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

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:


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:


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

I was simply curious on this occasion how long, in Nirvana’s live sets, they persisted in playing more songs from a previous album than they did from the next. In my initial naivety I made the simple assumption that a band would simply move on from each album at some point and, through sheer boredom, substitute newer songs that hadn’t been as well-thrashed on stage. Of course this simply isn’t true. Later in life many bands end up retreating to greatest hits’ medleys as their audiences come to focus more on reminiscing rather than on a band’s new material. And sometimes certain songs are more amendable to a live arena than others; Led Zeppelin never let go of Whole Lotta Love.

In the case of Nirvana though, a band in motion and still somewhere amidst a creative and popular peak in the 1989-1993 era between album releases, I wonder if anything altered. The difficulty, of course, is that songs from Bleach had been played right from the band’s earliest days meaning, by 1993-1994, they’d flogged some tracks for 7 years; neither Nevermind nor In Utero had received anything like that workout with the earliest Nevermind song appearing live in mid-1989 and the earliest In Utero song in mid/late-1990.

Also, Nirvana’s live-sets gradually got longer by, on average, one/two songs each year from 1987 to 1994 so more songs were needed to fill the sets resulting in a lot of material from Nevermind and In Utero throughout those latter years. What we’re really looking at therefore is how long it took for Bleach to be overtaken as the key source in Nirvana set-lists.

The first notable element is the switch evolving across the course of Nirvana’s, admittedly short, set-lists in 1988. On January 23, 1988 the songs that later featured on Incesticide were still making up five of the set while Bleach was only two; Spank Thru, If You Must, Pen Cap Chew and Erectum also featured with a couple of covers tagged on the end. By March 19, 1988 Bleach and Incesticide are on even-pegging with the aforementioned four randoms still attached. Basically it shows that from kick-off in early 1987 right through until sometime in summer 1988 the focus was on this alternative vision of Nirvana in which the songs recorded in January 1988 still formed the crucial spine of Nirvana’s identity as a live band.

From October 30, 1988 onward it’s Bleach that rules. The switchover will have come in the sixteen shows between March 19, 1988 and then. As could be expected this dominance only begins to draw to a close with Nevermind hoving into view. Yet the expected takeover is significantly forestalled. There’s one show on May 29, 1991 where Nevermind predominates, after which its late August 27, 1991 before Nevermind again comes to establish control but even then it’s more of an unsteady parity with numerous shows where Nirvana returns to playing more from Bleach.

I wondered if this indicated Nirvana trying to maintain some secrecy around their newest material — like Krist Novoselic claimed they had to do in 1992 to avoid bootlegging. There’s a simpler reason though; while in retrospect, looking backwards, hearing early versions of Nirvana songs prior to their canonisation on an alum is great — it relies on knowing the songs already for them to have significance. Usually at a gig, when the band show off some new material, it’s a bit of a momentum killer, people don’t know the tune, they can’t sing along, they can’t anticipate moves and motion. So, until Nevermind was out, there’s a very ordinary reason not to overpopulate a set-list with it; the crowd would tire of hearing mystery songs, so it’s a crowd-pleasing behaviour. The showcasing comes only in the run-up to Nevermind’s release, then the dominance commences after that.

Finally in the last days of October Nirvana ease up and Nevermind takes its place as the provider of some eight songs a night with Bleach throttled back to four, sometimes five. Bleach’s dominance lasted a minimum of 36 months, October 1988 to October 1991, probably slightly more somewhere in those obscure mid-1988 months. Yet, given set-list lengths, Nevermind shares the limelight with Nirvana playing anything up to seven songs from Bleach on a number of occasions throughout 1992. It’s only in 1993 that Bleach fades out leaving Nevermind and In Utero on level begging…

What would it mean for the future? Well, there we’re into the realms of what probably can’t be told. Nevermind would have faded slightly perhaps but could Nirvana resist the pressure to play what would still have been their top hits? And given headliner status and longer set-lists it was hard for any album to slip away…

