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Nirvana's 'Nevermind' turns 30

Silke Wünsch
September 24, 2021

Nirvana made music history in 1991 with "Nevermind" and its members became mainstream rockers overnight. However, that wasn't how Kurt Cobain wanted it.

Baby in water looking at a dollar bill
Instantly recognizable album coverImage: Geffen Records

It was a deodorant —"Teen Spirit" — that lent its name to the first song on the album, Nevermind. When this album was first released by a small underground band called Nirvana from Aberdeen in the US state of Washington, it made them world-famous virtually overnight, and the deodorant's sales skyrocketed. 

Nevermind was not only the soundtrack, but the lifeblood of an entire generation — namely Generation X. These were the teenagers and young adults who couldn't do much with themselves and their lives because there were hardly any prospects for them.

With the end of the Cold War and nuclear fears, protest and punk no longer had any power. In the colorful techno world of the '90s, young people danced their way out of reality with happy pills. And then Nevermind hit like a meteorite in September 1991.

A small underground band

Almost four years earlier, singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain and bassist Krist Novoselic formed a small underground band. They squatted in a rehearsal room, held concerts, performed under different names, and tried out several drummers. They recorded their first album Bleach with money donated by a friend. 

By then they called themselves Nirvana, toured and sometimes played in front of 10 people, and slept on a bus surrounded by their instruments. Slowly, the trio gained some notoriety and even played small club concerts in Europe. They inspired people with their heady mix of punk, metal, and indie rock — called "grunge" for short.

Nirvana | Dave Grohl | Kris Novoselic | Kurt Cobain
Image: Photoshot/picture alliance

'Loud droning and roaring'

Eventually, they got in touch with producer Butch Vig and the record company Geffen. A contract was signed with a fat advance payment, and the band went into the studio. Vig transformed the "loud droning and roaring," as he described the first demo tapes, into a series of dynamic rock songs that live, above all, from tension build-up, explosion, and recovery. Melody merged with brute musical force.

The band had already demonstrated a radical dynamic when performing their songs live. In the studio, Vig fully exploited this, allowing drummer Dave Grohl (who joined in 1990) and bassist Krist Novoselic free reign on their instruments, while Kurt Cobain on guitar screamed out his choruses. And all this was interspersed with almost eerie intervals, melodies, and Cobain's unmistakable style of dragging the notes.

Vig worked with many effects, and among other things, doubled Cobain's voice. He sang his takes twice and both tracks were then superimposed. And while this didn't initially appeal to Cobain, Vig successfully convinced the Beatles fan with the argument that John Lennon always did this too.

'Teen Spirit' tops charts

Three men with long hair smile for the camera
You couldn't be grungy without grimacesImage: Photoshot/picture alliance

And that was how the album, that swept youth off their feet in 1991, was created. A band wearing torn jeans and lumberjack shirts singing in frustration about heartbreak, family violence, unemployment, poverty, drugs, injustice and stupidity. It was no longer about world politics or wars: this was simply about life. And it was about revolution.

Naturally, the band wanted to earn money with their music, but no one expected what would transpire after Nevermind's release. Cobain, who had declared war on the rock establishment and its superstars, the bloated million-dollar business and the mainstream, suddenly found himself exactly where he never wanted to be.

The rebels had become a mass-market rock band, appearing on television and in the gossip columns. The music video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit" ran every hour on MTV. Single after single followed, all topping charts and landing in the radio stations' hot rotations.

A video for their fourth single "In Bloom," parodied the musical performances of bands like The Beatles that appeared on early 1960s variety shows, with the screams of frenzied teenage fans often drowning out the music.

In fact, that was a reason why The Beatles eventually stopped performing live back then. Cobain had conceived this idea after growing tired of the band being taken too seriously and wanted to show they had a humorous side.

Premature end

Man with long blonde hair
Dead at 27 - Kurt Cobain of NirvanaImage: Getty Images

The success overwhelmed the band and especially Kurt Cobain. The more he tried to withdraw from the entertainment circus, the more it got on his nerves. The antidote was to be a new album that was hard-hitting and unsuitable for the charts. Thus, Nirvana recorded their third album In Utero with underground producer Steve Albini against the wishes of their record company. The company interfered anyway, on the grounds that anything else would be "commercial suicide."

In Utero landed at No. 1 in the US and England but sold only half as many copies as Nevermind. A year later, Kurt Cobain killed himself and Nirvana became history. Krist Novoselic disappeared into oblivion, while Dave Grohl founded Foo Fighters and is now what Cobain never wanted to be: a rock superstar.

Controversial album cover

Nevermind is now 30 years old — an oldie, so to speak, but still present and timeless. It has reportedly sold over 30 million copies worldwide. Rolling Stone counts it among the best albums of all time. The iconic album cover with a naked baby in a pool swimming after a dollar bill rates as one of the most recognizable covers, alongside The Beatles' Abbey Road or Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here.

That baby on the cover, now a grown man, most recently alleged that his picture with his exposed genitalia constituted child pornography. He is suing the band for "lifelong damages" that include "extreme and permanent emotional distress with physical manifestations, interference with his normal development and educational progress, lifelong loss of income earning capacity," and "loss of enjoyment of life."