Formed in: 1987, Aberdeen, Washington
Key Albums: Nevermind (1991), In Utero (1993)
Nirvana are one of the most well-known and successful rock groups in the history of recorded music. The trio from Seattle were fronted by Kurt Cobain (born February 20, 1967, died April 5, 1994), and featured future Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl on drums. Their second and third albums, 1991's Nevermind and 1993's In Utero, are two of the biggest selling records in history. With their legacy preserved by the shotgun suicide of Cobain in 1994, Nirvana retains the air of legend.
Nirvana were born in Aberdeen, Washington, in 1985, when Cobain and bassist Krist Novoselic were introduced by their mutual friend, Buzz Osborne, of The Melvins. Osborne had been instrumental in Cobain's musical growth, taking along the 14-year-old Kurt to his first-ever rockshow: Black Flag. Growing up in the "redneck, backwoods" logging town, Cobain was an intense loner who sought refuge in records.
Playing gigs around Aberdeen and Olympia, the budding Nirvana developed a strong local following. Recording demos with Jack Endino, the band caught the attention of nascent Seattle label Sub Pop. They agreed to put out Nirvana's debut album. The $606.17 it cost to record such —cemented in legend on the liner-notes— was donated by Dylan Carlson, a friend of the band who was listed as having played 'guitar' on the recordings, but was really more a patron. Grohl, such a signature part of Nirvana, didn't arrive until the next album.
Bleach, the finished record, was released in 1989; its raucous garage-rock topped off with lyrics about "life in Aberdeen." Playing on the role of outsider, Cobain's lyrics immediately struck a chord with disenfranchised youth in the US and Europe. Whilst Bleach's initial sales of 35,000 copies seem scant compared to later Nirvana albums, it represented an underground breakthrough. Championed by bands like Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr., and receiving intense critical acclaim, Nirvana were courted by major labels. At the recommendation of Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon, they signed with David Geffen's DGC.
In 1991, Nirvana became the biggest band in the world. Essentially on the back of one song: "Smells Like Teen Spirit." With its title taken from a piece of graffiti spray-painted by Bikini Kill's Kathleen Hanna, the song was Cobain's attempt to "rip off The Pixies." When the band first played it to Butch Vig, the producer in charge of their second album, he could barely contain his excitement. "It was awesome sounding," Vig would tell Rolling Stone. "I was pacing around the room, trying not to jump up and down in ecstasy."
The cut was a monstrous hit, setting the table for the incredible success of record number two, Nevermind. Geffen, proving they had no idea what they were onto, initially only pressed 400,000 copies. It has ended up selling over 26 million copies. Of course, its growth was slow; having debuted only at #144 in the US.
Though others could see the writing on the wall (the Village Voice called Nevermind "the catchiest, chock-full-o-anthems record since [Bon Jovi's] Slippery When Wet"), Cobain remained defiant. "I'm not into ambition or salesmanship," Cobain said, at the time. "I don't see Nirvana getting as big as Metallica or Guns n' Roses," he'd later offer, even after his band was on its way to Gold Status.
In some ways, this foreshadowed Cobain's contentious relationship with the masses. "I just can't accept that mainstream macho-dickhead attitude. I wouldn't be comfortable having that many people in my audience every night that are like that," he lamented. Speaking to Shark zine in 1991, he burned with resentment, saying he was "disgusted" at "how spineless, lethargic, and guilty" Generation X was. If this was Cobain being spokesperson for a generation, he wasn't pulling any punches.