Archive for the ‘Overarching Nirvana Trends 1987-1994’ Category

I don’t do clichéd kneejerk criticism of record labels. Labels deliver the benefits of scale to artists and handle all the elements individuals usually want to shed in order to retain time to create. Labels are a valuable component of the ecosystem of getting music out. Major labels exist in a difficult industry. Computer games, for example, command vastly higher prices and far higher abilities to garner ongoing income as players pay for upgrades/add-on/extras. Increasingly people are feel (wrongly in my view) that music should be near free, then feign outrage when asked to pay more than a token amount, while shelling out far greater sums on clothing brands and tech accessories. Music is a volume business. By that I mean there’s vast competition (anyone can start a label), a high supply of ‘product’ to the market (anyone can make music and distribute it to some extent), high commodification (it’s ultimately no different than buying inexpensive underwear – pick one, pick another, there’s always another ‘brand’ to suit your taste and no reason to be loyal to a particular label) and low predictability of success.

The only way to survive is to keep cost low (minimize advances and upfront expenditure), keep risk low (invest in artists with a sound/style/approach – i.e., product – that’s similar to what has succeeded before), then blast out a range of material in order to see what ‘wins’ – before pumping support in behind the winners while letting the ‘also-rans’ sink naturally. It’s simple logic of survival and it’s precisely what happened with Nirvana ‘Nevermind’ – 50,000 copies of the record pressed initially, tour plans involving mid-sized venues in Australia and the Far East, all designed to gradually build the band’s profile and turn them into another ‘Major-indie band’ selling a couple hundred thousand at most (Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., etc.) The pressure has simply increased.

 

I spent last week from 9am Monday through early afternoon Friday (including two exams and a couple hours of homework a night) being trained on the ‘Managing Successful Programmes’ (MSP) methodology. Ignoring the consultant-speak and corp-language, the underlying point of it is to say that when you’re trying to deliver an objective, there needs to be a carefully critiqued initial plan, with numerous checkpoints permitting observation of the plan from multiple angles in order to allow people to shout out “this isn’t going to work like this! We need to change!” There’s been a massive failure of proper management at Universal in relation to the ‘Montage of Heck’ release.

I’ll go further and say that Universal, on a professional level, should feel pretty ashamed of the work done around ‘Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck – the Home Recordings’. It’s no secret I’ve hugely enjoyed the 31 track full release as envisaged by Brett Morgen. For me, in my view, it’s a good record. But my personal enjoyment is pretty irrelevant; it isn’t the same as commercial success or satisfied audiences. Reports last week claimed negligible sales and one of the lowest ever charting positions for a Nirvana/Cobain release and, I feel, the reasons have very little to do with the music on the release and almost everything to do with choices taken at Universal.

 

Firstly, I’ve said this before, the film this release is accompanying came out in January-April 2015 – that’s where the peak of affectionate, warm, widespread coverage took place. Releasing the associated soundtrack over six months later meant there was no way to sustain that peak – the audience and media alike were weary after an entire year of Cobain/Nirvana coverage related to the film. It meant having to attempt to ‘re-heat’ interest after only a short break. It also relegated the soundtrack to an after-thought, something with no greater status than the DVD/Blu-ray issue of the cinema/TV film – a secondary product. On the PR/Marketing front Universal has successfully executed a strategy designed to ‘strike’ only once they’ve deflated the sense of excitement, positivity and expectancy around ‘Montage of Heck.’ Timing matters and this was foolish.

Why have they done so? Well, in my opinion, it’s about the ‘Christmas market.’ The decision was taken to wedge what – until now – has been a solid, reliable source of high revenue into the final quarter of the year (same as Nirvana’s ‘Incesticide’ release in 1992.) The commercial choice to schedule the release independently from the best moment in terms of PR/Marketing has undermined their goal. This suggests a senior-level decision imposed on the teams responsible for executing the release itself. With no one empowered to question the intelligence of that choice, all the teams could do is react to a fait accompli. What has the result been? They’ve apparently decided to throw everything and the kitchen sink at the release while failing to recognize or value the crucial point of a music release – content.

One approach visible is an appeal to specific music-buying demographics without taking the time to gain real comprehension of those audiences. The key exhibit is the release of the cassette edition cottoning on to the ‘indie-cool’ trend of the month. Yet they failed to understand the cassette trend is mainly about getting a short-run souvenir of one-off live events and happenings, having 1 of 200 copies all handmade and hand-designed by a lo-fi one-person operation – it’s about uniqueness, rarity and personal touches. The ‘Montage of Heck’ cassette, by contrast, is a zombie resurrection of mass-produced, generic pre-recorded cassettes and thus has nothing to do with what people are buying cassettes for. The decision to release a cassette – aping a low-selling minority trend – would be a bizarre decision on commercial grounds, which suggests that it was a move driven purely by a desire for publicity. It’s a bad move by the PR/Marketing team based on low intelligence regarding the market or the trend they’ve copied. It also failed to garner any significant notice from media sources because ultimately no one cares about a novelty feature.

