Thirty years after its release, Nirvana‘s Nevermind remains one of the most exhilarating and pivotal albums of all time. Not only did the LP serve as the band’s own breakthrough; it also helped to usher in grunge and alternative rock as the dominant sounds on radio and MTV. Moreover, this hook-filled yet blisteringly intense burst of punk alienation introduced Kurt Cobain as the reluctant voice of a generation, a mantle that may have paved the way for his tragic end three years later.
The band’s rapid rise combined with Cobain’s wariness of fame led to much lore and mythology surrounding the iconic album, which was recorded over the course of a year with producer Butch Vig in both Wisconsin and Los Angeles. With more than 24 million copies sold worldwide, Nevermind continues to be a generation- and border-spanning favorite. In honor of its anniversary, here are 10 things you might not know about Nirvana’s explosive masterpiece.
1. Nirvana began recording the songs in 1990 with Butch Vig for a planned second Sub Pop release.
The band began work on their follow-up to debut album Bleach more than a year before its official release. After being connected with Vig by Sub Pop co-founder Bruce Pavitt, the band recorded six songs with the producer for what was meant to be a second album on their independent label. At the time, and due to Nirvana’s increasing success after touring with Sonic Youth, Sub Pop was shopping around the idea of gaining a distribution deal with a major label. In Wisconsin with Vig, Nirvana recorded several early versions of songs like “Lithium” and “Polly” that would eventually make the album, which would later be finished in Los Angeles at Sound City after the band inked its major-label deal.
2. Sonic Youth encouraged DGC to sign Nirvana.
In Charles R. Cross’ Kurt Cobain biography Heavier Than Heaven, he notes that Kurt Cobain saw Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth as “just short of royalty.” Having been a huge fan of Sonic Youth, Cobain was honored to find Nirvana claiming the opening slot on their 1991 summer tour. The respect and admiration was mutual, and the legendary art-rock couple had been the impetus for the band not only to sign with their management company Gold Mountain but also to align with the major label DGC.
3. The album’s original title was Sheep.
While he retained his punk ethos after the band hit it big, Cobain was well aware of Nirvana’s potential to become one of the biggest acts in the world. Playing into that idea, he originally called the band’s sophomore effort Sheep, which was based off an inside joke about how the masses would flock to their album. He even mocked up a fake advertisement with the slogan “Because you want to not; because everyone else is” and fa ake but prophetic biography of the band that “cited” them as “Two times on the cover of Bowling Stoned, hailed as the most original, thought-provoking and important band of our decade by Thyme and Newsweak.”
4. Dave Grohl is not the only drummer on Nevermind.
When Nirvana began the original Smart Studios sessions with Vig, Chad Channing – the drummer featured on most of Nirvana’s 1989 debut, Bleach – was still in the band. His contribution to “Polly” remains on the album, though it was uncredited on the original release. Grohl would be the band’s fifth and final drummer.
5. Vig convinced Cobain to double-track his vocals because “John Lennon did it.”
Despite its rougher edges, Nevermind boasts a sculpted, accessible feel: Cobain’s double-tracked vocals, for example, added heft to the songs and fullness to his lurching howls. Vig’s decision double-track the vocals was inspired by late Beatles producer George Martin, and John Lennon’s use of the technique was what convinced Cobain to feel comfortable with it. “He was reluctant to do so because he thought it sounded too fake,” Vig recalled in a recent tribute to Martin following his passing in 2016. After the producer brought up the Lennon connection, Cobain “pretty much double-tracked all the vocals after that.”
6. Hidden track “Endless, Nameless” was accidentally left off initial pressings of the album.
“Endless, Nameless” was born from a frustrating recording session of “Lithium” where Cobain struggled to get his guitar parts correct. In the end, Vig decided to keep the noisy, aggressive recording and the band intended to tack it on to the end of the album as a hidden track following 10 minutes of silence once ballad “Something in the Way” wrapped. Howie Weinberg, the engineer who mastered the album, later noted that the decision to add “Endless, Nameless” had been a verbal one, contributing to his misunderstanding of the instructions. The song was re-added later.
7. Cobain was “embarrassed” by the final mix of Nevermind.
Nirvana brought in Andy Wallace, who had previously worked with Slayer, to do the album’s final mix. As noted by both Wallace and Vig, the band had nothing but compliments and love for Wallace’s work upon initially hearing the final versions of the songs. Cobain’s tune in particular changed dramatically once the album’s sales skyrocketed, with the musician deeming himself “embarrassed” by the final product during interviews with biographer Michael Azerrad. “It’s such a perfect mixture of cleanliness and nice, candy-ass production. … It may be extreme to some people who aren’t used to it, but I think it’s kind of lame, myself.”
8. The album cover was inspired by Cobain’s interest in water births.
Cobain’s fascination with birth and pregnancy is well-documented, visible in his journals and of course in the cover and name of Nirvana’s final album In Utero. After watching a documentary on water births with Grohl, Cobain wanted to feature a picture of a water birth on the cover, though it was deemed too graphic by the record label. Instead they went to a pool for babies with photographer Kirk Weddle, who captured a shot of his friend’s son Spencer Elden swimming toward a dollar bill on a hook. Cobain refused to compromise on editing out Elden’s penis for certain stores.
9. Cobain claimed that he hid a photo of Kiss on the back cover.
Next to the track listing on Nevermind‘s back cover is a photo of a rubber monkey in front of a bizarre collage created by Cobain. The collage features photographs of diseased genitals from his medical photo collection and paintings showing images from Dante’s Inferno, and according to the frontman, “If you look real close, there is a picture of Kiss in the back standing on a slab of beef.”
10. Nevermind knocked Michael Jackson’s Dangerous off the charts.
Nirvana’s dominance reached a new, prophetic peak when they knocked the King of Pop’s Dangerous off the top of the charts in early 1992. Throughout their career, Nirvana vocally opposed Eighties-style glitz and the exact type of pop spectacle Jackson epitomized, and their chart takeover proved that their revolution was taking hold.
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in September 2016.
From Rolling Stone US