- Mon, 2011-08-01 10:26
When Nirvana released their debut album Bleach in 1989 on a small-time American independent label (Sub Pop) very few people took any notice of its caustic, angst-ridden howl of Black Sabbath and Black Flag-isms twisted around irresistible yet spiky melodies. Two years later, in September 1991, the band released their follow-up, Nevermind, and they were transformed from underground favourites to the biggest rock stars on the planet. The angst in their music was still palpable, the attitude unchanged, but this time Kurt and co. let the melody and pop control the metal and punk rather than the other way around.
In every interview we've had over the last two years we've been practically warning everyone that we're writing more pop songs, so I don't think it'll be a surprise to anyone when they hear [Nevermind]. All my favourite songs are pop songs. Pop just means simple, and that's what punk rock has been forever until it turned into hardcore. Kurt Cobain, August 1991 interview with NME.
Two decades and over 30 million sales since its first release we take a look at five bands whose approach to songwriting helped to shape Nirvana's own, making Nevermind the iconic album that it is.
The Wipers…they're the most innovative punk rock band that started the Seattle sound [grunge] like 15 years too early. We learnt everything from the Wipers. They were playing a mixture of punk and hard rock at a time when nobody cared. Kurt Cobain, speaking to Sleep Magazine, October 25th 1990
Formed in Portland, Oregan, in 1977, Wipers' simple, scruffy rock was a ragged but melodious take on the punk movement that was busy exploding on both sides of the Atlantic. Their debut album, Is This Real?, has been name-checked as a major influence by just about every Seattle band that had a hand in creating grunge, and it's easy to see their fervent, hook-laden sound reflected in Nirvana's own.
Nirvana covers of Wipers:
D-7, on Nirvana's Hormoaning EP (1992) and Wipers' Is This Real? (1979).
Return Of The Rat, on the compilation album Eight Songs For Greg Sage And The Wipers (1992) and Wipers' Is This Real? (1979).
We saw Shonen Knife and they were so cool. I turned into a nine-year old girl at a Beatles concert. I was crying and jumping up and down and tearing my hair out - it was amazing. I've never been so thrilled in my whole life. They play pop music - pop, pop, pop music. Kurt Cobain speaking to Melody Maker, September 14th 1991.
Kurt Cobain fell in love with all-girl Japanese trio Shonen Knife when he heard their Burning Farm cassette EP in 1983, pushed his way by Calvin Johnson, frontman of another of Cobain's favourite bands Beat Happening, and head of K Records, whose logo Cobain later tattooed on his own arm. A mixture of chirpy '60s girl group pop and choppy punk rock, they later became a favourite of many of Nirvana's peers as well, particularly Sonic Youth and Red Kross.
I think the Beatles are responsible for most of the melody. For the first seven years of my life, I listened to nothing but the Beatles. Kurt Cobain, speaking to BAM, January 10th 1992.
Let's face it, you'd be hard pushed to find a single musician from the seventies onwards who doesn't at least acknowledge the importance of The Beatles, and most will go the whole hog and cite them as a significant influence. As in many cases, their influence isn't always conspicuous in Nirvana's music, but take a moment to reflect upon the fundamentally simple but instantly memorable melodies that abound on Nevermind and it doesn't take a huge leap of faith to hear the impact of the pre-Sgt. Peppers Fab Four.
When I hear a really good Pixies song I get overly happy. I get really happy; I almost cry sometimes. Kurt Cobain on French radio, November 22, 1992.
Pixies recorded five albums between 1987 and 1991 (the last of which, Trompe Le Monde, was released the day before Nevermind), and though none of them were a huge commercial success the band are remembered as one of the most influential alt-rock bands ever. Credited with pioneering the 'quiet verse, loud chorus' dynamic, their influence on Nirvana is clear to see. Indeed, in 1994 Cobain even admitted to Rolling Stone magazine that Smells Like Teen Spirit was his attempt at writing a Pixies song. It went pretty well for him.
Kurt and I were totally into the Vaselines, I mean, they were my favourite band, they still are one of my favourite bands. Krist Novoselic speaking on Radio Triple J Australia, April 6th 1995.
Breaking up after just one album, Glaswegian band The Vaselines would almost certainly have slipped completely under the radar had Nirvana not championed them so noisily and frequently. Brash and lo-fi they specialised in flippant bursts of chaotic melody played with a nonchalant scruffiness, a marriage of punk attitude and pop sentiment much the same as that which permeated Nirvana's music. They finally reformed in 2010 and released their second album, Sex With An X.
Nirvana covers of The Vaselines
Molly's Lips, on Nirvana's split 7" single with The Fluid (1991) and Incesticide (1992), and The Vaselines' Dying For It EP (1988).
Son Of A Gun, on Nirvana's Incesticide (1992) and The Vaselines' Son Of A Gun EP (1987).
Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam, on Nirvana's MTV Unplugged In New York (1994) and The Vaselines' Dying For It EP (1988).