So…You waded through the umpteen tables and figures across the last three articles and the message came through loud and clear? Wow, I do hope so. This exercise represents several weeks of data work and trying to formulate the right words to express the quest. The question I was asking at the start was very simple “did Nirvana, when performing live, have a preference for Side A or Side B of their albums or was it fairly random?” The answer was pretty emphatic:

TOTALS_All Albums_Side A Side B

Oh, but hang on…There’s a kicker. Until Nirvana had recorded and worked out each album, there was no Side A or Side B — the orders didn’t exist yet. So, if we really want to see how powerfully Nirvana invested in the organisation of their albums, what we should be looking at is how dominant Side A was if we only consider shows that were on or after the dates their three studio albums came out. Those dates are June 15, 1989 for Bleach; Sept 24, 1991 for Nevermind; Sept 13, 1993 for In Utero respectively. We could push the date back slightly by trolling old magazine articles to find when the album song listings were revealed but we’d only be moving the date by a matter of weeks. Upon these dates the structure of Side A and Side B was publically and absolutely set in stone for each album — does that affect how dominant Side A or Side B of each album was?

The answer is yes, take a look:

TOTALS_Post Album Release

The answer is absolutely crystal-clear; Nirvana played more songs from Side A 93% of the time and more or equal an amazing 99% of the time; there are only six occasions ever, after the dates of each album release, where Nirvana favoured Side B, that’s despite the fact that Side B of Nevermind and Side B of In Utero were longer by one song each. The six shows are:

Nevermind — September 27, 1991; November 6, 1991; November 29, 1991; February 22, 1992; August 6, 1993
In Utero — February 14, 1994

This isn’t a commentary on the aesthetic preference of fans for one side or the other, it’s a demonstration that, of 417 potential opportunities, Nirvana deviated only six times — the band had committed to a certain list of songs to constitute Side A and Side B and as far as can be told that same decision that was made on vinyl was also made on stage too. This isn’t an attempt to declare that Side A was all genius (In Bloom versus Drain You) or on suitability of individual songs (why was Polly anymore appropriate or inappropriate than Something in the Way as a mid-set breather?) or that Side B was leftovers and filler. Nirvana committed to twelve songs per album (plus two bonus tracks) and all their albums are great…What we are saying here is that they put a lot more of the songs they played more often on Side A. It does raise the question whether it’s a case of decisions being made by individuals or the band en masse which might explain the absolutely rigid result here as the consequence of compromise — that’s interesting in and of itself but I can’t answer that.

So, we’ve established is that when playing live, Nirvana favoured their chosen Side A over their chosen Side B on Bleach, on Nevermind and on In Utero. In the case of Bleach this result could be wished away by saying Side A was longer by two songs plus it’s a fact that the band arranged the record with their favourites first. In the case of Nevermind and In Utero, Side B was longer to the tune of one bonus track in each case yet the band’s favouritism toward Side A persisted suggesting there was an underlying reason they did so. If we really want to emphasise the coherence of Side A, here’s the stats for how many times Nirvana played the WHOLE of Side A or Side B:

TOTALS_Playing Whole Side

Remember, again, at this point that this isn’t a case of declaring “better or worse”, it’s simply a demonstration of two things; firstly, the band’s own preference for what to play, and secondly, the tight link between the division of their albums (as primarily tape or vinyl entities) and their performances in concert. Nor am I saying that the band consciously sat down and said “OK, let’s play this much from this side of X album, this much from Y album…”

What I am saying is that the band consciously chose a certain bunch of songs to be Side A or Side B of an album. If we can agree on that point then there are two perspectives that follow from the facts above and the articles the last three days. Either, on the one hand, Nirvana front-loaded their albums with their most commercial songs, the songs that appealed most to their record labels and audiences then agreed (under some kind of pressure) to focus on those songs…OR, on the other hand, Nirvana front-loaded their albums with the majority of songs they knew to be their finest and their favourites and when heading out on stage played the songs they most wanted to play.