 

The cassette reinforces a sense in which the music is being deliberately treated as an irrelevance to this release. The cassette is a ‘trinket’, a toy. The focus has been on format. For some reason, someone took the lesson that it was the magnet on the front cover of the ‘In Utero’ box-set or the prettiness of the ‘Nevermind’ box-set that made people buy it. Dead wrong. Music products are purchased for the contents which, in the case of the ‘Nevermind’ and ‘In Utero’ box-sets were the CDs of  ‘Live at the Paramount’ and ‘Live and Loud’ respectively, each accompanied by substantial, high gloss and well-done supporting books in each case. There was a further deeply odd attempt to wrap ephemera around the release. If you ordered the CD direct from Universal then you could get a ‘limited edition’ art print of one of the record covers – which translated as something I could do on the top-of-the-range printer at work.

The format issue rears its ugly head again when confronted with the ‘standard’ and ‘super-deluxe’ editions of the ‘Montage of Heck’ release. The ‘Standard’ release is an utterly arbitrary slicing n’ dicing of the 31 track edition – it’s neither fish nor fowl. It mostly removes the audio experiments, but it also hacks off ‘What More Can I Say’, ‘Bright Smile’, ‘Burn the Rain’, ‘Rehash’, ‘Do Re Mi’, ‘She Only Lies’ turning a one CD set into…Errr…A one CD set? It spoils the montage effect of the ‘Deluxe’ for no apparent reason except to make it shorter with a lunkheaded “well if it’s half as long then we’ll charge this – if they want the other half then…” mentality.

The ‘Super-Deluxe’ meanwhile is entirely redundant. Again, a note has been made of the ‘record collector’ demographic without understanding that the audience in question will purchase something because of rarity value (a quality the ‘Montage of Heck Super Deluxe’ doesn’t possess), because of the presence of content that’s otherwise hard to get, historical value and at a specific sensible commercial price point. I’ve bought one record this year costing over £100 and I did so because it’s one of only 100 copies in the world, it’s a Thurston Moore record and I collect his stuff avidly and it also supported the equipment fund for the Café Oto venue so I didn’t mind seeing it as a donation. The ‘Super-Deluxe’ bells and whistles are not what a record collector looks at to justify a purchase and it would have to mean more than “a puzzle with collectable storage container, movie posters, postcard and bookmark”. These extras appear to have been chosen to keep costs down while allowing for mass production hence just as the cassette made this look like a novelty, the ‘Super-Deluxe’ extras make the release look cheapskate, miserly and penny-pinching.

 

Ultimately, all music released in exchange for cash is a commercial product – there’s a compromise all the way down the line. In this instance there’s been a major miscalculation of price point for the U.S. market. To make a comparison, the Bob Dylan ‘The Cutting Edge’ archive release recently came out in three versions which, on Amazon U.S., are currently: 2 CD for $16.59 ($8 per disc), 6 CD for $106.39 ($17 per disc), then there’s the 18 disc limited edition at BobDylan.com for $599.00 ($33.00 per disc.) The step-up in quantity of music understandably leads to a step-up in the price point – likewise, the associated bits and pieces step-up with the 18 disc version containing a 170 page book unavailable anywhere else (as opposed to the 6 disc version’s 120 page book), 9 mono 45 RPM 7” singles, a strip of film cells from a print of the ‘Don’t Look Back’ film. There’s a logical increase and the quantity of music rockets each time; 36 songs, 110 songs, 379 songs. For the ‘Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck’ soundtrack U.S. audiences are being expected to pay $11.29 for 13 songs (not unreasonable) but $117.99 for 31 (deranged.) By contrast, in the U.K., the 31 track CD is £10.29 ($15.51) on Amazon. The price points are utterly illogical and are, understandably, deeply upsetting to U.S. fans. The removal of the ‘deluxe’ option from the U.S. market has destroyed the incentive for purchase, forces fans to order on import from abroad – or more likely has turned them off so much that they’re not willing to bother acquiring it legally because the price point makes the release look like a scam.

The issue with the ‘Standard’ is that it chops the music in half for no discernable reason – cherry-picking 379 Dylan songs down to a core of 36 makes rational sense; releasing ‘Nevermind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols’ in a two disc edition with a live show then a three disc with a load of studio demos has a logic; releasing a five disc version of Soundgarden ‘Superunknown’ with demos, rehearsals, 5.1 sound version, then a curtailed two disc set makes sense. In the case of ‘Montage of Heck’ where’s the justification in turning 74 minutes of music into 40 minutes of music? Great albums are underwritten by a logic of flow, message, storyline – it’s as if people read musical statements in the way they would fiction. The same goes for compilation, a simple, easy to comprehend division of music is necessary – something people understand when making a quality judgment on a purchase.

