Monday, March 05, 2007

In The Dock: Nirvana

(If you're wondering what this is all about, click here.)

This week's subject: Nirvana

The case for the prosecution (Pete G)

Let's get one thing out of the way first of all. Nevermind is a good record. At the time, it seemed like a refreshing antidote to the crap bland pop and hair-rock that dominated the late '80s. I've listened to it dozens of times, but don't admittedly own a copy (although bizarrely I do have a copy of From The Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah); I'm fairly familiar with In Utero, Bleach and so on. So I'm not completely anti-Nirvana. However, that's really as far as it goes. So many people rave on about how Nirvana changed their lives and Kurt is their hero. I simply can't see what all the fuss is about. A band best known for one song and a drug addict singer who took his own life. Hmmm.

A few years ago, Nevermind was voted the most overrated album of all time by BBC 6 Music listeners. I wouldn't necessarily call it the most overrated album, but it's certainly overrated. Influential perhaps, but not original. The Pixies were doing the quiet / loud thing long before and even Cobain himself said that he was surprised that people didn't realise that Nevermind was a fairly obvious rip-off of The Pixies, a much more inventive band in my (biased) opinion.

Like so many other so-called influential bands, they opened the doors to hordes of copycats. Ok, so this is a criticism aimed at pretty much every so-called "influential" group at the start of a new movement (see Britpop a few weeks ago), but unfortunately, in Nirvana's case this meant the likes of Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, and Soundgarden; dull bands with particularly little merit. And if that wasn't enough, several years you had plenty of nu-metal bands claiming Nirvana (and their angst-ridden music) as an influence... well I could just finish off here.

However, I will continue. I suppose the whole "grunge" movement never really appealed to me anyway. Music which meant more to white middle American people than it did to me growing up in South London accompanied by a pretty depressing attitude to life which Kurt felt compelled to constantly share with everyone else. I'll admit I'm with Damon Albarn who once said about Nirvana, "What have these blokes got to say for themselves? 'I'm fucked up'. Fantastic."

As for Kurt Cobain, well he's become an icon in death and this has since had a huge effect on the band's legacy, much like Jim Morrison's death did on The Doors (now there's an overrated band). Nowadays, every major white rock music critic worth their salt has Nevermind in his or her Top 10 albums of all time, but would that be the case if Kurt hadn't picked up that shotgun?

Even while he was alive, Cobain's heroin usage was of more interest to most than his music, something that annoys me (much like the fuss surrounding Pete Doherty). For those supporters out there who say that Kurt along with his bandmates might have tapped into the zeitgeist, all I can say is so what? So did the Spice Girls (or rather Simon Fuller did). Is that reason to worship either over a decade on? Not in my eyes.

In addition, I'm always fairly suspicious of a band or artist who release B-sides, bootlegs, outtakes, retrospectives, demos, etc long after they've ceased to exist. Ok, so it's great for the completeists out there, but releasing the guy's diaries long after he's dead?... well that just smacks of extreme money-grabbing, not something a band should be proud of.

One more thing: without Nirvana, there would be no Courtney Love and thousands of trees wouldn't have been needlessly wasted on the (music) press printing articles about her. For that alone, surely they have to be sent down.

The case for the defence (Ben)

A few weeks ago, I tried to prosecute Britpop, with a spectacular lack of success. As I confessed then, my instinctive antipathy towards Oasis, Blur et al was at least partly a consequence of my love for Nirvana.

I was 13 when I first heard Nevermind, round at a friend’s house, no doubt sandwiched between albums by Motley Crue and Iron Maiden. As clichéd as it might sound, it was an epiphany. Nothing was the same again.

For a start, it seemed no longer possible for music to be a neatly compartmentalised part of my life, something in which I could take a passing interest from time to time. Nevermind marked the beginnings of a serious obsession which to this day monopolises my time and energies.

And with this obsession came the discovery (and burden) of taste: all music is not equal. Adopting a scorched earth policy with regard to my record collection, I literally consigned everything except the newly-procured cassette copy of Nevermind to the dustbin. Ripped it up and started again. It’s not routinely referred to as a seminal album for nothing.

Lots of people have their own Nirvana, but what was it about Nevermind that made me react like that? It was raw and unfussy. It was free from posturing and pretension. It was a visceral expression of naked emotion. Something in the music and lyrics struck a chord with me, something which gripped and engaged the listener in a completely natural, uncalculated way. ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was genuinely anthemic: “Here we are now / Entertain us”. For me and millions of others, this was our punk rock.

Inevitably, those possessing delicate “refined” music sensibilities unfairly characterised – or, rather, caricatured – Nirvana as crude, abrasive and brutish. But the legendary unplugged performance for MTV illuminated the effectiveness and simple beauty of their songs, as well as showcasing their talent for taking those of others and making them convincingly their own. Revisit their remarkable take on Ledbetter’s ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’ and I defy you not to get a shiver up your spine.

