Early Life & Rise to Prominence: The early 90’s marked the beginning and end of two eras. Leading up to 1991, rock music was typically associated with frizzy hair, leather pants, and makeup… the defining features of the hair metal genre. Bands like Def Leppard, Warrant and Poison ruled the charts and pop culture. Unfortunately for them, it came to an abrupt end that year with the birth of grunge. Excessive output of ‘glam metal’ metal bands bred the opportunity for a new genre to capture the attention of the general public.
Four years earlier (1987), in Aberdeen, Washington, teens Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic met in high school. This connection wouldn’t blossom until after high school, where the two met in the recording studio. The two would frequent the same studio, often interacting but never working together. In 1988, they began practicing together with material written by Cobain and writing brand new material. They would spend the following year playing gigs throughout the state. Band shakeups were rampant, with as many as 5 drummers shuffling in and out of the position throughout the year. In November of 1988, they would release their first single ‘Love Buzz’, being supported by an independent label Sub Pop.
The song ‘Love Buzz’ was met with little fanfare, but led to the band returning to the studio to record their debut album Bleach. This album would release in May of 1989. At this time, hair metal had already seen signs of its popularity decay. As is often with the music industry, labels began to push an excessive amount of the genre into the eyes of the public in order to turn an easy profit. Bands would be ‘created’ by the record companies, and then have them record pre-written material written by the company themselves. The natural process of creating music was becoming industrialized. While this briefly worked in a sense of profits, it began to weigh on the public as they realized their music was beginning to feel very ‘bubble gum.’
While this went on, Bleach became a hit with college radio stations. Nirvana embarked on its first national tour in support of the album. It received limited attention as it was hardly promoted, only initially selling 40,000 copies. In 1990, differences led to the band leaving label Sup Pop and dropping then-drummer Chad Channing, joining DGC records. At this time, Cobain and Novoselic would be introduced to Dave Grohl, who would become Nirvana’s longest tenured drummer. Immediately the group went to work recording their sophomore album Nevermind. After a long production period, the album was released on September 24th, 1991. The label initially thought that they may sell 250,000 records from Nevermind. With that estimate they couldn’t be more off.
Nevermind debuted at 144 on Billboard’s 200. Lead single Smells Like Teen Spirit exploded on the charts, carrying the album along with it. Nirvana’s subsequent tour was quickly sold out, ushering the band into the spotlight. By Christmas time of that year, Nevermind would go on to sell roughly 400,000 copies a week. The band would displace Michael Jackson’s album Dangerous from the top spot on Billboard’s 200, and their popularity wouldn’t diminish from there. Nevermind alone has sold over 7 million copies domestically, and over 30 million across the globe, far surpassing the initial expectations of the band and record company. Billboard’s quote on the band sums it up best: "Nirvana is that rare band that has everything: critical acclaim, industry respect, pop radio appeal, and a rock-solid college/alternative base".
Best Selling Albums
While often being labeled one of the greatest rock groups of all time, Nirvana only released three full-length albums.
Nevermind: As mentioned above, the popularity of Nevermind was staggering. It would reach #1 in five countries, while being certified platinum 5 times over.
In Utero: The follow up to Nevermind was intended to sound completely different. Despite attracting the appeal of the indie grunge crowd, the band felt the sound of Nevermind was to commercial and compressed. For In Utero they pursued a much more raw sound. When the album was released in 1993, it debuted at number 1, selling 3.5 million copies domestically. It would join Nevermind in being certified platinum 5x.
Most Popular Singles
The Man Who Sold The World: This clip is taken from Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged Performance in 1993. The song itself is a cover of a 1970 David Bowie song off his album of the same name. Very raw and emotional, this introspective track remains one of the groups most memorable, despite being a cover. The band often played the song live and it was one of the more played songs on MTV.
Smells Like Teen Spirit: Easily Nirvana’s most recognizable song, Smells Like Teen Spirit helped the group attain the level of success they did on Nevermind. The success of this single led to the unexpected success of the album and the band itself. In the landscape of the Alternative genre, Smells Like Teen Spirit truly put it on the map and helped it achieve mainstream popularity. The music video depicts a high school concert that seemingly ends in a riot. It reflects the bands punk origins, especially with the intentional poor quality of the video. Its popularity is in rare company, as it even received a Guinness World Record as the most played music video on MTV Europe.
Come As You Are: Come As You Are was the second single off Nevermind after Teen Spirit. The video took its inspiration from the albums cover art, with the naked baby floating in the pool. For this song, Cobain used a special guitar pedal in order to give the riff a ‘watery’ tune, matching both the cover art and the video. The lyrics call into question the system we have in place where people are supposed to act a certain way. Songs like this were one of the main draws for indie-grunge crowd.
Awards and Honors: As far as accolades, Nirvana is consistently ranked as one of the most influential rock groups of all time. They shaped a genre, and helped pave the way for other grunge bands like Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. Nevermind is also ranked among one of the best rock albums of all time among many publications, such as Rolling Stone, which has it ranked at #17 on its ‘500 Greatest Albums of All Time.’
Today, Nirvana has sold 75 million albums across the world, making them one of the most successful bands in history. They have had four albums, two of which being live albums, reach the #1 spot on Billboards charts.
In 2013, the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2014 inductees. Surviving members Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic accepted the award on behalf of the group.
Current Status: In 1994, the band’s lead singer’s life took a turn for the worse. Cobain had developed a heroin addiction, and by the time of their spring European tour, it had reached a breaking point. In early March, Courtney Love, Cobain’s wife, found him passed out in a hotel room from an apparent prescription overdose. He was rushed to the hospital, consequently causing the rest of the tour to be cancelled. In the ensuing weeks, his heroin addiction resurfaced, and Cobain would spend a short stay at a rehab facility.
Cobain spent only a few days before deciding he wanted to leave, taking a flight back home to Seattle.
On April 8th of 1994, Kurt Cobain was found dead in his home from an apparent suicide. The loss marked the end of Nirvana, as well as the end of a genre shaping movement.
Today, Dave Grohl is the only one still musically active, performing as lead singer of the Foo Fighters.
Impact: Nirvana will always be known as a band that shaped the music landscape into what it is today. They ushered out an era of commercialized music that had lost its luster and appeal. They made it mainstream to do the unpopular things. With their music they talked about important issues and played a style of music that wasn’t made to sell, despite its commercial success. Cobain’s legacy remains one of tragedy and admiration. While the musicians career resulted in his tortured soul and eventual demise, his lyrics brought joy to many and an outlet for a generation. Alternative rock would not be what it is today without the groundbreaking act that was Nirvana.