MATTERS OF OBSESSION

Behind the music: Nirvana’s sophomore album, ‘Nevermind’

By Lusanda Luthuli 13 January 2021
Caption
The cover image of the band Nirvana’s sophomore album, Nevermind

Looking at and listening again to Nirvana’s second studio album, 'Nevermind', it’s easy to see why it so heavily influenced mainstream rock.

‘I didn’t know how to deal with it. If there was a Rock Star 101 course, I would have liked to take it. It might have helped me,’ says Kurt Cobain in his 1994 interview with David Fricke published in Rolling Stone

Nirvana is widely regarded as one of the most influential rock bands in the ’90s and the late lead singer, Kurt Cobain is still at the forefront of the band’s legacy and an icon of popular culture. 

Known for their obscure lyrics mixed with punk, pop and grunge sounds,  Nirvana’s sophomore album, which was released in 1991, still holds weight in rock music circles today. 

Formation of the band 

The forming of the best grunge band of all time didn’t come easy, especially since they couldn’t find the right drummer. The best-known ensemble of the band is made up of singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain, with Krist Novoselic on bass guitar, and current Foo Fighters lead singer, Dave Grohl on drums. Grohl joined the band in 1990 after Nirvana had recorded their debut album Bleach. 

Cobain and Novoselic met in high school in Aberdeen, Washington. 

Cobain served as the band’s lead songwriter and carried the songwriting duties for a large part of their discography. Novoselic and Grohl weren’t completely left out of the process, and ‘Aneurysm’ was co-written by the trio while Grohl wrote the B-side of the ‘Heart shaped-box’ single that featured on the Deluxe version of Nirvana’s Utero album, released in 1993. 

Before Grohl’s involvement with Nirvana, the band had a few drummers come and go. Chad Channing could be regarded as Grohl’s predecessor; he performed on Nirvana’s debut album. But Cobain and Novoselic weren’t convinced by Channing’s drumming abilities and Channing ended up leaving the band due to creative differences. 

Before Channing’s arrival, Nirvana worked with Bob McFadden for just a month; Aaron Burckhard worked with them until 1987; and in the late ’80s, Dale Crover from grunge band the Melvins, jammed with Nirvana and appeared in their first demos as a band. Alternative rock band Helltrout’s drummer, Dave Foster also worked with the band briefly but also ended up leaving due to… cultural differences. 

Smells Like Teen Spirit 

At a time when grunge or punk rock music was seen as ‘alternative’ and not prominent in Billboard charts and other popular music spaces, Nirvana’s Nevermind completely broke that mould. 

The opening track of the record, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, was one of the last recorded songs for the album, but was without a doubt the most popular of the 12 songs in the project.

‘Here we go now, entertain us,’ Cobain belts out in the robust chorus. This lyric is inspired by Cobain’s own saying when about to party – something that soon was echoed by teenagers around the country, as a rallying chant. 

The song is as energy-sapping as it sounds, with riff-heavy frenzy and Kurt Corbain leading the way with his mastery of the electric guitar and a raunchy voice that’s become synonymous to the general sound of punk. Infused in pop, punk and grunge – sounds that are prevalent throughout the Nevermind album, the beautiful but strange song draws you into a sort of internal euphoria from the first second. 

It’s one of those songs that might not make sense from the outset and is easy to get wrong lyrically, but that’s all about how it makes you feel: at once overwhelming and exciting. A mix of hard rock wrapped in Cobain’s vocals and polished like a pop song by producer, Butch Vig. 

Not only did the song make it to the top 10 of the Billboard charts two months after its release, but it also reached number one in countries like New Zealand where it peaked at number two on their charts for 47 weeks according to the New Zealand Herald and received two Grammy nominations in 1992, in the Best Hard Rock Performance and Best Rock Song categories – losing to the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Eric Clapton respectively.

The music video was shot in California in August 1991, the year of the album release; it featured a crowd that was present at one of Nirvana’s shows two days prior. 

From the cheerleaders hired from a local strip club to the fans destroying the set and moshing violently, the video represents the band’s influence on young rock fans in the ’90s. 

The sheer joy, energy and carefree nature of the song also manifests in the four-and-a-half-minute video shot at Culver Studios in West Hollywood. 

It also draws inspiration from alternative rock band from Boston, the Pixies: ‘I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it. When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily I should have been in that band — or at least in a Pixies cover band,’ says Cobain in the Rolling Stone interview with Fricke. 

In return, the youthful angst of the song inspired other famous punk bands like Cage the Elephant and Green Day, both groups capitalising on the popularity of the grunge movement of the late ’90s that was kick-started by Nirvana’s own success with ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and the album as a whole.

Ironically, and although the song was Nirvana’s most popular one at the time, the band didn’t enjoy performing it – supposedly an anti-establishment anthem, it was heavily embraced by pop fans and the rest of the music industry, of which Cobain had a deep mistrust. 

‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ is a song that still resonates with teenagers, years later, with jazz bands the Robert Glasper Experiment and The Bad Plus doing their own unique variations of the song, and Patti Smith recording her own version for her cover album Twelve. 

The album cover 

One of the most talked-about aspects of Nevermind is the album cover. 

The sleeve depicts a naked baby swimming with a dollar bill dangling on a fishing hook ahead of him. In unorthodox fashion, the cover also shows the baby’s penis. 

It was the band’s first album under a major label, DGC Records, now Geffen A&M Records. Although the label tried to influence the band and have them change their minds with regard to the cover – especially the baby’s genitals – Nirvana’s stance was adamant and they were dead set on their vision for the album cover. Finally, they had to compromise, and a sticker was placed on the baby’s penis with a quote saying, ‘If you’re offended by this, you must be a closet paedophile.’ 

The baby photographed on the cover is Spencer Elden, who was at the time shot by underwater photographer Kirk Weddle. Elden’s father, Rick, got a call from Weddle who he knew through his work on sets, making props for photoshoots. 

‘[He] calls us up and was like, “Hey Rick, wanna make 200 bucks and throw your kid in the drink?”,’ Rick recounts. 

‘I was like, “What’s up?” And he’s like, “Well, I’m shooting kids all this week, why don’t you meet me at the Rose Bowl, throw your kid in the drink?” And we just had a big party at the pool, and no one had any idea what was going on!’ told Elden in a 2008 interview with Chana Joffe-Walt, for NPR. The year of the interview, Elden was only 17. 

Eight years later, he told the Times that, ‘Looking back, it feels kind of stupid doing interviews about it, because I had nothing to do with it, but a lot to do with it all at the same time.’ 

Cobain spearheaded the creative process behind the cover, as he was inspired by water births. He worked with Geffen Records’ art director, Robert Fisher, who recruited Kirk Weddle to take pictures at swim schools for babies. As mentioned above, Weddle ended up recruiting Rick Elden’s baby.  

The album cover – striking as much as it is disturbing – tells a deeper story, intertwined with Nirvana’s anti-establishment and romantic rage, of how societal pressure can push us to spend our entire life chasing money… From the moment we exit the womb, up until the day that we end up in a casket. DM/ ML

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