The ‘Super Deluxe’ suffers the same fault – the step up in musical quantity from 14 to 31 tracks doesn’t justify a price point that jumps ten-fold. Likewise, in an era where many DVDs are already packaged with the Blu-ray (and vice versa), the presence of both the U.S. DVD and Blu-ray release doesn’t advance the case for the ‘Super-Deluxe’. Nor does the presence of a threadbare set of extras to the DVD. Nor does the presence of a book that’s already been released and purchased by anyone with sufficient fan urges to want it. The ‘Super Deluxe’ is a mess. Cassette, but no vinyl – why? DVD and Blu-ray when anyone buying the latter already feels the former is redundant while anyone wanting the former feels the latter is unnecessary meaning everyone who buys the release is getting something they don’t want. A book that had already been seen six months earlier. There’s nothing here justifying the egregious price-tag given the DVD/Blu-ray is just $14.70 and the book is $23 – the idea that the cassette, ‘Deluxe’ CD and extras make up $80.29 of value is ludicrous and can be seen as such by anyone with a calculator and third grade math skills.

 

Having made errors of timing, audience, format and pricing Universal have compounded them all by deciding to miscommunicate and mis-sell the product. It’s been notable that, in recent interviews, Brett Morgen makes clear that the ‘album’ he’s referring to is only the 31 track release – that’s what he created. Other decisions were taken by the record label to cash in on what could have been a solid-seller. Morgen spoke to near every newspaper, culture supplement, music magazine and online source six to twelve months ago regarding the film meaning that hauling him back out to act as spokesman for the release – which he then makes clear has been festooned with baubles and chopped in half completely independently of his involvement – is odd, who was left he hadn’t already spoken to? The sense of weary repetition, in a fast-changing music news landscape was a poor choice by Universal’s PR team. It would have been better to go with press releases and new statements from the label (in the same way that the inlay of the ‘Deluxe’ release has been written by someone within Universal).

There was a quite bizarre failure to comprehend that music fans now operate on an international level when it comes to the consumption of news even if they mostly still buy music at a national level. Fans across the world were confused by the emerging messages; “no ‘Deluxe’ edition in the U.S.,” “no ‘Super-Deluxe’ outside of the U.S.” The same week the release was coming out I was contacted by a fan from Europe who still thought the only way to get the full 31 track release was on the ‘Super-Deluxe’ and that he’d have to import it from America. I did exactly the same and initially ordered the ‘Super-Deluxe’ from Canada before cancelling it once I realized that the 31 track was available in the U.K. but not in the U.S. I made clear back in January that I was definitely going to buy the cinema tickets, the DVD, the book, the soundtrack – that I’m the kind of obsessive who would buy anything they put out – but even I spent two weeks deflated and a bit despondent because I didn’t know if I was going to be able to get the 31 track without going to massive expense to buy a box of junk from another continent that I didn’t want. I buy from abroad regularly, but only for things that are hard-to-find or difficult-to-get. To know that the only reason I would/would not receive a part of the release was because of a management decision at Universal felt like a slap in the face.

So my heart goes out to fans in the U.S. who really have been shafted by Universal. The decision to simply eliminate the ‘Deluxe’ in that market leaves U.S. fans with just the ‘Standard’ (half pack) or the egregiously expensive and unnecessary ‘Super-Deluxe’. It’s an actual insult to music fans forcing them to either order from abroad or to just give up and refuse to be taken advantage of by a record label with such a fundamental lack of respect or courtesy for them. I can understand why the release has been so poorly received when people have had the option of simply and easily purchasing the core music at a fair price. To ask them for over $100 for just 17 more tracks (35 minutes of sound) while trying to force them to buy a second copy of a book they already have and two formats of a film (so one of which they won’t want), plus some card/paper ephemera…Wow, now that’s gross. European fans, meanwhile, are unable to get the DVD extras thanks to another arbitrary choice within the management chain.

I’ve got two degrees from Cambridge University and I still found Universal’s communication strategy confusing and the market segmentation offensive. It managed to turn someone who genuinely liked the film and was feeling pretty positive about the whole ‘Montage of Heck’ campaign into someone unsure whether to bother at all. The effect on fans less friendly toward the film and soundtrack has been to stoke irritation and outright anger, again, serving to undermine the good will and good spirit that stokes sales and makes people want to part with their cash.

 

Finally, I mentioned mis-selling? I went into four or five music stores in the last fortnight and not one of them is stocking ‘Montage of Heck’ in the Soundtracks section. It has been pitched as one of the most major releases of the year when it’s explicitly (and very effectively) an audio accompaniment to the film. Instead of allowing it to be measured against other soundtrack releases, it’s being measured against major living artists’ key statements to the detriment of the originality and generosity of the soundtrack. Most soundtracks are a hodge-podge of previously released music maybe with some ragbag demos or live material tossed in (re: the ‘Amy’ soundtrack accompanying the Amy Winehouse documentary this year.) The ‘Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck – the Home Recordings’ soundtrack is a fully conceptualized collage combining multiple forms of Cobain’s creativity into a single cohesive statement. It’s generous in terms of length; presence of truly unseen, unheard and unreleased material; freshness of its take on the subject’s work. It’s head-and-shoulders over most soundtracks. But saddled with undue expectations, the kind of release formats reserved for all-time classics, the treatment and release schedule intended for a modern artist’s magnum opus – it has garnered unfair criticisms of sound-quality and pop-quality. A low-key treatment emphasizing that it was a soundtrack – or timing so that it was seen more clearly in the context of the film – would have been of huge benefit to the release. Instead the over-pitching and over-selling has helped kill it stone dead. Nice one Universal.

