The Roots Of… Nirvana

No great band is born without a struggle and no great records are born in a vacuum. For every artist whose ideas makes your wig spin there are a huge pile of influences – from specks of colour to swathes of sound – that delivered them to that point. And this where The Roots Of… comes in. Each week we’ll take a band, pull apart the threads that make them who they are and build a Spotify playlist from those influences.


This week: NIRVANA. Two words: Kurt Cobain. Two more words: Absurd genius. Two final words: Sadly dead. Only the most spectacular sort of talent could turn a love for Scots 70s teen-screamers Bay City Rollers and head-wrecking Texan drug-dustbins Butthole Surfers into a new and aggressively beautiful sort of music – but poor old Kurt managed it. Stir in some doom-mongering mega-rock, pigeon-toed hair-slide indie, guttural blues moaning, a sprinkling of Abba and some toast-in-bed-with-your-socks-on slacker-pop and an awesome new world of possibilities might just open up in front of you. Well it might if you’re an absurdly talented genius, anyway.


In The Beginning

Cobain grew up in Aberdeen, a small logging town 100 miles outside Seattle. His first musical influences were his mother’s Beatles, Monkees and Bay City Rollers records, while Aerosmith and Blondie were on the radio. Aged 14 his father bought him an electric guitar – enter Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Iron Maiden and AC/DC.

Acceptable In The 80s
When punk rock finally reached Aberdeen it had a profound effect on Cobain. Years later he would describe the Sex Pistols debut album as being, “the best produced record in the world”, while American acts like Black Flag, Fang, MDC, Saccharine Trust and Bad Brains would radically alter his view of what music could do and could be.

The Olympia Effect

In 1987, Cobain moved to Olympia, the town 50 miles closer to Seattle. It was here the American punk scene had its vibrant base in K Records, a label whose logo Cobain had tattooed on his arm. Calvin Johnston’s K was home to a bunch of serious fanatics who developed an obsession with the idea of a “pure” (often female) punk rock ethos which drew on bands as disparate as the Raincoats, The Slits and even Tracey Thorn’s jazz-pop outfit, Marine Girls. Meanwhile, Cobain was soaking up new records by The Pixies, The Pastels, The Vaselines and a young singer-songwriter from Dorset called PJ Harvey.

Quiet Bit/Loud Bit

In late 1988 Nirvana released their debut single, ‘Love Buzz’, a cover of a 20-year-old track by Dutch rock group, Shocking Blue. They would tour relentlessly, accompanied by a tape they played in their van that had jangle-friendly power-poppers The Smithereens on one side and Switzerland’s symphonic metal gods Celtic Frost on the other, according to bassist Krist Novoselic that was a big influence. Less than two years later their album Nevermind, and the mammoth hit single ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, would turn them into the biggest band in the world, a fact that Cobain found both hilarious and terrifying. “I’ll be the first to admit that we’re the 90’s version of Cheap Trick or the Knack,” he would write in the sleeve notes to December 1992’s Incesticide. “But the last to admit that it hasn’t been rewarding.” But perhaps not rewarding enough; by April 1994 Cobain had taken his own life.


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