Here we are now, entertain us

25 September 2011

It’s Tuesday, September 24, 1991, select records stores in the Pacific Northwest are opening boxes from the DGC Records. A new release is hitting the stores from a band known to locals and few others. The band’s first album, Bleach sold about 40,000 copies, enough to draw interest from a major. The original pressing for the new release is 100,000 copies with more than ½ going to the U.K. The following week Nevermind enters the Billboard 200 album charts at number 144.

It’s Tuesday, September 24, 1991, in the Pacific Northwest, Kurt Cobain, lead singer and guitarist for the Seattle band Nirvana, packs his shit in garbage bags and tosses it into the back of his beater of a car. He is being evicted for not paying his bills.

It’s Tuesday, September 24, 1991, I am inside Rose Records on Broadway in Chicago. I purchase two new cassettes: Blood Sugar Sex Magik by Red Hot Chili Peppers and Blow Up by The Smithereens. I was on the cusp of the cutting edge baby.

It’s January 11, 1992, Nevermind unseats Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album as the number one album in the country. During those three and a half months, the music industry went through a change that was last seen in 1964 with the Beatles.

Unlike The Beatles seismic shift, sometimes called “The Big Bang” Nirvana’s rise was slow but like The Beatles, the change would have ramifications that would affect everything from music to clothes to elections.

About A Band

Bleach the first album released in 1989 had a 1970’s sound that seemed to be stuck in the mud. There were a few decent songs including a cover of the Shocking Blue song “Love Buzz” and bass-laden but lyrically tender and sweet “About a Girl.” Released on the indie Sub Pop label; distribution was limited. At the time, Sub Pop was the Sun Records of its day. Bands like Sonic Youth, Naked Raygun, L7, Soundgarden and Mudhoney all called Sub Pop home. After the “success” of Bleach and growing dissatisfaction with Sub Pop, Nirvana went looking for a new label. On the advice of Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, they signed with DGC.

In early the summer 1990, the band met producer Butch Vig. He was already a veteran of Smashing Pumpkin’s own indie release Gish. He was slick maybe too slick for Cobain’s liking. The record company had a few other suggestions like R.E.M.’s current producer Scott Litt, R.E.M.’s original producer Don Dixon and Neil Young’s knob-turner David Briggs. Cobain agreed on Vig. Loaded with $64,000 budget, recording began in April 1991.

The original intent for Nevermind was to record a heavy/punk album with a few pop songs sprinkled in. Cobain was always trying to grow his base. He may have played disaffected rocker but he wanted stardom. Cobain was entranced with style of The Pixies style of which featured the loud-quite-loud approach to music. To pay for gas money to the session in LA, the band took a gig in April 17, 1991 at the OK Hotel in Seattle, Washington. At that show the performed their newest song, something called “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

The song was released on September 10, 1991. Like Nirvana’s previous efforts, it was ignored. Well not entirely. College radio picked it up and ran with it. Soon the few modern rock stations in the country, including Seattle’s 107.9 The End, LA’s KROQ and Chicago’s WXRT got a hold of it. By mid-October, MTV’s late-night alternative rock program 120 Minutes premiered the video. The anarchy of that video kick started sales, which forced radio to take a listen. Soon the song crossed over to rock and hard rock stations across the country.

Kids everywhere wanted the album but DGC ran out quickly. DGC ordered more but the demand soon outpaced the supply. By November the album was certified Gold, 500,000 copies sold. The first chart after the Christmas holiday Nevermind hit number one, supplanting Michael Jackson. At the time, Nirvana was touring Europe and had no idea how big they had become. Kurt Cobain would never again have to worry about a place to live.

How it became number one is a great story of power to the people. Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, had released Dangerous. Parents and grandparents, being out of touch as to what their young-uns are listening to bought Michael’s latest thinking they were going to show how hip they were. On Christmas morning, kids all over the country opened up their gifts and said, “Great. Thanks. I can’t wait to play it. By the way, did you save the receipt?” The next week all those kids went to their local record store and traded in the obvious mistake for what they really wanted. Nevermind may be the first album in history to reach number one based on returns.

As MTV played all the videos, they got the chance to exploit a new audience. In fact, the network became thee place for politicians to get their message out. Then candidate Bill Clinton participated in the networks “Choose or Lose” campaign encouraging 20 million young people to vote. They did and Clinton won. Nevermind gaveMTV entre into those young people.

When one looked at Nirvana, a rock band was the last thing you saw. Cobain was thin with a shock of blonde hair and piercing blue eyes. He always looked unkempt. The bass player, Krist Novoselic was 6’7” with long stingy black hair. He also sported a look of the guy who just finished changing your brake pads than a guy who was laying down the heavy bottom. Drummer Dave Grohl with his fresh face and long hair that flailed as he attacked the drums could have been the guy who just finished his shift washing dishes at a diner.

Then there were the clothes. They proudly wore ripped jeans and old t-shirts underneath a faded flannel shirt. An image consultant was not involved in the wardrobe choice. They looked like the clothes they wore was all the owned. Seizing the opportunity, Sears begin modeling this look; it was called “Grunge.” Soon scene-stealing hipsters were paying $50-75 for a faux faded flannel shirt. What chumps.