As appreciative beneficiaries of the patronage of “godfathers of grunge” Sonic Youth, Nirvana were themselves enthusiastic champions of other bands, seizing the opportunity to promote The Meat Puppets through the unplugged performance and ‘80s Scottish indiepopsters The Vaselines through the covers of ‘Son Of A Gun’ and ‘Molly’s Lips’ which appeared on Incesticide. As the lists in his journals testify, Kurt Cobain was first and foremost a music fan.

He was also a source of inspiration. Siouxsie & The Banshees bassist Steve Severin once said: “It has been said that everyone who listened to The Velvet Underground started a band ... I know I did”. The same is pretty much true of Nirvana. They made you want to pick up a guitar and play. They made you realise that music didn’t have to be difficult or sophisticated, that it didn’t have to be precision-perfect and professionally polished. That it was accessible, doable. In this respect, they had an extraordinarily liberating impact, re-teaching the lessons that punk had taught but which had been all but forgotten.

From this distance, thirteen years after Cobain committed suicide, assessments of Nirvana’s legacy are likely to be jaundiced unjustly by things beyond their control. As Michael Azerrad puts it in ‘Our Band Could Be Your Life’, throughout the ‘80s in the US “alternative rock” had bubbled away “beneath the radar of the corporate behemoths” until Nirvana took it overground. In so doing, they essentially killed it off and paved the way for the likes of Silverchair and Bush – but not without giving retrospective exposure to a whole host of thoroughly deserving bands. They were an ear-opener, a gateway drug.

Nirvana also often stand accused of alerting record company execs to the profitability of angst. It’s now pre-processed, manufactured, cynically calculated to induce teenagers to part with their pocket money. But is it really fair to hold them personally responsible for emo? And did Cobain really play at being the “tortured genius”? I think not. He was a genuinely troubled young man who found himself thrust unwillingly into the limelight. Unlike the likes of Robbie Williams, he never wanted and hankered after the fame that ultimately caused him to take his own life.

And if all that isn’t enough to convince you of their innocence, then just reflect on the fact that they gave the world the drum intro to ‘Scentless Apprentice’...

* * * * *

Thanks to Pete. Now it's over to you. Guilty or innocent - YOU decide. The comments box is open and awaiting your comments - you've got until Friday to make up your mind...


Blogger Pete Ashton said...

Even though I agree with pretty much everything Pete G says I'm saying Not Guilty. The Nevermind circus did lead to some unfortunate things but it's only a fraction of what Nirvana were and most of it was due to the absurd hype that went with it.

Ironically (or not) it's the endless out-takes and retrospectives that have cemented their importance to me, especially the DVD in the With the Lights Out box set.

4:14 am  
Blogger Damo said...

Guilty. Just.

The MTV Unplugged set IS brilliant, but much of its reputation came from the inspired choices of covers, not the Nirvana music in the set. And I'll NEVER get tired of hearing Smells Like Teen Spirit. But to suggest they were pioneers of anything is frankly ludicrous. Read "Heavier Than Heaven" and you're looking at a man who could barely tie his shoelaces half the time.

What caps it for me is that yes, Nevermind is a good record. But it's also pretty repetitive (especially the second half) and then we get to In Utero... who listens to it regularly for enjoyment? Anyone? You can't say a record is a classic on the grounds that you 'admire' it, can you?

And as someone with his head deeply rooted in pop music, I can safely say that I prefer Foo Fighters... if that makes me a heretic then so be it.

9:50 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So not guilty. I absolutely agree with Ben. That is all.

1:43 pm  
Blogger LB said...

I find myself completely agreeing with Pete, so I'll say a comfortable "guilty" please. Cobain, for me, is in the same category as John Lennon and others who, if still alive, would in all likelihood be churning out unspeakable shit.

Am I allowed to say I prefer the Foo Fighters to Nirvana?

8:59 pm  
Blogger paul said...

So incredibly not guilty. I had the same epiphany Ben describes when listening to Nevermind (although I was 15) and things really were never quite the same.

To me, their music felt vibrant and important, and they just wrote great songs. Someone mentioned In Utero, and whilst I might not listen to the whole album that often, there are tracks I'll certainly listen to for pleasure, ditto Bleach.

The most overwhelming Nirvana experience I ever had was the first time I saw the unplugged concert. We were sitting in my friend Dave's bedroom, and had got hold of a copy of the vhs from someone whose parent's had satellite telly (a rarity in 1994!) and me and lots of the people I cared about most, watched it and most of us shed a tear or two as Kurt sighed before letting out the tortured sigh before ending Where Did You Sleep Last Night. There aren't many points in my life where I felt like I was witnessing a seminal moment in rock history (I was at Knebworth when Oasis played to a bazillion people in two days, but that didn't feel special in the slightest) but that day in Dave's back bedroom was one of them.