 

So, smart-arse that I am, it’s easy to poke holes in something – what would I suggest would have fixed it? OK, well, the ‘Montage of Heck’ campaign running from late in 2014 through the release of the book in spring 2015 had an underlying coherence – the soundtrack should always have been a part of this. The TV and cinema showings worked because they offered legitimately different ways of experiencing the material. The book was fine (though not outstanding) and, again, made perfect sense. The Soundtrack should have been released in April 2015 thus making it an integral part of this multifaceted project. This would have had the advantage of piggybacking on the massive amount of media coverage, almost all extremely positive, garnered by Brett Morgen’s extensive interview load. The release should have consisted of one thing only; the ‘Deluxe’ 31 track disc exactly as it is – nothing more, nothing less. A single worldwide format, a single worldwide release date with the simple low-key visual image Morgen was right to emphasize; the sensation of a quiet day in the tiny town of Olympia, in a cheap apartment, with an ambitious and artistic guy who loved making music and having fun with the possibilities of sound. If there was a determination to create some kinda ‘uber-package’ at a higher price point then it would have needed (a) an exclusive book, perhaps a large-scale art volume purely showcasing Cobain’s artwork to allow it to standout versus the mash of interview/film art/Cobain art present in the existing book (b) additional music content. A version with an exclusive book would have allowed for a small rise in price to cover CD and book. To jack it any further there would need to be something unique only to the deluxe – not a clue what. A DVD with no interviews consisting solely of self-filmed material by Cobain? A compilation of pre-released Cobain home demos all compiled into a single disc? A compilation of Cobain’s non-Nirvana forays with other artists and labels (e.g., his work with The Go Team, the Burroughs hook-up, the material with Earth, his minor contributions to the Melvins, the Lanegan version of ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’ from 1989…)…? Ultimately the 31 track disc works and it’s good as it is – I’d have left it there.

 

Addendum: Spoke to a friend in the U.S. who, on the day of the release, drove round Best Buy, Target, Wal Mart, an independent record store and Barnes and Nobles only to find that none of them were stocking the Super-Deluxe so, even though he was willing to pay the $130 dollars, he couldn’t get it anyway. Eventually someone told him he could only get it online. Another disappointed customer left with a sour taste in his mouth thanks to truly poor communication and bad distribution from Universal. It’s just so sad. I love the ‘deluxe’, well worth what I paid, delighted to hear it…But all of this poor management? Groan.

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My friend in Spain Carlos presented me with links to this genuinely well constructed webdocumentary on Nirvana today – damn, what a great gift for a Friday!

I’m sure a lot of you have seen it, it seems to have kicked off around a year ago, but its a neat collage of Nirvana related footage, interviews and other elements carrying the tale from early days to final finish.

Not sure I need to add much more really apart from mentioning that I had my haircut at the weekend, there’s a hint of a mullet about it, that touch of length at the back…And I must guiltily admit to really liking it…

As an aside, the Scottish band Urusei Yatsura…Everytime I listen to them I shake my head and wonder how they never got big…And then I hear the noisiness, the dissonance and remember why it is that I like them and therefore why they’d never break through to the mass consciousness.

Then I listen to the Everyone Loves Urusei Yatsura album and realise that without that dissonance they become…Ugh…A bit like listening to Cast. Yeuch.

So I return to the Hello Tiger single, or the We Are Urusei Yatsura album or the amazing Yon Kyoku Iri EP and remind myself that pop and noise together is a brilliant thing and that this band is a brilliant thing.

And I smile, sing along, enjoy the broken guitar breakdowns…

…And all is well with the world. Have a good weekend! Scottish rock kicks ass!

Picture1

Not my favourite graphic by a long-shot but I couldn’t think of how else to present this lil’ braindump…Basically I’m always curious about overall trends, ways of showing rather than telling the development of a phenomenon. In the case of Nirvana, one way to judge this is via the archive of tickets and gig posters at http://www.NirvanaGuide.com (always my number one source of stats – honestly, what would I be doing with my time without those guys? I might have a life!)

In order to gain a picture of the growth in Nirvana’s status I wanted to compare their position in the running orders for shows. Firstly, I decided the most accurate pattern could be found by looking solely at shows in State of Washington/State of Oregon, how did Nirvana’s status develop in their home region? Secondly, I had to choose what to prioritise, for example, I decided that magazine/newspaper listings took priority over gig posters because the posters would be a less official source, similarly ticket stubs seemed the ultimate arbiter of status so I made them number one – naturally this is an arguable approach but at least clear, explicit and easy to examine.

