Nirvana's Nevermind turns 30

30 Years Since Punk Broke - Part III

The first ten seconds of Nirvana’s Nevermind changed popular music forever. This is a fact as old as the record itself and one that still bears repeating thirty years later. The cataclysmic change that would unfold after the album’s release is still being felt today and it’s hard to describe just how much Nevermind changed the game since so much has already been written about the monolith of an album. Of course there is the narrative of how it changed music sonically, swiftly killing hair metal with one giant riff and an epic drum fill, how it would set the course for the disaffected youth to find a voice of their generation, how it would continue to spur capitalism while trying its hardest to rebel against it, and a whole lot more, but there is also the music itself and the celebration of three guys coming together to record a once in a lifetime album that would change not only their world, but the one at large as well. It also happened to be released the same day as other notable albums such as the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Pixies’ Trompe le Monde, and A Tribe Called Quest’s Low End Theory (the last one might be an outlier, but it’s another defining album of the ‘90s). Thirty years ago, College Rock was rebranded as Alternative and nothing was the same for guitar music ever again.

Even as someone who idolizes the drums, I’m hard pressed to find a record that has such distinct rhythms as Nevermind. Distinct to the point where you could remove every other instrument and vocal from the tracks and Dave Grohl’s drumming would still be strong enough to identify the songs. There aren’t many (or maybe any) other albums where the drums are just as impactful as the guitar and vocals. However, hitting the skins with what sounds like Thor’s hammer, Grohl gets right into the mix and plays with such versatility that I often find myself humming just the drum fills and it’s easily one of the most “air-drummable” records of all time. That doesn’t sound like any kind of surprise when describing something created by Dave Grohl and once again, it almost feels beyond hyperbole to try and measure Dave’s impact on pop music over the last thirty years, but all of that influence starts here and this is still arguably his greatest work. Even when watching videos of the band, he’s shrunk behind those massive toms that it’s no wonder he sounds so godly behind the kit.

The first five tracks of the album are some of the band’s all-time best and felt more immediate than those released by their peers. Despite their punk ethos, these tracks became radio-friendly nearly overnight and while I’ll argue they peaked with In Utero rather than this album, reading the tracklist, it’s impossible to find a weak point on the album. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” might’ve been the most important song of the decade, but there are others that shine above it in terms of songwriting and undeniable hooks. “Come As You Are” as a slogan of acceptance, “Territorial Pissing” hits like a speedball following the more mellow, acoustic-driven “Polly,” “In Bloom” and “Lithium” provide two more singles to jump on the success of “Teen Spirit” and show that even when trying to steer true to punk, Cobain really was reaching deep for pop accessibility. 

Thirty years on and Nevermind has been analyzed almost beyond compare and it might be the last epic rock record that changed the world to such an extreme degree. Even now, as rock music fades from the mainstream (a cycle we’ve been through before), it’s impossible to ignore the impact of this album. In honor of the thirtieth anniversary, the surviving members have planned yet another reissue which somehow still features unheard material (something I find fascinating after so much time has passed considering the short-lived career of the band). On Spotify alone, there are already four different versions of the album to choose from and the most expansive (the Super Deluxe Edition) clocks in at over four hours and seventy tracks.

Rehashing the story of Nirvana at this point doesn’t feel necessary and there are many out there who are actual scholars on the subject who would have much more original opinions than myself, however for any fan of music, few events feel like such landmarks in not only music, but human history as well, and Nirvana’s Nevermind actually does feel like one of those moments. This week alone, we got another reissue announcement (this one somehow includes an 8 LP box set), an in depth look at the music theory behind  “In Bloom”, and another personal story about time spent with Kurt. They’d played the circuits around Seattle for a while by the time of the album’s release and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” had already been out for a few weeks leading up to the album hitting stores. It also came less than a month after Pearl Jam dropped their debut, Ten, and by the fall of 1991, Seattle had become music’s newest hot spot. However, Pearl Jam and Nirvana, while leading the charge, weren’t alone in their efforts.

Along with the extreme success that propelled Nevermind was the ascension of grunge to the outside world. Led primarily by Nirvana and Pearl Jam, the sound would become the unofficial soundtrack to Seattle and the Pacific Northwest for the decade that followed and Soundgarden would also be grouped along with their peers and other frontrunners who major record labels would soon pursue in the hopes of capturing more magic and even bigger profits. However, while mainstream media would package these bands together, listening to them proves that they really were on different musical trajectories that corporate record labels and media giants would ignore in the interest of cash.

Grunge was applied to these big three bands (along with other mainstays Alice in Chains), however their sounds were actually rather different and listening to Nevermind in comparison to the other group’s albums, it feels more clear than ever. Nirvana channeled the punk ideologies of bands like the Stooges by way of newer acts like Sonic Youth, Pixies, and Dinosaur Jr while Pearl Jam and Soundgarden revived the hard rock sounds of the ‘70s and bands like Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and their friends in the scene. Both bands did cite the Beatles as an influence, but where Kurt pulled more from the group’s early days and more of their standard pop number, Cornell was drawn in by their studio wizardry and their more complex songwriting like the tracks on Abbey Road. Where Nirvana went for the faster paced singles, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains went in for volume and maximum force.  

Nevermind still feels and sounds like a punk record and countless interviews with the band will showcase that was their agenda. Their goal wasn’t to invent a new sound and become the faces of a generation, but rather to emulate their heroes through guitar riffs that channeled the energy of the bands they admired. They wanted to make punk records and Nevermind is one of the best. In the three decades since, it’s been a seminal introductory record for any young person interested in guitar music and it set the template for every rock record that would follow. It made Kurt Cobain the rock star of the ‘90s and cast him in an immortal state that would stand the test of time. There are far too many ways to acknowledge the time that has past from fact the album has now existed longer than Kurt was even alive to the point that Nevermind was closer in time to the Beatles break-up than we are to it’s actual release date today. However, more important than anything else that will be analyzed to death, what matters most is that the achievements reached by Nirvana on their instant-classic album is that almost everyone has a feeling about it in some way or another and not many albums since have had that kind of impact.

For the members of Nirvana, life would never be the same after Nevermind. Looking back on it all now, it’s hard to believe that three such influential and history-making records would all be released within weeks of each other (and that the albums I mentioned at the top were also in the mix here) and catapult these bands into the upper echelons not just for the moment, but for all of history. Punk broke into the mainstream, albeit under a different name, and nothing was the same ever again.