Nirvana recorded around 18 songs in total for ‘In Utero’. Among those that didn’t make the track listing were ‘I Hate Myself And Want To Die’ and ‘Marigold’, which was the first (and only) song Dave Grohl wrote for the band. It was later released as a B-side to ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ and on the Foo Fighters’ live album ‘Skin and Bones’.
‘Scentless Apprentice’ was inspired by Patrick Süskind’s 1985 novel ‘Perfume’, about a boy born without body odour, who stalks and murders virgins in search of the ‘perfect scent’. Cobain said that he’d read it, “about 10 times in my life, and I can’t stop reading it. It’s like something that’s just stationary in my pocket all the time. It just doesn’t leave me.”
Pennyroyal is a plant which has been used as an abortifacient, and Kurt said he knew friends who’d used it. He said the song was about someone “who’s beyond depressed.” The “Leonard Cohen afterworld” lyric was a reference to when Kurt “was depressed and sick. I’d read things like Malloy Dies [sic] by Beckett, or listen to Leonard Cohen, which would actually make it worse.”
Cobain claimed to have written ‘Heart Shaped Box’ after watching documentaries about children with cancer, which he said “makes me sadder than anything I can think of.” The song’s original title was ‘Heart-Shaped Coffin’. Courtney Love claimed last year that the song is about her vagina.
Kurt wrote the treatment for the ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ video himself, which impressed director Anton Corbijn. However, Kurt’s original plan was to have seminal Beat novelist William S. Burroughs be the man who crawled onto the cross. He had also wanted the ‘Naked Lunch’ and ‘Junkie’ writer to star in the video for ‘In Bloom’.
The recording of the album began on February 12th, 1993 at the secluded Pachyderm Studios in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, and ended on February 26th. After several years of decline, the studio was put up for sale in 2011 and bought by a new owner last year, although he was forced to change the name. It is now known as Seedy Underbelly North.
Before being approached to produce ‘In Utero’, Steve Albini had dismissed Nirvana as “REM with a fuzzbox” and claims to have only accepted the job because he felt sorry for them. During the recording, however, his opinion changed: “I can’t really express how much my admiration for that band grew during the course of making that record.”
Albini’s opinion of the people around the band, however, was scathing: “Every other person involved in the enterprise that is Nirvana, besides the band itself, are pure pieces of shit.” He didn’t think much of Courtney Love either, describing her as a “psycho hose-beast.”
During the recording, Nirvana and Albini bonded by prank-calling other musicians. One of their victims was Evan Dando, who they rang claiming to be Madonna’s manager. Another was Eddie Vedder, who thought he was talking to producer Tony Visconti.
Albini was paid $100,000 for his work and stood to make much more in royalties. Against the suggestions of the band’s management, however he refused to take percentage points on sales, a stance he’s adopted throughout his career. Albini has said that he considers producer royalties “an insult to the artist.”
Albini and the band made it clear to Nirvana’s management that they did not want any distractions in the studio. Albini instituted a strict policy of ignoring anyone in the studio who was not a band member, and the group also refused to play any work-in-progress recordings to visiting A&R representatives. The two-week session was also booked under the name of The Simon Ritchie Bluegrass Ensemble.
The only other musician to appear on the album other than the band members themselves was Kera Schaley, who played cello on ‘All Apologies’. It was also one of three songs – the other two being ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ and ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ – to be remixed by REM producer Scott Litt, after Cobain felt the vocals on Albini’s original mix to be too “mushy”.
‘Rape Me’ was given an unexpected live debut at the 1992 MTV Awards, when Nirvana opened their agreed-upon performance of ‘Lithium’ with a snippet of the song. The band had planned to play the song in full, but MTV wouldn’t allow it and were seconds away from switching to a commercial when ‘Lithium’ started. Cobain said he did it, “just to give MTV a little heart palpitation.”
When Walmart and K-Mart threatened not to stock the album, Nirvana were forced to change the artwork on copies sent to those stores. ‘Rape Me’ was renamed ‘Waif Me’ (Kurt’s original suggestion was ‘Sexually Assault Me’) and all foetus images were removed. The band agreed to the changes because the two stores were they only places Kurt and Krist could buy music as kids.
Alternate and working-titles used during the recording include ‘Punky New Wave Number’ (‘Very Ape’), ‘New Poopie’ (‘Tourette’s’), ‘Nine Month Media Blackout’ (‘Radio Friendly Unit Shifter’), ‘Milk Made’ (‘Milk It’), ‘I’ll Take You Down To The Pavement’ (‘Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through The Strip’) and ‘La La La: Alternateen Anthem’ (‘All Apologies’).
Working titles for ‘In Utero’ itself, meanwhile, included ‘Verse Chorus Verse’ and ‘I Hate Myself And Want To Die’, which was how Kurt would sarcastically reply to anyone who asked him how he was doing. The band decided against using the latter because they worried fans might not get the joke.
The initial reaction to ‘In Utero’ by the band’s management and label was not good. The band’s A&R man said it sounded “like crap, there’s way too much effect on the drums, you can’t hear the vocals,” and industry rumours abounded that Nirvana had recorded an “unreleasable” album (for which Albini was blamed).
Despite both band and label being convinced that the album would not be a commercial success, ‘In Utero’ debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 chart, selling 180,000 copies in its first week of release. It has since gone on to sell over 15m copies worldwide.
The man dressed in drag on the CD itself is Michael DeWitt, a longtime friend of Courtney Love, who was Frances Bean Cobain’s nanny for a time shortly before Kurt’s death. DeWitt has also been identified by some conspiracy theorists as a suspect in Kurt’s alleged ‘murder’.
‘In Utero’ is Krist Novoselic’s favourite Nirvana album because “we just played music, we worked together really well, we were laughing, we were concentrating, we were open. And that really shows on the record. We didn’t mess around. Nobody got bombed, everybody was focused and clear-headed. I’m really proud of it, it’s a beautiful record.”