Archive for the ‘Other Bands and Nirvana’ Category

Tuesday we discussed Soundgarden, a band that was extracted from Seattle and inserted itself into the Californian alternative scene. Today we’re talking about Pearl Jam, a band that transplanted a California scene vocalist into a solidly Seattle band. In both cases, it wasn’t just Nirvana’s commercial success that impacted the trajectory and achievement of each band, it was the way Nirvana came to own a substantial part of the storyline of grunge and the North-West scene. With Soundgarden it was simply that the history of grunge became synonymous with the story of Nirvana so there was less space for a band that had left the grunge scene behind before Nirvana began their rise. With Pearl Jam their position became partly defined by the storyline announced by Nirvana’s leader himself.

The first time I listened to Pearl Jam must have been prior to July 1994 when I moved to Lincolnshire. A school friend, whose name quite escapes me now, was determined in his belief that Pearl Jam were Nirvana’s superior and lent me a double cassette bootleg of them live, I believe somewhere in Britain, sometime in the year/two years beforehand. I can still recall Even Flow making an impact, Jeremy, Alive…I remember nothing else; I stayed Nirvana side and we had an occasional play fight over the issue. Sometime between 1994 and 1998 someone lent me that collaboration with Neil Young the band did; I couldn’t take it. About ten years later I took a shot on the Rear View Mirror two CD greatest hits collection and traded it in having realised I liked the three songs mentioned earlier plus Spin the Black Circle. Yet this is a band I innately respect. They’ve walked a path away from fame and back into the underground, wilfully so and without regret. They’ve never let the twists of popular taste impact their specific musical inclination, a quality also present in Mudhoney. But, like Radiohead, they’re a band I can’t love, I can’t fall for.

Despite my personal tastes, however, and despite the plain (and well-attested) truth that Kurt Cobain didn’t like Pearl Jam, neither of those issues translates into genuinely believing Kurt’s more cruel statements about his rivals. Pearl Jam, again like Soundgarden, had extremely solid roots within grunge, far exceeding Kurt Cobain’s distant involvement; members of the band had helped initiate grunge via Green River, had been on the Deep Six compilation in 1986, on Sub Pop 200, were part of Mother Love Bone then the Temple of the Dog side-project – their credentials within grunge are impeccable and the primary influence they always claimed was fully paid-up awkward rocker Neil Young. Yet the way Kurt Cobain positioned them was as sell-outs, phoneys and fakes. Heck, according to Jeff Ament, a lover of basketball, “Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love talked trash about the fact that I hooped” – the guy couldn’t even play sport without being seen as the enemy.

It’s certainly true that the breach in Green River emerged due to the desire of the future Pearl Jammers to pursue a major label deal and Pearl Jam dived onto Epic at the end of 1990 with unseemly haste – but being caught up in the wave of alternative rock signings that commenced in 1988-1989 and became a flood in 1990-1991 doesn’t make Pearl Jam any different from numerous others…Including Nirvana. It’s that single point of comparison that seems most crucial.

The bands Kurt Cobain took issue with, Pearl Jam and Guns n’ Roses, were used as the representatives of two specific types of enemy; the macho opposition (i.e., sexist, racist, homophobic hair metal rock dudes) and the internal traitor (i.e., those who would sell out or mimic alternative rock sounds or styles for profit.) It’s a duality that clearly stuck in his mind because in the liner notes to Incesticide it’s the same combination he uses when he vents at “ the threatened man…traitor women”. In the case of Pearl Jam, however, without particularly enjoying their music I can’t see any great sign of the individuals concerned having committed any greater compromise with the corporate rock behemoths than Nirvana themselves though I can certainly acknowledge that Cobain associated sport with the macho jock types he hated also and that some of that personal dislike bled over into his attitude to Pearl Jam. In fact, what’s most plain about the comparison is that both accusations, that Pearl Jam were just traditional mainstream rock and/or that they’d sold out or taken advantage of an indie movement, were accusations that could be levelled at Nirvana.

Kurt Cobain, on a regular basis, tended to state the negatives about his own work, about his band and so forth as a defensive mechanism so that no one could voice a criticism without him being able to shrug and say “I already said that.” Being fair though, he was in an exceptional situation, one he had reached it within an unbelievably short space of time in terms of the rise from borderline-poverty to superstardom. It’s understandable that he required defences and ways of protecting himself – most of us aren’t asked, having compromised ourselves knowingly or unknowingly, to then speak to representatives of the media every few days or to then have our contradictions repeated back to us for analysis.

His reaction was certainly exceptional, for all his negativity about individuals who had harmed him personally – ranging from parents, to schoolmates and onwards – picking verbal battles with other musicians wasn’t a common move for Cobain. What I believe we’re seeing in his treatment of Pearl Jam in particular (as well as Guns n’Roses) is Kurt displaying a very ordinary rhetorical trick used by people to shield themselves from damage. Regularly, when people wish to deny the moral ambiguities they themselves recognise in their day-to-day living, will construct a sentence along the lines of “well it’s not like I’m/we’re dealing drugs/murdering people/abusing kids…” By setting up an absurd comparison while turning the gaze outward toward someone or something else, they nullify the chance to intellectually engage with the accusation they feel is being made and also escape having to make any honest and revealing commentary on their actions – the irrelevance of that other entity’s actions to discussion of their own (commenting on someone else’s sin doesn’t make one’s own sin lesser) doesn’t stop people needing the protection it affords to their sense of self.