I commenced the study only from the show when Nirvana finally settled on that band name – and to my surprise there were two shows as early as 1988 where Nirvana received top billing…But then I realised, both shows were out in smaller towns – Ellensburg and Hoquiam – with comrades such as the newly formed Attica, Slim Moon’s Lush, and truly obscure outfits such as Psychlodds, Millions of Dead Leninz and King Krab. Nirvana were bottom of the bill at every Seattle show that year, even the 2 of 3 ranking for October 28 is me being generous given Blood Circus were clearly the bigger name backing the Butthole Surfers, the poster just happens to show Nirvana/Blood Circus on the same line in the same size font so I thought I’d go easy on Nirvana. Nirvana, in 1988, were a nothing in Seattle and placed bottom of the bill beneath numerous hard to recall bands.

Progress can be seen in 1989. Nirvana’s first top billings in Olympia and Seattle come within a week of one another in April. Placed alongside younger bands – S.G.M., Treehouse, Helltrout, Love Battery – Nirvana had seniority. More significantly, though still taking place at a gig out in Auburn rather than in the big music hubs, in May Nirvana receive top billing over grunge forefathers Skin Yard. Had a sea-change taken place? Not quite yet, the band’s three other top billings, all in late 1989, are against less venerated competition – Dickless, out-of-towners Knife Dance, relative unknowns Gasoline and Mad Hatter. The only oddity is the listing for August 26 which consists of the unsafe source of the back of a t-shirt with Nirvana ranking ahead of Mudhoney – an unlikely scenario especially given that on June 9 Nirvana had been a solid third behind both Mudhoney AND Tad on the official bill.

As an aside, examining the material from the U.K. and Europe tour of 1989 emphasises that last point; Nirvana only occasionally ranked alongside or above Tad and ranked decisively below Mudhoney, then again, at least Nirvana were finally contesting that top billing with their comrades Tad in the U.K. and Dutch markets. It was progress but what we’re still seeing is a band that didn’t have pole position even in the eyes of Sub Pop.

The January 6, 1990 and January 12, 1990 shows continued the state of equivocation – Nirvana appear above Tad and Melvins respectively and though Nirvana would fall back into line beneath local legends the Melvins – Melvins were billed over Nirvana as late as September 1990 despite having jostled for position at the Legends show in January where Melvins appeared first on the poster but Nirvana came first on the ticket – Tad would never again surmount Nirvana.

There were others, however. In February in Portland Screaming Trees, soon to sign to a major label, had top billing. With Mudhoney on hiatus, with Soundgarden never to share another bill with Nirvana, it’s still surprising to see there were still local bands who took priority over Nirvana contrary to twenty years of retrospective hagiography.

There is a change taking place, however. The August 1990 shows saw Nirvana second billing to the legendary (and deserved top-of-the-bill) Sonic Youth, at that point a major label band as well as sainted figures in the underground. There still comes the surprise that as late as June 1991 another band could stand above Nirvana on their State of Washington home-turf, but it becomes less of a surprise when that band is Dinosaur Jr – at that point in time a new recruit to the majors and seen as one of the most likely bands to cross-over to wide success. Nirvana were finally competing with bands from out-of-state.

Where to go from here? Well, again, it’s worth making an aside. One would think that Nirvana, with the release of Nevermind, strode immediately and confidently to the head of the class above all-comers but the realisation of what had occured wouldn’t come until into the start of 1992. Nirvana ended 1991 second on the bill to proven pan-national and international record selling force the Red Hot Chilli Peppers.

The flyers and tickets stubs do, therefore, show a development – from being just another State of Washington band until into 1989, to being a second-rung Sub Pop outfit for most of that year though now beating bands from other labels and from outside Seattle, to becoming the leaders of the State of Washington class by end of 1990 with only the cream of U.S. underground/major label bound bands stood in front of them. Their ultimate status was to contest position against the pop world’s major rock superstars – they’d never go home again as anything other than the top billed band of an evening.

I love Christmas – always a good reminder that I’ve been lucky enough to have a family consisting entirely of top-notch people I enjoy spending time with. Now! How did you kick-off January?

People underestimate the value of a finishing line and a starting line. Even though it’s artificial there has to be a point where something finishes so that as much as possible can be packed away – that word ‘closure’ applies to average everyday life as much as it does to crises and drama. The move from one year to the next allows at least the pretence of a fresh piece of paper on which to plot the course of the next year – it’s why gym attendance peaks in January, slowly declines to a mild bump just as summer starts, then declines all the way to the end of the year. It’s why the job market kicks into gear as organisations try to fill their vacancies and job-hunters get their motivation to keep trying.

What’s fun about the Nirvana stat posts (look in the left-hand column on the screen, scroll down to the Categories – they’re another way to find/see the 310 posts buried on this blog) is the line between revealing what isn’t perhaps so obvious with the naked eye versus potentially inventing something via numbers and seeing something that isn’t there. Great fun! On top of that, often what I’m seeking to reveal isn’t some earth-shattering new idea, it’s simply a confirmation that Kurt, Krist and Dave (et al.) were normal people and as prone as anyone else to routine, habit, the unconscious-making of patterns in life. That’s different from the proposal that there were deeply considered and plotted diagramatic masterplans – intentional behaviour does not necessarily mean conscious choices.

