15 Ways to Nirvana: Records that Shaped the Band
Kurt Cobain was born on February 20, 1967, meaning that if he still had been with us, he would have turned 50 years old today. To help honor a music and cultural icon, we revisit our September 2016 feature – written on the occasion of Nevermind’s 25th anniversary – celebrating Nirvana’s incredible, indelible influence.
* * *
Released on September 24, 1991, Nirvana’s Nevermind is not only grunge rock’s defining record – perennially ranking as one of the greatest albums of all time – it is the record that broke alternative rock into the mainstream, irrevocably changing youth culture, pop culture, and culture at large.
The tragic story of Nirvana’s rise and fall, and grunge’s parallel emergence from underground cult to worldwide phenomenon, has been duly told and retold over the years. This article instead looks closely at the musical building blocks that set the groundwork for Nirvana, illuminated by 15 selected albums, in an attempt to grasp the essence of their globe-conquering sound and get a little closer to explaining their unlikely success.
As Kurt Cobain himself said, ”I think we sound like The Knack and the Bay City Rollers being molested by Black Flag and Black Sabbath,” an assessment not without accuracy or charm.
Nirvana leaned against the obvious persuasions of hardcore and hard rock, but this was interspersed with a broad and more commercially-friendly side that appealed far beyond the inner clique. Sub Pop’s Jonathan Poneman put it this way: “Part of what was so captivating about Nirvana’s music was not so much its stunning originality, but its remarkable fusion of so many different strands of influence.”
Kurt Cobain was very open to the music he liked and took inspiration from, and shared passing lists of Nirvana’s favorite bands, albums, and songs. Such was the case in this famous paper in which Kurt scribbled down Nirvana’s Top 50 favorite albums – a list that has led many fans to increase the volume of the album collection.
Narrowing it down to 15 was hard, and we feel remiss not to at least mention worthy additions like Mudhoney, Tad, the Wipers, Big Black, Dinosaur Jr., Scratch Acid… These are not necessarily Nirvana’s favorite bands, but rather 15 bands and albums that are co-responsible for laying the musical foundation for their emergence, and by extension the development of ’90s alternative rock and all that has followed it since.
* * *
Black Sabbath: Black Sabbath (1970)
Black Sabbath set the columns for what would become heavy metal, and, naturally enough, their debut album is one of rock’s dark mastodons. The rainy intro opens the gates to a post-industrial wasteland in 1970 Birmingham, with a resonance that carried itself to the ears of a couple of boy ears on the west coast 10 or 15 years later. Black Sabbath‘s leaden sound spawned many bastard children over the years, not least of which includes Nirvana’s debut album. Bleach plods though the same muddy tracks that would help define grunge in the late 1980s.
Iggy & The Stooges: Raw Power (1973)
Along with countless other young punks, Iggy Pop was one of Kurt Cobain’s key role models, with similarities in both music and attitude. Writhing on the floor, rolling around in broken glass, Iggy was a demon on the stage, an out-of-control force of nature with uncontainable energy and a destructive drug habit to boot. Cobain absorbed this persona into Nirvana, particularly in their early gigs when anarchy and chaos were prevailing forces. Musically, of course, proto-punk machinery from Detroit also had an obvious effect on Nirvana. The Stooges – and Raw Power especially – are punk rock required reading.
Kiss: Destroyer (1976)
There’s an obvious superficial distance between the cynical, flannel-clad Seattle rockers and makeup wearing, pyrotechnically-aided arena rock superheroes. Yet Kiss was an integral part of growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, and they offered a sense of escapism to the misfit youth of the time. Like it or not, Nirvana has roots scribbling Starchild’s name into their elementary school desks. They even recorded a cover of ”Do You Love Me” off of Destroyer, an album that also features “Detroit Rock City” – later paraphrased as “Sub Pop Rock City” by fellow grunge greats Soundgarden. And as fate would have it, on the same December day in 2013, Kiss and Nirvana were both inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Sex Pistols: Never Mind The Bollocks Here’s The Sex Pistols (1977)
With their first and only album, Sex Pistols sent shock waves into the mainstream rock establishment, catapulting punk into a mass movement that shaped culture and opened up opportunities for a new generation of artists in its wake – a similar effect that Nirvana would have 15 years later. Could it be a coincidence that Nevermind and Never Mind the Bollocks… made their greatest mark not by shaping musical trends but in shaking the music industry and the cultural establishment? Both mark the boiling over point of an underground phenomenon; the beginning of a new era where the boundaries between alternative and mainstream became more porous. A game-changing work of its time and a priceless plater of punk rock.
