Fifteen years ago this month Kurt Cobain committed suicide, and the biggest band of the grunge niche was no more. Pioneers of a movement that’s still rolling, Nirvana are unlikely to ever be forgotten – head to any British town and you’re bound to spot teens sporting shirts and hoodies featuring Cobain’s face. Whether the music’s making its mark or not with the youth of today, the band’s iconic status is assured.
With interviews with two of Cobain’s favourite bands – The Jesus Lizard and The Vaselines – forthcoming on ClashMusic.com, here we list a special Essential 15 (you’ve seen the regular feature in the magazine, right?) focusing on our favourite Nirvana songs.
Let us know your thoughts on our chosen 15 by commenting below – register (if you’re not already part of the ClashMusic.com gang) by clicking HERE.
Additional words: Robin Murray
‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ (1991)
Like we were going to omit The Hit, the song that made Nirvana into worldwide superstars, elevating them to a level of reverence they never anticipated. It was a watershed moment for Nirvana and the whole alternative rock scene. The music world’s not been the same since.
‘About A Girl’ (1989)
One of the standout tracks on the band’s low-budget debut album ‘Bleach’, this relatively down-tempo offering pointed the way towards Nirvana’s future, Cobain’s vocals impassioned and the music letting enough of a pop edge through to accommodate listeners who weren’t born and bred grunge – it’s closer to The Beatles than Big Black, to say the least. It was later released as a single, in its MTV Unplugged guise, in 1994.
‘Serve The Servants’ (1993)
“Teenage angst has paid off well / Now I’m bored and old” – the most brilliant way to reintroduce the band (‘Serve The Servants’ opens their third album, ‘In Utero’) after the runaway success of their ‘Nevermind’ breakthrough, immediately downplaying the key trait that seemed to connect best with the band’s key audience.
‘Scentless Apprentice’ (1993)
And every great opening track needs an even better (possibly) following number. Where ‘ Serve The Servants’ introduced ‘In Utero’ with no little nonchalance, here Nirvana go for the throat with one of the most aggressive songs they ever committed to tape. The crunching riffs still surprise with their viciousness to this day.
Originally released as the b-side to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, this offering (notable for being written by all three members, rather than just Cobain) featured crunching riffs borrowed from some of punk rock’s greats, silly lyrics and suggested the sneaking suspicion that deep down Cobain was having the time of his life. Until the record sales kicked in, anyway. A live version of the song – a true fan favourite and a mainstay in the band’s sets – was released as a single in 1996 to support the release of ‘From The Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah’. RB
A non-album single (although it features on the 1992 compilation ‘Incesticide’), ‘Sliver’ is Nirvana at the group’s most obviously pop slanted, with the kind of chorus that sticks in the head for months. Well, years. Recorded in just an hour using gear that grunge outfit Tad had left scattered around the studio, ‘Sliver’ finds Nirvana between drummers – Chad Channing, sticksman on ‘Bleach’, had departed, and Dave Grohl was yet to fill the vacated seat. So, Mudhoney’s Dan Peters sits in for his moment in the Nirvana spotlight, and plays a part in one of the band’s most instant-hit releases. A video for the track, featuring Cobain’s daughter Francis Bean, was made in 1993 – check it out below.
‘Lithium’ (1991; 1992 single)
The third single to be taken from the moneymaking machine of ‘Nevermind’, ‘Lithium’ gave Nirvana their truest sing-along, with the “yeah yeaaah yeah” section hollered back at the trio night after night on tour. The ‘hidden’ track on ‘Nevermind’, ‘Endless, Nameless’, actually came about when sessions for ‘Lithium’ dragged on, leading to an impromptu jam which ultimately made the final cut.
‘Drain You’ (1991)
A highlight of ‘Nevermind’ – saying a lot for its quality given the overall excellence of the album – ‘Drain You’ seems relatively straightforward, its power-chord sequencing true no-brainer stuff, but it’s executed with such panache that the song rises from the rest to nestle beside the heart as a familiar, warming favourite. It’s also probably the slickest song Nirvana ever recorded, from a production perspective, with Butch Vig layering a series of overdubs to give the track necessary melodious punch.
‘Oh, The Guilt’ (1993)
A between-albums single release on a split seven-inch with riotous Chicago rockers The Jesus Lizard, this cut serves as a trailer for the sludgy sound that would characterise much of ‘In Utero’ – less polish, more power; less gloss, more guts. Now available on CD as part of the ‘With The Lights Out’ collection, the track’s success – number 12 in the UK – enabled Nirvana’s partners in crime to play their song, ‘Puss’, on Top Of The Pops. That’s The Jesus Lizard, on Top Of The Pops. Incredible.
‘Son Of A Gun’ (1992)
A cover of a song by one of Cobain’s favourite bands, Scottish act The Vaselines, this is probably the pick of the BBC session tracks found on the ‘Incesticide’ compilation. Said recording also appeared on the ‘Hormoaning’ EP, released in Australia and Japan. If you’ve got an Australian version of said release, do hang onto it – it’s worth a fair few pennies.
‘Aero Zeppelin’ (released 1992; recorded 1988)
Another track from ‘Incesticide’, the appeal of this song lies in the drums. Listen: they’re all over the place… yet completely controlled. Imagine chucking a kit down several flights of stairs, but the subsequent racket exceeding your hopes for the inevitable cacophony. It’s magic, courtesy of the Melvins’ Dale Crover, appearing before Channing had even joined the band.
‘Spank Thru’ (1988)
The first ever Nirvana song, according to bassist Krist Novoselic, which automatically secures its place in this Essential 15 list; hearing it on a tape by Cobain’s Fecal Matter group made the gangly Novoselic want to form a band with the blue-eyed boy, and Nirvana was born. Said demo was recorded in 1985, and Sub Pop released the track, this time credited to Nirvana, as part of Sub Pop 200 three years later. It’s scrappy, and hardly deep of lyrical imagination given the references to masturbation, but still: no ‘Spank Thru’, quite probably no Nirvana.
‘All Apologies’ (1993)
If ‘About A Girl’ was Nirvana’s first bona-fide pop breakthrough, this was their last, an elegant conclusion to the ‘In Utero’ album and the band’s final single release, emerging four months before Cobain’s death. Packaged with another ‘In Utero’ track, ‘Rape Me’, the song features cello work from Kera Schaley – one of the few times the core trio worked with a fourth member, either in the studio or live. Cobain openly dedicated the song to his wife and child.
‘Heart Shaped Box’ (1993)
The lead single from ‘In Utero’, ‘Heart Shaped Box’ was inspired by a documentary about children with cancer according to Cobain, but the lyrics seem to refer to his romance with then wife Courtney Love; it is, once picked apart, a love song dressed in decaying clothing. The chorus can be seen in a similar light to the parent album’s opening line, too – “Hey, wait, I’ve got a new complaint” poking a degree of fun at how Cobain’s lyricism was perceived by much of the mainstream.
An unusual final choice, granted, but this b-side to ‘Heart Shaped Box’ is the only Nirvana song to feature lead vocals from Dave Grohl. The Foo Fighters would follow, but this song can be seen as their earliest murmurings.
Coming soon to ClashMusic.com: interviews with The Vaselines and The Jesus Lizard. Comment on this feature below; sign up with ClashMusic.com HERE