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Revisiting Nirvana’s Nevermind – 30 Years On

Nirvanan Nevermind album cover

It’s been 30 years since Nirvana’s Nevermind album was released on September 24, 1991.  The groundbreaking second studio effort literally blew open the doors of the Seattle grunge scene, and at the same time, killed the careers of the Los Angeles-based hair metal bands of the era. It signified a cultural revolution that became labeled Generation X, and unknowingly ushered in “Alternative Music” as a corporate moneymaker.

At the time of its release, Nevermind was just viewed, heard and seen as a radical departure from what was then the musical “rock” norm. Yet – filled with angst, underdog energy and what seemed like unrehearsed, spontaneous, unvarnished charisma – the album seared itself into our brains.

Sadly, we all know how Nirvana’s rise to iconic, unwelcome and intrusive fame ended, but even so, the music lives on and has become a part of our rock canon.

Think you know everything about Nirvana’s Nevermind? Here are ten great trivia categories that may challenge your knowledge.

01 Critical Reception and Sales

Just like many classic albums before it, Nevermind got only lukewarm to good critical reception when it was first released. Spin magazine bypassed the album and chose Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque as the Album of the Year, and Rolling Stone only gave the album three out of five stars.

But, perceptions started to change almost immediately as the record began selling at an amazing clip, at one point surpassing 300,000 copies per week. Nirvana’s label, DGC Records, had fairly low sales expectations for the band, initially projecting a top sales figure of around 250,000, which would match the total sold by label mates Sonic Youth with Goo. That’s why they originally only shipped a little over 46,000 copies to record stores.

Eventually, the album was certified Diamond in the U.S., shipping over 10 million copies.  Worldwide, sales exceeded 30 million.

Although their first sales year was a great one, Nevermind was just the 8th best-selling album in 1992. They were beaten by grunge-mates Pearl Jam, teen rappers Kris Kross, pop star Whitney Houston and country stars Billy Ray Cyrus and Garth Brooks, with Brooks locking in three albums in the top eight.

Top 15 Best-Selling Rock Artists of All Time in U.S. Sales

02 Nevermind on the Charts

On January 11, 1992, Nevermind hit #1 on the Billboard 200 album chart, displacing the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. They were then kicked out of the top spot the next week by a superstar surge from Garth Brooks. In all, Nevermind spent a total of 252 weeks on the Billboard Top 200 chart.

Nevermind produced four singles in the U.S.”Smells Like Teen Spirit” reached #6; “Come As You Are” peaked at #32; “Lithium” was able to get to #64; and “In Bloom” which did not chart.

03 The Album Package

The Nevermind album artwork has been back in the news again after Spencer Elden, pictured on the cover as a baby and now 30 years old, has sued Nirvana.

”Defendants used child pornography depicting Spencer as an essential element of a record promotion scheme commonly utilized in the music industry to get attention, wherein album covers posed children in a sexually provocative manner to gain notoriety, drive sales, and garner media attention, and critical reviews.”

Elden has asked for $150,000 from each of 17 defendants, including the band members, the associated labels, the photographer, etc. Initially, the photographer, Kirk Weddle, who was friends with Elden’s parents, gave the parents $200 for the 15-second photo shoot.

The cover was conceived because Kurt Cobain had a fascination with birth and pregnancy (the final Nirvana album was even entitled In Utero). Cobain had wanted to use a photo of a water birth, but the record label deemed that content too graphic. Many stores even said they wouldn’t stock the album with the nude baby cover, but Cobain refused to alter the shot.

The back cover is a photo collage created by Cobain made up of Dante’s Inferno paintings and an image of Chim-Chim, the monkey from Speed Racer. For good measure, he also included photographs of diseased genitals from his medical photo collection, and he claimed there “is a picture of Kiss in the back standing on a slab of beef.”

Squint really hard, spin yourself around a few times and then maybe, just maybe, you’ll see it too.

04 The Recording

Although the budget for Bleach, Nirvana’s first studio album on the Sub Pop label, was just over $600, the budget for Nevermind was set at $65,000. Ultimately though, the band reportedly spent around $120,000 to record it. Producer Butch Vig, who had recorded the original demos of the record (before Dave Grohl was the drummer, and before the band signed to DGC), had a huge influence on the recording, even convincing Kurt Cobain to double-track his vocals, because John Lennon did the same thing.

Vig later said: “The band was tight as hell. Contrary to popular belief, they were not slackers. They wanted to make a kickass record. Dave Grohl told me they practiced every day for six months before they went into record Nevermind. We pretty much got every take on that record in one or two or maybe three takes.” The only song that took a few days was “Lithium.”

Vig also gave a lot of credit to Dave Grohl for the success of the sound of the record. “People always say, ‘How’d you get that sound on Nevermind?’ and 90 percent of it is Dave Grohl… it’s just how Dave plays and he’s just so, so powerful.”

05 Album Title and Song Trivia

The working title of Nevermind was Sheep, a sly Kurt Cobain reference to people flocking to buy the album. Bass player Krist Novoselic has said the title was a reflection of the band’s cynicism.

