Nirvana: The stories behind every song on Nevermind

The stories behind every song on Nirvana’s Nevermind – the album that changed the sound of rock music forever…

Nirvana: The stories behind every song on Nevermind
Stevie Chick

After their debut album Bleach sent shockwaves throughout the world of alternative music, Nirvana’s 1991 follow-up Nevermind saw the Washington noisemakers elevated to iconic status. From the game-changing opening track to the infectious In Bloom, from the morose Polly to the depressive Something In The Way, Nevermind changed the sound of not only grunge, but rock music forever. Kurt Cobain’s songwriting had evolved into the voice of a generation and the new addition of Dave Grohl on drums provides an even more frantic, punk energy to Nirvana’s inimitable sound.

Here we look back on one of the greatest albums of all time, examining each song in-depth. Even the hidden track Endless, Nameless from later pressings…

1. Smells Like Teen Spirit

Kurt later said that when he sat down to pen the track that secured Nirvana their unexpected crossover into the mainstream, he was trying to write “the ultimate pop song”. Kurt’s main influence had been The Pixies, telling Rolling Stone, “I connected with that band so heavily… We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.” Indeed, Krist Novoselic worried that the song was too Pixies-ish, telling Kurt, “People are really going to nail us for it.” Lyrically, Teen Spirit painted an ambivalent portrait of the indie-rock revolutionaries he’d lived alongside in Olympia, its title drawing upon memories of a night of uncivil disobedience with his friend Kathleen Hanna, who fronted Bikini Kill, her insurrectionary and brilliant riot grrl band with Tobi Vail.

Kathleen later recalled that, in August of 1990, fuelled by a bottle of Canadian Club whisky, the “angry young feminists… decided we’d do a little public service” and graffitied the exterior of a ‘Teen Pregnancy Centre’ which had just opened in town, and was, in fact, “a front for a right-wing operation telling teenage girls they’d go to hell if they had abortions”. She wrote ‘Fake abortion clinic, everyone’ on the walls, while Kurt added, in six-foot-high red letters, ‘God is gay’. Mission accomplished, they continued drinking, and ended up at Kurt’s apartment, where Kathleen scrawled lots of graffiti on his walls, including the words ‘Kurt smells like teen spirit [a deodorant brand]’. “Kurt called me up six months later,” Kathleen added, “and he said, ‘Hey, do you remember that night? There’s a thing you wrote on my wall… it’s actually quite cool, and I want to use it.’”

It was one of the last songs written before Nirvana travelled to California to record Nevermind, Kurt sending producer Butch Vig a cassette of its demo a week ahead of the sessions. “It was a boombox recording of a rehearsal,” Butch remembered to Kerrang!. “Kurt introduced it by saying, ‘Hey Butch, we got some new songs for you, and we also got Dave Grohl – he’s the best drummer in the world!’ Then they clicked into Teen Spirit, with the scratchy guitar at the start. It was so fucking distorted, I could barely hear anything. But underneath the fuzz, I could hear ‘Hello, hello’, melodies and chord structures. And even though the recording was terrible, I was super excited.”

Just before the recording session, Nirvana played through their songs at a nearby rehearsal space. “It blew me away,” Butch recalled. “It was the first time I heard Dave Grohl play live, and it sounded so amazing. I was floored when I heard it. I remember pacing around thinking, ‘Oh my God, this sounds crazy intense.’”

To give Teen Spirit proper emphasis, Butch wanted to use some studio trickery, though Kurt was typically reluctant. “I said, ‘Kurt, I want you to double-track the guitars and vocals, to really make this jump out of the speakers.’ He thought it was ‘cheating’, especially with his vocals. So I had him do multiple vocal takes, and he sang them so consistently I could run them at the same time as a double track, and it really made the song sound powerful.”

2. In Bloom

The band had worked on In Bloom during the Smart Studios sessions with Butch for the mooted second Sub Pop album, which ended up serving as a dry-run for Nevermind. When they returned to the track for the sessions at California’s Sound City Studios, it was the first song they worked on for the album. “I was familiar with it because we’d worked on it for Sub Pop,” Butch told VH1’s Classic Albums. “I thought it would be good to start with a song where I was familiar with the arrangements.”