It’s your call. My personal opinion is that Nirvana were never forced to play anything. They simply put their ‘best foot first’ on both their albums and at their shows, the unconscious result being a constant, unrelenting and undeviating tendency to play Side A. As reinforcement for that view, look at the articles this past month trying to fill the gaps in the live set-lists; Nirvana were usually very rigid at the start of their shows — they knew how to open — then they would go astray, flex, vary and change toward the back halves of shows. It’s simply far easier to pick one’s top six than one’s top twelve, it’s easier to know where to start than where to finish.

Those who are aware of my minor league fixation on the Incesticide compilation and its subsidiary status as a component of the Nirvana catalogue may be surprised I haven’t exercised my Excel fixation in relation to that particular release and this particular exercise. The reason is fairly simple; a chronologically organised release with all but one of its 1989-1991 songs on Side A and all its 1988 tracks (plus one 1989 outtake) on Side B has been arranged with chronology taken into account so, reasonably enough, Side B wins four early shows; Side B wins the remaining 230 complete set-lists of Nirvana’s entire career from 1989 onward. No surprise so I won’t count it.

In Utero is far more crucial; the final piece. In the case of Bleach, we could waive the Side A preference claiming that there were more songs (true!), in the case of Nevermind we could claim commerciality (arguable!) but In Utero was the definitive break away from commercial impulses, the attempt to recapture the underground spirit. Was Side A as important and if so, what can we conclude? Well, In Utero first pops up at the incredible show Nirvana performed on November 25, 1990 with Dumb and Radio Friendly Unit Shifter both appearing; a draw. 1991?

Side a_Side b Dominance 1991 In Utero

In Utero songs were played on 31 complete set-lists in 1991; six wins for Side B and seven draws…But still, that means Side A was played more on 18 occasions (58%) and won/drew even on 25 (80%.) It’s a full year of tit-for-tat, one song or another song; I admit I find it interesting that Nirvana were so consistent in ‘rationing’ the number of new songs they would shove into a set-list, it makes me wonder if Pennyroyal Tea, Rape Me, All Apologies and Dumb were already associated in Kurt Cobain’s mind; certainly Rape Me had its parody of Smells Like Teen Spirit while Dumb was derived from Polly so there is a connection at least between those two tracks. 1992 continues the easing up:

Side a_Side b Dominance 1992 In Utero

Songs from In Utero were played eight times across 28 complete set-lists — in a reversal of fortune it’s the one year ever when Side B of one of Nirvana’s three studio albums was played more than Side A and quite defiantly so. It doesn’t last, however:

Side a_Side b Dominance 1993 In Utero

Side a_Side b Dominance 1994_In Utero

From the very start of 1993, Side A dominance reasserts itself absolutely; 37 set-lists, Side A wins in 32 of them and draws in 5, Side B doesn’t win even once. In one of the few surprises ever thrown up in the history of Nirvana’s 1994 tour, there’s at least one single win for Side B, plus three draws, leaving 14 wins to Side A. As percentages we’re looking at an 86% win rate in 1993 for Side A, or 100% if we wrap in the draws; 78% in 1994 or 94% including draws.

So, here are the totals for In Utero:

Side a_Side b_In Utero Overall

Again, even though the pattern is weaker, we’re still dealing with very solid Side A dominance; 65 of 95 shows were Side A dominant (68%), 14 were Side B dominant (15%.)

What does this amount to overall? Well, tallying up the results, across the songs from three studio albums, across seven years, 513 of 571 shows were Side A dominant (90%), 551 shows (97%) were a Side A win and/or draw. Is that a sufficiently hefty trend to suggest something may have been inherent in the way Nirvana structured albums? Let me reverse the stats for full clarity; only 20 shows (6 for Nevermind, 14 for In Utero) ever featured more songs from Side B, that’s a mere 3% in total. Including draws, Side B won or achieved parity 58 times (10%).