This decision to avoid questions about his own band’s decision to play the corporate rock game, the choice to point accusingly at another band and state that they weren’t playing it honestly or with respectable intentions, dragged in fans and media creating a low key inquisition in which allegiances had to be pledged and Pearl Jam’s success became open to questions about its legitimacy, questions that were rarely asked of bands outside of the Milli Vanilli/Vanilla Ice categories of musician. Kurt Cobain’s access to the media and ability to make a story was so powerful that even in Pearl Jam’s twentieth anniversary celebration releases there was a need to address the controversy, it had become so major a piece of Pearl Jam’s history – all thanks to the word of one man.

Did he come to recognise that he had illegitimately harmed others for selfish reasons? Possibly. The Pearl Jam 20 material does focus on the happy endings, on Kurt and Eddie Vedder slow-dancing at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards, on Kurt and Eddie in interviews declaring their respect for one another, on Eddie’s April 8, 1994 statement about how crucial Kurt Cobain had been to the new generation of musicians and their fans – in another source Kurt stated plainly “I’m not going to do that anymore…It hurts Eddie and he’s a good guy…He didn’t ask for this.” At the least he did manage to separate his disdain for the band’s music from personal attacks on the individuals involved but, again, as in the case of Soundgarden, the importance of Nirvana and/or the word of Nirvana influenced another band and how they are remembered. Such power…

Soundgarden are the grunge band that never really fit into the tales of late Eighties Seattle as it was written from the very late Eighties onward. It’s strange trying to wedge them in alongside Mudhoney, Screaming Trees, Nirvana, et al., they don’t belong to the same wave of music philosophies or sounds. Yet this was a band recording demos in Bruce Pavitt’s basement as early as April 1985; who shoved three songs out on the 1986 Deep Six compilation alongside all the grunge originators; who managed a single and two EPs on Sub Pop (including two of the earliest catalog numbers in the Sub Pop discography); who contributed Sub Pop Rock City to the Sub Pop 200 compilation and, as late as 1991, kickstarted the Temple of the Dog tribute to the late legend Andrew Wood. They were grunge to the bone but at the peak of their fame were never really associated with that lineage; it was Nirvana who were the figure head for grunge, with Soundgarden therefore written up as a deviant strain of heavy metal.

This didn’t mean that straddling the lines didn’t win Soundgarden their successes; along with Pearl Jam and Nirvana, they’re one of the trio of Seattle/State of Washington bands who parlayed their way to multi-platinum sales. Yet it was very visible that this was a band who didn’t get nominated for the rock awards their colleagues were put in for. Instead they were nominated for a Grammy award for Best Metal Performance as early as 1990, again in 1992, again in 1995. It was only at this point in their history, with the grunge bubble firmly burst, that they finally managed to soften sufficiently (or the world had hardened enough) for a Best Hard Rock Performance nomination too to come their way.

That’s part of why the Nirvana/Soundgarden/late Eighties Seattle mix has felt so uncomfortable. Soundgarden toppled over from the garage rock and punk styling of bands like Mudhoney or early Nirvana right into the metal end of the spectrum; until the emergence of Earth as a force in avant-garde metal there isn’t another significant Seattle band who tilted so far that way. The band, despite its heritage, despite the many quirky and off-kilter aspects of its sound and identity and lyrical concerns, made its home in the metal world whereas the bands that followed and overtook them never went that far.

In terms of their sound, the band certainly drew far more firmly than their Seattle peers from the vocabulary of Seventies hard rock. For all the comparisons, none of the other bands had the technical ability to really pull off a Black Sabbath, let alone a Led Zeppelin, tribute barring the downtuning. Alongside that, while a lot of the Seattle crowd drew their vocal heritage from the likes of Iggy Pop and David Yow, Soundgarden had Chris Cornell channeling Robert Plant’s high-pitched vocalizing, a move straight out of the Eighties metal handbook. On both levels, despite the more graveled sound, Soundgarden acted as a musical bridge to the Guns n’ Roses of that world; later sharing a stage with them as a short-lived support act made a theoretical musical sense. Again, the vocals scored Soundgarden as different to their growling peers.

The band also, to some extent, blotted their reputation when it came to applying for entry to the ever-so-slightly holier-than-thou right-on politics of the early Nineties alternative rock boom. Soundgarden could perhaps be accused of having been a bit too clever, their parodying of mainstream rock clichés ended up sounding precisely like mainstream rock to those not looking deeply at the band’s attitudes and public statements. As examples, plans to call their first A&M album (Louder than Love) Louder than Fuck were well known at the time; a promo release (Louder than Live) featured the band playing Spinal Tap’s Big Bottom; while Big Dumb Sex just ended up sounding like a big dumb sex song; Full on Kevin’s Mum didn’t help — it all reinforced the mistaken vibe that this was just another swaggering rock band, even blatant jokes like having songs called 665 and 667 that could be played backwards to find a song about Santa as a parody of Christian fears about concealed messages on rock albums didn’t play so well.

Soundgarden’s parallel path can partially be explained by the reality that the narrative of grunge in popular literature and journalism was tied firmly to the story of Nirvana. While the two bands did share a stage once in 1988, the deep local heritage of Soundgarden still didn’t win them more than a tangential mention in the Nirvana tale. Soundgarden were grunge’s history by mid-to-late 1989 when grunge became something anyone in the world was mentioning. By 1992 they had moved far beyond it when the resurgence of interest in grunge took place with Nirvana’s smiley face stamped over the top.