The band had changed since the Smart Studios sessions, however, with the arrival of Dave on the drum stool. And not only did he bring a powerhouse drumming style light years ahead of Chad Channing’s grungy rumble, he was also capable of delivering harmonies to Kurt’s lead vocals, which he first tried out on In Bloom’s woozy, summery chorus, lending the song its high notes. Not that they necessarily came easily to the future Foo Fighters frontman. “He had trouble hitting those stratospheric notes,” wrote biographer Michael Azerrad, “But if he’d blow a take, he’d just take a drag on his cigarette and try again. Many takes later, Vig got what he wanted.”

The finished track delivered one of Nevermind’s most infectious pop moments. The lyrics take a cynical pot-shot at the new fans who’d begun following the band after the underground success of Bleach, who just wanted to sing along with ‘all our pretty songs’ – a message delivered, ironically, via one of Kurt’s most sing-along-able tunes, and with no idea how that cadre of fair-weather fans would swell following Nevermind’s breakthrough. Biographer Charles R Cross, meanwhile, contends that the song was “a thinly disguised portrait” of Kurt’s friend and drug buddy Dylan Carlson, the gun-loving noiser behind drone-metal pioneers Earth, who later served as Kurt’s best man, and bought him the shotgun he used to kill himself.

3. Come As You Are

Though its nagging hookline – ‘And I swear that I don’t have a gun’ – would take on a grim and perhaps unintended meaning in the years following Kurt’s suicide, the lyrics to Come As You Are further demonstrate his penchant for oblique but compelling wordplay. “We wanted them to be almost like children’s songs; we would tell people they were intended to be as simple as possible,” Dave told VH1’s Classic Albums, explaining the elliptical lyrics. “Kurt’s focus was the melody – he used to say that the music comes first and the lyrics come second.”

The music for Come As You Are did indeed come first, and it has long been argued that the circuitous guitar riff that snakes throughout the track was inspired by Eighties, a 1984 single by black-hearted post-punk legends Killing Joke. The similarity between the tunes made Kurt anxious over plans to release Come As You Are as Nevermind’s second single, arguing they should opt for In Bloom instead.

“Kurt was nervous about Come As You Are, because it was too similar to a Killing Joke song,” Nirvana manager Danny Goldberg told author Carrie Borzillo, “but we all thought it was the better song to go with.” In fact, as the campaign for Nevermind began, the group’s management imagined Come As You Are had the most potential to cross over to mainstream audiences, not expecting that Smells Like Teen Spirit – planned as the first single, to awaken the interest of the faithful and the underground kids – would break through as it did.

Danny wryly admitted that Kurt “was right – Killing Joke later did complain about it”, though whether the group ever filed a plagiarism lawsuit remains a murky issue. But Killing Joke guitarist Geordie Walker was still fuming in 1994, telling Guitarist magazine that the group was “very pissed off about that”. He said, “It’s obvious to everyone. Our publisher sent their publisher a letter saying it was, and they went, ‘Boo, never heard of ya!’ But the hysterical thing about Nirvana saying they’d never heard of us was that they’d already sent us a Christmas card!”

Nirvana were indeed fans of Killing Joke, and rapprochement came some years later, after Dave met Killing Joke bassist Paul Raven backstage at a Pantera show. Killing Joke frontman Jaz Coleman later sang their song Requiem with Foo Fighters at a gig in New Zealand, and Dave laid down drum tracks for the group’s self-titled comeback album in 2003. Come As You Are’s single release was accompanied by a promo video – shot two days before the group left for an Australian tour, while Kurt was attempting to kick heroin – that avoided showing his face. Dave later remembered the singer “looked bad, grey. He just looked sad, because he wasn’t using.”

4. Breed

First recorded for a proposed second album for Sub Pop – sessions which later served as the demos the group sent to major labels – Breed was originally titled Imodium, in tribute to the anti-laxative favoured by Tad Doyle, of Seattle heavies Tad, to combat diarrhoea while touring the UK with Nirvana. Tornado-force punk-rock, Breed’s lyrics – ‘I don’t mind if I don’t have a mind’, ‘We can plant a house, we can build a tree’ – showcased Kurt’s gift for crafting witty, purposeful nonsense.

5. Lithium

Nevermind relied heavily on a quiet/loud dynamic, and nowhere more so than on Lithium’s manic depressive fantasy of a man who, possessed by thoughts of suicide, instead joins a religious cult (‘Sunday morning is every day for all I care’). Kurt later admitted that the song reflected “some personal experiences… feeling that death void that the person is feeling – very lonely, sick”.

