-dominance-which-album-did-nirvana-play-the-most/). Today I want to head in the other direction, to the bottom of the table.
As ever, the status of Big Long Now is a tragic situation — it’s an original and unusual song in the Nirvana catalogue and pure bad luck that we can only suspect it was played more. In fact Blandest falls into the same category; the likelihood is that both songs were played in the early spell of 1989 when the biggest gap in known set-lists for Nirvana exists. This would immediately reverse the situation and make two songs from the tail-end of Nirvana’s career (You Know You’re Right and Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through the Strip) the lowest entries — the 1993-1994 tour was a spell when Nirvana’s formerly free-wheeling, varied and regularly advancing set-lists gave way to relatively static and unchanging repetition and this would fit.
What’s also noticeable is how the results reinforce how clear-sighted Kurt Cobain and Nirvana were about the status and condition of their songs. It’s absolutely visible that songs that were essentially discarded or served, at best, as b-side or bonus fodder, dominate the list. 17 of the bottom 20 songs are in that category which, given the relatively brief nature of Nirvana’s catalogue is significant; six of the songs made it out on Incesticide, three were b-sides or bonus songs, eight were never released in Cobain’s life time/Nirvana’s life-span.
The remaining three songs — Swap Meet, Sifting and Tourette’s — again reinforce that sense of clear decision in Nirvana’s music. Tourette’s, though fun, was always a filler on In Utero, a track with debatable lyrics and the listing “cufk, tish, sips” in the inlay — its real function lay in being another snipe at criticisms that Cobain mumbled lyrics or was some kind of idiot savant blurting involuntary sounds rather than a man who carefully considered, wrote and re-wrote his lyrics before committing them to a final recording. Swap Meet ties into the early songs on Incesticide in that they show Cobain’s early Nirvana songs to be relatively wordy (and non-repetitive) and, as a consequence, relatively hard to perform live hence the low number of performances. Sifting, meanwhile, was a late addition to Bleach and potentially the candidate for being the song written from scratch in the descriptions of frenzied writing around the time of Bleach; again, it was there to fill space and, remembering Sub Pop structured Bleach to begin with what they thought was Nirvana’s best songs through to their least favourite, of relatively low status — something reflected in it being equally ignored on stage.
Nirvana’s ‘growth spurt’ between 1987-1989 is equally clear. Kurt Cobain’s writing underwent significant changes in the early years as he tried on and discarded various identities. This, consequently, came with much trying on and throwing away of songs too. Fourteen of the songs on the least performed list are definitely pre-1990 compositions while one, Tourette’s, has been said by Krist Novoselic to have been first attempted at that time. It does indicate the linear nature of Cobain’s work, that he tended to move on from sounds and styles with few songs shifting out of or beyond their original time periods to appear on later recordings. That’s also a consequence of Nirvana’s fast recording style; they were highly efficient in studio (partially as a result of relative poverty until 1991) and songs were recorded and used very rapidly.
I’ve stated before, as recently as yesterday, that Incesticide’s Side B is essentially an unreleased 1987 Nirvana EP. The list of least played songs reinforces the fact that, prior to moving onto Sub Pop and beginning to write to fit the grunge audiences, Nirvana had a full album ready to go in January 1988; Erectum, If You Must, Pen Cap Chew, Annorexorcist, Aero Zeppelin, Hairspray Queen, Mexican Seafood, Beeswax and so forth. Nirvana barely performed in 1987 and didn’t have a taxing performance schedule in 1988 (or a stable drummer until after the middle of the year) and this list makes clear that an entire identity was discarded.