Vintage Nirvana promo photo


Courtesy of the Rock Hall Library and Archive
  • Kurt Cobain
  • Dave Grohl
  • Krist Novoselic

Nirvana accidentally kicked off a cultural revolution with 1991's Nevermind, an album that brought rock & roll kicking and screaming into the modern world.

The Seattle trio disdained the kind of bloated, corporate music that was then dominating the airwaves; as a result, their approach was raw, punk-inspired and messy, and fueled by an underlying desire to ignore (and subvert) the status quo. Nirvana expressed angst, ennui and frustration through their music—but made sure to deliver plenty of catharsis as well.


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The night before Nevermind hit stores, Nirvana played a sold-out club show in Boston. It was September 1991, and buzz around the Seattle trio was already at a fever pitch there thanks to early radio play for the adrenaline jolt "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Appropriately, Nirvana's Boston set was noisy, distortion-fueled and completely frenzied: Frontman Kurt Cobain screamed his throat raw and pounded out shredded guitar riffs, as bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl provided a roiling rhythmic backdrop.

It was one of the major tangible, public hints that the Seattle trio was something special, and different from every other rock band clawing their way up from the underground. Still, it's not as though Nirvana was trying to change the world—in fact, hours before the show, MTV News filmed the band nonchalantly playing Crisco-greased Twister with the night's opening act, Smashing Pumpkins.

However, after Nevermind hit stores—selling enough to debut at No. 144 on the Billboard charts—things took off quickly. Two months after release, the album was platinum, and "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was a bona fide radio and MTV hit. Out of seemingly nowhere, the trio was a sensation.

Nirvana was no overnight success, however. Aberdeen, Washington, native Cobain had dabbled in music and art since high school, and officially formed the band with Novoselic in 1987. The nascent group played sporadic shows and wrote original music while figuring out next steps. These included a 1988 7-inch single (a cover of Shocking Blue's "Love Buzz") and a full-length LP, Bleach, which arrived in June 1989 on venerable indie label Sub Pop.

Lo-fi and low-budget, Bleach was a tangled morass of metal and punk that sold a respectable 40,000 copies upon release. Extensive touring in Europe and the U.S. followed—including some West Coast dates with one of Cobain's idols, Sonic Youth—as did initial sessions for a new album with Butch Vig.

But Nirvana as we knew it finally solidified in fall 1990: Grohl joined in October, ending a drummer revolving door that had plagued the band since the start, and a few months later, the band left Sub Pop and signed with major label DGC Records. (Not coincidentally, this was also Sonic Youth's label.)

On paper, this new lineup made perfect sense. Grohl was a veteran of the Washington, D.C. punk and hardcore scene, which aligned well with the rest of the group's inspirations; after all, Novoselic and Cobain cemented their musical partnership over a love of Pacific Northwest metal-punks the Melvins.

Still, Nirvana ultimately sounded so different from everyone else because Cobain had diverse musical tastes. Although he was an avowed fan of underground bands (the Vaselines, Pixies, Butthole Surfers), poppier college rock (R.E.M., Smithereens) and lo-fi indie rock, his record collection skewed toward solid classic rock as well— everything from Aerosmith and the Beatles to Black Sabbath and AC/DC.

Bits and pieces of these influences emerged on Nevermind, which ended up being produced by Vig and was considered to be radio-friendly. Live, however, was another story: Nirvana at the time was a freight train with no brakes, barreling through sets with self-destruction in mind—especially after Nevermind went nuclear. Look no further than the band's 1992 Saturday Night Live appearance, where they destroyed Grohl's drumkit after the performance of "Territorial Pissings."

Indeed, this sudden stardom was odd and difficult for the band. Although the type of fuzzy, sludgy music Nirvana favored had been popular in the Pacific Northwest for years, suddenly it was mainstream and had a name: grunge. In certain circles, grunge was even more about fashion than music—a representation of everything the group disdained. To add to the whirlwind, Nevermind's success also coincided with Cobain getting together with (and subsequently marrying) Courtney Love; to his great delight, their daughter Frances Bean was born in August 1992.

As 1993 dawned, Nirvana traveled to Minnesota to record In Utero with Steve Albini. This album was both more abrasive and more commercial: Lead single "Heart-Shaped Box" featured the band's trademark loud-quiet-loud arrangements, but the stripped-back "All Apologies" featured a prominent cello. Later in 1993, after a full year of tour dates, Nirvana revisited the tone of the latter song during a taping of MTV Unplugged, where they covered Meat Puppets, Lead Belly, David Bowie and Cobain's beloved Vaselines.

In early 1994, Cobain's heroin addiction—which had spiraled as Nevermind became successful and then became a constant presence in the years since—and chronic stomach pain came to a head. He overdosed on Rohypnol in Rome in March and, after leaving a Los Angeles rehab facility in April, committed suicide. Cobain was found dead above a garage on his property on April 8.

Decades after Nevermind was released and Cobain's death, Nirvana remains massively popular, however. In fact, their music has resonated with (and appealed to) a healthy amount of new fans, who were too young to remember the frontman when he was alive.

When Grohl, Novoselic and second guitarist Pat Smear performed at Nirvana's Rock Hall induction, they proved that point with gusto. Joan Jett, Lorde, Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon and St. Vincent sang in place of Cobain—and each woman's performance underscored different facets of his singular, uncommon talent.