In the first of a new series that sees writers and musicians reflect on the one track that caused a siesmic shift for them, Reviews Editor Emily Mackay hails Nirvana’s ‘Lithium’, released in 1991
It’s a funny thing to talk about, a song changing your life. More often than not it’s just a histrionic way of saying “song that I like a lot” or “song that had a very powerful emotional effect on me” or maybe if you’re lucky “song that changed the way I thought about something or introduced me to new ideas”.
Instances of songs making concrete, definite changes to the course of your life tend to be quite few and far between, and the ones that do it aren’t always the ones that stay as your favourites.
The one I’ve picked here is, of course, a howlingly obvious choice, particularly in Nirvana-nostalgia high season. Unfortunately, though, I do have a taste for the obvious, and there’s no getting away from it. And all that was good and bad about Nirvana’s mainstream crossover – as documented in the recently re-released 1991: The Year Punk Broke in all its crass in-your-faceness – is why this is genuinely a song that changed my life.
Not my favourite, not the best, not the cleverest or most obscurantist choice, but the one that clubbed its way through to my consciousness and insisted: “other things like this are out there. FIND THEM”.
Growing up in Kincardineshire, where we’d recently moved from Orkney, there wasn’t much of a scene to be had. None of my friends were interested in music at the time, although some of their older brothers were obsessed with Metallica and Ozzy, and the nearest venue, had I been old enough to sneak in, was 40 miles away, in a time where not a lot of bands really bothered going as far north as Aberdeen anyway.
The main ‘cool’ radio station that everyone listened to was the Ireland-based Atlantic 252, which pumped out Eternal, Urban Cookie Collective and Mike And The Mechanics. I’d only just got over Stock, Aitken and Waterman. And then, into this rather cosy rural existence lurched Nirvana.
It’s hard to explain quite how freakish it was, in the early ’90s, to suddenly have this… thing on mainstream radio. Right there in the weekly chart countdown, sat bald-faced next to Snap! and the Shamen, Bryan Adams and Sophie B. Hawkins (although I still really like Sophie B. Hawkins).
It was surreal. A song like ‘Lithium’ made no sense in any terms of pop music you were familiar with. It had a sweet melody… but what was this deliberate ugliness, this fascinating rage?
I’d heard people declare how ecstatic they were in songs before, but never with the sort of dead-eyed, depressed sarcasm with which Kurt Cobain intoned “I’m so happy” over the creeping, creepy bassline, before reaching the dumb, glorious roar of the chorus, that seemingly mindless “yyeeeeaah” so full of unarticulated malice and gleeful release.
It was unsettling. It was exhilarating. It was immediately addictive. It blasted the dust and sand away from a previously undiscovered well of anger and darkness and fun.
Within weeks, several of my schoolmates had formed covers bands and I was raiding the local shop for music magazines that would explain what the fuck was going on. I don’t really listen to ‘Nevermind’ much any more. I don’t need to. But I remain grateful that Nirvana had the balls to do whatever it was they did.