That issue with the available accounts warping the perceived historical reality has continued; the medium rewrote the memory. The flurry of Nirvana tomes in the late nineties, the regular release schedule ever afterwards, these tales had little reason to acknowledge a band who had gone by the time the ‘heroes’ of the tale were on the rise. Soundgarden certainly had a place in the burst of grunge histories that started emerging around the end of the last decade but it was still Nirvana’s late appearance in the story of grunge that made for the cover images — book after book with a Nirvana/Kurt front cover despite the band’s rather late, and rather dilettantish, relationship with the grunge sound.

The timeline certainly makes a crucial difference. As Soundgarden had departed Seattle prior to Sub Pop’s brainwave of inviting over Everett True to report on the local scene, the band didn’t benefit from the wave of publicity and exposure in the British music press that formed some of the earliest readily available writing on grunge; Soundgarden had stopped being grunge just before the media started discovering grunge even existed. Similarly, their move away from the Seattle labels and onto SST, then all the way out to a major label, A&M, by end of 1988 divorced them from the premier purveyor of grunge right before Sub Pop began to truly gain exposure and notice — a commodity whose worth can be overstated given Sub Pop was nearly bankrupt until the Nirvana money began to flow.

By being on a major label from 1988, Soundgarden aligned themselves with the generation of alternative musicians who started to emerge prior to the explosion provoked by Nirvana’s Nevermind; Jane’s Addiction, Faith No More, Red Hot Chili Peppers even (and yes, all owing a debt to the skuzzy vibe Guns n’ Roses had inaugurated). There was a geographic difference here too with Soundgarden rising in what was a wave of bands dominated by the State of California, not State of Washington. It’s no surprise that in joining the late Eighties version of the alternative Soundgarden lost a good chunk of the indie audience defining the agenda in Seattle at that point, and were never in step with the new alternative, a more explicitly punk-aligned alternative, that came of age just a couple of years later.

By 1994, in an interview with Metal Hammer magazine, father of the alternative nation, Thurston Moore, could chuckle and refer to Soundgarden as “just a bunch of noise”. It was because the band he was referring to had left grunge behind in 1988 and continued on into a sound and vibe that meshed too closely to the heritage of Seventies and Eighties metal to be a ready fit for the punk sound and vibe of the Nineties new wave.

…But still…Badmotorfinger…Superunknown…Bad ass and almighty rock albums; no denying.

I finally, at long last, finished reading the “Whatever Happened to the Alternative Nation?” articles yesterday:

http://www.avclub.com/articles/part-2-1991-whats-so-civil-about-war-anyway,46507/

In one piece, the very reasonable comparison is made between Axl Rose and Kurt Cobain. The obvious comparisons – small town misfits, serious parental issues, physical similarities which is why they could both fit the required rock star mould of 1991-1992 – are made but the most crucial one is the yearning of each individual for control over their own creativity, a desire to be free of the constraints either of poverty or of management, fans, press and so forth. The crucial realisation, of course, is that a human personality is such a complex accretion of memories, moments and impulses that despite the similarities between the two individuals, an identical outcome couldn’t be guaranteed.

In the case of Axl Rose, aggression was always launched outward; violence toward girlfriends, trash-talking in the media, pointed and explicit lyrical tirades, a refusal to ever take public responsibility for anything that has ever been less than ideal at any point in a twenty-five year musical career. In the case of Kurt Cobain, the aggressive impulses within him were, near constantly, aimed inward; he would commence criticising his own music in public almost as soon as it arrived in the hands of the public, his lyrics dripped in disdain for his various supposed failings, he talked about himself in a persistently downbeat manner in interviews and in private with the hangdog style drawing understandable sympathy. Yet Kurt’s own record wasn’t devoid of violence or threats thereof; he readily admitted to the voicemails left for the two authors attempting to write a book on Nirvana in 1992; he cheerfully made threats related to the Vanity Fair article; domestic disputes did lead to police call-outs… Neither artist was devoid of minor sins; Axl was far more persistently hubristic about it all – Kurt was a sweeter creature when he wished.

Yet there are similarities in their reaction to audiences and the other demands of fame. Axl Rose’s crimes against courteous concert-hosting are well-known ranging from provoking a riot at the St Louis show, to more recently slow-clapping a fan out of the venue, to massive delays in shows, walk-offs and so forth – if it wasn’t Axl Rose involved some would consider it reasonable to walk off stage if things were thrown at a band. Kurt Cobain, on the other hand, had his own sins such as significant numbers of cancelled shows, responding to on-stage provocations by walking off (or in the case of one show peeing into a shoe that was thrown at him), more positively (in some ways) perceived acts of sexism by audience members were responded to with Nirvana halting shows and having a go at audience members. In each case, the band took it as their role to police the audience and react to what they didn’t like.

Yet Axl Rose represents something else within the Nirvana story; the way out. Axl Rose’s willingness to ignore the wishes, hopes and desires of all other individuals made him supremely able when it came to building a life outside of the spotlight. His sobriety, compared to the persistent drunkenness or drug issues of his band members, made him the only able to play dictator. Kurt, by contrast, was dictator of Nirvana yet increasingly was unable to steer the ship. Both men increasingly rejected contact with the press if they couldn’t control the nature of the dialogue, similarly time in the studio became a scarce commodity for each band; Kurt barely showed up for band sessions after Nevermind, Axl meanwhile did much of his work for Use Your Illusion separate to the band, then didn’t even appear in studio alongside them for the recording of The Spaghetti Incident? album. A significant area of contrast, at first glance, would be the difference between Nirvana’s relative retreat from live performance versus Guns n’ Roses embarking on mammoth world touring throughout 1992-1993. Yet looking a little further back, Guns n’ Roses gave only 21 concerts in 1989-1990, a wonderfully comparable situation to the 21 shows Nirvana managed between March 1992 until October 1993.

