Song Survival: Nirvana’s Early Hits in the Late Age

Posted: July 23, 2013 in Bleach and the Sub Pop Era 1987-1990, Nirvana Live Stats 1987-1994

Songs die, as is the way of all things. Playing a song year-in and year-out becomes stale, bands may have favourites and crowds may have favourites but performers tend to desire freshness until, that is, they reach the ‘greatest hits’ phase of their career where the artist’s music isn’t moving forward sufficiently and/or the audience becomes happy with a dose of nostalgia.

In the case of Nirvana, they never reached that era of their career — it ended barely six months after their latest album, barely two-and-a-half years after they’d be catapulted to fame. While the band were barely playing together outside of fulfilling their live obligations — making it very easy to see the near defunct level of creativity present behind the scenes — they had enough that audiences were still only just gaining familiarity with that it would have been quite a while before anyone not studying details of recording sessions, set-lists and practices would have noticed.

This means Nirvana, while certainly feeling an obligation to play chunks of Nevermind, didn’t have to prise songs from the pre-Geffen era into the set-list unless they felt like it. Yet certain songs kept showing up, specifically: School, Blew, About a Girl, Love Buzz, Floyd the Barber, Negative Creep and Spank Thru — even Sliver endured.

Just for amusement I simply want to look at their longevity today, when did they arrive in the set-list, when did these songs hit their peak, and when, finally, did they drop out. For starters, tragically for those of us who like poetic coincidences, there’s no song that is present from start-to-finish of Nirvana’s career; the nearest candidate is Blew with its first known appearance in March 1988 and its final appearance on March 1, 1994 some six years later — the song certainly deserves greater credit in the record of Nirvana’s songs. It also makes me think that the tale that Sub Pop told Nirvana to arrange the songs on Bleach by simple order of preference from favourite to least favourite may have some truth to it — Nirvana clearly love Blew.

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Spank Thru is also a great survivor. Already notable as the most significant composition to be ripped from the Easter 1986 Fecal Matter demo, Nirvana loved the song so much they made it their second original song to be released, they played it on radio both in 1987 and late 1989 and reissued a live version of it on the Sliver/Dive single in 1990 (U.S.) and 1991 (U.K.) In virtually every month in which Nirvana played (and for which we have evidence) the song is played only finally being relegated to the reserve at the end of 1990 with periodic returns. Love Buzz has an even more imperious (and deserved) run with appearances in the live catalogue all the way into 1993 — I’m more surprised that the band didn’t feature it often in the In Utero tour than that it lasts so long given its popularity, catchiness and fun vibe. This leaves Floyd the Barber as the last of the 1987 Nirvana songs to live out an extensive live life. Again, taking note of the Bleach running order and the apparently rigid thinking behind it, it’s an early track that, despite its wordy nature and story-telling style (something that died out relatively early in Cobain’s career) doesn’t vanish until the end of the Asia-Pacific tour. What’s sadder is that it stops flat with no known reprises at any time in the final two years of live performance — done. Listening to it at first I used to notice the lurching discomfort of the song and its relatively low pace…Since then, however, I’ve come to appreciate its bright guitar tone, the catchy guitar-drums interplay and the climbing bridge — it’s a truly great track and I can understand its survival.

For the In Utero tour Nirvana’s set-list became relatively stable compared to earlier years — songs tended to appear in the same positions, next to the same companions, the majority of shows featured the same songs in the same order from the start right through until somewhere close to the final songs (I believe that in posts examining the ’93-’94 live record I identified anything up to 14 songs in a row matching show-by-show). There’s a sense that on paper the band felt they needed to whip in a few Bleach songs to balance the set-list, not that they didn’t like the songs they chose, but there’s a feeling they needed something to leaven the Nevermind/In Utero heavy sets, that they didn’t have much new stuff to add in, or rare material that they liked enough to play (IHM&IWTD, MV, Gallons…) so had to reach back to songs that had been in the set-list forever. That isn’t dismissive of those songs quality; About a Girl, School and Blew are all top class.

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