There is a hidden bonus track on the album called “Endless Nameless” that was left off the first 50,000 copies pressed by accident. The song is heard over 10 minutes after the song “Something In The Way” finishes.

The song “Breed” was originally called “Imodium,” named after the anti-laxative favored by Cobain and Tad Doyle of Seattle’s Tad when they were touring together. It was later revealed that Cobain had major painful stomach issues, including Crohn’s Disease.

On “Territorial Pissings,” you can hear bassist Krist Novoselic for the one and only time on the record screeching the lyrics to the beginning of the 1967 Youngbloods song “Get Together.”

Novoselic, who calls himself a “lousy” singer, adequately proved his point.

06 The Musicians on Nevermind

Besides Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic, Chad Channing (one of the five or six drummers prior to Grohl) is heard on the song “Polly” playing his ride cymbal.

Cellist Kirk Canning also made a brief appearance on “Something In The Way.” Canning was recorded on the very last day of sessions, when the band found out that their friend could play cello. From Cobain: “We said, Here, play something, and he came up with something right away. It fell like dominoes, it was really easy.” Canning is also the husband of L7 ’s drummer Demetra Plakas.

07 “Smells Like Teen Spirit”

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” is of course the most iconic song from the Nevermind album, and the only one giving credit to all three members as songwriters.  It was also helped by seemingly months of power rotation on MTV.  Cobain stated:

“I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it. When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily that I should have been in that band — or at least a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.”

The title was cribbed from a sentence Bikini Kill’s lead singer, Kathleen Hanna, had spray painted on Kurt’s wall at home: “Kurt smells like Teen Spirit”.  Unbeknownst to Cobain, who thought the phrase was a revolutionary slogan, Teen Spirit was a popular deodorant at the time.

Cobain hated video director Sam Bayer’s original cut of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” so much that he flew back to LA to personally edit a new version.  He told MTV that “it looked like a Time-Life commercial to me,” so I “threw in a few extra things which pretty much saved it.” The extras were not even supposed to start a mosh pit, but after a full day of boring filming, Cobain convinced the director to let the kids go wild – and they did.

Another inside joke in the video is the role of the janitor. Cobain had actually taken the job of janitor at his old high school after dropping out.  The money he made in the job funded Nirvana’s first demo.

In Rolling Stone’s list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” checks in at #5.

25 Interesting Facts About the Launch of MTV

08 Follow The Money

Allegedly, six months after the release of Nevermind, Cobain demanded a bigger percentage of the royalties – and he wanted it to be retroactive. Grohl and Novoselic threatened to leave the band, and the issue was tabled. They continued to split their money in thirds, but that didn’t include the publishing rights.

After Cobain’s death, the accounting became a real nightmare.  It is said that now, Grohl and Novoselic get 12.5% each of only eleven songs from the entire catalogue, but it does include “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Cobain’s daughter, Francis Bean Cobain seems to control the rest.

08 Leaving the Indie for the Corporate Label

The ultimate indie band, Nirvana first began working with producer Butch Vig in 1990 as they prepared to make a second Sub Pop release after Bleach. The demos they recorded were so good that they started being passed around to major labels and garnering real interest.

In the Kurt Cobain biography Heavier Than Heaven, author Charles R. Cross noted that Cobain viewed Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and Thurston Morre as “just short of royalty.” Nirvana opened for them on their 1991 summer tour and long story short, the couple convinced Cobain to not only sign with their management team, but to also sign with the label DGC, a sister label of Geffen Records.

Susan Silver, the manager of Soundgarden and Alice in Chains at the time, was also thanked by Novoselic at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014 for her role in “introducing them to the music industry properly,” and convincing them to think of the bigger picture outside of their small indie world.

08 The Competition

There were several other albums released on September 24, 1991, making it one of music’s most celebrated days. In addition to Nevermind, here are a few of the albums that dropped that same day:

Red Hot Chili Peppers – Blood Sugar Sex Magik

On almost every “Best Of” list, Blood Sugar Sex Magik sold over 7 million copies in the U.S. alone and cemented Red Hot Chili Peppers as superstars.

Soundgarden –  Badmotorfinger

Helped by Nirvana’s success, Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger sold millions of copies and was ranked #2 on Rolling Stone‘s 50 Greatest Grunge Albums list.

A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory

Regarded as one of the most influential albums in hip hop history, The Low End Theory is also credited with establishing “the musical, cultural, and historical link between hip hop and jazz.” It also made stars of Phife Dawg, Q-Tip and Busta Rhymes.

The Pixies – Trompe Le Monde

Nirvana’s heroes also released an album on September 24, 1991.  Sadly, it was The Pixies’ final record together as they broke up two years later.

Bryan Adams – Waking Up the Neighbours

Bryan Adams won a Grammy Award in 1992 for the song “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You,” which helped this mainstream rock record to eventually sell more than 16 million copies. The album, released on the same day as Nevermind, was also the polar opposite it.

Top 20 Best Rock Albums of the ’90s

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