20 years later, ‘Nevermind’ box set is true nirvana
Smells Like Teen Spirit opens with Kurt Cobain firing off a simple riff. But it fast became the F-chord heard round the musical world.
The ‘Nevermind’ album cover features a baby swimming toward a dollar bill that is on a fishhook.
Twenty years ago this month, Nirvana released its Teen Spirit-anchored major-label debut, Nevermind. Expectations were modest; only 45,000 copies were pressed. To date, 30 million have sold worldwide.
“Nobody saw it coming,” says Dave Grohl, 42, who founded Foo Fighters after drumming in Nirvana. “Not the label, the band, the management. Some of our friends said, ‘You’re going to be huge.’ We said, ‘Like Sonic Youth? Awesome! Woo!'”
With a sonic vibe and video look that few expected to go mainstream, Nevermind ushered in a grungy era that saw rock’s creative envelope pushed to new extremes. “You can hear where we come from, American hard-core music,” says bassist Krist Novoselic, 46. “On Nevermind, we were promoting bands we liked.”
Fans looking for insights into the creation of this seminal album can dive into a four-CD, one-DVD set ($136, out Sept. 27 and exclusive to Best Buy through Oct. 24). The bundle includes everything from a remastered original album to boombox recordings of rehearsals in a Tacoma, Wash., barn. A two-CD deluxe edition ($20) and a remastered Nevermind ($11) also are available.
“In Utero (1993) is arguably a better album, but the reason we’re talking about Nevermind still is because it caused a generational shift from label-orchestrated music to an era with more artistic freedom,” says Charles R. Cross, author of the Cobain biographies Heavier Than Heaven and Cobain Unseen. “This album has a special place in music history.”
For album producer Butch Vig, 56, revisiting the past proved bittersweet.
“Hearing Teen Spirit again floored me, and reminded me that when I heard it for the first time (in May 1991 rehearsals at Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, just outside Los Angeles), I got up and just started pacing,” he says. “It was just so loud and so tight.”
But he also was overwhelmed by the absence of the band’s creative touchstone, who took his own life in 1994 at age 27. “I wish Kurt was still here, because he’d be doing amazing things,” says Vig.
The five-disc set provides a forensic look at the ultimate Seattle grunge band in its heyday.
The first CD offers a sonically sizzling Nevermind, plus a range of B-sides. But the real fun starts on Disc 2, which finds the penniless band, back in 1990, burning through early versions of In Bloom and Polly at Vig’s Smart Studios in Madison, Wis.
Disc 3 features Vig’s first mixes of the album before Slayer producer Andy Wallace got involved. “I was cool with (Wallace stepping in),” says Vig. “I had gotten frustrated. Kurt kept asking me to turn the treble down. He wanted it all to sound like Black Sabbath.”
Disc 4 is the band playing a Halloween gig at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre (the concert featured in the set’s DVD) — just before Nevermind, propelled by the incessant playing of the Teen Spirit video on MTV, blew up and turned Nirvana’s once-insular world inside out.
“It was pretty shocking to become really famous, and Kurt being the head dude and all, he was naturally conflicted,” says Novoselic. “What I like about this (re-release) is that it all goes back to the beginning, back to the music.”