With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us…
It’s one of the greatest album openers of all time – on what is arguably one of the greatest rock albums of all time. And, believe it or not, it’s twenty years old this month…
Released in September 1991, Nirvana’s second album, Nevermind, had an immediate and dramatic impact on the music scene (even going so far as to knock Michael Jackson’s Dangerous off the top spot in the US album charts). It has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide in the twenty years since its release, making it almost certainly the biggest selling alternative rock album of all time and placing ‘tragic singer’ Kurt Cobain straight into the canon of rock legends alongside the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.
In September 1991, I was a troubled, music-loving 15 year old; just the right impressionable age to be utterly blown away by Nevermind. And blow me away it did. I couldn’t stop listening to it – and I was not the only one. It became one of those albums that was glued to the stereo at every single drunken teenage house party I went to over the next few years. It was on all our personal stereos, it went everywhere with us.
Friends formed bands and covered Smells Like Teen Spirit and Territorial Pissings (“Come on people now, smile on your brother and everybody get together, try to love one another right now…”). We all wore the black and yellow stoned smiley face ‘corporate rock whores’ Nirvana t-shirts, big boots and baggy checked shirts, just like Kurt. We moshed to his music like things possessed – and for many of us, it went deeper than the music; Kurt powerfully articulated our rage with the world, our rage with ourselves, our anger and confusion.
But that wasn’t the case for everyone.
It’s a truism that every underground musical scene that breaks into the mainstream ends up being sold back to the kids by that very same mainstream (Danny the Dealer’s immortal words in Withnail & I spring to mind here: “They’re sellin’ hippy wigs in Woolworths, man. The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over, and, as Presumin’ Ed here has so consistently pointed out, we have failed to paint it black”), but the impact of Nevermind and grunge went further than any scene had done before.
Without meaning to, and to his absolute horror, Kurt Cobain killed alternative rock for much of the 1990s and beyond. Grunge (and for ‘grunge’ read ‘Nirvana’ – despite the fact that Pearl Jam’s 1991 album Ten initially outsold Nevermind, Kurt, Krist and Dave might as well have been the only band in town) was such a runaway success that every major label wanted their own Nirvana, and fell over themselves to sign even the most talentless copycats (while often ignoring some of the more interesting bands, thus literally creating a highly commercialised and unrepresentative version of the grunge scene).
High-priced copies of what was originally cheap and practical ‘grunge fashion’ were in every style magazine and on the catwalks at fashion weeks the world over – and even put in a particularly cringeworthy performance on the tacky British daytime TV show This Morning. Tabloid journalists and paparazzi photographers constantly stalked Kurt and Courtney for a tiny hint of any sort of scandal (and, sadly, were amply rewarded in the process – the massive and intrusive levels of press interest which were a byproduct of such enormous success almost certainly contributed to Kurt’s death).
The fact is, the release of this one album – albeit a brilliant one – indirectly led to what had been the alternative becoming the mainstream and staying there. Admittedly, that did give some bands some well deserved success (especially on the punk and metal scenes), but it has taken almost all of those twenty years since the release of Nevermind for the wider guitar-based musical underground as a whole to truly and fully recover. And this is (still) important, because any music scene in any stage of its development and success is only ever as healthy as its underground.
Despite this disproportionate sociological and musical impact on both sides of the Atlantic – the kind of thing that Hunter S Thompson described as “the energy of a whole generation com[ing] to a head in a long fine flash” – it’s got to be remembered (at all times!) that Nevermind is still a great album. And it still speaks to people. It’s still a massively powerful collection of songs. I’ve seen teenagers who weren’t even born when Kurt Cobain wrote Smells Like Teen Spirit going absolutely nuts to the tune, leaping and moshing just like my friends and I did back in the early 90s.
Even for me, a fan who is now not far off a decade older than Kurt was when he died, Nevermind still makes my heart soar. Listening to it on repeat as I wrote this post, I found myself with a shit-eating grin on my face – the fact that this album can still make me smile, still make me feel good, still resonate with my emotions, still articulate the inarticulate twenty years after it was released, well, then that still makes it a damn good album in my eyes….