SONIC YOUTH – DIRTY (1992)

NIRVANA – BLEACH (1989)

June 15th, 1989, NIRVANA released their debut album, Bleach, on Sub Pop Records. It was 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, a 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 is a compilation album of b-sides, covers, outtakes, demos and radio broadcast recordings, and is not an official studio album). Of the three, Nevermind is the album that turned the world on its head, In Utero is the self-sabotaging noise rock masterpiece, and Bleach is the birth of it all.

Listening to Bleach 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.

Kurt Cobain was a dichotomy. A man steeped in the values and DIY ethics of the ’80s hardcore punk scene, he also adored the Beatles’ musical brilliance and their 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 differed from their contemporaries within the punk, grunge and indie scenes of the late ’80s. Not since Husker Du had a band weaved such devastatingly sophisticated melody into an abrasively 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 also 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 core to the Melvins sound. In place of the wilful playfulness of the Melvins, Nirvana 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, albums that have sold a fraction of what Nirvana’s debut eventually sold post-Nevermind. To think a creation 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 more great bands of the Pacific Northwest music scene. His recordings still sound fresh and exciting, which is also the case with Bleach.

As a thank you for paying the recording bill of $606.17, the band listed Jason Everman as a guitarist in the liner credits 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. It is 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. Nirvana never reimbursed his $606.

Side one opens with “Blew”, a slab of down-tuned bass and guitar clash with slippery verse melodies and a trademark Kurt howling chorus. Krist Novoselic’s opening salvo of grinding bass is a belching cough of guttural filth matched by Cobain’s looping riff with its oddly bent turnarounds. Kurt sings each verse in a dislocated, disembodied voice, only to explode with venomous vitriol for the slashing chorus.

“Floyd The Barber” follows, its thumping riff and syncopated drums driving an infectious groove. Kurt’s lyrics are surreal and disturbing, recounting a tale of a man who goes into a barber shop for a haircut and a hot towel shave. He’s tied to the chair while Floyd the Barber sexually forces himself on him. He’s then slashed to death by more people in the room.

The people mentioned in this song are all based on characters from The Andy Griffith Show, a wholesome family sitcom from the ’60s. Kurt discussed his thought process when writing the song: “What if all these people were mad, sadistic killers?” The guy in the song goes into the barber shop for a shave but instead gets urinated on by Floyd, cut up by Opie and Aunt Bea, and suffocated by Andy Griffith. Despite its unsettling narrative, “Floyd The Barber” is an exhilarating blast of feral rock.

“About A Girl” is a beautifully sophisticated grunge-folk masterpiece and an early insight into what Kurt would offer on subsequent albums. Drummer Chad Channing recalls, “I remember rehearsing the song not long before we went into record, Bleach. Kurt was playing it, and we were working out parts. I asked him what the song was, and he said, ‘Well, I don’t know.’ And then I said, ‘Well, what’s it about?’ And he says, ‘It’s about a girl.’ And I said, ‘Well, why don’t you just call it ‘About A Girl’?’ And he just smiled at me and said, ‘Okay.’ We went with that.”

The heaviness of “About A Girl” is existential rather than the weight of its sound; the song glistens with a sharp pop sensibility. It displays the brilliance of Kurt’s writing and how deep and affecting his highly developed songwriting acuity had become.

The two-note-driving riff of “School” bounces with savage intent. Kurt’s maniacal vocal performance doubles down on the band’s wild abandon. Kurt’s impassioned roars of “No Recess” during the chorus are memorable and stunningly vital.

“Love Buzz” was Nirvana’s first Sub Pop single. It was a cover of Dutch band Shocking Blue’s 1967 song, which, like Nirvana’s version, didn’t make the charts when released. Sub Pop co-founder Bruce Pavitt recalled seeing Nirvana perform this song at the Central Tavern in Seattle, their first performance in the city: “In listening to their whole set, that song was the only one that jumped out, and it was a cover,” said Pavitt, “But, the hypnotic feel of that was kind of an indicator of some of their direction in songwriting. And it’s just an incredible recording. They totally nailed it.”

Krist Novoselic discovered the Shocking Blue track on a bargain-bin album and was enamoured by Klassje van der Wal’s bass skills. When the Dutch band heard Nirvana’s cover, van der Wal was flattered by the attention, but guitarist Robbie Van Leeuwen, who co-wrote the song, wasn’t a fan, calling the grunge take inferior. Kurt Cobain was only partially happy with how the song turned out, “I wish we could have recorded it a lot heavier. It was one of our first recordings. We weren’t sure what we wanted to do, so it turned out wimpy compared to our most recent recordings.” Despite the misgivings, “Love Buzz” is a vibrant hunk of electrifying rock. The song became a live staple during the band’s early days.

“Paper Cuts” is a stunning piece. It’s a song so crushingly heavy and soured with atonal bleakness; it’s the aural equivalent of watching your car wreck in slow-motion through the slits in your fingers as you clench your face while sitting helplessly behind the wheel. It revels in its claustrophobic dread while riding a rollercoaster of untamed dynamics. “Paper Cuts” is as far into the darkness as Nirvana ever travelled, and yet, it induces repeat listening.

The incendiary “Negative Creep” rips with a wickedly inventive sliding guitar riff as Kurt menacingly insists that “Daddy’s little girl ain’t a girl no more.” A powerfully hooky drum pattern opens “Scoff,” as Kurt and Krist join in with an equally thumping guitar and bass workout. Kurt repeats, “Gimme back my alcohol,” throughout the chorus, adopting many deranged voices as if to express the importance of the return of his alcohol on his mental health. Later in the song, he plays one of his most memorable guitar solos. The velocity and intensity is breathtaking.

“Swap Meat’s” knotty riff is frenetically charged and wildly original. Its odd cluster of notes adds to the 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. The band wring out every bit of ominous pathos from their instruments. Kurt pleads, “Don’t Have Nothing For You,” and rips a spikey, twisted solo that creates more atmosphere and feeling than all the shredders LA could ever produce.

The two-note “Big Cheese” riff resembles a grunge rock version of the Jaws theme. The main riff’s blunt force thump is tempered by Kurt’s barely restrained vocal delivery, which gradually intensifies as the song winds on. 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.

Essential…!