Cheap Trick: Cheap Trick (1977)
“I’ll be the first two admit that we’re the ’90s version of Cheap Trick or the Knack,” stated Kurt Cobain in his liner notes for the compilation album Incesticide. Cheap Trick had a penchant for British pop invasion (think The Kinks), which they used as the basis for their fusion of power pop, hard rock and a dash of punk. Their eponymous debut is a bit more rough than their later, more radio friendly sound. If you’re wondering whether he was referencing the same Knack that produced the one hit wonder, “My Sharona,” you’d be right. In the Cobain biography Heavier Than Heaven, Kurt meets up with a friend in 1988: ”‘There’s this great record that I’ve discovered that you HAVE to hear. Kurt pulled out Get the Knack. Romero thought Kurt was being sarcastic, and inquired, ‘Are you serious?’ ‘You’ve got to listen to this – it’s an awesome pop album,’ was Kurt’s deadpan reply.”
Neil Young: Rust Never Sleeps (1979)
“It’s better to burn out than fade away.” That fateful stanza, taken from Neil Young‘s “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black),” is the penultimate line of Kurt Cobain’s suicide note. Young would dedicate the entirety of his 1994 album Sleeps With Angels to Cobain. Like Iggy Pop, Young had been trying to contact Cobain shortly before he died. In Young’s autobiography, he writes: “I, coincidentally, had been trying to reach him through our offices to tell him that I thought he was great and he should do exactly what he thought he should do and fuck everybody else…” Along with popularizing the flannel shirt as the preferred rock uniform, Neil Young’s iconic, thundering guitar echoed deep through the forests the Pacific Northwest, earning him the honorary title, “Grandfather of Grunge.”
Young Marble Giants: Colossal Youth (1980)
Minimalist and magical, Young Marble Giants’ first album from 1980 is a something of a forgotten masterpiece, and it has its natural place here as a representative of the British post-punk that Cobain felt most at home in. Far from the angry, snot-nosed punk image his stage persona let on, Cobain shared much of their introversion, as well as their self-destructiveness. Together with their Scottish counterparts, The Vaselines, these Welshmen were among Cobain’s most relatable artists. In an interview with MTV Brazil in 1993 Cobain underlines that he was “heavily influenced by them” – less in terms of sound, and more in terms of “their emotions, the feeling, the sincerity and their fantastic songwriting.”
Flipper: Album – Generic Flipper (1982)
Kurt Cobain could make a artist cool by simply muttering their name in passing – as he did The Vaselines -–or by sporting a band T-shirt in public – as he did with his well-worn Flipper shirt. And glory to him for that; if there’s a band that deserves to be lifted out of obscurity, it’s Flipper. The San Francisco outfit’s epic 1982 debut check’s every box in the rock handbook: rule-breaking, destructive, infantile and reckless. Flipper slowly cranked their songs through a meat grinder without fully knowing what would come out the other side. En route, they stumbled upon such punk anthems as “Sex Bomb” while blazing a magnificent trail to madness.
Black Flag: My War (1984)
As pioneers of American underground rock into the ’80s, and originators of the California hardcore sound, Black Flag is obvious primary school curriculum for Nirvana. On their classic 1984 album, My War, the band took punk into a slower and more militant territory. This had a clear effect on embryonic bands like Melvins and Nirvana. Black Flag frontman Greg Ginn started the SST label in 1978, which went on to become one of the most important publishers of the ’80s, and a role model for Sub Pop’s rise a handful of years later.
