Nirvana – Bleach (1989)

June 15th, 1989, Nirvana released their debut album Bleach on Sub Pop Records. Recorded and produced by Jack Endino at Reciprocal Recording Studios in Seattle between December 29th and 31st, 1988, and two separate sessions on January 14th and 24th, 1989. Endino billed the band for thirty hours of recording, which came to a grand total of $606.17. Jason Everman, a friend of Nirvana drummer Chad Channing, paid the bill.

Let’s face it: Nirvana has one of the most perfect discographies imaginable. Their all-too-short existence aided it. It was a perfect run of three impeccable studio albums (Incesticide being a compilation album of b-sides, covers, outtakes, demos and radio broadcast recordings, which is not an official studio album). Of the three, Nevermind is the album that turned the world on its head, In Utero is its self-sabotaging noise rock successor, and Bleach is the birth of it all.

Listening to Bleach in 2023, with the historical perspective we now have, it’s easy to forget that the Kurt Cobain we all came to know, the iconic frontman who desperately railed against his fame and success, didn’t exist in 1988/1989. His well-chronicled struggles with notoriety and addiction were a speck on a distant horizon. Indeed, the thought of him changing the course of popular musical culture the way he did seemed a laughable fantasy to all involved.

Yet Bleach displays all the melodic angst, claustrophobic dread, exhilarating abandon and caustic vitriol that defined the band post-Nevermind. Many attributed Kurt’s nihilistic approach to music as a retort to the fame and fortune imposed upon him and the band. But that same scorched earth vigour was evident on Bleach long before the world took them to heart and shot their “indie, punk rock cred” to shit.

The truth is Kurt Cobain was a dichotomy. A man steeped in the values and DIY ethics of the ’80s hardcore punk scene, who also adored the Beatles’ musical brilliance and large-scale rock spectacle. In an interview with MTV, he famously said, “I wanted to have the adoration of John Lennon but have the anonymity of Ringo Starr. I didn’t want to be a frontman. I just wanted to be back there and still be a rock and roll star at the same time…”

Kurt discovered that those opposing ideals in rock ‘n roll are almost impossible to attain. People want their rock stars to be just that: stars. Being the frontman of a band like Nirvana would never allow you to accept anonymity. Like the adage, “You can’t ride two horses with one ass,” Kurt struggled to keep both sides of his complex relationship with the world of punk rock and rock ‘n roll superstardom from devouring each other.

Throughout Bleach, it’s evident that Kurt and Nirvana were different from their contemporaries within the punk, grunge and indie scenes of the late ’80s. Not since Husker Du had a band so devastatingly used sophisticated melody in such a heavy setting. But Nirvana sounded nothing like Husker Du. They had little of the Minneapolis trio’s breakneck speed or precision attack. True to form for the Pacific Northwest alums, Nirvana looked to its own for inspiration.

Bleach not only drinks from the same well as the Melvins, but it features their drummer Dale Crover on three tracks: “Floyd the Barber”, “Paper Cuts”, and “Downer”. The molten heaviness of the Melvins looms over Bleach. Where it differs is Kurt’s otherworldly ability to deliver the sharpest of melodies and pop hooks among the blistering downtuned riffs. Bleach doesn’t trade in the quirky oddness that’s core to the Melvins sound. In place of the wilful playfulness of the Melvins, Nirvana instead delivers some truly ominous, unsettling passages of music throughout the album.

Bleach did not sell well, but it did receive positive reviews from critics when it was first released. The album became a moderate hit on college radio and the underground/DIY circuit. In NME, Edwin Pouncey gave Bleach an eight-out-of-ten rating and wrote, “This is the biggest, baddest sound that Sub Pop have so far managed to unearth. Nirvana turn up the volume and spit and claw their way to the top of the musical garbage heap.”

The birth of Bleach was on a shoestring budget and far away from the slick, shiny studios of LA, New York and London, where glossy albums are made that have sold a fraction of what Nirvana’s debut eventually sold post-Nevermind. To think an album of such modest means has sold well more than two million copies is mind-blowing.

To Jack Endino’s eternal credit, he forged a lasting and distinctive sound for the many Pacific Northwest bands he recorded. The genius of Endino was not to fall foul of any current-day studio gimmickry. He recorded these bands as they sounded in a room together.

Resembling a “grunge” Alan Lomax, Endino acted as archivist and field recorder for Nirvana, Mudhoney, Soundgarden, Skin Yard, Screaming Trees and many many more of the great and good of the Pacific Northwest music scene. His recordings still sound fresh and exciting, which is also the case with Bleach.

Personnel for the recording were bassist Krist Novoselic, drummer Chad Channing, Dale Crover drumming on three songs and Kurt Cobain. Jason Everman was a fan of Nirvana’s demo tape recorded with Melvin’s drummer Dale Crover; he paid the bill of $606.17 for recording Bleach.

As a thank you for paying the bill, the band listed Everman in the album credits as guitarist, despite not playing on the album. He also appears on the album cover, a Charles Peterson-esque capture of the band, photographed by Cobain’s then-girlfriend Tracy Marander, during a concert at the Reko Muse art gallery in Olympia, Washington.

The original black and white photograph is shown as a negative, which gives it a ghost-like quality, replete with all the energy and flailing hair ever present in the photographic documentation of the Seattle music scene circa 1988 – 1992. Everman eventually joined Nirvana from February to July 1989 as a touring guitarist before being recruited by Soundgarden in September of that year to fill the bass position left by Hiro Yamomoto’s departure.

Side one opens with “Blew”, a slab of down-tuned bass and guitar clash with slippery verse melodies and a trademark Kurt howling chorus. “Floyd The Barber” follows, its thumping riff and syncopated drums driving an infectious groove. “About A Girl” is a beautifully sophisticated grunge-folk masterpiece and an early insight into what Kurt would offer on subsequent albums.

“School,” the Shocking Blue cover “Love Buzz”, and “Paper Cuts” continue the rollercoaster ride. The incendiary “Negative Creep” closes outside A. There isn’t a dull moment to be found among the opening seven tracks.

Side B opens with the drum riff of Scoff, a thumping guitar and Kurt repeating “Gimme back my alcohol” throughout the chorus. Later in the song, Kurt plays one of his most memorable guitar solos. “Swap Meat” has a knotty riff and a satisfying chorus payoff.

“Mr Moustache” is an uptempo, chromatic romp with a hilarious chorus lyric “Easy in an easy chair/Poop as hard as rock/I don’t like you anyway/Seal it in a box.”

“Sifting” is a down-tempo metallic monster. Its main riff resembles the heft of Nirvana tour buddies TAD. Eeking out every bit of ominous pathos the band can wring from their instruments, Kurt pleads, “Don’t Have Nothing For You.” The two-note riff of “Big Cheese” resembles a grunge rock version of the Jaws theme and has more hooks than a fisherman’s tacklebox. The album ends with “Downer”, a thrashing punk ripper with Kurt’s disembodied spoken word verses and intense chorus’.

As opening salvos go, Bleach is a stunning debut album. Nirvana would eventually go stratospheric with their follow-up 1991’s Nevermind, which many believed at the time to be their debut, only to find this grubby masterpiece had existed for two years. In many ways, Bleach accurately represents where Nirvana came from more vividly than Nevermind or In Utero. It’s got the soil of rural Washington under its fingernails. It’s dark, ominous, and, at times, even bleak. But it’s also shot through with an acerbic wit, moments of staggering, heartfelt beauty and instantly memorable songs.