While Kurt Cobain’s control over his environment increasingly fell apart, Axl’s increased as he purchased the Guns n’ Roses brand, shed recalcitrant band members, dispensed with managers and girlfriends until eventually all that was left was Axl and his loyalists. Kurt went through a similar distancing from his former comrades, yet his retreat was toward the companionship of his wife and child on the one hand, and drug buddies on the other. The contrast between the chaos around Kurt and the increasing stillness around Axl is noteable. Axl’s decision was one Kurt Cobain would have envied. Axl never stopped his creative endeavours, this was a man who taught himself rhythm guitar in the early nineties purely to allow himself to more fully realise his own visions and to dictate directions to his band, yet one who simultaneously was willing and able to hook in a large number of collaborators to be spliced into the ever more gargantuan constructions he was trying to fashion. Axl simply stopped participating in the business of music; no press, no live performance, “no” to whatever management ever asked of him (including one alleged incident when apparently, having been pressured to finish some recordings, Axl drove an SUV over the CDs sent to him by his manager) – he refused to be made to treat his music as just a job, or to kowtow to any expectations.

It relied on a very visible rudeness and an unwillingness to please anyone except himself, it needed him to be free of any need to earn money – which was something Guns n’ Roses’ success had already earned him – but Axl Rose did make the great escape. It led to him being criticised rather than praised given he wasn’t playing the game, the music industry machine had been cheated of one of its biggest stars, but Axl Rose survived and made music the way he wanted to regardless of external pressures and now tours, pretty well, as and when he wants. Kurt Cobain rejected the performing, recording and talking aspects of his role, was towed back into it for the In Utero tour and once again ran from it. Yet he didn’t have the same cocoon ready to receive him; and his music hadn’t yet opened up to significant quantities of collaboration; the expression of his visions rested firmly in his own hands and he wasn’t used to letting others craft the sounds around his words or vice versa. He was early in a journey it took Axl Rose from 1987 until 1995 to execute; Kurt Cobain was barely two and a half years into his flight from the music industry.

That’s often how I look at the aged Axl Rose, not as a has-been or a man out of touch with the music world and begging to be let in. Axl Rose shows no interest in whether his record company makes money, there’s not been much mellowing in his refusenik attitude to the media, he still comes out to play as and when he darn well feels he’ll perform his best – it’s very easy to dislike his way of doing things but I think he’s a man who rose to the peak of the industry with all its necessary compromises and pressures, then found the strength and stubbornness to walk away. Kurt Cobain would have loved to take that same walk but had a conflicted desire to be decent to people and to fulfil his responsibilities that meant he couldn’t leave but nor could he stay.

Anyways, here’s Axl Rose on Jimmy Kimmel. Funny, and I want a Halloween tree:

What was striking in yesterday’s headline figures on Nirvana and their live compadres was the loyalty Nirvana exhibited to old friends and favourites throughout their career. The table below shows the bands Nirvana played with over more than a single year:

Nirvana_Multi-Year_Support Bands 1987-1994

Now, this’ll probably come as no surprise, but Nirvana played with Melvins in five of the seven years in which the band was active; Mudhoney and Tad in four; Skin Yard, The Legend, Butthole Surfers, L7, Shonen Knife, The Jesus Lizard in three each. It’s that loyalty to old friends that sticks out for me — the band switched side-acts regularly, shared stages with 234 bands, yet the bands with whom they played the most regularly were the comrades from early days. Instead of prioritising ticket sales — there was no equivalent of the Guns n’ Roses/Metallica tag-team here — in 1994 comfort was the priority so of the seven bands played with that year, four had been toured with in previous years and eight of 20 in 1993. It’s always been noted how hard Nirvana worked to elevate their friends and the way they never dropped friends seems clear.

I’m also gratified to note that Nirvana’s protestations that they were a band solidly aligned to the underground — regardless of records sold, awards won and media glitz — is shown to be true by an examination of their live partners. Nirvana played with a phenomenal array of near unknowns from beginning to end of their career —it’s clear how grounded Nirvana were in their declared milieu, they weren’t a band surrounded by future superstars.

I graded bands on the basis of (a) reaching mainstream acceptance (b) remaining top-level indie/underground heroes (c) achieving a degree of recognition and respect in the underground. Very few of the bands with whom Nirvana shared a gig came anywhere close:

Nirvana Support_Stars-Indie Stars-Respected

This view is provided per year but note the overlaps; six mainstream stars, nineteen top-level indie bands, eighteen recognised and respected, but solidly underground, acts — just 43 of 234 unique acts; Nirvana played with 191 near complete unknowns over their seven calendar years.

Of course this view could be read another way; as percentages per year:

Superior Bands as Percentage per Year

Quite clearly the quality of bands Nirvana were playing with did indeed increase almost year-on-year right through to 1994; if I’d counted Cypress Hill, The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy plus Bobcat Goldthwait too in the mainstream/indie/underground divide the figures would be higher. The blip in 1989 is noticeable and I actually wonder if that’s a reflection of the shift from what would soon be the hottest local scene on the planet (remember that my mainstream/indie/underground division is as much about media coverage as it is about sales) to touring nationwide where Nirvana were just one among many hopefuls; a surprising percentage of Nirvana’s North-western contemporaries went on to relatively successful careers.

