New box set has plenty to satiate any fan looking for rarities
With the Lights Out, the new Nirvana box set out Nov. 23, is an exhausting and exhilarating listen. The three-disc, 81-track collection (plus DVD) is difficult to sit through in its entirety, either for the raw, squelshy sound of the early recordings or the sense of doom that marks the band’s latter works. But that’s nothing compared to what it took to actually compile the set: Everyone involved getting along.
After six years of rumours and legal wrangling, Courtney Love, the surviving members of the group, and the record companies finally came to an agreement over the rights to Nirvana’s catalogue. Of course, the one person who had no say was singer Kurt Cobain, whose suicide in 1994 led to the demand for rarities and the tug-of-war over his work’s ownership.
“It’s no longer an issue. We all got over it,” explains the box’s project consultant, producer Jack Endino. “He’s not here. The guy took himself out. So (sighs) you can’t worry about what he would have thought about it. The fact was that he didn’t like much of anything. He was very negative and depressed about a lot of stuff. He probably wouldn’t want anyone to hear any of this. So … we’re not asking his opinion on this anymore. Courtney approved it all. Krist (Novoselic) and Dave (Grohl) and (early drummer) Chad Channing were all in on it. Nobody is pulling a fast one.”
Endino speaks bluntly, but not flippantly. As a well-known and respected producer on the Seattle scene, he was there from the start of Nirvana’s career and, in the absence of the band members, is as good a spokesman as anyone. He recorded Nirvana’s debut album, Bleach (for $600) and seven tracks that appear on With The Lights Out. He was also instrumental in locating many of the other rare recordings.
“We started talking about this in 1998, in a phone conversation with Krist,” he says. “He said, ‘We’re thinking of doing a box set.’ I said, ‘I know where a lot of this stuff is because I’ve got a lot in my own personal collection of cassettes.’ Of course, Krist had lost a lot or didn’t keep copies. So I started making copies for him, which started a long process of detective work.”
Novoselic, Endino and Seattle journalist Gillian G. Gaar started compiling material for a possible 2001 release, coinciding with the 10-year anniversary of Nirvana’s smash album Nevermind.
Then Courtney Love got cranky. In 2001, Cobain’s widow stated on her own Web site “Nirvana is mine” then set about stopping Novoselic and Dave Grohl from releasing a new Nirvana track, You Know You’re Right, by suing for dissolution of their legal partnership. She later sued the record label, Universal, for control of Nirvana’s master recordings. So much for the box set.
But after all the bickering, it was the fans who came out winning: With The Lights Out is twice as long as the original planned box set, and contains several demos from Courtney’s personal vault. The tracks are arranged chronologically, from a live recording of the band’s first ever show, through to acoustic demos from just before Kurt’s death. The rapid progression from noisy hacks to full-fledged songwriters is astonishing, really. Kurt’s voice, in particular, emerges early on as a distinct force, melodic and mournful while full of fury. You can practically hear the world of music changing on Disc One’s late-’80s material.
According to this audio history, the “Nirvana sound” first appears in 1998 on If You Must and Pen Cap Chew, two of Endino’s recordings, “their first demo we did.” He also worked on Blandest the first song they recorded with drummer Chad Channing. But Endino says his greatest find, the Holy Grail of his investigative efforts is a track called Verse Chorus Verse, an out-take from Nevermind.
“We knew the song existed because there were a couple of really bad bootlegs,” explains Endino. “The problem was that Kurt never settled on lyrics. This version is from the Nevermind reels in the Geffen vaults. The instruments are there but you can’t really tell what he’s singing. But the melody is there. The placement is there. There was enough that the decision was made that we should put it on here. That was one of those super rare songs.”
For the casual Nirvana listener, even ones with all the official albums, most of With The Lights Out is super rare. Obsessive bootleg collectors will hopefully be satiated and satisfied with this comprehensive collection.
“It’s not a hits collection,” says Endino. “I don’t know if any of this will get played on the radio. That’s not what we were thinking of. The bootleggers kept the music alive and it kept the pressure to make the box set, because the fans knew it was out there, but I think people can give it a rest now because there isn’t much left that’s terribly interesting. What’s left is either really, really lo-fi or really, really redundant. I don’t think there are any lost songs of much significance that are not on the box set.”
With The Lights Out Picks:
Sifting through With The Lights Out is a four-hour long job. Each song will be somebody’s favourite, but a few stand out for musical or historical significance. For maximum enjoyment, jump right to:
Heartbreaker (Live): Impromptu Led Zeppelin cover at the band’s first ever show, a house party in Raymond WA. With guitar solo. Yes, Zeppelin fans. A blow to Alternative Rock snobs everywhere.
If You Must (Demo): First appearance of the “Nirvana sound” — rock raucous slowed down to what would later be called “grunge.” Endino claims Kurt hated the song. “I think he thought it was a little too heavy metal. It’s the only song he used the diminished fifth on, the heavy metal devil’s interval. But it’s got a great vocal! The vocal is killer!”
Beans (Solo acoustic demo): Oddball 90 seconds of Kurt doing a (helium induced?) Chipmunk vocal number about beans. There’s humour all over the box set but this is the funniest.
Where Did You Sleep Last Night (Acoustic demo): Beautiful and quiet Leadbelly cover, this home demo from 1989 eclipses the version on MTV’s Unplugged.
Smells Like Teen Spirit (Rehearsal demo): If you think Kurt’s vocals are hard to make out on the record … This first ever recording of Nirvana’s masterpiece is extremely raw but you can still hear the brilliance in it.
Do Re Me (Solo acoustic): Home demo of, apparently, the “last song Kurt ever wrote.” It’s hard to make out the lyrics (“I might be dreaming?” “If I may, If I might …wake me up?”) but the melody itself is lovely. Could have been a classic.