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NIRVANA: Kurt Cobain and Novoselic met in 1985. Both were fans of The Melvins, and often frequented the band's practice space. After a couple of false starts at forming their own band, the duo recruited drummer Aaron Burckhard, creating the first incarnation of what would eventually become Nirvana. Cobain later described the sound of the band when they first started as "a Gang of Four and Scratch Acid ripoff." Within a few months, Burckhard was fired from the band. He was temporarily replaced by Dale Crover of the Melvins, who played on the band's first demos. Dave Foster then began a brief tenure as the band's drummer.
During its initial months, the band went through a series of names, including Skid Row, Pen Cap Chew, and Ted Ed Fred. The band finally settled on Nirvana in early 1988, which Cobain said was chosen because "I wanted a name that was kind of beautiful or nice and pretty instead of a mean, raunchy punk rock name like the Angry Samoans." Nirvana played their first show under the name that March. A couple of months later, the band finally settled on a drummer, Chad Channing.
Nirvana's first release was the single "Love Buzz/Big Cheese" in 1988 on Seattle independent record label Sub Pop. The following year, the band released its first album, Bleach. To record Bleach, the band turned to noted local producer Jack Endino, who had recorded the band's first studio demos. Bleach was highly influenced by The Melvins, by the heavy dirge-rock of Mudhoney, and by the 70s rock of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. Novoselic noted in a 2001 interview with Rolling Stone that the band had played a tape in their van while on tour that had an album by The Smithereens on one side and an album by the black metal band Celtic Frost on the other, and noted that the combination probably played an influence as well. Bleach became a favorite of college radio stations nationally, but gave few hints of where the band would find itself two years later.
The money for the recording sessions for Bleach, listed as $606.17 on the album sleeve, was supplied by Jason Everman. Everman was introduced to Cobain by Dylan Carlson, but had known Channing since the fifth grade. Everman began hanging out with the band, and offered to loan the money to them for the recording. Though Everman did not actually play on the album, he was credited for playing guitar on Bleach because, according to Novoselic, they "wanted to make him feel more at home in the band." After the album was completed, Everman had a brief and contentious stay with the band as a second guitar player, but was fired following their first US tour.
In a late 1989 interview, Cobain noted that the band's music was changing. He said, "The early songs were really angry [. . . ] But as time goes on the songs are getting poppier and poppier as I get happier and happier. The songs are now about conflicts in relationships, emotional things with other human beings." In April 1990, the band began working with producer Butch Vig at Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin on recordings for the follow-up to Bleach. During the sessions, Kurt and Krist became disenchanted with Channing's drumming, and Channing expressed frustration at not being actively involved in songwriting. Not long after the sessions were complete, Channing was gone from the band. After a few weeks with Dale Crover of The Melvins filling in, Nirvana hired Mudhoney drummer Dan Peters, with whom they recorded the song "Sliver". A few weeks later, Buzz Osborne of The Melvins introduced them to Dave Grohl, who was looking for a new band following the sudden break-up of D.C. hardcore punks Scream. Disenchanted with Sub Pop and with the Smart Studios sessions generating interest, Nirvana decided to look for a deal with a major record label.
"Smells Like Teen Spirit," the first single from the band's breakthrough release Nevermind (1991). The song was a worldwide hit, and its "quiet verses with wobbly, chorused guitar, followed by big, loud hardcore-inspired choruses" became a much-emulated template in alternative rock. Following repeated recommendations by Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon, Nirvana signed to DGC Records in 1990. The band subsequently began recording its first major label album, Nevermind. They were offered a number of producers to choose from, but ultimately held out for Butch Vig. Rather than recording at Vig's Madison studio as they had in 1990, they shifted to Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, Los Angeles, California. For two months, the band worked through a variety of songs in their catalog. Some of the songs, including "In Bloom" and "Breed", had been in the band's repertoire for years, while others, including "On a Plain" and "Stay Away", lacked finished lyrics until mid-way through the recording process. After the recording sessions were completed, Vig and the band set out to mix the album. However, the recording sessions had run behind schedule and the resulting mixes were deemed unsatisfactory. Slayer mixer Andy Wallace was brought in to create the final mix. After the album's release members of Nirvana expressed dissatisfaction with the polished sound the mixer had given Nevermind.
Initially, DGC Records was hoping to sell 250,000 copies of Nevermind, which was the same level they had achieved with Sonic Youth's Goo. However, the album's first single "Smells Like Teen Spirit" quickly gained momentum, thanks in part to significant airplay of the song's music video on MTV. As they toured Europe during late 1991, the band found that the shows were dangerously oversold, that television crews were becoming a constant presence onstage, and that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was almost omnipresent on radio and music television. By Christmas 1991, Nevermind was selling 400,000 copies a week in the US. On January 11, 1992, the album reached number one on the Billboard album charts, replacing Michael Jackson's album Dangerous. The album also topped the charts in numerous countries worldwide. The month Nevermind reached number one, Billboard proclaimed, "Nirvana is that rare band that has everything: critical acclaim, industry respect, pop radio appeal, and a rock-solid college/alternative base."
In February 1992, following the band's Pacific Rim tour, Cobain married Hole frontwoman Courtney Love in Hawaii. Love gave birth to a daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, the following August. Citing exhaustion, the band decided not to undertake another U.S. tour in support of Nevermind, instead opting to make only a handful of performances later that year. Just days after Frances Bean's birth, Nirvana performed one of its best-known concerts, headlining at the Reading Festival in England. Amid rumors about Cobain's health and the possibility the band might break up, Cobain entered the stage in a wheelchair as a practical joke, then proceeded to get up and join the rest of the band in tearing through an assortment of old and new material. Dave Grohl related in 2005 on the radio program Loveline that the band was genuinely concerned beforehand that the show would be a complete disaster, given all that had happened in the months leading up to the show. Instead, the performance ended up being one of the most memorable of their career.
