September 24th, 1991, Nirvana released their second album, Nevermind, on DGC Records. Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Chad Channing arrived in Madison, Wisconsin, on April 1st, 1990, to begin work on the follow-up to their debut album Bleach. At the suggestion of Sub Pop’s Bruce Pavitt, the band chose to work with Butch Vig at his studio, located on that aptly named East Washington Avenue in Madison.
Butch Vig and Steve Marker set up Smart Studios in 1983, producing groundbreaking alternative rock albums for bands like Killdozer, The Smashing Pumpkins, Tad and L7. Vig’s work with Killdozer sealed the deal for Nirvana and convinced them he was the right man for the job. Recording began on April 2nd, 1990.
Nirvana was a famously well-rehearsed unit; as the band began recording, most of the arrangements were in place for the songs they chose to record. Kurt was still working on lyrics and would rewrite sections moments before he sang. Ultimately, they recorded eight songs with Vig at Smart Studios, “Imodium” (later renamed “Breed”), “Dive” (later released as the B-side to “Sliver”), “In Bloom”, “Pay to Play” (later renamed “Stay Away”), “Sappy”, “Lithium”, “Here She Comes Now” (released on Heaven & Hell: A Tribute to the Velvet Underground), and “Polly.”
The sessions ended on April 6th, with Nirvana’s Sub Pop labelmates TAD arriving in town for a double-bill appearance at Club Underground in Madison that night. “The band played a great set, very loose,” according to Butch Vig. By all accounts, they’d gotten pretty drunk after finishing up recording at Smart that afternoon. The stage at Underground had a low ceiling, which interfered with the usual stage histrionics of the six-feet-seven Krist Novoselic, who “kept hitting it with his head and bass, eventually poking a hole in it, which he stuffed with a sock during the show.”
On April 8th, Nirvana and Tad travelled to Milwaukee, which began an extensive midwest and east coast tour of twenty-four shows in thirty-nine days. After the final show of that run, Chad Channing left Nirvana. Cobain and Novoselic had become disenchanted with Channing’s drumming during the Smart Studio sessions, and tensions were high. For his part, Channing expressed frustration at not being actively involved in songwriting. These creative and artistic differences culminated in his departure after the band returned to Seattle in late May 1990.
Mudhoney’s Dan Peters joined the band for a short spell before Dave Grohl, a heavy hitter from the Washington DC hardcore scene, permanently filled the drumming position. Kurt said of Grohl’s addition, “Krist and I have been playing together for about four-and-a-half years now, with a few different drummers. This is the first time we’ve felt like a definite unit; the band is finally complete.”
At this time, Sub Pop Records believed the Smart Sessions they had recorded with Butch Vig would be the new Nirvana record, but the band had different ideas. Unknown to Sub Pop’s owners Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt, Nirvana used the Smart Studios recordings to help find a new record contract. With Sub Pop’s never-ending financial problems and rumours of them being bought by a major, the band decided to cut out the middleman and look for a major label contract themselves.
Several labels courted them on the strength of the Smart recordings; they eventually signed with Geffen Records imprint DGC Records based on recommendations from Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth and their management company Gold Mountain, who would also become Nirvana’s management. In the time between the Smart Studio sessions and the recording of Nevermind in LA in May and June of 1991, the band further refined the songs and their performances.
DGC suggested several producers to help the band record Nevermind, including Scott Litt (REM, The Replacements), David Briggs (Neil Young, Royal Trux), Don Dixon (REM, The Smithereens), and Bob Mould (frontman of the legendary Husker Du). Novoselic said the band had been nervous about recording under a major label, so they chose to hold out for Butch Vig, whom they trusted and had a rapport with.
Vig recalled, “Krist called me. They decided they didn’t want to sound like REM or the Smithereens, and Dave Briggs was a burnt-out hippie, so they wanted me to do the record in LA at Sound City. Four days later, a rehearsal tape turned up. It began with Kurt introducing Dave Grohl, and then they kicked into Teen Spirit. It was a boombox recording, and I heard this scratchy guitar, Dave’s drum fills, and then sheer distortion. The recording was horrible, but I could tell the songs were tight and hooky.”
With a budget of $65,000, Nirvana booked Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, California, for May and June 1991. To earn gas money to get to Los Angeles, they played a show at the OK Hotel in Seattle on April 17th, 1991, where they performed “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for the first time.
Once Vig got to LA and met up with the band, he was immediately floored by the sheer power of their sound. “The band was tight as hell,” he recalls. “Contrary to popular belief, they were not slackers. They wanted to make a kickass record. Dave Grohl told me they practised every day for six months before they went into record Nevermind. We pretty much got every take on that record in one or two or maybe three takes.”