6. Polly

Like Paper Cuts, Polly was inspired by a gruesome story ripped straight out of the pages of the local newspaper. It detailed an attack in Tacoma, Washington in the mid-’80s, where recently paroled rapist Gerald Friend abducted a 14-year-old girl on her way home from a rock concert, suspending her via a pulley from the ceiling of his mobile home and then submitting her to brutal physical and sexual assault. She only managed to escape with her life after he stopped for petrol and she jumped out of his truck.

Kurt tells the story from the perspective of the rapist, but don’t mistake his empathy for sympathy – this narrative method only helps to make the song all the more unsettling, to make the listener complicit in the horror that unfolds, and make that horror all the more visceral. Kurt wrote the song around the same time as About A Girl, but kept it on the back-burner, reasoning that it wasn’t very Sub Pop. He later recorded it during the sessions for the aborted second album for that label, and re-recorded it for Nevermind, but used the earlier session instead (marking Chad Channing’s sole appearance on Nevermind – not that he was credited for it).

The group had earlier attempted an electric version of the song during sessions for the Blew EP, but left it unfinished (another full-band version, titled New Wave Polly, was recorded for Mark Goodier’s BBC Radio show, and surfaced on Incesticide). But the song is more powerful in its acoustic incarnation.

“It’s very spare and very haunting,” Butch Vig told VH1’s Classic Albums. “Sometimes the quietest songs are the most intense.” The song also won the admiration of no less a figure than Bob Dylan, who remarked of Kurt, “That kid’s got heart.”

7. Territorial Pissings

Perhaps the most unhinged of Nevermind’s three quasi-hardcore punkers, Kurt achieved the harsh, hissy tone that buzzed and howled throughout Territorial Pissings by bypassing his amplifiers and plugging his guitar directly into the mixing desk, an old method for getting a super-distorted guitar sound that dated back to the early, no-budget days of hardcore and left Butch Vig rolling his eyes – though the song’s overdriven, in-the-red roar was nothing to sniff at.

In the lyrics, Kurt invoked his childhood fantasy of being an alien stranded on planet Earth – much like the titular hero of E.T., The Extra Terrestrial – awaiting the return of his real parents to take him back where he belonged, barking, ‘When I was an alien…’. There was no real narrative to Territorial Pissings, however, the song serving as a catalogue of some of Kurt’s finer broken aphorisms: ‘Never met a wise man, if so it’s a woman’ and, most famously of all, ‘Just because you’re paranoid don’t mean they’re not after you.’

The song’s intro, meanwhile, saw Krist Novoselic’s sole turn at the microphone. By his own admission a rotten singer, he appears in the song’s amiably deranged opening seconds, yowling the lyrics to hippy-folk standard Get Together – performed by ’60s bands like Jefferson Airplane, HP Lovecraft and, most famously, The Youngbloods, who scored a U.S. Top Five hit with the song – its exhortations to ‘smile on your brother / Everybody get together / Try to love one another right now’ sounding altogether sarcastic in his comedic bellow. However, Krist later argued that his invocation of flower power was more earnest than many listeners and critics took it, saying, “I wanted to put some corny hippy idealism into it, but it wasn’t that thought through. I like that Youngbloods song! Maybe some baby-boomer [people of an age to have been teens or twentysomethings during the hippy era] will hear that and wonder, ‘Hey, what happened to those ideals?’”

That sense of generational confrontation was reignited when the newly famous band began playing mainstream television shows. The baby boomer producers of said shows, who didn’t understand Nirvana, invariably wanted the group to play their crossover hits, but Territorial Pissings allowed the trio to vent their more uncompromising side. Supposed to play Lithium during their December 1991 appearance on Channel 4’s Tonight With Jonathan Ross, they instead blitzed through Territorial Pissings, while Kurt insisted they play the song as well as Teen Spirit when they guested on influential U.S. variety show Saturday Night Live. The producers fumed when Nirvana trashed their gear at the end of the song, and were positively apoplectic when Krist began French-kissing his bandmates on camera as the final credits rolled.