OK, so we’ve shown that Nirvana played more songs from Side A of Bleach on a consistent basis — so what? Well, let’s keep digging before pre-emptively drawing conclusions. I totally admit that I’ve always enjoyed Side A of Nevermind more than Side B, I’m very aware that’s a personal preference and I’m totally desirous that endless repetition may have drained a little life from the songs therein…But it made me wonder…

Even though it risked skewing the results I wanted to make this as full an exploration as possible so I commenced stat-gathering from the moment the first song to feature on Bleach, Nevermind or In Utero came into existence — I do feel what’s most pertinent is what the band played once the full album was built but…What the hey, 1989!

Side a_Side b Dominance 1989 Nevermind

OK, fine, the year is Side A orientated because that’s what’s in existence. And 1990?

Side a_Side b Dominance 1990 Nevermind

1990, again, is totally dominated by Side A — the main surprise is how little of Nevermind even appears at all; In Bloom and Stay Away appear in April/May surrounding the Smart Studios session, Lithium isn’t recorded as making an appearance until October, likewise Something in the Way in November — Lithium potentially makes its first showing on a date we don’t have a full set-list for, 1990 has a lot of holes. Surely 1991 offers more to this query?

Side a_Side b Dominance 1991 Nevermind P1

Side a_Side b Dominance 1991 Nevermind P2

It does…But once again Nirvana is decisively Side A focused. Of 69 full set-lists, Nirvana plays more songs from Side B on four occasions (Sept 20, Sept 27, Nov 6, Nov 29) and only achieves parity at further ten show; in other words, at 55 of 69 shows Nirvana played more Side A tracks — that’s 80% of the time. I counted Endless Nameless as part of Side A, reasonably enough, despite its bonus track status, but without its presence what we’d be seeing is a year in which, of 69 full set-lists, Nirvana played more songs from Side A on 62 occasions and only played more songs from Side B on a grand total of two dates — 90% domination.

Removing Endless Nameless from 1991

So, how did things change after the release of Nevermind? If anything it got worse, here’s 1992:

Side a_Side b Dominance 1992 Nevermind

There’s one occasion all year when Nirvana played more songs from Side B, seven draws — again, the removal of Endless Nameless from consideration would deduct significantly:

Removing Endless Nameless from 1992

What the hey; we’re looking at a year with 28 complete set-lists in which Nirvana preferred Side A of Nevermind on either 20 occasions or 23 occasions and Feb 22 is the only date Side B won. In 1992 it isn’t just that Nirvana preferred Side A, it’s that they’re regularly playing the whole of that side; they do so on twelve occasions and only once do they drop below five.

Side a_Side b Dominance 1993 Nevermind

Side a_Side b Dominance 1994 Nevermind

Above we’re looking at 1993 and 1994 respectively and the trend continues; 37 full set-lists in 1993, only one in which Side B features more (they play only one song from Nevermind on August 6) and only four draws — 32 wins for Side A or 86% of the time in other words — while in 1994 this alters to a complete 100% record in favour of Side A. On 39 occasions Nirvana played the whole of Side A, no wonder Kurt Cobain was bored of it, but still, that was the preference.

So, what to conclude? Well, start with the simple numbers:

Side a_Side b_Nevermind Overall

In the case of Bleach, OK, the Side A dominance could be explained away by the fact that there were more songs on Side A. But on Nevermind there are more songs on Side A yet more songs are played from Side A on 207 of 235 set-lists (88%)and more or even on 229 of 235 occasions (97%) on which Nevermind songs are played; that’s crushing dominance to Side A yet again.

In the case of Nevermind, one argument (derived from something someone stated on the LiveNirvana forum) could be that Side A was Nirvana’s more commercial material; that would imply Nirvana were either playing the crowd-pleasers or were being forced to do so; or, as I simply believe, I think Nirvana played the songs they knew were their best. You choose. And anyways, we still have In Utero to consider but so far Nirvana preferred Side A (adding together number of occasions on which Bleach tracks appeared plus number of occasions on which Nevermind tracks appeared) on 448 of 476 occasions. Side A was a win and/or a draw on 470 occasions (99%); there were only six occasions EVER where Nirvana favoured Side B of Nevermind. So…How about In Utero?