The success of Nevermind meaning the financial dividends the album paid also brought a rapid response from the radio and music industry. Stations with a dying audience and format soon switched to the new brand called “Alternative.” In Chicago, A/C leaning top 40 station Q101 was one of the first to flip in mid-1992. It recently abandoned the format after almost 19 years. In Atlanta, top 40 flame thrower Power 99 become 99X in September of 1992. They dominated the ratings for a good decade before it all went downhill.

Major record companies, almost overnight, were dispatching their top Artists and Repertoire (A&R) people to Seattle to find the next big thing. Local bands up there who were on indie labels soon found unctuous record company types begging them to sign with the big boys.

Change was afoot and nothing was going to stop it.

How could a band whose previous release sell 40,000 now have a number one album? How could three guys you wouldn’t let park your car become the biggest band in the world?

How can a band that no one had ever heard of be this popular?

How did this happen with no marketing?

Easy, the kids spoke! The sound was infectious. The angst and rebellion that so many of the Generation X’ers were feeling was summed up in one album. The 12 million copies it sold represented the same amount of people born 1964-1984 who were raised by single parents. People who were forced to accept the leftovers of The Reagan Revolution. People who were picked on in school, weaklings, nerds, geeks and those who didn’t fit in had finally found their representative.

When you look at rock and roll at the time is was pathetic. The Rolling Stones were still a relevant band; they were in their late 40’s in 1991. Top 40 had more forgettable songs then memorable ones. Even the year-end WXRT Listener Poll of 1990 featured more geezer rock (Paul Simon, The Vaughan Brothers, and Neil Young) than new rock (Midnight Oil and World Party).

The release and success of Nevermind put the Baby Boomers in the non-relevant section, for the first time since The Beatles in 1964, a place they deserved to be for a long time.

The other casualty was hair bands. Bands known for having more hair product and guitar solos than musical ability found themselves without gigs. Bands like Cinderella, Dokken, Warrant, Slayer, Skid Row and White Snake who could fill 20,000 seat sheds in 1991 had trouble getting a 500-seat club date six months later.

Nevermind was record of the year according to major music magazines like: Spin, Rolling Stone and The Village Voice.

Come As You Are

As mentioned, the opening track was the anti-anthem. Kids understood the angst that Cobain was feeling. They also understood that the media was there to entertain and frankly, they weren’t doing a good job of it. Sonically, the song followed the Pixies loud-quite-loud pattern. Then there was the guitar solo, which was actually the chorus. I am hard pressed to come up with songs that follow that formula. Lastly, there was the great guitar riff that opens the song. It may not be the best of all time but name a better one in the following since the song debuted.

The third song, “Come as You Are” was all the invitation that Generation X needed. With the opening lines:

“Come as you are, as you were,
As I want you to be
As a friend, as a friend, as an old enemy
Take your time, hurry up
The choice is yours, don’t be late
Take a rest as a friend as an old memoria”

Cobain was saying the same thing DeeDee Ramone wrote in “Pineheads,” “Gabba gabba we accept you, we accept you, one of us.”

Nirvana didn’t care who you were, they wanted you to listen and get their music. The suicide of Cobain in 1994 made the final lines of the song “And I swear that I don’t have a gun

No I don’t have a gun,” take on much different meaning.

The song that drew the most controversy was “Polly,” a soft, mostly acoustic song that was actually a holdover from sessions in Madison WI. The subject matter was hard to digest – rape, kidnapping and torture. It was told from the point of view of the abductor. Rather than taking up his rage and anger, Cobain manages to get into the antagonist’s mind as Polly finally escapes.

“Polly says her back hurts

And she’s just as bored as me

She caught me off my guard

It amazes me, the will of instinct”

My favorite video and one that illustrates to comparisons to The Beatles is “In Bloom.” Rather than echoing the hysteria of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, the hysteria is taken from old black and white footage from the 1960’s. The band comes out looking like “thoroughly all right and decent fellas.” They run through the song and then these nice young men change into the punks that they really are, wearing dresses and trashing the instruments, Still the kids in b&w love it. In 1993, “In Bloom: took home the MTV Alternative Video of the Year.

Some albums are timeless, meaning that they sound fresh today as the day you heard them. Nevermind is not. When I hear the album, as I did repeatedly whilst composing this entry, it brought me back to a certain time. I was transported back to 1991. I remembered all the sounds coming out of my radio at the time. I thought about the people I knew at the time and how I have lost touch with most of them.

In 2011, Nevermind is a relic of the past. Nirvana, despite changing everything, you never hear them on the radio, maybe one or two songs on the few remaining Alternative radio stations. Grohl now fronts the inferior Foo Fighters; they have sold more records than Nirvana but haven’t had 1/100th of the impact. Novoselic left music for the most part. He is a political activist in Washington, fighting the good fight for the environment and voting rights issues. The spirit of 1991 is long gone in so many ways. A&R guys don’t look for new bands; it’s done on TV with “American Idol,” “The X-Factor” and “The Voice.” Image is everything now. A band like Nirvana couldn’t make it the way they did in 1991. For a brief time, substance mattered and the suits could not figure out how to corrupt it.

 

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