The shift in 1993-1994 reflects a further reality; that Nirvana’s success had finally kicked the alternative into the mainstream – my rating of bands doesn’t just reflect those bands, it also reflects what Nirvana had helped create, the success and critical appreciation of their fellow bands was made easier by Nirvana acting as the figurehead and key representative to mainstream audiences.

Studying this much Nirvana data for so long, I keep seeing things I simply want to look at and digest in more detail — often what you’re seeing is me working it through in my own mind rather than simply a thoroughly digested entry, certainly I rarely know the conclusion before I start. What I wanted to do today was examine the bands with whom Nirvana played either as support or supported by. I was curious who Nirvana had spent most time with.

To conduct this survey, as ever, I owe a strong debt of gratitude to the work of the Nirvana Live Guide — the data they’ve made available to fans is incredible, I’m just enjoying myself manipulating the information to hopefully show neat little patterns, trends and facts. Today’s post came about because I was so amused by many of the band names I saw popping up on the Guide and wanted to look more closely and acknowledge the role of other bands in the Nirvana story. I know it’s always the same, we barely notice the band that comes on before the band we’ve come to see, but for an awful lot of their existence Nirvana weren’t even that second-string band; they were just another name on a list of unknown quantities.

As a proviso, I ignored the festivals, the sheer quantity of bands on different stages, not necessarily sharing contact and so forth, the festivals were impossible to deal with. Of course this does, for example, influence the statistics for appearances alongside Sonic Youth. I confined this study, with the exception of a benefit/festival or two with as many as five or six bands appearing, to occasions where it was just a normal gig, two-three bands altogether.

With regard to the absolute numbers, fact number one is the headline figure of 234 unique bands with whom Nirvana played over the course of their time in existence. What’s even more interesting is how few of those bands Nirvana played with more than once. In the table below I set the bar at four times even to allow entry to the list:

Bands Nirvana Played with Most 1987-1994

A mere 36 of those 234 bands are known to have played more than four shows with Nirvana; that’s a remarkable number of connections for Nirvana to be making, band after band, year after year with their peak as live performers coinciding with their peak of shared stages; ending up playing with 56-66 bands a year is quite phenomenal, massive turn-over in support. It emphasises how much of a minor presence Nirvana were until remarkably late in their career in that they clearly had little or no control over who they ended up on stage with, they took every chance, came on before or after absolutely anyone — this did change once fame hit.

The trend over time is unsurprising both because of the fall-off in Nirvana’s activity in later years and also the fact they were no longer playing band showcases or taking any chance to get on stage but were actively selecting the company they kept. It’s still notable, however, how thoroughly things changed; in 1992, 1993 and 1994 they play with so few other artists that one has to go all the way back to 1987 to find a year they forged so few on-stage connections. Notice also how, as the total number of bands declines, the number of bands with whom Nirvana played more than once in a year actually did increase suggesting it was deliberate commercial/contractual arrangements, the business in other words, rather than just ‘nature’ that created this pattern:

Individual Bands per Year 1987-1994

Michael Gira was quoted at one point, I’m doing this from memory, saying that the reason Sonic Youth succeeded while Swans remained a strictly underground flavour was that he went round the country making enemies while Sonic Youth made so many friends. In the case of Nirvana they seem to have spent time with anyone who was anyone in the North-west, on top of a whole batch of names elsewhere primarily American but with solid and persistent connections to international favourites. There are so many bands they’re on stage with. It can’t have hurt either that, with no disrespect intended, the fact the vast majority of bands on the list are either complete, or as near-as, unknowns would have emphasised Nirvana’s quality and superiority — it’s easy to stand out and draw attention when stood alongside more minor acts.

For those of you with a penchant for numerology and spookiness, by the way, note the total for 1992 then the sum of 1993-1994 — oooooo…Fear the nonsensical but eerie…

The website name had stuck in the head in the couple days before I got round to having to pick one. There was something punchy about it and I can admit it might be a steal from the title of Mick Wall and Malcolm Dome’s book Nirvana: The Legacy. I found the idea of that book inspiring but the content barely moved me being little more than a rehash of band bios of the time, an insipid quick dash over the top of the musical landscape of 1994-1997. The question remains valid, however; what has been the legacy of Nirvana?

Many people argue that nothing changed, that many of the old names stuck around, that the indie revolution never happened as expected and the charts remained flooded with manufactured product. Certainly grunge was the last gasp of rock as simultaneously a mass market phenomenon and a vital creative force — just as jazz ceded its position to pop and rock, rock was succeeded by hip hop fuelled R n’ B. That doesn’t mean that there was no legacy for Nirvana, it simply means that the market and industry changed fundamentally and that legacy wasn’t the multi-million selling multi-band phenomenon/movement they were looking for.

There’s a legitimate argument to be made that the hype around ‘alternative’ music was a gamble made by major label record companies who, deceived by the success of a small coterie of bands, were under the mistaken impression that a substantial market existed for punk-inspired or derived bands and therefore plunged energy into promoting the idea of the ‘alternative nation’. What they’d overlooked was that the triumph of Nirvana, Hole, Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam was a victory for the bands possessing a sound close enough to existing mainstream rock to sell well. Most of the bands that made it onto majors simply weren’t even close to pop of the stadium-filling U2 et al. variety.

