Nirvana’s Sudden Rise: September 1991 – November 1991

In an interview for European broadcaster VPRO in late November 1991, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic explained:

Chris Novoselic (Krist): Yeah, I haven’t really come to grips with it yet. We’ve been in Europe ever since everything’s happened.

Dave Grohl: We haven’t been back to America since this whole thing’s blown up, so we really don’t know how insane it is over there yet.

In some ways these are odd statements. Nirvana returned to the U.S. in early September, were touring from the middle of that month right the way through to their homecoming show at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle on Thursday, October 31. The interview on Monday, November 25 in Amsterdam took place just over three weeks later. Had so much changed in just three weeks…?

The indications are that they did. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” had been on the radio since August 27 – the band acknowledged it was getting a good reaction, that it was popular, that it was doing well. That wasn’t the same, however, as ubiquitous domination of the airwaves. The release of “Nevermind” followed early in the brief September tour but, again, it was doing better than expectation but it wasn’t – yet – crushing all before it. ‘Lift off’ was finally achieved with the video premier on September 29 on MTV’s 120 Minutes and its move to the Buzz Bin on MTV in the first week of October. That left barely three weeks for Grohl, Novoselic and Cobain to detect what was occurring before they departed the country once more.

What they could see happening was limited. The shows were all booked in larger club venues but still just clubs – all sell-outs, all crazy, but not packed stadium level attendances. From the stage there’d be no way of seeing that the band’s power had shifted in between the shows playing support to Dinosaur Jr back in June, through the larger European shows with Sonic Youth in August, now their own headlining shows in October.

In terms of press attention, likewise, there was certainly more of it – September/October was the heaviest attention Nirvana had ever seen with some 25 interviews (judged by the LiveNirvana Interview Archive) across those two months in the U.S. They were, of course, being invited on TV consistently for the first time (though these were not their first interview with a TV camera present) so the nature of the attention had also changed but while ratcheting up, it wasn’t yet madness. Europe, by contrast, sees 39 interviews in a little over a single four week period in November – sometimes 4-5 interviews in a single day.

Translating that increased attention into sales and star-level popularity…That’s another step altogether. The record label shipped a quantity of albums to retailers – they didn’t know what had happened until sales figures were returned to them so September sales wouldn’t be accurately reflected until well into October (at least.) This wasn’t an instantaneous process – information took time to flow in and to be recorded officially. So, increased attention and sell-out shows demonstrated to the band that they were doing well – but didn’t give them the total vision of what was happening. The media engagements were a means to an end – a necessary evil which Nirvana would increasingly lament from the end of the year onward, Cobain was already starting to turn down interviews by the time they left Europe. The interviews of September/October were mainly only visible as magazine covers and TV broadcasts in November – there was a delay in the band’s actions becoming omnipresent imagery.

“Nevermind” was certified Gold and Platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America on Nov 27. The expectation that the album might achieved 200,000 in sales had been vastly exceeded in just ten weeks from Sept 23. The band’s awareness of this velocity consisted of their management telling them backstage before or after shows what new milestone had been reached. What does one say except “hey, cool…”? Nirvana, however, still needed to pay back their $287,000 advance to the record company before they would see royalties from those sales (See ‘Ownership of Nirvana’ post from 2013: That meant they were seeing performance revenue but it would be quite some time after before they saw royalties for record sales. The shows, at that point in time, were not increasing in size compared to months earlier – the spaces might be full but that didn’t mean vast new wealth reflecting their status, all it meant was more people failing to get in – it would be the Asia/Pacific tour of 1992 before venues were consistently scaled up to accommodate numbers in the many thousands.

The final issue is ‘momentum’. Hearing the album was meeting expectations in early October, hearing it was exceeding expectations by mid-October, hearing it was five times what the label and management had expected by late October…Nirvana’s limited visibility of the velocity of what was happening went hand-in-hand with being unable to see when it might subside. What distinguished “Nevermind” was that it continued to sell right the way through the next two years – 3 x multiplatinum by February 1992, 4 x multiplatinum by June 1992, 5 x multiplatinum by November 1993. That’s the difference between a satisfying, but temporary success versus an enduring triumph. Each week, throughout October and November, everyone was waiting for the other shoe to drop and it never did.

Thus, I hope it’s clear why shell-shocked members of Nirvana might sit in an interview in late November with no idea what awaited them in the U.S. or what had truly occurred in their absence. They had been on the road and hadn’t seen the racks of magazine covers, hadn’t heard or seen the permanent rotation on U.S. radio or MTV, they had only a limited awareness of crowds wanting Nirvana tickets and unable to get them, and they certainly weren’t rich men just yet.

Why am I thinking of that this week? Well, people – very reasonably – ask me how “I Found My Friends” is going…Answer? I’ve no idea. Via Amazon I can access the Nielsen ratings which currently state ‘zero copies’ under the SOLD category. Meanwhile Amazon’s sales ranking shows this table:


Which is actually just a record of a book compared to other books – the book might only sell 20 copies a day but would move up the rankings if other books suddenly sold fewer than 20 or down the rankings if other books sold more than 20. Since March 24 it’s been ranked 20,000 – 60,000 – 5,000 – 15,000 and everywhere in-between. There’s no actual knowledge to be drawn from it.

Similarly, so far, media attention has – to a large extent – been non-spontaneous. That’s starting to change; 4-5 organisations have been in touch of their own accord, without prompting from me or the publisher, asking for review copies or interviews. That’s nice to see. Likewise, it’s tricky comparing activity to what might then occur; I’ve been on a couple of U.S. student radio stations, plus written two pieces for U.S. newspapers, seen the press release go up in a number of places…All of which is bloody good fun actually! But I’ve no idea whether it means the book is doing well or not. Likewise, books and music releases mainly do well in the moment – the massive triumphs have that momentum we spoke of earlier. I’ve no idea what momentum the book might have.

The main thing, ultimately, is I’m waiting to see what reviews say. I’m intrigued – I’m a grown man (nearly!) and can cope with measured criticism, all good. So far, it’s all been pretty positive, which is pleasing and I’m delighted that – so far – people who took part in the book are pleased with it…But I want to know more; are they happy? Are Nirvana fans like the crew at LiveNirvana chuffed with it? What do random Amazon users say? Will the magazine/newspaper reviews continue to be friendly…? I’m curious…How could I not be intrigued…? It’s a fun journey and its only week one. 😉


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