Nirvana: Live! Tonight! Sold Out!! Vs Foo Fighters: Live In Hyde Park/Skin And Bones

Kurt and Dave go head-to-head in the battle for your Christmas cash

Talking to Jonathan Ross the other week, Courtney Love recalled her surprise at being defined by the man she was married to, despite having forged a successful career in her own right. He’d boil his own head before admitting it, but Dave Grohl must feel a bit the same. OK, so it’s kind of tasteless to compare Foo Fighters to Nirvana these days, but we’re only even going there because the bands’ live DVDs are vying for your Christmas vouchers and therefore we kind of have to.

A Kurt-sized hole in the world is one big void to fill, and with every year that passes, it only seems to get bigger. More than a man, Kurt Cobain has become an idea, or should that be an ideal? He’s the closest thing our rock’n’roll society has to a god and, despite Dave having piloted an international super-band for a decade with no little talent of his own, deep down the reason we always pay attention to Foo Fighters is because Dave is one of our few remaining organic links to Kurt.

The Foos’ DVD bundle just goes to show how far Grohl has come. Skin And Bones – the acoustic show recorded live in Los Angeles in front of Dave’s friends – is pleasant enough, but the main event is this summer’s Hyde Park mega-gig. As Grohl goofs midway through, even if the 60,000 site had only half sold-out, it would still have been the biggest Foo Fighters show ever. As it was, it became one of the few truly memorable dates on this summer’s crowded calendar – the moment when they passed some sort of watermark and began to feel like a truly important rock band. Or at least, that’s what it felt like on the day. In replay, the set’s heavy reliance on the blustery rock side of ‘In Your Honour’ means things don’t really inflate until two-thirds of the way through, when you get to the trusty likes of ‘My Hero’, ‘Generator’ and ‘Monkey Wrench’ (Foos nostalgia? Really?). But the reliance on Special Guest Rock Legends to keep the thrills coming – Lemmy on ‘Shake Your Blood’ and the Queen survivors on ‘Tie Your Mother Down’ – show just how orthodox an operation they’ve become. As grunge’s Paul McCartney, Dave is having the last laugh, but sometimes that’s a long way from punk rock.

In contrast, Live! Tonight! Sold Out!! was probably the last Nirvana project Kurt worked on, issued just months after his death, at the same time as Unplugged In New York. Conceived by Kurt and completed by Dave and Krist after he died, it’s intended as a live documentary history, with all kinds of performances and behind-the-scenes footage. Already a museum piece to those of us just a maddening few months too young to ever have seen them live, this was the closest a lot of us got to seeing the real thing, and considering the lack of a definitive Nirvana concert film, it’s weird that it’s taken this long to get a DVD airing. But that’s part of what makes it so fantastic. It’s precisely because Kurt Cobain has now ascended to an idea, that to see him as a mere rock star, playing and talking as a mortal human being, gives the whole thing an air of pilgrimage. It’s only the TV footage that dates the thing… ‘Territorial Pissings’ to a bemused Jonathan Ross (him again), or the Top Of The Pops where the band lampooned having to mime their instruments – Kurt changing the words of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ to ‘Load up on drugs, kill your friends’. Even when they weren’t plugged in they were irresistible.

The other thing you wouldn’t get in this age of advertorial promo packages is the band portrayed with warts and all. Kurt must have selected a lot of this footage, and his outburst at a dim-but-well-meaning European interviewer is as off-message to Kurt The Saint as Grohl’s petulant dismissal of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ elsewhere is for the Most Crowd-Pleasing Man In Rock. More remarkable is the footage of ‘Love Buzz’, where an altercation with a bouncer ends with Kurt bashing him on the head with his guitar. But all that is window dressing – there’s simply more amazing music on Live! Tonight! Sold Out!! than we’re really used to. So we get Nirvana as they should have been experienced: a raw, visceral, devastatingly sexy way of life. We get ‘Dive’ and ‘Breed’ and ‘Lithium’ and ‘Drain You’ and ‘Polly’ and ‘Sliver’ and ‘On A Plain’. And then, as we approach the end, we get some primitive quick-editing, some sound distortion, some clips played over and over again – ever more blinding. And then it just ends, before anyone gets the chance to get hurt again. And we get a band whose like we can only hope to see again. Whichever god you choose to believe in.

Dan Martin