Archive for the ‘Nirvana Live Stats 1987-1994’ Category

Complete Nirvana Live Song Performances 1987-1994

I just posted this to LiveNirvana as I’d volunteered to help with a data initiative of theirs. I work with two incredibly cool blokes in India called Shrikant and Mohan who built the first version of this for me. It’s an attempt to take every single confirmed song performance listed in the Nirvana Live Guide and record it into a single spreadsheet page so you can see:

– What songs can be confirmed as having been performed
– The pattern in terms of when they were played/stopped being played
– How many times they were played in each month 1987-1994
– How many times they were played in each year 1987-1994
– How many times they were played overall

I’ve revised it a bit – it’ll look like a technicolour yawn at first sight I’m sure but basically, (this is just to help if peeps don’t use Excel, sorry for crash course speak) – Columns run across the page, Rows run down the page, each square is a Cell:

– Column A lists all the songs down the left
– Months and Years run across the top from first performance in March 1987 to last in March 1994
– At the end of each year you’ll see a column highlighted in grey adding up the total number of times a song was performed for each year. The formula is =SUM(Cell:Cell)
– In Column BQ it adds up those ‘totals per song per year’ to say how many times each song was performed in total 1987-1994 (School wins)
– Row 131 along the bottom adds up two things: (a) how many songs are known to have been played that month (b) how many songs are known to have been played that year
– If you want to look at a specific year only (i.e., just 1993) simply highlight all the months/years you don’t want to see (hold down left mouse button and drag mouse across the cells to be covered), then right-click, select ‘hide’

The nice thing is, if more data becomes available and you want to update it just click on the cell matching the song and the date (i.e., look for Pennyroyal Tea in Column A, then move along until you see February 1994) and add or subtract from the number in the relevant cell.

It matches what’s on Nirvana Live Guide up until about May 2013 – so it’s missing updates made after that date to that site. Thought I should just pass it out to everyone so people can use it as they wish, improve it, correct it, etc. Be a shame to lose the knowledge.

Hope everyone else enjoys playing with colourful spreadsheets as much as I do…
…Oh. And this is the 350th post on Nirvana-Legacy.com Nov 2012-July 2014. Yay!

Seattle this, Seattle that…What a sweet way to call an end to the Nirvana Tour phase of the Nirvana Legacy blog, by telling everyone that Nirvana stopped being a Seattle band long before they hit fame.

The reality of the U.S. music industry is that it, like most industries in most countries, is centred on particular locations. For bands wanting to make a successful career in music they have to go with both the demographics and access to the business; its how they make money. The ‘rootedness’, the idea of a band’s origins, is a crucial component of establishing their identity but isn’t necessarily key to understanding them as product. Initially its about creating a sense of the exotic, something new and different – “a Seattle band” circa 1988-1989 was a shorthand way for the media to easily emphasise difference in the same way that tagging something as southern hip hop in the mid-to-late Nineties was a way of establishing a different identity with consumers overloaded with East Coast/West Coast ID.

It’s an extension of a basic human urge of course, to belong. Most people identify themselves as their origin or birthplace rather than by their day-to-day living space. Nirvana, despite the origin in Aberdeen, despite living and playing in Olympia, despite being tied to Tacoma for a while, were indelibly tagged as ‘Seattle’. This is because they were part of a specific commercial strategy by Sub Pop that meant instead of marketing one band at a time they could market a whole scene at once and thus create a wider halo effect on each band’s sales and audiences that they would have had trouble achieving on the budgets available – definitely the Motown ‘hit factory’ effort. It meant that as Nirvana toured the U.S. and Europe the Seattle stamp associated them with a particular sound and style regardless of the differences between the bands under the banner.

This is the second use of geographic tagging in music; to create associations and similarity rather than difference. Once the new archetype (i.e., Seattle, Southern, Hyphy from San Francisco, whatever) is established new bands and artists adopting or being lumped beneath the tag are no longer establishing themselves as an alternative – it becomes a pledge of allegiance and tells consumers “if you like X, then you’ll like us/me too.” Again, it’s a shorthand alongside style, gender, genre that makes it easier to sift, categorise and define.

In the case of Nirvana, it was inevitable they would spend less time playing in State of Washington once they started proper touring from mid-1989 onward. Yet, it isn’t just that Nirvana ‘spread out’, it’s that their activity was strongly centred on the state most likely to give them the break through and industry attention that was required to give them a shot at the big time. Plus, being fair, the band were making barely any money for the majority of their peak touring era, it made sense to go the nearest state containing the greatest number of large cities and thus the greatest number of opportunities for large audiences in the smallest possible space. The answer was, of course, California.

