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Sunday, August 10, 2008

Nirvana Live on Planet Earth: Band History

Nirvana Live

Nirvana was a popular American grunge rock band from Aberdeen, Washington. With the lead single "Smells Like Teen Spirit" from the band's 1991 album Nevermind, Nirvana exploded into the mainstream, bringing along with it an offshoot of punk and alternative rock that the mainstream media of the time referred to as grunge. Other Seattle grunge bands such as Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden also gained in popularity, and, as a result, alternative rock became a dominant genre on radio and music television during the early-to-middle 90s.

As Nirvana's frontman, Kurt Cobain found himself referred to in the media as the "spokesman of a generation", with Nirvana the "flagship band" of "Generation X".[1] Cobain was uncomfortable with the attention, and placed his focus on the band's music, challenging the band's audience with their third album In Utero. While Nirvana's mainstream popularity waned in the months following its release, their core audience cherished the band's dark interior, particularly after their 1993 performance on MTV Unplugged.

Nirvana's brief run ended with the death of Cobain in 1994, but the band's popularity expanded in the years that followed. Eight years after Cobain's death, "You Know You're Right", an unfinished demo that the band recorded two months prior to Cobain's death, topped radio playlists around the world. Since their debut, the band has sold more than fifty million albums worldwide (see also Best selling music artists), including more than ten million copies of Nevermind in the US alone. Nirvana remains a consistent presence on radio stations worldwide.

Early years Nirvana Live on Planet Earth:

Cobain and Krist Novoselic met in 1985. Both were fans of The Melvins, and both were interested in forming a band. In the initial months, the pair worked with several drummers, including Aaron Burckhard and Dale Crover of The Melvins, who played on their first demos. At the same time, the band went through a series of names, including Skid Row, Pen Cap Chew, and Ted Ed Fred, before finally settling on Nirvana in February of 1988. A couple of months later, the band finally settled on a drummer, Chad Channing.

Nirvana's first album, Bleach, was released by Sub Pop Records in 1989. 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.

Though he did not actually play on the album, Jason Everman was credited as playing guitar on Bleach because he put up the money for the recording sessions: $606.17. After the album was completed, Everman had a brief and contentious stay with the band as a second guitar player, but was sacked following their first US tour. Not long after, he briefly played bass with Soundgarden before joining the band Mind Funk.

In early 1990, the band began working with producer Butch Vig on recordings for the follow-up to Bleach. During the sessions, Kurt and Krist realized that Chad wasn't the drummer the band needed, and he was let go after the sessions were complete. After a few weeks with Dale Crover of The Melvins filling in, they hired Mudhoney drummer Dan Peters, with whom they recorded the song "Sliver". Later that year, Buzz Osbourne 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.

Nevermind Nirvana Live on Planet Earth:

Following repeated recommendation by Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon, David Geffen signed Nirvana to DGC Records in 1990. The band subsequently began recording its first major label album. The result, Nevermind, is now widely regarded as a classic.

For the album, the band decided to continue working with Vig. Rather than recording at Vig's Madison studio as they had in 1990, the band shifted to Sound City Studios in Los Angeles. 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, after a few days, both Vig and the band realized that they were unhappy with how the mixes were turning out. As a result, they decided to call in someone else to oversee the mixing, with DGC supplying a list of possible options. The list contained several familiar names, including Scott Litt (known for his work with R.E.M.) and Ed Stasium (known for his work with The Smithereens). However, Cobain feared that bringing in known mixers would result in the album sounding like the work of those bands. He decided to choose the guy at the bottom of the list next to the name 'Slayer': Andy Wallace. (Wallace co-produced Slayer's 1990 album Seasons in the Abyss.)

Wallace brought to the album a completely different mindset, adding layers of reverb and studio trickery to give the album a glossy polish. A few months after the album's release, Cobain complained in the press that Wallace had made Nevermind sound too slick, even though Wallace had been his own choice and the band themselves had been involved in the mixing process. Even if the band was disappointed at the sound of the album, Wallace had successfully tempered the band's indie rock leanings and created a mainstream-ready rock sound that others would attempt to duplicate for the next decade.

Initially, Nevermind, wasn't expected to sell more than 500,000 copies. Instead, the album was certified triple-platinum (three million copies) in the US less than six months after its release. The highly infectious single "Smells Like Teen Spirit" received heavy airplay on MTV,kicking Michael Jackson off the Billboard inspiring a slew of imitators and bringing the grunge sound into the mainstream. The popularity of "alternative" rock, as well as the sidelining of hair metal, is often credited to Nevermind. In January of 1992, the album reached the top of the Billboard album charts, replacing Michael Jackson's album Dangerous, an act often considered the defining symbol of the rise of alternative music over pop. Citing exhaustion, the band decided not to undertake another US tour in support of Nevermind, instead opting to make a handful of performances later that year.