Nirvana, I feel save saying, were as sensitive as anyone to the desire to kick-start each year – the difference between them and the majority of us is that their focus was music so the way to set the year off at a flying pace was to commence with a musical endeavour. Can I prove it?

Well…Yeah. Over the years in which the band was in existence, here’s the pattern of which months they recorded in and how many times over that period:

Recording in January

1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1993 and 1994 all commenced with a January recording session – 1992 being the only calendar year exception. There’s a similar reinforcement of this point in terms of how many songs Nirvana recorded if examined month-by-month:

Songs By Month

I even allocated all songs recorded during the Bleach sessions in December 1988/January 1989 to December and still Nirvana recorded nearly twice as many songs in January as in any other month. Just because I enjoy muddying the waters of my own thoughts though – here’s the pattern of number of days spent in studio as best as is known:

Days in Studio Month By Month

On the one hand, it shows how a single odd result can skew data when working with small quantities – the Nevermind sessions of May 1991 were the lengthiest Nirvana ever indulged in, an outlier, and they make things look different…However, look again at the overall tendency toward winter working – December, January, February. Also, it points out that though Nirvana did persistently and consistently head in to record in January, they never embarked on a major recording session in that month – May comes first on this chart because of the Nevermind session, February comes second because of the In Utero session. January was their month to get warmed up, to set things in motion, not necessarily to finalise end-product.

Examining the songs recorded during each month’s recording sessions that point becomes fairly clear. From the January 1988 recording session only two of the tracks recorded made it onto Bleach and only because they couldn’t be improved on. Prior to Incesticide only a couple of other tracks were tossed out as compilation filler. January 1990’s Sappy was famously abandoned, of the seven songs from January 1991 only Aneurysm and Even in his Youth were officially released but only on a single, January 1993 only yielded Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol as the European bonus track for In Utero and January 1994 didn’t emerge until that glorious posthumous day not much shy of a decade later.

So! There we go…Start your 2014 the Nirvana way – start something in January. Go forth and make it so…

Blew is a special song. Sub Pop, apparently, insisted Nirvana arrange Bleach in order of quality – best song first and, in my opinion, within the context of Bleach identity Nirvana the heaviness of Blew was the right choice. That the band didn’t particularly resent the choice can perhaps be implied by the fact that Blew is the third most played Nirvana live song (224 definite occasions beaten only by School on 270 and About a Girl on 251) and was the joint most long-lived Nirvana song on stage (played in 47 months – equal first with School) based on the current data at the Nirvana Guide.

Most

Blew Plays

Blew, far more than Endless Nameless, was the song chosen to smash the show finale, to send the audience home on a high. Can I prove it? Well…Yeah, actually. I’ve a spreadsheet I’ve built showing the complete set-lists taken from the Nirvana Guide…I know…Obsessive or what? Blew is introduced to the set-list, apparently, on 19th March 1988. From that point, of 238 completely known set-lists between that date and 1st March 1994, Blew features 210 times. It formed the set-closer a whopping 88 times – quite impressive dominance given 33 other songs were the closer at some point or other. The nearest rival is Territorial Pissings on 49.

Blew as Set Closer 1987-1994

There’s a visible progression over time of course, 1994 – with Blew now a seven year old song – sees the first prolonged spell of absence for Blew; it was only played five times that year, only three of those times during the fifteen dates in Europe. On the one hand, while Blew remained an incredible persistent presence right through until that final year (as shown in the table below)…

Set-Opener 1987-1994

…It also gradually stopped being the likely set-closer, other songs took over and became the preferred option. What is noticeable though is that Blew never ceases to be a potential closer – it’s a set closer in every single year even if only once in 1992. It does, however, tail off as the most common set-closer from 1991 onward. It’s also visible why Endless Nameless received its reputation as Nirvana’s most common closer – it was most common as a set-list choice between August-November 1991 when Nirvana’s balloon was going up.

In a culture that venerates success, there’s a tendency to underrate the destruction it wreaks upon the victor. Similarly, the fact that a victory does not halt time at the pristine pinnacle of success — that life goes on — leads to disillusionment and disparagement when ongoing reality refuses to stay still. 1989-1991 was an era of victory and all the consequent worries, woes and uncertainties that comes with it — a powerful sense of “what next?”

The Sex Pistols had certainly dug a hole in the U.K.’s consensus — exposing and parodying its vile edge in which there’s nothing more than what you can grab from those who will buy — but only in the context of a wider economic malaise and the ongoing decline of Britain from an imperial peak which now made the U.S. the self-confident and true home of rock. While the U.S. embraced some fragments of punk squalor it was primarily theatrical and integrated well into the existing superhero template — Motley Crue, Ted Nugent, Guns n’ Roses; these were the nearest the mainstream came to punk until Nirvana.

