Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



For many the most thrilling rock band of the post-punk era, and the most successful in the grunge genre, formed in Aberdeen WA '87 around the explosive talents of singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain (b 20 February 1967, d 7 April 1994) and bass player Chris Novoselic (b 16 May '65), first single 'Love Buzz' on Seattle independent Sub-Pop '88. Early drummers Chad Channing and Dale Crover were replaced after corruscating first album Bleach '89 by fresh-faced hardcore punk veteran Dave Grohl (b 14 January 1969); they signed to Geffen, following the example of avant-garde godfathers Sonic Youth; their second album Nevermind '91 was no. 1 USA, top ten UK, while the single 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' became an anthem for a generation that didn't think it was going to get one: its impact could not be measured in sales figures. The visceral thrill of elegantly-titled 'Territorial Pissings' had to be experienced to be believed: producer Butch Vig harnessed electrifying energy to machine-tool precision, achieving Cobain's stated goal of uniting Beatle-esque melody with the power of Black Sabbath. Unfortunately a third element in Nirvana's make up, a punkish moral rigour inherited from their primary influences (hardcore bands like Black Flag), made the resulting success hard to cope with, and Cobain's marriage to the magnificently troublesome Hole vocalist Courtney Love 24 February 1992 (their daughter Frances Bean born in August) didn't help.

On a sessions and rarities compilation Incesticide '92 Cobain went so far as publicly to disown Nirvana's new redneck fanbase; he sought out underground maverick Steve Albini (who had produced the Pixies, a pimary influence on Nirvana) to produce the next album in a bid to assert left-field credentials. The next album In Utero '93 was said to be deliberately ugly because the group wanted to dissociate themselves from the Guns N' Roses element of their following; Geffen was said to hate it and demand that it be remixed; as finally issued, one track was called 'Radio Friendly Unit Shifter': after all this it was patchy compared to Nevermind but still brilliant, and a transatlantic no. 1 album. The band upset traditional noise enthusiasts by touring with a cello. Rumours of Cobain's drug problems and internal dissension had been a constant feature of the media circus surrounding the band, and intensified '94; after a series of heroin overdose scares (Rome in March '94 the most serious, causing cancellation of European tour), Cobain shot himself at his home in Seattle.

He was said to have been a happy child until his parents split up; after his death his mother famously said, 'I told him not to join that stupid club' (of rock deaths). The suicide set off an extraordinary outpouring of grief; in Britain headmasters were so concerned that announcements were made at school assemblies, while at The Times columnist Bernard Levin (an opera fan) bought a Nirvana CD to find out what all the fuss was about. Cobain left behind a suitably sad and enduring monument in (of all things) an MTV Unplugged album, a transatlantic top five; a sister to that is an electric hardcore From The Banks Of The Wishkah, compiling live tracks '89-94. Love had allegedly been given her first tab of acid at age five by her father, who hung out with the Grateful Dead; she appeared in Alex Cox's films Sid And Nancy and Straight To Hell; her band Hole's second album was Live Through This '94, and bassist Kristen M. Pfaff was found dead in her bathtub 16 June 1994. Love appeared in The People vs. Larry Flynt '96, playing a woman who died of heroin; then the grunge queen joined the litigious bourgeoisie as her lawyers prevented Nick Broomfield's documentary film Kurt And Courtney from being shown at the Sundance Film Festival and on BBC TV late '97. A Nirvana boxed set was on a lot of Christmas lists at the end of 2004, as Hole appeared in court accused of assaulting a fan and struggled to regain custody of her daughter.