From the commencement of Nirvana’s first U.S. tour on June 21, 1989 at The Vogue in Seattle until the break after the show in Salem, Oregon on January 2, 1992 Nirvana played 31 states. It wasn’t just about covering as many states as possible, however. Eleven of those states only received one visit each, three received two visits – an awful lot weren’t visited at all. There were rational decisions being taken about where to bother sending Nirvana and where might be worth it.

Nirvana Touring by State 1989-1992

It wasn’t just about proximity though, yes, Oregon was close but so was Montano (not visited even once in those two and a half years), Idaho (two visits to Boise) and Nevada (one trip to Las Vegas.) Neither Sub Pop nor Geffen was arranging Nirvana gigs in states just because they were easy to get to, they were arranging gigs in cities with decent audiences for the band hence the seven visits to Oregon (six to Portland, one to Salem) given its combination of proximity and alternative rock friendly audiences. So far so what?

Well, essentially, all I’m saying is that from mid-1989 until the close of 1991, Nirvana played twice as often in California as they did in State of Washington. This was a significant switch, instead of being the heart of the band as a performing entity, State of Washington became the retreat, the hideaway that they headed back to when they wanted to get away from the quest to become rock stars and its actuality. It was California not State of Washington that offered them the largest audiences because there are so many decent sized cities there – Nirvana played twelve cities in California compared to only three in State of Washington, the nearest competitors were Texas (on five) and Ohio, Massachusetts and Philadelphia (each on four).

Nirvana Touring Cities Visited

The total domination of California as the crucial location for Nirvana as an up-and-coming band and as a band to be ‘developed’ on a major label (remember that no one expected Nevermind to make them megastars, the late 1991 touring was set up to raise profile and try to ensure a healthy return on the band before deciding whether to continue with them or drop them – basic economic realities of the music industry) is clear. It combined the size of population, the density of that population and the presence of the most crucial U.S. music industry and U.S. music media hubs.

Undermining me neatly, however, and reminding me not to take numbers TOO seriously…Seattle was still the single city where Nirvana played the most but only by a couple of shows…

Nirvana Touring Cities Visited the Most

Ack! Restore the crown to Seattle…Go on…Do it.

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.

Since Saturday morning the YouTube quality has improved significantly when it comes to the McCartney/Grohl/Novoselic/Smear material…All the songs are now up there…

I’ve always been of the opinion that Nirvana’s career as a live band reached its peak in 1991. 1989 had seen them play 82 shows, turning what had been a relatively stilted live band into a powerhouse — it was their education. The pace dropped slightly in 1990, to 62, then rocketed to 92 performances in 1991 with the majority being in the final spell of the year. This quantity of work as a unit bonded them to the point that they could pull any song out of the bag.

Having plotted the overall numbers for the songs Nirvana performed live I was curious whether one could see that peak in terms of the sheer range of songs Nirvana played. There were provisos; firstly, the increase in set lengths toward the end of their career potentially would influence the results — Nirvana needed only 10 to 12 songs a night in 1987-1988 rising to a norm of 23 to 25 by 1994. Also, as Nirvana wrote more songs it would perhaps be natural that they would (or at least ‘could’) play more — again, potentially this would blot out any indication of their variety as a live act. Finally, for some months, there simply isn’t much data on their shows meaning strange results appear. But what the hey, I thought I’d simply give it a try and see what emerged…

I had one spreadsheet showing every song Nirvana ever played live, which I’d converted to try to show the span of time rather than the overall totals per month (by converting each month in which a song was performed from a total number of performances to simply a ‘1’ meaning I could add a formula that added up how many months the song appeared in.) This made it pretty easy to calculate how many different songs were performed that month.

Nirvana_Most Songs Played in a Month

The influence of individual shows could immediately be seen, for example, the early peak in November 1990 is down to the show at The Off Ramp Café where Nirvana triumphantly pulled out numerous rarities and new songs; the growling response to the weight of negative press coverage in late 1992 was the triumphant stomp of Reading which nearly hit 30 songs; the January 1993 peak is a result of the desultory show at Sao Paolo where the only way to make it to the allotted stage time (and not get sued by the promoters) was for the band to switch instruments and whack through a few sarcastic covers. The tail-end of 1991 does stand as the most sustained period of rapid set-list revision though I’d underrated the sporadic weight and variety of the In Utero tour.

