At school there were the kids who skipped classes, who would disappear off down the vennel for a smoke and who were invariably held back in detention. They usually wore Guns n’ Roses, Iron Maiden or Megadeth t-shirts underneath the rather dull blue uniform we had to wear. Then, at some point in my third year, I noticed that they started wearing t-shirts with a big yellow smiley face and the name of a band I hadn’t then heard of, called Nirvana. I’d assumed that this band were not for me, but some months later, a friend whom I find hard to picture wearing a Megadeth t-shirt, and who was not among the crowd who gathered in the vennel at lunchtime, gave me a C90 with Automatic for the People on one side and Nevermind on the other. Well if you could like both… It was as if I had been given a signal that it was ok to like Nirvana. That they were not just another dumb metal band – in 1992, I suspect the term ‘grunge’ hadn’t yet pierced my consciousness. Loud music with lots of distorted guitars and shouty vocals was all heavy metal, And so began the grunge soundtrack to my teenage years.
When Siamese Dream turned up on 52A/52W last month, I said it was a very teenage record. Which is true to the factor of eleventy-stupid of Nevermind. Over a quarter of a century later, I’m struck by the fact that I still often see teenage kids wearing Nirvana t-shirts. And, I wonder, do they actually listen to the records? Or are Nirvana, like the Ramones, a t-shirt band these days? More to the point, it’s perhaps twenty years since I last listened to it all the way through, from beginning to end. What on earth am I going to make of it after all this time?
It’s certainly not twenty years since I last heard the opening riff from Smells Like Teen Spirit but I’m still struck by its power. A perfect distillation of the loud/quiet/loud trick that the Pixies had used to such great effect. I’m sure Kurt Cobain would hate the comparison, but I think those first opening chords are playing a very similar trick to that which Mark Knopfler pulls off with Money for Nothing – although at the time, as I recall, the way to irk the purists was to point out that it was ripping off More Than a Feeling.
On to track two. On reacquaintance with In Bloom it feels very much of its time. It might have been the soundtrack to my early teenage years, but I don’t think I’d want to go back there. I can’t help but hear something of the dumb football chant in it. Come as You Are, on the other hand, is just a brilliant, simple pop song. Everything about it, from the simple but effective opening riff to the watery guitar sound, just works. It’s one of relatively few tracks that actually use the detuned guitars that I associate with grunge (though actually, I think it was probably quite specific to Mudhoney and Soundgarden) Lithium works with the drums serving to remind us all that Dave Grohl, while I don’t think he had any song-writing credits, was always a key part of the band’s sound. Breed, on the other hand, really only has Grohl’s drumming, and the slightly surreal line “We could plant a house, we could build a tree” to recommend it.
I’m less taken by the band’s nods towards thrash punk. Territorial Pissings is a triumph of screaming over song-writing and Drain You feels like it goes on a bit, even though it’s actually only 3 and a half minutes long. On the other hand, the album does have some strong moments on what I still rather anachronistically think of as its second side: On a Plain and Lounge Act are just great three minute pop songs. Musically this is all very simple: not for nothing did an awful lot of people of my age learn to play guitar by picking up the tablature books for Nevermind, but he does have an ear for a melody. Anyone can come up with a melody over the top of a few power chords. But the ability to devise onet that sticks in your head, that you want to hear again, is a harder trick to pull off.
It ends with the simplest track of the lot, Something in the Way where a tale of teenage homelessness is recited in an uncharacteristically muted voice over an acoustic guitar strumming E minor and C while a cellist adds a bit of background colour. The cello is a very grunge string instrument, isn’t it?
The C90 copy I had of this album didn’t have the final track, Endless, Nameless (Endless, Tuneless?) so this week’s album does, as it turns out, have something new to offer me. Suffice to say that I hadn’t missed out. Whatever Nirvana’s strengths as a band were, this kind of improvised sonic collage with a side order of vocal barking is not it (side question: are there any good hidden album tracks? Anywhere? Answers in the comments section…)
So this is generally regarded as the touchstone ‘grunge’ album. Musical labels and categories tend to descend into meaninglessness if you think about them too hard. To some extent, ‘grunge’ became a label to describe ‘music that sounds like Nirvana’. And nobody sounded more like Nirvana than Nirvana. All the same, while I liked this album, even on re-listening, rather more than Fiona or Alex Massie over at RAM Album Club, I’m going to engage in a bit of half-hearted contrarianism: It’s alright; there’s some good song-writing, but it doesn’t belong near the top of all those ‘greatest album‘ lists. It’s a patchy record. It has its moments, but it’s not consistently strong. There is, whisper it, a fair amount of filler on it. Listening to it now, I wonder what Cobain might have gone on to do, had he lived. I rather suspect that Nirvana would not have lasted – that Dave Grohl would almost certainly have gone off to do his own thing whatever had happened. Butthe follow-up record, In Utero showed signs that he was developing as a musician (I like the fact that he begins the opening track with the line “Teenage angst has paid off well. Now I’m bored and old.”) even if, to my ears, it was ruined by Steve Albini’s production. I suspect that Nirvana would be less culturally significant were he still around today – that probably there would not be 14 year olds wearing their t-shirts, but I wonder if he might be ploughing a similar furrow to, for example, former Screaming Trees front-man, Mark Lanegan who these days does a rather fine line in gothic disco.
When the mood takes me to indulge in a bit of grunge nostalgia, it’s not the album I put on. Instead, I would probably go first to Copper Blue. Or Beaster if I want something more primal, less restrained. Hell, if want something in the folk-influenced vein of Nirvana Live and Unplugged in New York, I’d reach for Workbook (technical proficiency may not be everything in this game, but I somehow rather doubt that Cobain could play, much less write, something like Sunspots). And I can’t help thinking that the fact that Nirvana are regarded as one of the classic rock bands, while most won’t even have heard of Sugar, goes to show how the music is only really a small part of what decides whether a band becomes not merely successful, but iconic. If, in 1991, when he put out Nevermind, Kurt Cobain had been a balding, overweight thirty-something gay man, was there any chance that the kids going for a smoke in the vennel would have worn his band’s t-shirts? There. I’ve said it. Bob Mould was a better song-writer and a better guitarist than Kurt Cobain.
Highlights: Come As You Are, Lithium, Lounge Act, On A Pla