How Nirvana's Nevermind Destroyed Grunge

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of Nirvana's defining work Nevermind, an album which bizarrely destroyed the genre it had helped to create.
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This year marks the twentieth anniversary of Nirvana's defining work Nevermind, an album which bizarrely destroyed the genre it had helped to create.

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Nevermind: The Definition, Destruction & Downfall of Grunge

Many see Nirvana's sophomore album as the zenith of that scene what we know as 'Grunge'. A production masterclass, courtesy of Butch Vig, it took three freaks from a Washington logging town up to the dizzying heights of the Billboard Album Chart #1 spot; toppling the world's biggest pop star, Michael Jackson, off his perennial perch.

To date, the album has gone diamond (10x platinum), selling over 30 million copies. This is still 14 million copies less than Whitney Houston's 'Bodyguard' soundtrack released a year later, but pop culture is funny like that. Released September 24th 1991, it took a little under four months for the album to hit the number one spot in three countries, by which point it was shifting 300,000 units a week – at which point Nirvana's old Label, Sub Pop, were presumably tying nooses over the fact that they did not have the resources to release it themselves.

The repercussions of the album's magnitude were instantly (and continue to be) felt. It sounded the final death knell for cock-rock – a style of music already critically endangered (thank fuck) – and caused the entire paradigm of 'coolness' to shift from poodle haired walking phalluses to guys and girls who sounded, looked and smelled real (and in the case of smelled, usually really bad).

Released September 24th 1991, it took a little under four months for the album to hit the number one spot in three countries, by which point it was shifting 300,000 units a week

The earliest grunge bands slapped together a bricolage of punk's “you only need three chords” mentality, with a healthy dose of Sabbath's dirge, doom and bone crushing fuzzed-to-fuck heaviness. The coinage of the word is hotly debated, though I tend to believe the report that Mark Arm of Green River/Mudhoney fame used it to describe his former band Mr. Epp and the Calculations in 1981.

The original Grunge bands can be found on the first two compilations released by 'the' Grunge label, Sub Pop. Sub Pop's 100 and 200 collections featured future Seattle scene stalwarts Mudhoney, Tad, Green River, spoken word artist and darling of the scene Stephen Jesse Bernstein, Screaming Trees and Soundgarden – as well as Scratch Acid and Sonic Youth from further afield. Sonically, the Sub Pop sound owed everything to resident producer Jack Endino. He took the bands' signature sound – the bass heavy drunken stagger, guitars wading through a swamp of multiple fuzz pedals, guttural plosive vocals – and sculpted it into something listenable; all the while retaining the scummy, sticky floored ambience of the live shows.

This sound is apparent on Nirvana's first record, Bleach - also produced by Endino. Every track on each song is as harsh and torn as Cobain's larynx. Once they moved to Geffen and placed Vig behind the desk, this was lost in the polished sheen of double tracked guitars and compression. Paradoxically, this sound came to define Grunge to the masses, yet is as far removed as it can be from the 'real' grunge sound – gloomy as the skies over the pacific northwest and heavy like the dread of spending another day in a white trash logging town.

By the time of its release, Grunge was already steaming ahead into gentrification. The success of Sub Pop had every corporate A&R man sniffing around Seattle's dive bars for the next big thing. Bands they could market the hell out of in search of that lucrative 'authenticity' dollar. Just a month before Nevermind's release, Pearl Jam launched 'Ten', and the arrival of what became backhandedly known as 'Stadium Grunge'. Presumably, the word Grunge is tacked on to honour the band's lineage through Green River and Mother Love Bone – as it sure as fuck can't be anything to do with the sound.

By the time of its release, Grunge was already steaming ahead into gentrification. The success of Sub Pop had every corporate A&R man sniffing around Seattle's dive bars for the next big thing.

As Pearl Jam began to sell out stadiums, and Nirvana headlined festivals, Sub Pop and its roster of bands who had paved the way for their gargantuan royalty cheques chugged along in their wake. As Mudhoney's Steve Turner is quoted as saying in Michael Azzerad's excellent 'Our Band Could Be Your Life', they became a 'footnote' – with singer Mark Arm adding '...that's at best all we'll be remembered as'. It's arguable that this is not just applicable to Mudhoney, but the majority of the bands from that time – eclipsed as they were by an album, sold as a sound, that was not Grunge.

In Utero, Nirvana's third and final album seems proof of this. Cobain hired Steve Albini – legendary punk producer and frontman of Big Black, Rapeman and Shellac – to put his touch on the album, presumably in the hopes that his credibility and talent for capturing rawness at its best would bring out the best in Cobain's sickly beautiful, emotional outpourings.

But it was vetoed, and Scott Lit – the man who turned R.E.M's oddball indie-pop into MOR dirgery – was brought in to 'save' the mixes. And it was then, just six months before the personification of 'Grunge' died, that Grunge itself died. So by all means, treat Nevermind as the phenomenal body of work it is, but please don't call it fucking Grunge.

Smells Like 30-Something Spirit

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