Not my favourite graphic by a long-shot but I couldn’t think of how else to present this lil’ braindump…Basically I’m always curious about overall trends, ways of showing rather than telling the development of a phenomenon. In the case of Nirvana, one way to judge this is via the archive of tickets and gig posters at http://www.NirvanaGuide.com (always my number one source of stats – honestly, what would I be doing with my time without those guys? I might have a life!)
In order to gain a picture of the growth in Nirvana’s status I wanted to compare their position in the running orders for shows. Firstly, I decided the most accurate pattern could be found by looking solely at shows in State of Washington/State of Oregon, how did Nirvana’s status develop in their home region? Secondly, I had to choose what to prioritise, for example, I decided that magazine/newspaper listings took priority over gig posters because the posters would be a less official source, similarly ticket stubs seemed the ultimate arbiter of status so I made them number one – naturally this is an arguable approach but at least clear, explicit and easy to examine.
I commenced the study only from the show when Nirvana finally settled on that band name – and to my surprise there were two shows as early as 1988 where Nirvana received top billing…But then I realised, both shows were out in smaller towns – Ellensburg and Hoquiam – with comrades such as the newly formed Attica, Slim Moon’s Lush, and truly obscure outfits such as Psychlodds, Millions of Dead Leninz and King Krab. Nirvana were bottom of the bill at every Seattle show that year, even the 2 of 3 ranking for October 28 is me being generous given Blood Circus were clearly the bigger name backing the Butthole Surfers, the poster just happens to show Nirvana/Blood Circus on the same line in the same size font so I thought I’d go easy on Nirvana. Nirvana, in 1988, were a nothing in Seattle and placed bottom of the bill beneath numerous hard to recall bands.
Progress can be seen in 1989. Nirvana’s first top billings in Olympia and Seattle come within a week of one another in April. Placed alongside younger bands – S.G.M., Treehouse, Helltrout, Love Battery – Nirvana had seniority. More significantly, though still taking place at a gig out in Auburn rather than in the big music hubs, in May Nirvana receive top billing over grunge forefathers Skin Yard. Had a sea-change taken place? Not quite yet, the band’s three other top billings, all in late 1989, are against less venerated competition – Dickless, out-of-towners Knife Dance, relative unknowns Gasoline and Mad Hatter. The only oddity is the listing for August 26 which consists of the unsafe source of the back of a t-shirt with Nirvana ranking ahead of Mudhoney – an unlikely scenario especially given that on June 9 Nirvana had been a solid third behind both Mudhoney AND Tad on the official bill.
As an aside, examining the material from the U.K. and Europe tour of 1989 emphasises that last point; Nirvana only occasionally ranked alongside or above Tad and ranked decisively below Mudhoney, then again, at least Nirvana were finally contesting that top billing with their comrades Tad in the U.K. and Dutch markets. It was progress but what we’re still seeing is a band that didn’t have pole position even in the eyes of Sub Pop.
The January 6, 1990 and January 12, 1990 shows continued the state of equivocation – Nirvana appear above Tad and Melvins respectively and though Nirvana would fall back into line beneath local legends the Melvins – Melvins were billed over Nirvana as late as September 1990 despite having jostled for position at the Legends show in January where Melvins appeared first on the poster but Nirvana came first on the ticket – Tad would never again surmount Nirvana.
There were others, however. In February in Portland Screaming Trees, soon to sign to a major label, had top billing. With Mudhoney on hiatus, with Soundgarden never to share another bill with Nirvana, it’s still surprising to see there were still local bands who took priority over Nirvana contrary to twenty years of retrospective hagiography.
There is a change taking place, however. The August 1990 shows saw Nirvana second billing to the legendary (and deserved top-of-the-bill) Sonic Youth, at that point a major label band as well as sainted figures in the underground. There still comes the surprise that as late as June 1991 another band could stand above Nirvana on their State of Washington home-turf, but it becomes less of a surprise when that band is Dinosaur Jr – at that point in time a new recruit to the majors and seen as one of the most likely bands to cross-over to wide success. Nirvana were finally competing with bands from out-of-state.
Where to go from here? Well, again, it’s worth making an aside. One would think that Nirvana, with the release of Nevermind, strode immediately and confidently to the head of the class above all-comers but the realisation of what had occured wouldn’t come until into the start of 1992. Nirvana ended 1991 second on the bill to proven pan-national and international record selling force the Red Hot Chilli Peppers.
The flyers and tickets stubs do, therefore, show a development – from being just another State of Washington band until into 1989, to being a second-rung Sub Pop outfit for most of that year though now beating bands from other labels and from outside Seattle, to becoming the leaders of the State of Washington class by end of 1990 with only the cream of U.S. underground/major label bound bands stood in front of them. Their ultimate status was to contest position against the pop world’s major rock superstars – they’d never go home again as anything other than the top billed band of an evening.