What if I told you the most influential rock band of the last thirty years was fronted by a guy whose favorite bands included Swans and Celtic Frost? What if I told you that this band, after their mainstream breakout release then proceeded to put out a surprisingly challenging experimental rock record, and then, after the main songwriters suicide, put out a possibly even more difficult to listen too series of B sides? Because that happened. That band is Nirvana and they are the band who have shaped the lives of everyone who has picked up an instrument and decided to be in a rock band since 1991 whether they realize it or not. I’m not talking about a musical influence, though that’s certainly there. I’m talking more about the cultural significance that this band had and the way that they were able to totally change how many of us, myself included, even go about approaching our work in the underground music scene.
I think the first important thing to realize about Nirvana is how gleefully they broke al of the rules, even within a major label context. At the music industry’s most bloated, sycophantic and stupid moment Nirvana and the rest of grunge came along and leveled it. Not only that though – Nirvana’s music is a lot more challenging than people who only listen to the classics give it credit. Just try and wind your way through all the weird drones, moans and squeals that define the more interesting parts of their three studio records. This is shit that sits alongside some of the most important rock songs ever written. Kurt Cobain and his merry men did not give a fuck and broke rules and pushed boundaries in which even DIY experimental bands might have to struggle with for a little bit before finding any real success. It helps to make Nirvana’s discography surprisingly fascinating for the musicologist, since it’s SUCH an anomaly.
One of the keys here is that even after they had mainstream success Nirvana didn’t stop breaking rules even after their mainstream success. Kurts initial plan for In Utero was to release a much harsher version first and then offer up the record we know and love today. While it was never recorded in a studio we do have some demos and… holy shit are they vicious. I think that’s the key difference between Nirvana and other bands that have underground roots who blew up around this time. For example – Metallica never were able to go back to creating vital and angry thrash metal after releasing The Black Album. By the same token, Guns N Roses lost a lot of their grit once they got big. Kurt Cobain decided to just write even harder to listen too stuff, start doing heroin and eventually kill himself. I’m obviously not condoning heroin use or suicide but there is a certain degree of insane artistry to that.
The other important thing to appreciate with Nirvana is how they came out of the DIY scene I praise surprisingly quickly. Within a span of about two years Nirvana went from playing basements to headlining stadium shows and all of Kurts friends bands getting signed to major labels. Hell – his favorite band, The Melvins even went on to tour with KISS. They provided a blueprint for all of us. It was a blueprint that was almost immediately put into effect by the immediate next generation of bands, groups like Weezer who found success using the model that Nirvana showed to the world only a few years prior. The whole success of Nirvana is highly abnormal to be sure, but when you go to DIY venues and see rock bands with heavy tone and half screamed vocals you can’t help but to feel like those bands are trying to recapture the magic. Again this happened near peak-bloat in the industry, as glam came crashing down, suggesting that these sorts of insane Cinderella stories could happen just about anytime.
Finally I just want to touch on a personal side – which is how Nirvana was really the first heavy music that many of my older peers ever heard. With a period in the early 90s dominated by the corniness of Metallica and the bands who would eventually turn into nu metal, Nirvana as providing something insane and vicious, something that you simply couldn’t get anywhere else and which as unafraid to break every rule in the book in the name of crafting a bolder and more fucked up future for the music. I know countless devastating doom metal bands who came up out of small towns just because the local Wal Mart happened to carry the first Nirvana record and so countless aspiring musicians were able to get their eyes opened to music that their parents never would have showed them nor which they would have heard on the radio, at least not before Nirvana. Sure that changed later on – but talk about a hel of a starting point!
It’s hard to underestimate how much this band was able to craft how we view underground music. Even modern darlings know that it was Nirvana who were instrumental in inspiring people to create the web of DIY venues that spread across the country and which we all use in order to grow our bands. They helped to make sure that the USA would have a vibrant DIY culture for years to come and we have countless bands who have come out of that, bands who haven’t been musically influenced by Nirvana in the least but who also know that they owe a debt to the dudes who saw a future in this weird thing and created something that we all could use as a resource in times of adversity and which would only support the art.
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