27 Years Ago: Nirvana Changed Music Forever With 'Nevermind'

September 24, 2018

Hopefully this doesn't make you '90s kids feel old, but as of today (September 24th), Nirvana's groundbreaking album Nevermind will have turned 27 years old.

Of course in 1989, Bleach laid down the groundwork for Nirvana's future. Though it didn't put them on the map right away. Inspired by the polarizing loud-quiet stylings of The Pixies, and unafraid to utilize his favorite pop influences, Kurt Cobain was eager and ready to start working on new music. In 1990, Nirvana's label Sub Pop released the single "Sliver," which served as the spark that would eventually lead to the powder keg that was Nirvana's worldwide takeover. The band would later seek out the efforts of producer Butch Vig, who would play a pivotal role in Nirvana's (and later in the Foo Fighters') future. They first met up with Vig in Madison, WS at his Smart Studios where they first began work on songs like "Breed," "Stay Away," "Lithium," and "Polly."

However, tensions began to grow as Cobain strained his voice while singing on "Lithium" and arguing over former drummer Chad Channing's drumming style, which lead to Channing's departure from the band. Recording was put on hold until Cobain and bassist Krist Novoselic recruited the talents of Scream drummer and future Foo Fighters founder, Dave Grohl. After leaving Sub Pop and joining their new label DGC Records, Nirvana received a budget of $65,000, which they took to record their next album at the famous Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, CA. Ironically, the guys in Nirvana did not spend much time recording in the studio.

Normally they would do two or three attempts at the instrumentals, and if they weren't satisfied with the result, they would just move on to the next song. As far as Nevermind's lyrics were concerned, many of them were produced while down to the wire. Grohl said Cobain described their process as putting the music first and the lyrics second. Much to their favor, the instrumental melodies were easier to listen to and understand than Cobain's lyrics. Vig described Cobain's singing style that despite being unable to fully understand what words he was singing, audiences could understand that he was intense and passionate about it. According to Charles R. Cross, the author of Cobain's biography Heavier Than Heaven that much of the lyrical content stemmed from his breakup with then girlfriend Tobi Vail. Songs like "Drain You," "Lounge Act" and "Lithium" all make reference to their relationship in some manner.

Weeks leading up to Nevermind's release on September 24th, 1991, the album was preceded by it's single "Smells Like Teen Spirit," which became an instant hit. A year after its debut, nearly all of the hair metal bands of the '80s that dominated the airwaves were replaced in favor of the grunge bands like Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains.

The young and angsty youth of the '90s quickly identified with "Smells Like Teen Spirit," calling it an anthem of some sorts. However, Cobain maintained the stance that the song isn't really about anything and didn't see what the big deal was.. As lame as Cobain thought it was, something about it resonated with listeners, addicting them to listen to the song over and over. As far as the origin of the song's title, it goes back to when Bikini Kill vocalist Kathleen Hanna spray painted "Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit" on his wall. Unbeknownst to him, it was in reference to the deodorant his girlfriend was using.

The next step was to film a "Smells Like Teen Spirit" music video for visual consumption. Directed by Samuel Bayer, the video was on such high rotation on MTV that it helped amplify Nevermind's album sales. First arriving at No. 144 on the Billboard 200 Album Chart, Nevermind climbed through the ranks and was in the top 40 by January 1st, 1992. Shocked by their sudden rise to fame, Cobain found the whole experience overwhelming.

Following the success of "Smells Like Teen Spriit," Nirvana released "Come As You Are" as their second single in March 1992, raising it to No. 3 on the Mainstream Rock and Alternative charts. The next Nevermind single to hit the charts was "Lithium" in July 1992. Cobain said that the song tells the story of a man turning to religion in order to escape suicide. Though he admitted that the narrative is fictional. The fourth single "In Bloom" was written in mind for those outside of the rock community that don't understand their message when they hop on their bandwagon. 

In the proceeding two years, Nirvana's fanbase grew from just those within their small community to worldwide. Though Nirvana never did grow to be boring, its time on Earth was cut short when Cobain took his own life on April 8th, 1994. Either way, Nirvana's influence was made permanent by 1999 when Nevermind reached Diamond status after selling 10 million records, and being inducted into the Rock N' Roll Hall of Fame in 2014.