8. Drain You

The most painstaking production job of all the Nevermind tracks, Drain You was a masterpiece of guitar overdubs. Butch encouraged Kurt to embrace the possibilities of the studio to build a track that was the antithesis of the bare-bones recordings that defined Bleach, yet still delivered a piece of music that was primal, brutal and soul-scouring. In addition to the song’s main guitar part, Butch had Kurt cut five further tracks of guitar, fed through different amps and effects pedals, which the producer panned across throughout, raising and lowering the volume, like a conductor guiding an orchestra – indeed, he described the finished result as “an almost orchestral sound on the guitars”.

Not that the punk-as-fuck Kurt, who’d proved initially reluctant to try other production methods like double-tracking his vocals, leapt willingly at such studio trickery. “I don’t know how I got Kurt to record all those guitar parts,” Butch later told VH1’s Classic Albums. “I think I would lie to him, saying there was a problem on the track, it didn’t record properly or it was out of tune, so let’s just do it again.”

As for the track’s wild mid-song freak-out, 17 bars of free-form feedback and abstract sounds Dave later described as “the Bohemian Rhapsody of Nevermind”, Kurt adulterated the guitar tracks with a boxful of weird toys and noisemakers, including aerosol cans and a squeaky toy mouse. “He was doing all these effects that sounded like steam,” Butch remembers. “It sounded real trippy.” The song’s avant guitarism recalled the experiments of noise-rock pioneers Sonic Youth, who were friends, heroes and former tourmates of Nirvana. Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon recalled hearing Nirvana try out new songs during soundcheck during a tour of Europe the summer before Nevermind. “They would sound dissonant,” Kim told Nirvana biographer Everett True. “Kurt would say afterwards, ‘I really want my next album to sound like you guys.’ (Laughs) I’d say, ‘No, that would be a bad idea.’”

Drain You became one of Kurt’s favourite songs, one he unusually never tired of playing. Originally titled Formula – perhaps in reference to powdered baby milk substitute – its lyrics play out the helpless love an infant feels for its mother, but the song was more likely inspired by Kurt’s brief, intense relationship with Tobi Vail: the song’s opening statement, ‘I’m lucky to have met you’, was something she’d told Kurt. But the song’s vision of love isn’t so benign, harbouring within its romance the possibility of destruction, of being drained and subsumed by your lover, and then left a burrowed-out husk when that love comes to an end.

9. Lounge Act

Written about Kurt’s broken relationship with Tobi Vail – ‘I’ll wear a shield’ refers to the K Records logo tattoo which he got to impress her – an early version of the song contained the line: ‘I hate you because you are so much like me.’ In an unsent letter to Tobi, Kurt vented, “I don’t write songs about you, except Lounge Act, which I do not play, except when my wife is not around.”

10. Stay Away

One of three songs from Nevermind (see also: Breed and Territorial Pissings) that utilised hardcore punk’s thrashing tempo, Stay Away started life as Pay To Play, and was another broadside against the groupthink of the Olympia indie-rock kids, Kurt narrowing his eyes and spitting, ‘Monkey see, monkey do / I’d rather be dead than cool.’ The apocalyptic end-of-song gear-trashing reimagines the destructive chaos of Endless, Nameless in miniature, and is every bit as thrilling.

11. On A Plain

Kurt was a martyr to his bad habits, including composing songs last minute. He penned the lyrics to On A Plain moments before recording it, the opening salvo ‘Let’s start this off without any words’ a dig at his own method. He told journalist Jon Savage the song was “classic alienation”, though his main focus was getting “done, so I can go home”. But the song’s heady melody and heavenly harmonies are enough to carry any half-arsed lyric.

12. Something In The Way

Nevermind’s funereal closer was the album’s most difficult session, Kurt strumming on an old five-string acoustic guitar that wavered in tune, and recording his vocals lying on a sofa in the control room, barely audible. The cello line was Butch’s idea, to evoke the ominous vibe of The Beatles’ I Am The Walrus; cellist Kirk Canning – husband of L7’s Dee Plakas – struggled to match Kurt’s out-of-tune guitar, but Butch says this “gives the song its creepiness”.

13. Endless, Nameless

Following a long afternoon struggling to record Lithium, a frustrated Kurt launched into what would become Nevermind’s hidden track. “The rage and frustration in his voice was fuckin’ scary to hear, because he kind of lost it,” Butch told Kerrang!. “The band followed suit. Then Kurt smashed his guitar to smithereens, and walked out of the room. I was like, ‘Wow, I’m glad I caught that on tape!’ Kurt had smashed up his left-handed Mosrite, so I had to frantically scour LA to find a replacement.”

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