The idea of pulling together a Nirvana ICA was inspired by me catching up a few weeks ago with the documentary Montage of Heck, released back in 2015.
It tells the story of Kurt Cobain, from his childhood to his death at the age of 27. I found it to be a tough watch in many places, being at times a sad and moving portrait about an individual who was, to say the very least, a complex and troubled character. It was incredibly informative in many different ways, including opening my eyes to just how much there is out there in terms of material by Nirvana given that so many bootlegs, live, home and radio studio recordings have been issued in addition to the three studio albums. There’s a page on wiki that lists all known Nirvana recordings and there’s well over 100 different songs out there in some shape or other.
The ICA is drawn purely from the CDs that I have in the collection, consisting of the studio albums, a handful of singles and the MTV Unplugged release and as such may not be completely representative of the band’s output. But the question is, will it be entertaining enough for you?
1. Where Did You Sleep Last Night? (from MTV Unplugged, 1994)
If anyone doubts that Kurt Cobain was an incredibly talented performer, then I would ask them to listen to this, the closing track of the MTV Unplugged performance, recorded on 16 November 1993 and aired the following month, with the CD eventually released in November 1994 as the first posthumous release after the singer’s suicide.
It’s a cover of a traditional song known as ‘In The Pines’ thought to date from the 1870s with Nirvana basing their take on the version recorded by bluesman Lead Belly in the mid-1940s. The MTV performance takes up the final few minutes of Montage of Heck on the back of a very telling contribution from Courtney Love which reveals that her late husband was an incredibly insecure man, which was really no surprise given the story that had been told over the previous two hours. There can be few better instances of a singer reaching deep inside himself to give absolutely everything to the moment, revealing what was a largely unknown tender side to someone whose fame and fortune had been made on noise and raw energy.
2. Territorial Pissings (from Nevermind, 1991)
There will be a number of songs lifted from the album which provided the commercial breakthrough. Almost 30 years on and I can still listen to it from start to end without reaching for the FF button. It’s aged very well, which is unusual for anything which sold 30 million copies world-wide in its day. The shortest track on the album is loud and energetic, driven along by the pounding drums of Dave Grohl and the dynamic bass of Kris Novoselic, without whom the band’s sound wouldn’t have been so perfectly formed. There’s a co-credit given to American songwriter Chet Powers as the opening spoken lines are lifted from his song ‘Let’s Get Together’. Interesting that Powers was another musician whose reliance on drugs caused him a great many problems and grief, including a jail sentence that he served in the infamous Fulsom Prison.
3. About A Girl (from Bleach, 1989)
Nirvana will always be thought of as a grunge band, but this track from the debut LP shows that their songwriter was more than capable of writing a fabulous pop song that is reminiscent in places of R.E.M. and (whisper it given what I said a few weeks back) The Beatles. The only Kurt Cobain song you are likely to hear aired at an indie-disco…..
4. Come As You Are (from Nevermind, 1991)
The most obviously radio-friendly (musically speaking) of the tracks from Nevermind, but with a chorus that became awkward after the suicide. It’s not the band’s most representative of songs and the fact it was such a fan favourite had a lot to do with the determination to make the next again album as unlistenable and uncommercial as the record label would allow them to get away with.
5. Radio Friendly Unit Shifter (from In Utero, 1993)
Just as Ian Curtis’s bandmates failed to spot his increasing problems as illustrated within the lyrics he had penned for the songs on the album Closer, so too did those closest to Kurt Cobain fail to realise that much of what he was doing for In Utero, musically and lyrically, were cries for help. This ironically-titled track comes with a real sense of despair in the repeated use of the line ‘What Is Wrong With Me?’ within its chorus, and in retrospect is really the singer wanting someone, anyone to consider just why it is that he had turned into a junkie increasingly incapable of taking care of himself or thinking rationally.
1. Drain You (from Nevermind, 1991)
The fact that this track also appears on the b-side to the single release of Smells Like Teen Spirit demonstrates how little faith there was in Nirvana making any crossover from grunge obscurity into the mainstream.
Drain You has ‘smash hit’ written all over it, from its cheery sounding opening to a tune that wasn’t a million miles removed from those released a few years earlier by Pixies. The demand for Nirvana product was such that four singles were eventually lifted from Nevermind and while there is a huge amount of to admire about In Bloom and Lithium, neither sound as wonderful coming out of your FM radio as this.
2. Pennyroyal Tea (from MTV Unplugged, 1994)
It may well be one of the most accessible songs on In Utero but its finest rendition comes courtesy of the Unplugged show. It’s the only song in which Kurt Cobain performs alone during the show, which itself was a sort of happy accident as various arrangements tried out during rehearsals hadn’t been to everyone’s satisfaction. Answering questions during an interview carried out to promote the release of In Utero, the singer revealed that while the song title refers to what many had recommended as a way to try and cure his stomach ailments, he saw this as a death-bed song by a depressant who only made things worse for himself by reading deep and difficult books or listening to the most cheerless lyrics put to music by Leonard Cohen (something in itself which I find is a bit of an unusually lazy-cliché from Cobain)
3. All Apologies (from In Utero, 1993)
For anyone who may have missed out on About A Girl and the fact that there was more to Nirvana than screaming vocals.
I’ve long been a sucker for the use of cellos on rock and pop records and the contribution from Kara Schaley borders on perfection. It’s a song that took on an added poignancy after the suicide, sounding at times like the note that would be left behind.
4. Breed (from Nevermind, 1991)
From one extreme to another – one of the most alive-sounding tracks that Nirvana ever issued. Let’s raaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaawwwwwwwwkk.
5. Smells Like Teen Spirit (from Nevermind, 1991)
The trick to a successful ICA is to get the ‘correct’ running order of the tracks. I’ve long said that an ICA doesn’t need to feature the best 10 songs by a singer or band but instead should seek to make for a seamless listen. There’s no doubt that Teen Spirit overshadows everything else the band ever did, becoming something of an albatross around their collective neck leading to Kurt Cobian re-using its distinctive introductory notes again on a later song that he would call Rape Me. But it became said albatross for the simple reason that it is an outstanding song that appealed to so many different types of music fans back in the day.
It is the first answer that 99.999% of folk will give when asked to name a song by Nirvana. It is likely the only song by them that many folk know. It was the obvious candidate to open the ICA but when I chose to go with the cover version, I couldn’t imagine it being anything else but the closer. It’s a killer tune and the repeated guttural and abrasive use of ‘ a denial’ over the last few seconds provides as great an ending to any song ever written and maintains the majestic epic nature of what had come before in the earlier five or so minutes. You don’t agree?? Oh well, whatever, never mind.