Cobain and Novoselic at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards. Less than two weeks later, Nirvana performed at the MTV Video Music Awards. During the first rehearsal for the show, Cobain announced that they were going to play a new song during the broadcast, and the band rehearsed "Rape Me". MTV's executives were appalled by the song, and, according to show producer Amy Finnerty, the executives believed that the song was about them. They insisted that the band could not play "Rape Me", even threatening to throw Nirvana off of the show and stop airing their videos entirely. After a series of intense discussions, MTV and Nirvana agreed that the band would play "Lithium", their latest single. When the band began their performance, Cobain strummed and sang the first few bars of "Rape Me", one last jab at MTV's executives, before breaking into "Lithium". Near the end of the song, frustrated that his amp had stopped functioning, Novoselic decided to toss his bass into the air for dramatic effect. He misjudged the landing, and the bass ended up bouncing off his forehead, causing him to stumble off the stage in a daze. As Cobain trashed their equipment, Grohl ran to the mic and began yelling "Hi, Axl!" repeatedly, referring to Guns N' Roses singer Axl Rose, with whom the band and Courtney had had a bizarre encounter prior to the show.
Nirvana released Incesticide, a collection of rarities and B-sides, in December 1992. Many of Nirvana's radio sessions and unreleased early recordings were starting to circulate via trading circles and illegal bootlegs, so the album served to circumvent the bootleggers. The album contained songs from previously released singles and EPs, including "Sliver" and "Dive", as well as material from the band's sessions for the BBC, including "Been a Son", "Aneurysm", and covers of songs by The Vaselines and Devo.
For 1993's In Utero, the band brought in producer Steve Albini, well-known for his work on the Pixies album Surfer Rosa. As Nevermind had brought in a new audience of listeners who had little or no experience with the alternative, obscure, or experimental bands Nirvana saw as their forebears, bringing in Albini appeared to be a deliberate move on Nirvana's part to give the album a raw, less-polished sound. For example, one song on In Utero featuring long periods of shrill feedback noise was titled, ironically, "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter". (In the industry, a "radio-friendly unit shifter" describes an "ideal" album: one capable of heavy radio play and ultimately selling many copies, or "units".) However, Cobain insisted that Albini's sound was simply the one he had always wanted Nirvana to have: a "natural" recording without layers of studio trickery. The sessions with Albini were productive and notably quick, and the album was recorded and mixed in two weeks for a cost of $25,000.
Several weeks after the completion of the recording sessions, stories ran in the Chicago Tribune and Newsweek that quoted sources claiming DGC considered the album "unreleasable." As a result, fans began to believe that the band's creative vision might be compromised by their label. While the stories about DGC shelving the album were untrue, the band actually was unhappy with certain aspects of Albini's mixes. Specifically, they thought the bass levels were too low, and Cobain felt that "Heart-Shaped Box" and "All Apologies" did not sound "perfect". Longtime R.E.M. producer Scott Litt was called in to help remix those two songs, with Cobain adding additional instrumentation and backing vocals.
In Utero debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 album chart in September 1993. Time's Christopher John Farley wrote in his review of the album, "Despite the fears of some alternative-music fans, Nirvana hasn't gone mainstream, though this potent new album may once again force the mainstream to go Nirvana." However, the album did not achieve the same success as Nevermind. That fall, Nirvana embarked on a US tour, its first major tour of the States since the success of "Smells Like Teen Spirit". For the tour, the band added Pat Smear of the punk rock band The Germs as a second guitarist.
In November 1993, Nirvana performed for MTV Unplugged. The band opted to stay away from their most recognizable songs, playing only one of their hits, "Come as You Are". Grohl later related, "We knew we didn't want to do an acoustic version of Teen Spirit. ... That would've been horrendously stupid." The setlist also included a few relatively obscure covers, with members of the Meat Puppets joining the band for covers of three of their songs. While rehearsals for the show had been problematic, MTV Unplugged producer Alex Coletti noted that the actual taping went exceedingly well, with every song performed in one take and with the complete set lasting under an hour, which were both unusual for Unplugged sessions. Following the band's set-ending performance of Lead Belly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night", Coletti tried to convince the band to perform an encore. "Kurt said, 'I can't top that last song.' And when he said that, I backed off. 'Cause I knew he was right." The band's performance debuted on MTV on December 14, 1993.
In early 1994, the band embarked on a European tour. Following a tour stop at Terminal Eins in Munich, Germany, on March 1, Cobain was diagnosed with bronchitis and severe laryngitis. The next night's show at the same venue was canceled. In Rome, on the morning of March 4, Love found Cobain unconscious and he was rushed to the hospital. The doctor told a press conference that the singer had reacted to a combination of prescription Rohypnol and alcohol. The rest of the tour was canceled, including a planned leg in the UK.
In the ensuing weeks, Cobain's heroin addiction resurfaced. An intervention was organized, and Cobain was convinced to check into drug rehabilitation. After less than a week in rehabilitation, Cobain climbed over the wall of the facility and took a plane back to Seattle. A week later, on Friday, April 8, 1994, Cobain was found dead of an apparently self-inflicted shotgun blast to the head at his Seattle home, effectively dissolving Nirvana.
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