The U.K. and Europe similarly possessed genuine socialist parties which acted as strong forces with an influence on the direction of national politics. In the U.S. this simply didn’t exist; open espousal of socialism let alone communism was a severely suppressed thread in politics. While in the U.K. and Europe feminism, gay rights, vegetarianism, anti-war protests and so forth were part of both the mainstream political mix and popular mass causes — in the U.S. these were viewed as left-wing, politically suspect and only of interest to non-mainstream activists and extremists.

The impact of this exclusion was to add these causes to the realm of deviance and non-mainstream interests in which U.S. punk fermented; all were minority activities focused around tiny self-defined communities of ‘outcasts’ and increasingly, as the Eighties went on, the punk scene fused with a strong political edge whether openly critical of the current political mainstream, or of law enforcement, or in favour of pro-gay rights, or of feminist politics. It was the same rooting around in the underground that led some to latch onto extreme racist nationalism, the other side of the coin to punk’s quest for rebel yells outside the vision presented by militaristic, flag-waving, ‘us uber alles’ supermen who infested the mainstream.

Nirvana’s rise didn’t take place in a vacuum; it coincided with the entire political order of the West shifting. Nirvana’s first European tour coincided with the collapse of the Warsaw Pact with the Berlin Wall commencing its fall on November 9, 1989 and Nirvana arriving in the city two days later as people continued tearing at the symbol of the entire post-war reality. Finally, following the attempted coup in August 1991, the Soviet Union itself ceased to exist on December 26, 1991 — just as Nirvana was exploding into mass consciousness.

The colossal weight of what was occurring was amplified and enhanced by the reality that this was the first global shift of the mass media era. The absence of the unifying enemy who had tethered U.S. culture for decades was a grave concern among governing circles after the collapse of the Soviet Union and with it the end of the last substantial external threat to capitalism. Francis Fukuyama’s book The End of History and The Last Man expanded was built on a 1989 article and essentially suggested that progress and time had now halted — that’s how deeply the narrative of Cold War had infected perceptions of reality and how hard it was to envisage a life without it. Fukuyama’s book has been long-criticised but its key point that the last fully functioning alternative to capitalism (in whatever gradation) had ceased and a single economic system now ruled almost the entire dialogue of world civilisation.

The shock of Nirvana’s emergence was so powerful within the U.S. not because of the music itself — debates over its originality and universal popularity are missing the point. Nirvana were the crest of a wave that had travelled far and was now breaking in so many directions. On the one hand, the extreme solipsism and air of defensiveness, indifference, negativity that many saw in Nirvana was an articulation of a new insecurity, a new vulnerability that arose because no one now knew who or where the enemy was. Simultaneously, the music acknowledged and empowered feelings that hadn’t been permitted under the old regime governed by the indestructible ‘rock star’; the need for the strong had gone away and Nirvana helped make it look ridiculous. Instead the marginalised could emerge blinking into daylight and with them all the causes that had been bred into the underground’s rising stars during the previous decade.

The switch in the music culture had been prefaced by an expanding roster of alternative bands on major labels prior to Nirvana’s emergence, there had been bands originating in the indie scene who had made the jump to major label record deals — but success was varied. Among the mainstream survivors, Metallica incorporated a touch more brooding into their major crossover success, Guns n’ Roses acknowledged the turn away from chest-thumping rock only in Axl Rose’s more solitary and sombre meditations, Nine Inch Nails were still to push the dial all the way to The Downward Spiral — while the move toward Cobain’s insularity had been foreshadowed by all this activity, there still wasn’t a superstar until his arrival who looked so firmly inward.

A similar explosion at that time was the twisted tale of the Black Metal scene in Scandinavia and particularly in Norway. Between 1991 and 1995, with a very young coterie of individuals egging each other on to ever more extreme and grim acts, the early scene erupted with over twenty churches burned, suicide, murder, general mayhem. In the book ‘Black Metal: Beyond the Darkness” there’s a quotation from one figure in the scene stating “it is interesting that Black Metal exploded in Norway immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union and the final demise of the idea that fighting against the bourgeoisie and capitalist conservatives, including Christianity, could be defeated by revolutionary socialism…It’s all part of an escape from reality.”

The Norwegian scene couldn’t follow the U.S. simply because Norway was never as fully integrated into the confrontational West versus East face-off. Socialism was a well-represented presence and a successful component of the governing mix within Norwegian politics bringing with it the kinds of policies that the U.S. alternative scene was then busy trying to articulate. The Black Metal scene was forced into a different reaction of similar extremity to the Nirvana effect. A core of individuals substituted a new overarching narrative and competition, one pitching Nordic (white) paganism against other races which were deemed to be diluting strong blood and simultaneously against Christianity on the basis that it had feminised national cultures, another reason why the scene was also homophobic, a further effeminate weakening influence.

Of course it was nonsense, but no more nonsensical than Ted Nugent, AC/DC or the trappings of cock rock that had achieved two decades of dominance in the U.S. It took the world to change for the rock star to die whether in Nirvana’s rain of sardonic laughter (“hi Axl! Hi Axl!”) or Norway’s reign of blood and fire.