I'm off to listen to Plateau before bed...

9:21 pm  
Blogger Mark said...

Not guilty. Music is a better place for having Nirvana's back catalogue. That said, Kurtney is a terrible id, and both of them were boring and tedious junkies.

1:24 pm  
Blogger Paul said...

I can't get past the fact that I think musically the world would be poorer without Nirvana's influence (and for that matter the backlash which followed).

No Nirvana means no Britpop. Now, there's a double edged sword for Ben to play with.

Not guilty.

2:03 pm  
Blogger Kwok said...

When I first saw who was in the dock I thought I knew immediately what I would do. But after reading Pete G's prosecution, I ummed and ahhed. After reading Ben's defence, I was even more confused.

My objective side says Pete G's right. Half of In Utero is shite IMHO and should be drop kicked into oblivion. I also hate the post-early-death-cannonisation that happens to careless musicians.

But my subjective side is much like Ben's defence. I think, to a lot of people in their mid to late 20's now, hearing Nirvana for the first time was like the earth yawning. When you're in those precious years, you are often lucky enough to have a few of those mind shattering moments via music, books, films, etc... Where you rip it up and start anew. Where the world opens to you like a magnificent vagina.

In the end, it's hard to go against your emotional response. My logical side cannot push the argument beyond reasonable doubt.

Not guilty.

11:23 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't ignore K.W.Wan's magnificent vagina argument, no matter how much I like to sacrifice sacred cows.

Nirvana were a very good cow and they blew my tiny 12 year old mind.

Not Guilty.

1:33 pm  
Blogger Ben said...

Whoa there! I thought this was about Nirvana - how did references to "a very good cow" and "a magnificent vagina" get in there?!

I guess, as Wan suggests, that part of my argument has nothing to do with Nirvana at all. Every music fan has A Nirvana, and I was trying to appeal to that sense of discovery, the way in which a band or album can suddenly open your youthful ears to a whole new world.

Disagree about In Utero, though, Wan. Bleaker, more red-raw and a whole lot more interesting than Nevermind. Damo asks who listens to it for enjoyment - well, I can honestly say I do.

Paul W: That's a devilish argument you've pulled out of the bag there. Some years ago I used much the same argument in an article on manufactured pop music, reasoning that Mogwai wouldn't exist if it weren't for the Spice Girls... Still, you can hit me with logic all you like - you won't find me listening to Menswe@r anytime soon.

6:20 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ho-hum...thought this would be a tough case to prosecute, much like BritPop was a few weeks ago Ben...probably because Nirvana were the band that opened up the world of music to a lot of people's young ears, and few are going to sacrifice the sacred cow of the first band they loved.

Even if it was Nirvana.

7:18 pm  
Blogger Kwok said...

Hey Ben, some people think EVERYTHING has to do with a magnificent vagina.

I tried to listen to In Utero again to give it a 2007 assessment, but couldn't find a copy. It must be god's will...

11:22 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm entirely with the defence. Oh, and I love Hole!

1:45 pm  
Blogger Betty said...

If you forget all the peripheral stuff and just assess the music, they were one of those bands who only happen once every few years, with the right chemistry and a great singer who was able to lay his soul bare. They really had the ability to connect.

Not guilty.

2:32 pm  
Blogger Martin said...

Nirvana didn't really change my life, but seemed to be the missing link between my waning metal obsession and indie sensibilities.

And, much like Jane's Addiction, they were a breath of fresh air to the foot that was pulling its way out of the metal camp (which is probably the clumsiest sentence I've ever written).

Not guilty. The only thing I've got against them is their influence on today's bands who're loud but whine because Mom didn't pay them enough attention. That's still not enough for me to prosecute though.

8:42 pm  
Blogger Dead Kenny said...

Hey Ben, some people think EVERYTHING has to do with a magnificent vagina.

This seemed like my cue!

Love the fact that this was followed up by Alison admitting she loved Hole!

As for In Utero, I'm always dipping in and out of Heart Shaped Box... read my lips: INNOCENT!

11:09 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

watch it dead boy!!

10:51 am  
Blogger swisslet said...

I'm too late to count, but I would have voted guilty here, mainly because I think their importance as a band has been irretrievably warped by the myth of Cobain that has sprung up since his death. That said, I agree with Damo that I will never get tired of listening to "Smells like Teenspirit" or forget the night that I saw them playing it on "The Word" (it's on YouTube somewhere, naturally).

I also agree with Ben about "In Utero". I think it's a much more interesting album than "Nevermind" and I listen to it more too. One of my most cherised gig memories is watching a very traumatised Manic Street Preachers playing the Reading Festival just as Richie had gone into rehab and shortly before the release of "The Holy Bible" (in fact the day before it was released). They played a kicking version of "Pennyroyal Tea".

And I prefer the Foo Fighters.


7:20 pm  

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