The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame + Museum

On Exhibit: Nirvana

Wednesday, February 20: 5 p.m.
Posted by Rock Hall
1992 Nirvana concert poster, on exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum

Born on February 20, 1967, today would've been Kurt Cobain's 46th birthday. Emerging from the burgeoning grunge movement of the early 80s – an alternative sub genre that incorporated elements of indie, punk, hardcore and heavy metal – the Cobain-fronted Nirvana came together in 1987, releasing their debut Bleach in 1989, with bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Chad Channing.

In April 1990, Nirvana began work on its second album. With drummer Chad Channing leaving the band, Cobain and Novoselic recorded tracks with Mudhoney drummer Dan Peters and later Dale Crover of the Melvins, both friends from the Seattle music scene. Eight songs were recorded for the group's demo: "Immodium" (later renamed "Breed"), "Dive" (later released as the B-side to "Sliver"), "In Bloom," "Pay to Play" (eventually renamed "Stay Away" and given a new set of lyrics), "Sappy," "Lithium," "Here She Comes Now" (released on Velvet Underground Tribute Album: Heaven and Hell Volume 1) and "Polly." The band added two tracks from Bleach to the tape and used the recording to shop for a new label. Within a few months, the demo tape was circulating among major labels, creating a buzz around the group. The band would eventually sign with David Geffen's DGC label that year, completing Nevermind with producer Butch Vig and new drummer Dave Grohl in June 1991. That original tape is among the artifacts featured in the Rock Hall's Cities and Sounds exhibit, which includes a section devoted to the grunge era, covering 1985 to 1995.  

The release of Nevermind marked a sea change in rock and roll, as the album eschewed  the trappings the genre had fallen into, instead delivering an album bursting with punkish nihilism and quasi-metal power chords. Nirvana blasted into public consciousness with "Smells Like Teen Spirit," a primordial stomp that spins fuzzily off a basic "Louie Louie" riff. The song – and now-iconic music video – helped articulate the dissatisfaction plaguing Generation X-ers. Cobain's searing, sneering vocal indicted slackerdom even as he desperately dodged the trappings of success. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" propelled Nevermind to Number One on Billboard's charts, leaving superstars Michael Jackson and Garth Brooks in its wake. Cobain, ever leery of the music-business game, often refused to perform the song (aside from the odd bowdlerized version) in concert. By 1992, Nirvana were bona fide sensations, appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine that April and making one of their most memorable concert performances at the Reading Festival in England that summer. The 1990 Fender Stratocaster Cobain played (and later smashed) at Reading and that was autographed by all the band members is also featured in the Rock Hall's Cities and Sounds exhibit. The concert film Live at Reading was released in 2009.

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