After the release of Nevermind, Nirvana garnered heavy press attention; in many interview sessions, the band explained how they did not think of themselves as a grunge band and that infact they weren't even aware of what grunge was and rather, thought of themselves as a just another rock band.

In February of 1992, following the band's Australian tour, Cobain married Courtney Love in Hawaii. Love gave birth to a daughter, Frances Bean the following August. Just days after Frances Bean's birth, Nirvana performed one of its best-known concerts, headlining at the Reading Festival. 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. At one point in the show, Cobain related to the crowd the recent birth of his daughter, and succeeded in having the crowd chant "We love you, Courtney!" in unison. 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 and given that they hadn't rehearsed in six months. Instead, the performance ended up being one of the most memorable of their career.

Not quite two weeks later, Nirvana put on a memorable performance at the MTV Video Music Awards. MTV had wanted the band to play "Smells Like Teen Spirit", but the band wanted to play a new song called "Rape Me". MTV was appalled at the idea of a song called "Rape Me", and eventually agreed that the band could play "Lithium" instead, the band's then-current single. When the band began their performance, Kurt strummed and sang the first few bars of "Rape Me", giving the MTV execs a solid shock before jumping 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. Unfortunately, he misjudged the landing, and the bass ended up bouncing off of his forehead, forcing 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 B-sides and rarities, in December of 1992. Many of Nirvana's BBC radio sessions and unreleased early recordings were starting to circulate via trading circles and illegal bootlegs, so the album served to beat the bootleggers to the punch. The album contained such fan favorites as "Sliver", "Dive", "Been a Son", and "Aneurysm" as well as covers of songs by The Vaselines, a band that became more popular as a result of Nirvana's covers.

In Utero Nirvana Live on Planet Earth:

For 1993's In Utero, the band brought in producer Steve Albini, perhaps best known for his work on the Pixies album Surfer Rosa. The sessions with Albini were productive and notably quick: the initial version of the album was recorded and mixed in two weeks, a far cry from the months spent recording and mixing Nevermind.

Bringing in Albini appeared to be a deliberate move on Nirvana's part to give the album a rawer, more unpolished sound, as if the band wanted to alienate or distance some of their new "mainstream" audience who'd paid little or no attention to the alternative, obscure, or experimental bands Nirvana saw as their forebearers. For example, one song on In Utero that featured 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'd always wanted Nirvana to have: a "natural" recording without layers and layers of studio trickery.

Following its release, fans fell under the impression that the band wanted this distorted masterpiece. However, in reality, the band was actually 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" didn't 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. Litt also remixed "Pennyroyal Tea", but Albini's version was used on the album. (DGC later planned to release Litt's remix as a single.)

With In Utero, the band also faced corporate censorship. Giant store chains Kmart and Wal-Mart refused to carry the album, citing song titles like "Rape Me" and Kurt's plastic-fetus collage on the album's artwork as too controversial for the "family-oriented" chains. The band decided to abide by the request, and compiled a version of the album with "clean" artwork and "Rape Me" retitled "Waif Me". Other than the inclusion of Litt's mix of "Pennyroyal Tea", however, the music on the album was identical to the wider release. When asked about the edited version, Kurt noted that he could relate to the small-town residents that had no other local music stores and were forced to buy their music at Kmart.

While "Heart-Shaped Box" was received warmly by alternative and mainstream radio, and In Utero debuted at number one on the Billboard Album chart, the album didn't enjoy the same success as Nevermind. When the band embarked on the US In Utero tour, its first major tour of the States since the success of "Smells Like Teen Spirit", it regularly played to half-filled arenas, stymied by the lack of tour support for Nevermind and the challenging new release. (For touring in support of In Utero, the band added Pat Smear of the punk rock band The Germs as a second guitarist.)

In November of 1993, the band decided to change direction and sat down for an appearance on MTV Unplugged. The sessions revealed the depth of Cobain's songwriting, which had often been buried under the sonic fury of the band's sound. The song selection also demonstrated Cobain's broad musical interests through his choice of cover songs. It became a hallmark moment of Nirvana's history, if not amplified by the tragedy soon to follow.

In early 1994, the band embarked on a European tour. While the tour started off well, the performances gradually declined, with Kurt looking bored and distracted during the shows, particularly during the Italian leg of the tour. Following a tour stop at Terminal Eins in Munich, Germany, on March 1st, Cobain was diagnosed with bronchitis and severe laryngitis. The next night's show at the same venue was cancelled. On the morning of March 4th, Cobain was found unconscious by Courtney Love and 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 cancelled, 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 rehab. After less than a week in rehab, Cobain climbed over the wall of the facility and flew back to Seattle. A week later, on Friday, April 8, 1994, Cobain's lifeless body was discovered by an electrician at his Seattle home, effectively dissolving Nirvana. (More information regarding the circumstances of Cobain's death can be found in the article for Kurt Cobain.)

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