Entertain Us: The Rise Of Nirvana

An exclusive extract...
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On November 23 1989, Nirvana played London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), the same venue where Mudhoney had created such a stir the previous spring. After months of reading about the band in the music press, a London audience was finally going to see Nirvana, and anticipation was high.

Publicist Anton Brookes says the venue “wasn’t as full as when Mudhoney played,” but nonetheless thought the show was “just amazing. You could tell they were a special band. I suppose because of their attitude, everything – I remember seeing Soundgarden at a soundcheck, and thinking: wow, these guys are going to be big. You could tell. It was an air about them. And it was the same with Nirvana. They just had something special.”

Also in attendance was Sounds journalist Keith Cameron, who would go on to become one of the band’s biggest supporters. “I was really into Mudhoney, and Nirvana were being mentioned as the next great band on Sub Pop,” he says. “I remember hearing Bleach in the Sounds office, early summer ’89, and I thought it was amazing: great rhythm section, and the singer definitely had an unusual quality to his voice, very different from anything else at the time. But if I’m honest I thought they lacked a certain something. What with Mark Arm and Tad Doyle, we’d come to expect a bit more charisma from Sub Pop front men, and Kurt didn’t have it. Of course, as I soon realized, he had a different sort of charisma.”

Kurt himself felt the band’s set needed something more after the final song. “I need to do something and I don’t know what,” he told Anton as he came off stage.

“Why don’t you let off a fire extinguisher?” Anton suggested.

Kurt duly complied, thus giving the set a suitably dramatic ending. He later cited the show as his favorite of the tour, adding that the audience was “more energetic than a Seattle crowd.”
Critics were just as impressed. “Nirvana were superb, cranked-up, desperate, and fucking loud,” Neil Perry wrote in Melody Maker. A decade later, journalist Jenny Bulley described it as the moment when “all the loyalties starting shifting from Mudhoney to Nirvana.”

Even in the UK, however, these bands were still something of an underground success. As Anton recalls, most of the mainstream rock press was too busy promoting homegrown acts to pay too much attention to Sub Pop. “Everybody put their money on Manchester [bands], because they were British, and it was exciting!” he says. “A lot of people were just skeptical about Nirvana. Bleach got a couple of good reviews; we had our core followers, but editorial-wise, when it came to getting big features and things, it was harder. The Seattle thing was kind of like: what’s all this noise?”

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Nirvana returned to London for the final date of the tour, at the Astoria Theatre in London, on December 3. With Mudhoney headlining, Nirvana and TAD flipped a coin to determine who would go on first. “Kurt definitely felt that Nirvana should play second,” says TAD’s Kurt Danielson. “But in fact we won the coin toss, and chose to play second. Kurt was pissed, I could tell. And when he made it a condition that Nirvana would headline when we played with them later, it was definitely in response to this coin-toss outcome.”

The bands arrived at the venue late, and there was no time for a proper soundcheck. Nirvana simply warmed up right before they played, then went into their set. For the band, the show was something of a let down: “It stunk,” was Krist’s frank assessment.

Mudhoney’s Dan Peters was also unimpressed. “It’s funny because people talk about how if you missed that show, you missed one of the greatest shows of all time,” he says. And it’s like: sorry, they weren’t. I remember feeling bad for them, because it was a big show in London, but they had a hard go of it, and a bunch of technical difficulties and frustrations.”

Others recall the show quite differently. “I remember them being pretty good,” says Everett True. “I remember I was sitting at the side of the stage, and there was Anton, Keith Cameron, Tad, Matt Lukin, and Nirvana were playing, and all of us went off the stage, one right after the other – boom boom boom boom boom!”

“It was the most amazing band I’d ever seen,” Keith later told Azerrad. He’d been particularly impressed by that night’s instrument destruction, during which Kurt heaved his guitar at Krist, who, wielding his bass like a baseball bat, took a swing and smashed it to pieces. Keith also spoke briefly to Kurt after the show.

“He was very sweet,” Keith says, “clearly mischievous, and seemed totally convinced that his band were very special. As I later discovered, I obviously caught him on a good day.”
Anton was also overwhelmed by the show. “Kurt was throwing himself around and jumping up in the air and landing on his knees,” he recalls. “His knees were all cut up and bruised after the show, and his jeans were even more split than what they normally were. After the show, I was just kind of: wow, that’s the future of rock’n’roll! And the reviews from that show, from the people in the know, were just like: forget TAD. Forget Mudhoney. This is the band! It’s amazing. They’re gonna be huge.”

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This is an extract taken from 'Entertain Us: The Rise Of Nirvana' by Gillian Gaar.

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