Nirvana changed the landscape of rock music over the course of only a few years, but in the beginning, they were just one more struggling group deciding on a lineup and a name. In 1985, guitarist/singer Kurt Cobain met bassist Krist Novoselic in Aberdeen, Washington, instantly bonding over their mutual love of the punk-metal band the Melvins. The duo brought in several different drummers over the next couple years, eventually settling on Chad Channing. Meanwhile, the group shuffled through different band names (including the Stiff Woodies, Pen Cap Chew and Skid Row) before opting for Nirvana.
A Promising First Album:
After recording a series of demos in 1988, Nirvana landed a deal with Seattle label Sub Pop. A year later, the group released their first record, Bleach. Though it only sold about 35,000 copies, Bleach established Cobain’s penchant for angry, compelling songs about society’s outsiders. Leaning heavily on hard rock and metal, Bleach didn’t sport the same pop hooks that Nirvana’s later albums would feature, although “About a Girl” demonstrated his early flair for catchy pop songs akin to the Beatles.
A New Decade and a New Drummer:
As the band entered the '90s, Cobain’s songwriting would continue to blossom. Another important improvement occurred around the same time: Channing left the group and was replaced by Dave Grohl, the former drummer of the punk band Scream. Bleach had won the admiration of respected groups such as Sonic Youth, and demos of subsequent sessions began attracting the attention of major labels. Signing with DGC and with Growl now in tow, Nirvana recorded their follow-up, an album called Nevermind. It would have been the furthest thought from any of the band members’ minds at the time, but superstardom was on the horizon.
Breaking Through to the Mainstream:
Released in September of 1991, Nevermind wasn’t an immediate blockbuster, but on the strength of its first single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the album reached the top of the charts by January 1992. At a time when pop and hair metal were extraordinarily popular, Nevermind signaled a cultural shift toward more urgent, intense music sparked by introspective, sometimes caustic, lyrics. The album generated four singles and catapulted the band from the tiny Washington city to superstar status.
Though Cobain now enjoyed universal acclaim and exceptional sales, he couldn’t fully savor his moment in the sun, as he was in the midst of a horrible heroin addiction that had been developing from before Nevermind. Questions about his health circulated as Nirvana returned to the studio in 1993 to record their next album. The willfully prickly In Utero proved to be less listener-friendly, but Cobain’s commitment to hook-laden songs transcended the album's surface aggressiveness. In Utero may have scared off causal fans who simply wanted Nevermind II, but it was an instant critical success and a strong seller.
Near the end of 1993, Nirvana filmed an installment of the popular Unplugged
series on MTV which featured bands performing acoustic versions of their songs. Staying away from their best-known material, Cobain focused on album cuts and covers of tracks from his musical heroes, such as David Bowie
and blues artist Leadbelly
. The program, later released as a stand-alone album, emphasized Cobain’s dark outlook on life through powerful, funereal versions of his songs. Intentionally or not, the MTV special soon proved to be prophetic when Cobain’s life took a turn toward the tragic.
On April 8, 1994, Cobain’s body was found in his home in Seattle. The cause of death was determined to be suicide from a shotgun blast to the head. It had not been Cobain’s first suicide attempt, but the news of his death nevertheless was a shock to his many fans.
Though Nirvana disbanded shortly thereafter, their legacy remains unscarred, with the band’s biggest hits still a staple of rock radio. Grohl, Novoselic and Cobain’s widow Courtney Love (of the band Hole) have subsequently released live albums and compilations, including a greatest-hits package and a box set of rare tracks. Novoselic has played in a few bands since Nirvana’s dissolution, while Grohl has focused his energy on his own band, Foo Fighters
Kurt Cobain – guitars, vocals
Dave Grohl - drums
Krist Novoselic - bass
Essential Nirvana Album:
After Nevermind’s release, Kurt Cobain feared that he had compromised his songs’ integrity by adorning their anger in impossibly catchy melodies. But in reality, these 12 tracks are only more furious because the band (with producer Butch Vig) spent the time to make sure every single guitar riff exploded on contact. Rarely has one man’s misanthropy sounded so universal and so liberating.
(outtakes collection) (1992) In Utero
(1993) MTV Unplugged in New York
(live album) (1994) From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah
(live album) (1996) Nirvana
(greatest hits) (2002) With the Lights Out
(box set) (2004) Sliver: The Best of the Box