On the other hand, while acknowledging the points around the ‘death’ of rock, hype and compromise, I’d argue that the quest to find direct musical heirs has led to the tangible evidence of Nirvana’s influence being overlooked. Direct musical heirs are an exceedingly rare phenomenon; popular culture may echo but it rarely repeats. The greatest artists are so inimitable that those who do follow their template precisely are never anything more than pale copies; that’s the category into which the saleable but critically distained bands that followed the grunge ROCK template in the late nineties (i.e., Creed) fell into. The zeitgeist had moved on.

Usually what happens is a degree of inspiration, an element of the sound is taken. As an example, the successors to Jimi Hendrix were arguably the axe-worshipping legends Steve Vai and Joe Satriani — the fact that each of those artists moved in very different circles to Hendrix’s increasingly funk influenced last recordings and were more enamoured of his soloing side than his abilities with the brief quality pop mode, obscured the link. Guns n’ Roses meanwhile owed much to both the Rolling Stones and to Led Zeppelin while also tacking on aspects of punk. There are plenty of arguable relationships but in bands of top quality the relationship doesn’t mean cloning; even Oasis were never identical to their worn-on-sleeve influences.

So, when looking for the legacy of Nirvana, simply demanding a carbon copy is a quest bound only for disappointment. The influence of Nirvana is of a different quality. Firstly, the wave of which Nirvana was the foremost exponent, hard-wired punk into the DNA of every key rock band that has come since. The solo-worshipping, high-note-busting style of rock that dominated the Seventies and Eighties was wiped from the mainstream map. Instead the high-achieving rock bands have spanned from Green Day, to My Chemical Romance, through Limp Bizkit (yes), to Rage Against the Machine, Radiohead and even Muse. Unless you want to try and argue the case of novelty band The Darkness, there hasn’t been a truly successful band mimicking the hard rock sound in over two decades. What died altogether was hard rock, that combination of pop production and slickness with the metal-edged volume and bombast.
Secondly, Nirvana ushered in a new emotionally detailed vocabulary for mainstream rock stars; Nine Inch Nails and Smashing Pumpkins certainly showed that there was a trend toward focused depression at the time of which Nirvana, arguably, was a part. Now, in the form of (oft-maligned) Emo, and with significant credit going to Weezer and The Descendants, there’s a greater openness to expressions of male emotional pain, a broadening of expression. Again, it’s not that Nirvana deserve the sole-credit for this but they showed it had arrived.

Thirdly, the sexism departed from the guitar-led musical world. The leather trousers, groupies and uber-mensch look shuffled from centre stage — it’s now such an oddity it even receives a defined sub-genre label, Sleaze Rock, when in the Eighties the rock world was dominated by this form. While the punk world in general had an openness to counter-cultural currents — hence queercore, Riot Grrl, straightedge, outright Marxism and even Bad Brains’ spirituality could all coexist — it was Nirvana who stated openly, over and over again, how ridiculous and retarded the sexism of rock had become. Again, the alternative nation did birth something.

Fourth and finally, Nirvana showed that there was finally an infrastructure that could give underground bands a sustainable means of living. The much vaunted Eighties underground scene had died a death — a bare handful of bands lived through it intact simply because there weren’t enough venues, enough music sales, enough fans, enough coverage to sustain them. Sonic Youth have stated that one of the best things about Daydream Nation as an album was that it meant they could finally give up having day jobs.
The four shifts in rock music that occurred in the early-to-mid-nineties are underrated because they’re impossible to pin to a single instigator alone; it’s hard to say Nirvana were wholly responsible, of course they weren’t, they were simply a defining part and the most important figurehead signalling the shift. So, if one is looking for a musical legacy, one that isn’t a parody, or that wasn’t a broad social force, what’s left?

The answer struck me most forcibly over the past three months as I’ve corresponded with numerous individuals worldwide about the book, the blog, Nirvana, life in general. Kurt Cobain was pure punk in that he wasn’t a guitar-worshipper, the music was a way of channelling emotion, spirit, fire, energy — whatever you want to call it. Krist Novoselic said in his eulogy on April 10, 1994 “…if you’ve got a guitar and a lot of soul just bang something out and mean it. You’re the superstar. Plugged in the tones and rhythms that are uniquely and universally human: music. Heck… use your guitar as a drum, just catch the groove and let it flow out of your heart.” This could serve as a rallying cry for any part of the diversified rock-influenced world from the indie end of the spectrum out to the wildest noise or drone. There are a vast number of musicians working today, rarely the famous, who were simply inspired by Nirvana to try something new, different. They may not sound too much like Nirvana but how are they not the heirs to Nirvana when there’s such a joyful racket being made as a consequence of that band’s short fire?

Below is my copy of the Fuck Brett birthday LP courtesy of Feeding Tube Records — the eponymous Brett is a huge Nirvana fanatic and musical creator. On the shelf behind me is Nerd Table’s Chasing the Bronco CD, Adam Casto, leading light of the band, told me specifically that his way of creating something personally positive from the demise of Nirvana was to seek out every former member of Nirvana he could and try to collaborate with them; again, beautiful. A fellow called Adam Harding has shared a demo — you’ll have to wait and see — that wears his early Nineties alternative nation vibe loud and proud while taking it a step forward. There’s an artist I’m in touch with in Scotland, hi Marcus(!), with an intriguing Cobain-related project. I even heard from a member of Trampled by Turtles (http://trampledbyturtles.com/) the other day — so many Nirvana fans doing creative stuff, that’s the legacy. Heck, ever since Nirvana, and despite a complete lack of ability, I’ve always held up creative action as the highest form of human activity and life.