Often my excursions into the online Nirvana forums are motivated simply by an early inkling of something that might end up here on the blog — a testing of the waters. Similarly, a lot of material that I place here is the equivalent of letting you see my working out — I want to give you all the data so you can work it all out for yourselves and use it as you wish.

While examining the 1992 set-lists I diverted, on a sudden whim, into another area. What I’d noted was that despite the increasingly recurrent complaints about fame and Nevermind and the demanding nature of audiences, Nirvana were solidly wedded to that album throughout the year; there was only one occasion all year, January 24, when the band played less than eight songs from Nevermind and on 17 occasions played ten-eleven songs, virtually the full album! As usual it seems that complaining to the media wasn’t the same as taking any action. It was fun, to me, to see how totally dominant Nevermind was that year.

But there was a deeper oddity. I’ll leave it to one side for the moment and simply show the outcome of the data work I engaged in to explore the idea. I worked only with the fully complete set-lists in order to avoid skewing results via incomplete set information. This is the preference for Side A/Side B of Bleach across 1987-1988 (green equals Side A, red equals Side B):

Side a_Side b Dominance 1987-1988 Bleach

Total victory for Side A of Bleach. And 1989:

Side a_Side b Dominance 1989 Bleach

So, in 1989, the only occasion where Side B came close to parity with the prevalence of Side A is at the notorious show at the Piper Club where Kurt dumped his guitar and threatened suicide and one show where the band quit early. And on into 1990:

Side a_Side b Dominance 1990 Bleach


Side a_Side b Dominance 1991 Bleach P1

Side a_Side b Dominance 1991 Bleach P2


Side a_Side b Dominance 1992 Bleach

And, finally, 1993 and 1994:

Side a_Side b Dominance 1993 Bleach

Side a_Side b Dominance 1994 Bleach

What am I saying? I’m saying, that there is never, at any point in Nirvana’s entire career, in the full record of 241 live shows where Nirvana played more songs from Side B of Bleach, not one. It makes July 12, 1989 one of the most special Nirvana gigs, simply by virtue of the fact that they played more of Side B on the date, four songs, than on any other known occasion.

OK, I’m accepting of the fact that Side A had seven songs compared to Side B’s five but it’s still the level of dominance that is of interest to me; as early as December 21, 1988 Nirvana are playing five from Side A; in 1989 they play the whole of Side A at nine of 43 known shows and six of seven Side A songs at a further THIRTY shows; even as late as September 1992 they’re still kicking out five of seven. By contrast, the reappearance of Swap Meet and Scoff for seven dates in June-July 1992 was the first time since October 6, 1991 — 56 shows and eight months back — that Nirvana played anything at all from Side B of Bleach, with July 2, 1992 being the last time the band would ever play anything from that side of the album.

It lends weight to the story that Sub Pop insisted on Nirvana placing their songs on Bleach in order of preference; their favourites to the front. As a second thought; Side A was heavily loaded with the older Nirvana songs, ones that had benefitted from more time and energy. This can be seen in the way that Love Buzz and Floyd the Barber were already present in 1987, Paper Cuts was added by January 1988, Blew by March then School in October. Side B, by contrast, didn’t begin to build until the March 1988 appearance of Big Cheese with Mr. Moustache and Sifting arising for the summer single recording session then appearing in concert in October. Though each side needed more songs, it was Side A that had the most complete and honed material earliest suggesting that the rushed material was shoe-horned onto Side B to get the album up to twelve songs.

Side a_Side b_Bleach Overall

Remember, what we’re looking at here is not a question of aesthetic quality; it’s simply a very basic question of how many songs from Side A/Side B appeared — answer? Side A won 241 times across seven calendar years. But what of Nevermind and In Utero?

As a starting point for our work today, remember that in 1992 all but seven shows are completely known of the 25 that took place. There’s a clear break in the year also that is of note; in January-February the band played an average of 17 songs a night across the fourteen known set-lists (a maximum, hit on two occasions, of 19). In the 14 known set-lists (of 16 shows played) covering June-October, the average jumped to twenty with Reading in particular standing out with 26 songs performed. So, how many songs is it likely we are missing?