What I was curious about next was to see the impact of removing cover songs from consideration…

Nirvana_Most Songs in a Month Minus Covers

The result shows clearly that Nirvana’s set-lists only truly ‘blow up’ once the band are free to unleash Nevermind in its full glory upon the public. Similarly, the increase in set-list length really does contribute to the 1993-1994 In Utero tour being far more varied than I’d expected. While the band were whipping mystery songs or covers out of the hat each night, they were playing a solid core of Nirvana’s songs. Late 1991, however, when In Utero was still two years away as a coherent album (if half written) was still the finest period in terms of the flexibility of Nirvana.

I did one last scan of the results due a suspicion that the November peak in 1993 was clearly the consequence of MTV Unplugged — another example of a special event in Nirvana’s history leading to unusual and unique choices when it came to sets (Nirvana really knew how to throw a party on stage…) I simply identified the drop in songs if covers were removed:

Nirvana-Fall in Songs when Covers are Removed

The results make Sao Paolo in January 1993 and MTV Unplugged in November 1993 very starkly indeed. It also shows that, beyond the total figures it was that spell in late 1991 where Nirvana were performing long shows and simultaneously varying the set-lists significantly. The best month to follow Nirvana was November 1991 as the storm was breaking and the band could throw anything at a performance.

Thank you to Brutus the Barber for pointing out the absence of MV and I Hate Myself and I Want to Die from the list of officially released, but never performed live, Nirvana songs. Amendments duly made. Today I’m just looking at the data another way, I was curious whether certain songs were played irregularly but persisted across a substantial number of months, and/or whether certain songs were resurrected after substantial gaps.

Fewest Months Performed

The month-by-month list reiterates and reinforces the lack of attention given to, primarily, songs that Nirvana deemed either b-sides only or not ready for release at all. The focused nature of Nirvana’s live trialling of songs is also a notable point — they would work a song deeply over a short period of time then haul it out of public sight to either work on it and fashion it into something worthwhile or never to be seen again.

There are twelve songs on the list that either emerged on a single or compilation during Nirvana’s lifetime or didn’t come out until the With the Lights Out box-set; of those twelve songs only one can be shown being played in more than three months.

Now, it’s clear, given the majority of those songs belong to the early days of Nirvana, that we’re missing significant numbers of the set-lists that would reveal further cases when they were played — we only know complete set lists for two of six shows in 1987, five of 24 for 1988, 43 of 82 in 1989 with almost nothing for the first six months of the year. For some of these songs, however, I wouldn’t expect the pattern to change significantly:

Potential Showings

Strangely, it’s songs like Tourette’s where their throw-away nature is really clear; the majority of post-1991 set-lists are known but that song barely appears with few further opportunities for it to do so; the other In Utero era songs feature due to the curtailed nature of Nirvana’s touring in 1993-1994 but Tourette’s simply doesn’t seem to have been popular enough to bother with.

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.

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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.

Yesterday I pointed out the eighteen Nirvana songs that were played more than one hundred times, today, I want to cut the information a different way to illuminate a slightly different result.

I took the spreadsheet I’m working with — prepared my genius of a comrade Shrikant Kabule of Mumbai — and replaced the numbers recording how many times in each month each song was played between 1987-1994. Instead I inserted a 1, so that the total added up was simply a record of each month in which a song appeared at least once. The total live history of Nirvana extends for a total of 58 months so coming even close to that theoretical maximum is impressive; here’s the number of songs performed in more than twenty individual months:

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There’s an obvious similarity and coincidence with the list of the Nirvana songs played more than one hundred times — and, of course, my decision to draw the lines at one hundred plays and twenty months are arbitrary and worth baring in mind — but there are differences; the arrival of Sliver, Stain and Dive into the top fifteen means there’s now five non-album tracks on the list. The reason? Well, I believe it’s down to the long spell in 1989-1990 when Nirvana were working up new songs for a 1990 album that never happened. Nirvana may not have played as many shows as they did in 1990-1991, Nirvana set-lists may have been considerably and consistently shorter prior to reaching headliner status in 1992-1994, but certain songs had a relatively earlier start at a time when the shorter set-lists meant Nirvana were more selective about repeating songs and more likely to chop-and-change.

What we’re looking at here is the difference between quantity and longevity; some songs were of declining persistence and made way for the In Utero era songs, others seem to have been readily usable no matter how the set-lists changed and/or solidified over the years. The songs at the top of the list were played from the first month in which they made an appearance and almost within exception right until the end on March 1, 1994. To emphasise that point, here’s the list of songs from the list above that were on Nirvana’s final set-list:

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Eleven of the twenty most persistent songs made it all the way to the end.