There’s a lot going on out there even if the media would prefer straight lines, clear quotes and family ties. Will there be another Nirvana? It’s hard to find likely candidates given the most crucial elements of Nirvana were unpredictability and a soul-deep amount of damage residing inside…But keep looking.

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Part credit for this post goes to a gentleman called Brett Robinson over on the LiveNirvana forum (if you’re interested in Nirvana I genuinely recommend the site and the forum — I’ve used the site for years but only recently engaged with the forum and the intelligence and knowledge present is awe-inspiring.) A discussion was started a couple weeks back asking people to suggest “The Top Five Most Important Concerts to Nirvana’s History.” Brett pointed to the show in Hoboken, New Jersey on July 13, 1989 on the basis that it’s the night Sonic Youth saw first saw Nirvana play live. I agree wholeheartedly.

Melvins acted as the role model to a young Kurt Cobain trying to seek a social setting for present-day teen survival and also looking for a longer-term means of escape from that setting. Melvins served wonderfully for those first few years, yet having discovered the limitations of the indie scene as it stood in 1989-1990 — living on the breadline, unenviable touring conditions, limited studio time and budget — the band needed something new.

The example of major label moves had been set by many recent underground bands; Mother Love Bone, The Posies, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains among others. But the foremost band in the Eighties underground was always Sonic Youth. If Nirvana could be considered ambitious it’s in reaching past all their other compatriots to make comparisons to the band that had, at that point, become the biggest alternative act without crossing over or compromising with mainstream tastes. Having left Melvins behind already, with the buzz building, Sonic Youth became the next critical role model.

It’s intriguing how others have either taken up the chant or saw the comparison too. There’s the well known quotation from 1988 that “Nirvana could become…. better than the Melvins!” yet the comparisons changed:

Keith Cameron: “’people were saying, you know, one day, they might be as big as Sonic Youth.”

Dave Grohl in 2011 on Nevermind: “Holy shit! We’re going to be as big as Sonic Youth!”

Everett True in Nirvana: The True Story: “’Yeah, as big as Sonic Youth at least, or the Pixies…”

Anton Brookes: “our idea of the ‘Top 10’ was being as big as Sonic Youth or the Pixies…”

Krist Novoselic in 1992: “‘We wanted to do as good as Sonic Youth…”

A lot of these quotations are post-event comparisons but they coincide absolutely with the vision available in 1990 of what success for a band that wasn’t soaked in mainstream glitz meant.

Nirvana followed Sonic Youth onto Gold Mountain for a very clear reason as described in 2011 by Danny Goldberg, “John and I signed Sonic Youth, who were very good at picking opening bands…They chose Nirvana to open for them on a European tour, and I recall John coming back and saying that we should manage Nirvana. Then Thurston called me and told me how great they were. I really trusted Sonic Youth. We met with Nirvana, and they trusted us because they trusted Sonic Youth.” Just like Dale Crover’s presence had persuaded Jack Endino to open his doors to Nirvana in 1988, Sonic Youth got Nirvana their management company thanks to firstly, taking Nirvana with them for seven shows in August 1990 (at that point the largest shows Nirvana had been a part of), then personally asking for it to happen.

Precisely the same thing happens again with Kim Gordon apparently responsible for persuading Nirvana that DGC was the label they should go with. It’s like Sonic Youth had adopted Nirvana. A year later Sonic Youth again take Nirvana with them for a month of touring in August including their first substantial festival appearances at the Reading Festival, Monsters of Spex, Pukkelpop, Überschall 91 and Ein Abend in Wien.

Nirvana continue, even after fame, to mimic the Sonic Youth mode of behaviour whether deliberately or through some shared underground heritage. The sponsorship of other bands — whether The Raincoats, The Vaselines, Melvins — was something Sonic Youth had been doing for years, bringing up other acts as tour support or barracking the industry to get them releases. Also Cobain’s diversion into production (with Melvins in 1992 and 1993) had been prefigured by Lee Ranaldo’s work for Babes in Toyland and Kim Gordon’s work for Hole.

So, while not as fundamental to Nirvana’s sound as Melvins were in the early days, Sonic Youth had an equally strong influence on pushing Nirvana into the limelight, onto the major label stage, and providing an aim, something to emulate. Later, reading interviews where one or other member of Sonic Youth states things like “I think anybody who knew Kurt fantasizes about some conversation that they could have had with him that might have saved this person from such a tragedy…” it still has that feel of the elders watching over their kid brother.

Anyways, this is a scrap from the April 1994 edition of Metal Hammer magazine which I bought for the Kurt Cobain tribute. It was also the first time I had come into contact with Sonic Youth. This single purchase thus bid farewell to Kurt at the same time as introducing me to the band that became the single most important influence on my music-consuming tastes and directions. I’d like to confess at this point to having seventy-seven Sonic Youth (and related) releases…

Curse you Metal Hammer, April 1994 for your impact on my budgets!!

On here’s the sample chapter from Dark Slivers again, I know its buried down in the blog now…

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And apologies for the delay in the Saturday post – it all depends on what time I wake up on a Saturday AM.