The birth of any great art is rarely effortless, and the recording of Nevermind proved far from easy despite how prepared the band and producer were. Kurt’s perfectionist approach to the sessions could be tedious, “I’d be balancing the drums and the guitar, and Kurt would come and say ‘Turn all the treble off. I want it to sound more like Black Sabbath.’ It was kind of a pain in the ass.” recalled Vig. “Kurt was charming and witty but would go through these mood swings. He would be totally engaged, then suddenly, a light switch would go off, and he’d sit in the corner and completely disappear into himself. I didn’t know how to deal with that.”
Much has been written, discussed and theorised about the impact of Nevermind and its first single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Decades later, one’s words can’t help but come across as hyperbolic and overly exaggerated when trying to express the earth-shattering effect that song and its accompanying album had, not only on rock music but popular culture in general. The magnitude of Nirvana’s impact can still be felt today, over three decades later.
Nevermind was released on September 24th, 1991, with the first single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, preceding it by two weeks. Initially, interest in both the single and album was slow. However, campus and modern rock radio stations placed “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on heavy rotation. The band’s manager, Danny Goldberg, said: “None of us heard it as a crossover song, but the public heard it, and it was instantaneous. They heard it on alternative radio, then rushed out like lemmings to buy it.”
The video received its world premiere on MTV’s late-night alternative rock program 120 Minutes on September 29th, ’91. It proved so popular that the channel began to air it during its regular daytime rotation. MTV added the video to its “Buzz Bin” selection in October, where it stayed until mid-December. By the end of the year, the song, music video, and the Nevermind album had become hits.
Geffen hoped that Nevermind would sell around 250,000 copies, matching sales of Sonic Youth’s Geffen debut, Goo. The most optimistic estimate was that Nevermind could be certified gold (500,000 copies sold) by September 1992. As the band set out for their European tour at the start of November 1991, Nevermind entered the Billboard Top 40 for the first time at number 35. On January 11th, 1992, to the astonishment of all involved, Nevermind toppled Michael Jackson’s album Dangerous at the top of the Billboard Charts.
In his memoir, Sing Backwards and Weep, Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan summed up Nirvana and Nevermind’s effect on the local Seattle music scene, “In late September of 1991, Nirvana released Nevermind. The record blasted them from the basement of the music world to the penthouse suite with the force of an atomic bomb, replete with toxic, billowing mushroom cloud. That explosion carried Seattle’s music scene with them to the worldwide stage…”
Not only did Nevermind drag the Seattle scene into sharp focus, it also opened the door for Nirvana’s contemporaries in the underground rock music scene outside of the Pacific Northwest. The sea change in the public’s acceptance of alternative rock was so sudden and impactful that it rendered the previous decades’ penchant for glam rock redundant in one fell swoop.
Nevermind was no one-hit-wonder; the album is packed with vital, anthemic songs. Its overall tone, while sometimes nihilistic and bleak, is always a life-affirming experience. Songs like “In Bloom,” “Breed,” “Stay Away,” and “Lithium,” recorded a year before in Madison with Butch Vig, had been tightly honed and given more weight and power.
The only recording to carry over from the Smart Studio sessions and not re-recorded at Sound City was “Polly,” a beautiful droning acoustic track featuring Chad Channing’s effective punctuated percussion. DGC had touted the second single, “Come As You Are”, as the most likely crossover “hit,” with “Smells Like Teen Spirit” considered a strong “soft” introduction to the band.
Needless to say, DGC’s projections were a little off when it came to “Smells Like Teen Spirit’s” impact. But “Come As You Are” proved a massive hit in its own right, as expected. The song’s watery arpeggiated riff resembles Killing Joke’s 1984 single “Eighties,” which in turn resembles The Damned’s 1982 song “Life Goes On”, but Nirvana’s interpretation is their own. Its galvanising chorus and bridge lift the song to new heights. “Come As You Are” reached number three on the Billboard Mainstream and Modern Rock Charts and entered the top ten in the UK.
The raging punk thrash of “Territorial Pissings” gives way to the widescreen ambition of “Drain You.” There are no deep cuts on Nevermind; songs like “Lounge Act,” Stay Away,” and “On A Plain” could easily have been singles in their own right. Even the dower, two-note, droning beauty of album closer “Something In The Way” became a hit three decades after Nevermind’s release due to its appearance in the trailer for the 2022 movie The Batman.
Nevermind has stood the test of time and will continue to do so for generations. Its staggering power has not been diminished by time or passing trends. It was a perfect album released at the perfect time. “We were kids,” said Dave Grohl of Nevermind’s enormous, unplanned success, “I was 22, and Kurt might have been 23 or 24. It’s one of the greatest accomplishments of my entire life; it was a happy time for the band,” he added. “We had no idea what was to come next, but at that time, we were kids, so I have fond memories”.