Hüsker Dü: New Day Rising (1985)
New Day Rising marks an important transition for the power trio of Hüsker Dü. Without losing their frenetic power and strength, here they write pop-flavored melodies that shine through the layers of treble fuzz, albeit not overpoweringly. With a little more polishing, New Day Rising could have been the Nevermind of the ’80s. As Krist Novoselic admitted, “Nirvana’s blend of pop, punk and metal was nothing new, Hüsker Dü did it before us.” From the same circuit and time period, it is also worthy to mention the parallel developments by The Replacements, Butthole Surfers, and Meat Puppets – all of whom were significant fertilizers for the ripening of Nirvana.
Beat Happening: Jamboree (1988)
Following Nirvana’s success, Seattle indie label Sub Pop rapidly grew into a multinational brand in the ’90s, but they initially came from a proud tradition of strong underground labels from the heyday of SST, Touch & Gom and K Records. K was formed in 1982 by Calvin Johnson, the frontman of Beat Happening. Lo-fi aesthetics dominated the label’s releases, casually produced by friends and acquaintances in the region, which helped chart course for the “alternative revolution” and the rise of indie rock as a mainstream phenomenon. Musically, there is a certain distance between the compact guitar rock of Nirvana and the more quirky indie pop of Beat Happenings, but the relationship can be illustrated by this quote from the band: “We are Beat Happening, and we do not do Nirvana covers. They do Beat Happening covers, so let’s get that straight.”
Killdozer: Twelve Point Buck (1989)
Madison, WI band Killdozer ruled the 1980s underground, along with acts like Butthole Surfers, Laughing Hyenas and Scratch Acid (pre-Jesus Lizard). Their slow, sludgy punk-on-downers sound distinguished them as early predecessors to grunge, especially for the periphery scene outside of Seattle. The band became known for its original and unexpected cover songs – such as a throaty rendition of Don McLean’s “American Pie” – a talent Cobain and Co. also became known for after the live recording, MTV Unplugged in New York. They worked repeatedly with technician Butch Vig in Madison’s Smart Studios. As a result of hearing Killdozer’s 1989 LP Twelve Point Buck, Nirvana hired now legendary engineer Steve Albini to work on In Utero. After Cobain’s death, Killdozer also recorded 1995′s God Hears Pleas of the Innocent with Albini.
Dead Moon: In The Graveyard (1988)
Barbarous garage rock has a long history in the Pacific Northwest, with bands such as The Kingsmen (“Louie Louie”) and The Sonics as key originators. Led by husband and wife Fred and Toody Cole, Portland band Dead Moon pushed forward this rich legacy, reminding us that neither Nirvana, nor grunge as a whole, appeared from nowhere. Unlike Nirvana and the landslide that followed in their wake, the Dead Moon remained in the garage while the other left the scene in limousines. And there they still had a grand run until recently retiring.
Pixies: Surfer Rosa (1988)
Telling the story behind “Smells Like teen Spirit,” Kurt Cobain confessed, “I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying two rip off the Pixies.” And indeed, Nevermind shares countless similarities with Pixies, in song structure and, notably, in the powerful soft-loud dynamics that Nirvana would further perfect. Sound engineer and producer Steve Albini was commissioned to produce In Utero as a result of his signature work on Surfer Rosa. A classic debut if there ever was one.
Melvins: Gluey Porch Treatments / Ozma (1988/1989)
Seattle rock’s anomalous emergence came out nowhere, and in a matter of years the city’s musical profile transitioned from a loser-like sense of coolness to streamlined factory for mass culture. But one band never changed. Melvins were heavier, stickier and gloomier than all the others – and they were among Cobain’s biggest musical influences, especially noticeable on Bleach. Melvins would later serve as role models for an even heavier, slower and more somber drone rock formulated by bands like Earth and Sunn O))). Melvins have definitely left a heavy imprint in the rock history books, and their first two albums are authentic sludge rock at its best.
TIDAL is proud to announce the world's first music service with High Fidelity sound quality, High Definition music videos and expertly curated Editorial.