The five dates incomplete or missing in January-February benefit from the relative consistency of that period; the shortest show as 14 songs, the longest 19, the norm 16 — we’re therefore likely to be missing a range of between 70 and 95 songs with 23 already confirmed. We’re in a different situation with the two shows missing later in the year. No set-list from June onward featured less than 17 songs (and that only on one occasion); the norm was over 21. But both missing shows are benefit appearances; Nirvana had a habit of pulling something different for ‘special events’ and both of these qualify. Ordinarily I could forecast between 34 and 42 songs, not in these two cases even with 19 of the songs played already known.

What’s noticeable is the absence of the usual ‘couplets’; in other years the presence of one song seemed to invariably lead to the playing of another. It’s gratifying to see the Negative Creep/Blew pattern persisting but it’s an increasingly twisted threesome with Been a Son. Those three songs may only appear alongside each other only five times, but there are only six shows where all three don’t appear. Even more noticeably, on the 26 of 28 fully known set-lists on which those songs (whether two or three of them) appear, there’s never more than two songs separating them. That’s impressive consistency across a very fragmented year.

Whats Left_1992_NC-BaS-Blew

There are no more consistent units to which I can turn to predict order and position beyond the opening songs as described yesterday plus the NC/B a Son/Blew trilogy. But that doesn’t mean we are scuppered with a mere 20 songs added to the record. Instead, let’s look at how consistently songs were performed across that era, how much flexibility was there? The table below indicates how consistently certain songs were performed. Firstly, remember there are 14 wholly known set-lists:

Whats Left_1992_Flexibility

So, in total, there are nine songs that are played at every single known show plus Breed which is played in 13 known and one partial set-list. How does that map to the unknown set-lists?

Note that in the figure below, from Feb 9, the line up of songs is almost identical for a full 14/15 songs with the exceptions being simply the addition or subtraction of Something in the Way and, on one occasion, the flipping round of Territorial Pissings and Drain You; that makes it very easy to confirm the missing date on Feb 21.

Whats Left_1992_Ten Songs

This is where the ‘flips’ between set-lists in January and February begin to cause doubts for those few remaining songs. After Feb 9, the set-list becomes extremely structured so our only areas for doubt are whether to add Lounge Act AND Territorial, or just one or the other, and whether one more additional song was squeezed in possibly with an Endless Nameless finale. Prior to that date, a number of songs — Negative Creep, Been a Son, Blew, On A Plain — were more usually part of the second half of a show rather than part of the start. Yet those songs were not consistently present, the set flexed. Similarly, I’m sure we’re looking at a number of performances of Love Buzz and Territorial Pissings, but how many is a matter of doubt. Beyond that it’s hard to see; maybe Something in the Way, a chance of Stain — then into the realms of unpredictability, one or two rarities at most. In total, what we’re looking at, at most, is:

Whats Left_1992_Total

From those five dates, we knew 23 songs, were missing a further 47 to 72, and can work out a potential 66 of which 39 are certainties, the others are a curious bunch; either Jan 27 saw Nirvana switching over from Floyd the Barber to Sliver (I think this is likely) or Sliver will have to appear later in the set; Feb 23 will definitely feature Blew but it may also include Something in the Way. Next, all the early dates will feature some derivation of the Been a Son/Negative Creep/Blew/On a Plain mix, with the choice on a number of dates to include Love Buzz/Territorial Pissings and maybe even Endless Nameless at the end.

Whats Left_1992_The Doubts

Ending on a high…October 3 and 4 are the other missing dates in 1992; what the Hell to do with set-lists where the known songs blend in Mexican Seafood, Beeswax, D7, Talk to Me, Curmudgeon, plus early showings of Dumb and Pennyroyal Tea… Basically, I’m going to hope the rest of each show turns up because what I think we’re looking at are the two most desirable incomplete performances left in the Nirvana live record.