From the self-mocking double entendre in the title, its very clear that the finest of Nirvana’s video/DVD releases had the hands of Kurt Cobain all over it.

It’s never been clear precisely how much work was still required in the hands of Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic but they certainly acted as fair stewards of their erstwhile comrade’s vision. So many of the elements of the video tie back to previous desires of his work. Cobain’s Journals contain brown sample pages from a ring-bound journal; there are several pages of description for each In Utero song including a future tense in the description of Radio Friendly Unit Shifter, “boy, this will really get the A&R man’s blood boiling” that seems to date these pages to somewhere between Pachyderm and In Utero’s release, mid 1993 efforts – there’s no proof this is accurate, however there’s no footage used from after January 1993 and barely any time in 1994 for this to have been a major focus. A page onward and there’s a letter to Kevin Kerslake describing a treatment of “the long form” listing footage he wants using. The mention of Kerslake also appears to mesh with his early role in preparing treatments for Heart Shaped Box in mid-1993 prior to leaving that project and subsequently suing the band.

Certainly the treatment described in the Journals differs from the final result; why would be a matter of speculation but it certainly avoids some royalty problems by not dipping back beyond the Grohl years (i.e., not using the Rhino Records in-store footage with Jason Everman and Chad Channing) and not featuring other musicians and their songs (the desire to have Molly’s Lips performed with Eugene Kelly of The Vaselines from Reading).

Certain ideas are already clearly in place, however. Firstly, the use of jumbled non-song footage is in place with his notes describing having Dave talking about bands, Kurt asking the director to “start my rant just as I say Black Flag, Flipper…” Likewise a demand for visual distractions is added at the foot of the page consisting of “the scene where I hand the guitar to the audience” and continuing by asking for the scene where he harassed the cameramen in Rio by spitting on cameras and waving his penis in front of the lens. He asks for the word ‘Bronchitis’ to be flashing on screen throughout Aneurysm but instead has to settle on the final rendering for a substantial quantity of foreign subtitling throughout the video that ultimately serves no function bar defacement.

The interest in slicing one performance into another is also in place and not a new Cobain technique. The Montage of Heck was built around such cuts between related and unrelated material and looking back at the Nirvana In Bloom video the visual drama is created by the break-away from the clean-cut image into the dress-wearing, stage-wrecking conclusion. Cobain links explicitly to the latter by asking for it to be included in this video and replaying the precise same cut by asking for the juxtaposition of the Top of the Pops (“equivalent of US’s American Bandstand”) performance with the In Bloom video which parodied American Bandstand. It went further in the precision of his vision; he asked for the Top of the Pops performance, the parodic ‘straight’ miming the band did that evening with Cobain virtually swallowing the mic, to replace the ‘straight’ half of the In Bloom video with only the back-half, the dresses and destruction piece, to feature. The curtailed and restricted real-life performance would replace the curtailed and restricted homage component.

The cutting between statements and musical realities seen on Montage of Heck is best exemplified by Come as You Are. In the Journals Cobain already notes “Rock Star Lesson: when your guitar is out of tune, sing out of tune along with it” – in the video his last statement in interview before they cut into the song reiterates “play whatever you want, as sloppy as you want, so long as its good and has passion.” The subsequent song rendition is snarled, roared, ruined…Beautifully so. One of Nirvana’s known ‘soft’ songs is turned into a feedback n’ scream fest.

The song cuts are apparently already planned if the “keep Amsterdam audio when first change happens” statement in Journals clearly refers to the movement between the intro of Reading ’92, then the performance in Amsterdam – with the statement ‘first change’ implying he’s already clear that there’ll be a further cut which fits the move to the Rio performance.

The undermining of Nirvana’s media image is a given throughout the video; the constant presence of the subtitles emphasises that all the interviews used are media productions and trustworthy/untrustworthy on that basis, they’re product, not necessarily honest conversation. Having emphasised the artificiality of the interview portions, Cobain and the band insist on using the most overt confrontation between camera and band with the spitting and flashing from Rio. The ‘blinding’ of the all-seeing cameras, the chasing of cameramen who are normally chasing him, the deliberate unveiling of that which the cameras will not show even though the media considers every other element of his life fair game…It’s a series of serious games each of which has a point. The band even wraps its other most flagrant media confrontation – the opening of Reading ’92 when the rumours about the band and Cobain’s health were at their worst and Nirvana responded with one of their longest and most impressive shows. The visual joke of Cobain shrouded in a wheelchair is the most obvious but alongside that he chose to sing a sliver of The Rose from the Bette Middler film of the same name which is about the self-destruction of a media star under the pressures of fame.

The video, therefore, continues Cobain’s fixation on the media, his long-held liking for wedging different elements together and the desire to evade and damage the rock star macho image by ensuring the footage of Nirvana in lingerie appears within five minutes of the start and reoccurs later. I have great difficulty believing that the insertion of the version of Love Buzz from Dallas, Texas that ends in a fight with a bouncer isn’t another case of Cobain pulling surprises and adding another uncomfortable moment to a brilliant video collage.