It seems impossible to overstate the importance of Melvins to the story of Nirvana. In Kurt Cobain’s reminiscences, contained within Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana and within his Journals, he defines the most positive aspects of his teenage identity in terms of music. His ‘Road to Damascus’ conversion is the discovery of punk music via Melvins, the role models he describes are Melvins, his first experience of the life of a gigging band (as a roadie) comes from the Melvins. As a formative experience only the divorce of his parents is more significant.

Musically the influence was also explicit. Kurt Cobain’s Fecal Matter demo sounds like early Melvins combining a sound emerging from the hardcore scene with a slower, narcotized vibe on many songs (the version of Downer lasts around a minute longer than the 1988 rendition would.) Kurt Cobain was following the most immediate model available to him which was this local band. It’s 1987 before Kurt Cobain truly begins to try on other sounds with his music from that year sounding far more edgy, far more new wave. Members of Melvins also provided Kurt with his first on stage music experience joining him both as Fecal Matter members and also in a short lived project known as Brown Towel (see Nirvana Live Guide/LiveNirvana for more info.)

The Melvins’ influence continues though. Jack Endino is clear that he only took the Nirvana studio booking because Dale Crover was on drums for the band — Dale’s presence assured Jack that this band must have something to them. Nirvana’s first media coverage specifically hinged on the band’s link to Melvins suggesting that practice might even make them “better than the Melvins!” This is quite a list of firsts owed to Melvins; intro to punk, roadie experience, first proper demo, first press, first live performance, first studio session.

Nirvana would share a split single with Melvins as each band struggled in late 1989-early 1990 to expand their audiences. The Here She Comes Now/Venus in Furs covers single was one of only three split singles Nirvana released, one with The Fluid being Sub Pop’s decision, the other, with The Jesus Lizard, being a fan-boy wish-fulfillment in 1992-93 giving Kurt the opportunity to show love to some of the remnants of Scratch Acid, a major early influence.

That loyalty to Melvins continued right through Nirvana’s career with Kurt Cobain being willing to have his name associated with Melvins’ major label debut Houdini. While the extent of his participation in the recording/production of the album is debatable, my assumption is that Kurt was sharp enough to know that his name on the album was enough to guarantee it extra media coverage and probably a certain quantity of sales thus benefitting his friends directly. This was the same thinking that led Cobain to write the liner-notes to the reissue of The Raincoats’ debut album and to put so much attention into The Vaselines or Shonen Knife. One of the few powers he enjoyed once famous was that it allowed him to support those he adored. He also had the band support Nirvana for a few dates in December 1993 and then throughout most of the band’s last shows in February 1994 onto March 1, 1994. Melvins played to some of the biggest audiences of their career, just at a time when they needed such support to ensure the success of Houdini — it’s safe to say Kurt Cobain knew precisely the commercial power he was putting at their disposal and took some satisfaction from it.

What really makes the difference in my eyes is that, by the end of his life, Kurt had repudiated his links to many formal friends and idols. He wrote dismissive letters (unsent) to Calvin Johnson and Krist Novoselic while publically criticizing Sub Pop, grunge, riot grrl…He never did this to Melvins. The best indication of the importance of Melvins to the Nirvana story is that he always supported them throughout his teenhood and his traumatic last decade.

Fame is unpredictable so an absolute answer is impossible. But we can indicate what the norm is. We all want our heroes to go on forever and as a fanatic the idea of Nirvana ‘falling off’ is hard to imagine. But, in reality, popular taste moves on, fans are fickle, commercial and creative peaks are short; the zeitgeist doesn’t walk, it runs.

Just as an indication I’ve used the stats from EveryHit.com to examine the top ten best selling albums each year from 1960 to 2009 in the U.K. This gives a sample of 500 albums. What I’m looking for is the span of time over which artists had album sales in the top ten; how long does dominance tend to last? 75 artists had more than one unique album featured but 15 of those only managed one hit album then their greatest hits.

Of the 60 remaining artists only 17 had hit albums over a period of more than 10 years. So from our starting number we’re down to a fifth. The spans were as follows:

These are the most popular artists in the U.K., bands and artists with a cushion of support that should have sustained them, to some extent, through any fall off in quality and/or popularity. Yet, even with the support each commanded, only 17 managed to stay at the peak for long than ten years. Remember also that the last album for Elvis, Cliff Richard, The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Elton John, R.E.M., Oasis and The Beach Boys was a greatest hits or singles collection — not a brand new album. Without those collections their creative careers fall as follows:

The result is just ten artists still operating at a peak of popularity over a period longer than ten years and in most cases the career trajectory involved taking a hiatus to allow scarcity to restore interest. That’s essentially the benefit that was reaped by the sizeable gap between The Muddy Banks of the Wishkah and then Nirvana’s greatest hits followed by With the Lights Out; time enough that saturation didn’t set in.

I’m not saying Nirvana wouldn’t have had a career. In fact I dare say it might have been a career that was more comfortable to their troubled front man. What I am saying is that even the biggest artists rarely retain world-beater status for more than a short spell and that level of persistent fame and success tends to be retained (by definition) only by artists firmly in the field of pop. Lots of bands break up, move onto new groups or solo performance — not many end up with a Sonic Youth-esque thirty year career at a comfortable mid-level of support.

Pearl Jam are a fair indication of the fate of the alternative rock demi-Gods. Despite staying together, despite continuing to create music of interest, and despite clearly enjoying themselves, they’re not the multi-million mega-stars anymore. Maybe Nirvana, as the figurehead of an entire spell of music, would have bucked the trend but it’s unlikely.

I’d like to run this same thought experiment using American album sales but I need to find appropriate data first.