Getting Back to When Nirvana was Just Another Band…


A year ago I purchased The Beatles box-set, the complete discography…Admittedly I don’t entirely remember ordering it, I may have had one or two drinks more than was mature and sensible, however, I don’t regret it at all. I’ll admit completely that I find the very early albums unlistenable, there’s something so alien to me about the dominant musical style of the early Sixties (“the Sixties” as clichéd era didn’t commence until into the middle of the decade as a chronological measure) that I find it hard if not impossible to entertain what sounds so cloying to ears that have been solidly wrecked by fifty years of musical evolution since 1963.

A friend of mine, who I really need to get on and lend this to, defines the problem as how to forget all the echoes and extrapolations and duplications that have occurred as a direct result of The Beatles and their ilk — it’s near impossible to hear such a theoretical concept as ‘the original’ as an aural quality with ears used to heightened volume, ever greater emphasis on bass, etc. The original often sounds weak, tame, unimportant compared to the sounds one is more naturally used to. When I listen to the early albums of The Beatles I’m struck by the relatively tinny sound, the skeletal quality, the harmony vocals, chord sequences and musical approaches drawn from formal dances…

Similarly, it’s hard to appreciate the truth of Nirvana’s status in 1992. An intellectual understanding that many other until then unknown bands achieved multi-platinum sales that year, that a large number of alternative bands emerged as rising stars in 1990-1991 and others would follow, that ultimately musical genius is relative, that for older fans Nirvana’s onstage antics and sound were reminiscent of the bands they had considered, in their youth, geniuses — none of it overwhelms that sense that the band was special, exceptional and different. It’s similarly easy to understand that Kurt Cobain’s death — exceptionally taking place at the height of his fame (or at least within very easy touching distance); not a common occurrence — prevented the band having to endure a more prosaic break-up, made them immune to the passing of generations and therefore the switching of taste that tends to come with it.

What’s harder to do is to truly set aside twenty years of hagiography, of positions in the regular top tens and top whatevers of music criticism and/or discussion, anniversary releases, the increasing reduction of interest down to a hardcore of fellow fanatics who are bound to confirm and re-confirm importance, significance and relevance.

That’s where this cartoon pleases me, it’s taken from an old VIZ annual and, beyond poking fun at the transience of teenage/student/young tastes (it started with a reference to The Happy Mondays), it opens two avenues for me. Firstly there’s the matter of the geographic significance of Nirvana. While the band did have a strong following in the U.K. and while Top of the Pops, The Word, various BBC sessions and Reading ’92 have welded Britain into the Nirvana story the local aspect of British taste is visible — while confirming that Nirvana were hot in Britain the comparisons made are to relatively local favourites, The Happy Mondays — a relatively brief flash in the pan who seem bigger and more significant in hindsight than the extent of their reign demands — and Curve — a band I can’t even remember now but who apparently stuck around until the middle of the last decade — are the acts chosen to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Nirvana. It simultaneously deems Nirvana to be no more than the equal of two bands that were barely known elsewhere and also robs Nirvana of the very American universe of comparisons in which they’re traditionally set; Guns n’ Roses, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and so forth.

Secondly, it shrinks Nirvana down significantly from this near untouchable position of power to a condition where they stand alongside a band that charted one album in five in the U.S. (in position 89) and a band that, again, barely charted outside of the U.K. and saw its albums march backwards from 22 in the chart, to 23, 103 and nowhere across its releases. This isn’t to denigrate either band; it’s to point out that Nirvana’s position in 1992 was as a stunning success but with no indication whether there was a longer-term significance. They weren’t exceptional.

On the other hand, it emphasises Nirvana’s international ubiquity by wedging Nirvana in as the international representative in between two local successes with a distinctly British accent. The sound of Nirvana has been picked over and either criticised or praised for drawing on mainstream hard rock, on Beatlesesque qualities, on punk, on underground flavours of the late Eighties and early Nineties as well. The company in which this cartoon places Nirvana suggests that the simplicity of Nirvana’s sound, built on a very strong awareness and knowledge of Anglo-American music trends of the era, allowed Nirvana to slip into the playlists of multiple audiences.

It also wedges Nirvana into the various worldwide alternative currents — for example, British guitar music went through a spell in which it was firmly wedded to the dance music scene that had spiralled out of rave in the late Eighties — and voids the mainstream/alternative argument to some extent. Nirvana slipped right in alongside U.K. ‘baggy’ culture and so forth. It was only in America, where the charts had never been dominated by an alternative to hard rock before (remember even The Sex Pistols didn’t hit platinum in America until 1992), that there was difficulty in judging the sound of Nirvana and emphasis was placed on what they shared with the mainstream tradition rather than what they shared with the underground.

…So, in conclusion, can you tell I sometimes think too much if I extrapolate all of that from a 1992 Student Grant cartoon in Britain’s premier adult-orientated comic? Do go read VIZ, it’s good for the soul.


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