Hey, let’s talk about Nirvana. The band most iconically known for the rise and fall of Kurt Cobain, bringing grunge and alternative music to the mainstream and changing rock music forever. That’s all common knowledge, but I want to speak about is something else. I want to suggest that this 3 piece from a small logging town in Washington, that only ever wanted to be as big as sonic youth was; that last iconic band. Now you might think that is crazy, but here, for a second, try and think of a band post Nirvana that has had the global dominance and rapture, only shared by the likes of The Beatles, Queen, Pink Floyd and a few others. Name any?
Now there is a point to be made that groups such as Radiohead, The Red Hot Chili Peppers and U2 have achieved this in the post Nirvana age. I however disagree and I’ll explain why.
Nevermind was the staple mark for not just Nirvana but a generation of music fans, with the second of what would be their total of three albums, being the one to bring the group to worldwide attention. Before this point in time the post punk, alternative music scene of the early 1990’s was receiving minimal or in most cases no radio play time, occupying it’s own corner in the rock and roll universe and being left to develop on indie labels and underground stations. It was largely being ignored by the big Record labels, not looking for acts outside the dominating chart formal of the 90’s. On a few occasions an act did break through with a big label, R.E.M being the best example, however 9/10 times it was an excuse for a tax right off, but then suddenly Nevermind arrived, and within 5 months was selling 300,000 copies a week. This album was not the spark that that the alternative scene needed, however the catalyst bridging gap between alternate and the mainstream. Now it has been reported heavily by everyone from Courtney Love to Dave Grohl that no one had believed the album would have achieved what it did, people involved in the album were hoping that it would at least do as well as the last Sonic Youth album that had sold 200,000 copies and definitely had not seen it achieving this in the rapid time frame. This has been sighted as one of the reason’s for Kurt to take his life only 3 short years after the album’s release. The impact it had was just too big for one man to hold. After the release of Nevermind, label’s could see the aggressive, moody, lyrically relatable and accessible music having great success on this disconnected youth who were looking for something to believe in. The whole Rock and Roll universe had flipped on it’s side and now Labels were waking up to this sea of unused talent. Soon the media machine was also on board plugging ever alternate sound from Nirvana sound a likes to acts like Sound Garden, Nine Inch Nails and Pearl Jam, all of which had been seen as unplayable on mainstream radio to this point. Quickly the music which had branded itself as an alternate to the mainstream was now quickly becoming the mainstream. It was almost Beatlemania for the 90’s.
Then, on 5th of April 1994, in the room above his garage, Kurt Cobain died. Grunge had been on life support since before Kurt’s death and now with the captain gone, the ship was left to drift and soon would fade out. Although Grunge and Nirvana had gone from mainstream music, they had provided an all important bridge, dissolving the lines and borders of the music landscape, leaving behind a music legacy in 1991-93 to be held alongside the punk movement and the summer of love. Thanks to Nirvana, Glam and Corporate rock faded into the background allowing the genre to be dangerous once more, played on mainstream tape decks and radio waves. It was inevitable that soon the music industry would beat to death the alternative scene and move onto the next thing as the generation of Nirvana grow up and the next group would be looking for something to separate them from what they now would refer to as their parents music. So as the late 90’s and early 2000’s arrived radio waves would be filled with mindless pop like the Spice Girls and the Backstreet Boys. As well as hip hop and rap.
Returning to the argument that groups like Radiohead, The Red Hot Chili Peppers and U2 could have this place as an iconic band on the leave of Nirvana and Beatles, I believe without Nirvana the success that they had achieved as alternative act would not have reached the same height. I do agree however that all are important in the alternative genre, however for me none have become as Iconic in the alternative or mainstream scene as Nirvana.
A final note from Alan Cross in his book ‘The Alan Cross Guide to Alternative Rock’, ends Nirvana’s chapter on stating that “When the time is right, Kurt Cobain’s successor will arrive and change the face of rock once again.” To me this point supports my view that no one has changed music or the genre of rock as much or since the little boy from Aberdeen, Washington who just wanted to be as big as Sonic Youth.
Cover image copyright Jessica Frohman