People normally think that the 90s began January 1, 1990, but it isn’t so, the real beginning was on the 24th of September 1991, the day Nirvana’s Nevermind was released, and was officially confirmed the 11th of January 1992, when it followed Dangerous by Michael Jackson as #1 on the charts in the U.S.. The 80s finally died, and long live the 90s.
This record represents the new birth of rock, just like before with Chuck Berry (well, just birth in his case) or The Clash, which made it dangerous once again and outside the system. Of course the industry took note and a few years later they would exploit it without qualms, with exhibitions in the highest walkway of ‘grunge attire’. But this is the story of a record that made all this possible and created the latest big revolution in rock. Nirvana took the helm, despite not having done anything new, nor were they the first, for sure, but they were the most representative band, and surely had the best songs.
Nirvana was a part of what Perry Farrell named the ‘alternative nation’. Groups like Sonic Youth, Hüsker Dü or The Pixies were its main components. You only heard these groups on the ‘left of the dial’ as the Replacements put it; on university radios that were regionally divided. One place they enjoyed an especially lively response was Seattle, where an independent producer, Sub Pop, gave refuge to groups who popularised a genre known as grunge. In 1989 they released Nirvana’s first album Bleach.
In 1990 they began to record demos of songs as a follow up, on those you can intuit the drift composer Kurt Cobain was taking, f the heavier grunge sound of Seattle towards a more melodic vibe, closer to their hallmark band at that moment, The Pixies. That same year the group was left without a drummer after Chad Channing split because of creativity differences with Cobain and bassman Kris Novoselic. They had been very impressed with the drummer of Scream, a hardcore punk group, and his name was Dave Grohl. When he joined the band in Seattle, it was the moment when, according to Novoselic, everything was “in its place”.
Recorded in the legendary Sound City Studios, together with producer Butch Vig, Cobain brought one of the best collections of songs in history, starting with the most remembered riff of the decade, Smells Like Teen Spirit. As a guitarist, Cobain was light years from being a virtuoso, and boasted of his few skills, but his sound was abrasive and put more guitars in the hands of teens than anybody since Hendrix. His tastes were not expensive, he liked Fenders, not the classic ones, but the Stratocaster made for the Japanese, because they were the most affordable guitars for the left-handed. Another lefty favourite of his was the 1969 Fender Competition Mustang. His preference for simple guitars also applied to acoustics, the only two songs on the album without electric, Polly, and Something in the Way, were played on a Stella 12-string he bought second hand in 1989 for $30.
Little mattered, Nevermind exploded like a bomb and turned alternative music into the new mainstream. Cobain never understood it, the same people he criticised in his songs were buying his records and dressing like him. Later on, once the record became one of the best selling records in history, he would resent that by saying it had more to do with Mötley Crüe than punk. Neither could he comprehend how his record sold millions and those of his heros, like Meat Puppets or The Vaselines, could not. It was simple, he put 12 brutal songs together on one record and in them expressed the feeling of a whole generation. He didn’t choose the role, but some things you don’t choose, they just are.