Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ at 30: a track-by-track guide from your favourite musicians

Kurt, Krist and Dave tapped into something primal, beautiful and magical. Three decades later, artists continue to draw on the album's strange power

“They represented the anger I felt in my tummy that I’d never heard come out of a pair of speakers before. I was into the Sex Pistols, The Exploited and Keith Flint, but the way Nirvana did it, it felt like there was no barrier for a kid of my mental capacity… it felt like my head was talking to me.”

That’s Gen-Z pop-punk provocateur Yungblud telling NME about the sheer, primal power that Kurt, Dave and Krist tapped into with Nirvana’s world-changing second album ‘Nevermind’, which turns 30 this Friday (September 24). There are classic albums, and then is ‘Nevermind’ – a record that brought alternative music crashing into the mainstream and has inspired three generations of musicians and music fans like absolutely nothing else.

As pop don Lorde puts it to us: “Nirvana are still as cool to my 19-year-old brother in 2021 as they were to 19-year-olds in 1991. That’s crazy to me – the fact that as a teenager I could see that that was so cool. It was undeniable and it’s still happening. That’s some powerful magic.” James Smith of buzzy post-punkers Yard Act adds: “They are a gateway band to all kids. It never feels like they’re an old band; they still have that spark with young people when you first hear those songs.”

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Indeed, this is a record that break boundaries – age-wise, personally and in terms of genre, as Norwegian singer-songwriter Sigrid tells NME: “‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was the first song I ever covered when I was in seventh grade. Growing up, my brother was a huge rock fan and I listened to everything that my siblings were listening to. I was very shy growing up – I was the little girl playing piano. For one school play, I played ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ with a backing band of my classmates and everyone was shocked, like, ‘Where did that come from?’ It was great. I think that playing that rock song in front of 20 kids at school gave me a new confidence. From then on, I wasn’t just that piano girl. I showed another energy that I had.

“Playing covers like that early on really inspired me. I found Adele and heard some intensity in her voice that reminded me of that intensity. I was like, ‘Woah – pop music can have that attitude and that fire too’. That pop-rock crossover has inspired me so much. ‘Nevermind’ – what a fucking album!”

So, let’s jump into the proverbial pool and wallow in these 13 seismic songs (we’re including hidden track ‘Endless Nameless’, of course) with personal testimonials on each tune from artists of all ages and genre, from St. Vincent to grungy hyper-popper Jazmin Bean.

And there’s only person who could take the plunge first…

As told to: Jordan Bassett, Mark Beaumont, Rhys Buchanan, Rhian Daly, Thomas Smith and Andrew Trendell

‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ by Dave Grohl

Dave Grohl
Credit: Jenn Five for NME

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“I remember writing ‘Teen Spirit’ in our rehearsal space, and I liked the riff that Kurt came up with because it’s percussive. Those muted, stabbing strums inbetween the chords really leant to the pattern of the drum riff. [Dave Grohl begins to sing the guitar riff of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ down the phone; writer’s head nearly explodes.] To be honest, at that point, we were listening to a lot of Pixies – it was ‘Bossanova’ [era]. And we were just having fun, really. We were just coming up with new song after new song every day. Krist Novoselic, I believe, has boom box recordings of all of these – riff ideas that were never used, songs that were shaped into songs for ‘Nevermind’ (some of them).

“Of course, no-one had any psychic foresight to imagine that the song would go on to do what it did. We just fuckin’ rocked it in a little rehearsal space that was like a barn. I didn’t know what the lyrics were; Kurt’s melody pattern changed every other time we played it and it wasn’t really until we got into the studio to record it that I realised the power of the song. And not just lyrically or musically, but the groove of the song – it was really powerful. I think everyone was more focused on songs like ‘In Bloom’ or ‘Lithium’ or ‘Breed’; nobody really paid too much attention to ‘Teen Spirit’ while we were recording it. We just thought it was another cool song for the record.” JB

‘In Bloom’ by St. Vincent

St. Vincent. Credit: Getty

“I remember being with my best friend who had a little portable jam-box tape player, and his older brother had made a half-pipe in his front yard and [had] the cassette of ‘Nevermind’. We were like nine or 10-year-old kids on skateboards, listening to this music on a suburban Texas day and being like, ‘Holy shit – this gets me amped up in a way I’ve never been amped.’

“Once you’ve opened that portal and something has made you feel like it, then you don’t forget it. I got to play at this charity event [last year] with Dave, Krist and Pat [Smear], which was so fucking cool. Beck was singing in our ‘all-star’ band and we played ‘In Bloom’.

“I haven’t gone and listened to ‘Nevermind’ from start to finish in a while, but you still hear those songs all the time. Those songs will stand the test of time. It’s a great record; they are great songs – they speak to something ineffable and eternal in all of us and they’ll live forever. I’m struggling to think of another band in the last 30 years that had that kind of impact and actually changed the world. It’s so rare when you can’t escape a record while not wanting to.” AT

‘Come as You Are’ by Nova Twins

Credit: Emma Viola Lilja for NME

Georgia South: “I love [Kurt’s] vocal on ‘Come As You Are’. The whole message of it too is wonderful – just be yourself; that’s how I want you. That’s beautiful.”

Amy Love: “It’s true. Sometimes you don’t understand what he’s saying, but when you dive into the lyrics, they’re so interesting: ‘Come doused in mud, soaked in bleach.’ The melodies are so strong that he slips through this beautiful darkness in the undertones of the words. Revisiting the album now to hear the nuances and raw energy of it, it’s just so timeless. I feel like more bands could be doing that again. There’s so much processed stuff happening now, which can be awesome, but that raw energy is why ‘Nevermind’ still sounds so relevant now. I was listening to it in the car the other day and it’s still really, really good.” AT

‘Breed’ by Jehnny Beth

Jehnny Beth. Credit: Maxime La/Press

“‘We don’t have to breed” – great sentence. There are literally four lines that are repeated all over this track and it’s so catchy in that way. Maybe I’m fantasising about it, but for me it was always a song about a woman saying, ‘I don’t care, we don’t have to breed, we don’t have to have children – we can just do whatever you want to do. I’m happy with what I have.’ I like that idea of we don’t have to do what other people do. That’s probably my own take on it – I don’t know what the song is about, but I’ve always loved that song because of that sentence.

“It has this teenage – I was a teenager when I listened to it – careless thing but also a self-sufficiency vibe to the song that I really like. It’s probably back to what [Nirvana] were about before [‘Nevermind’], because the rest of the songs before that on the record are more pop-sounding and this is more back-to-the-roots.

“I first heard Nirvana with the [‘MTV Unplugged In New York’ album]… I didn’t have access to music that much, so I heard the ‘Unplugged’ versions of those songs first and I really loved them, and then I got into the heavier sound. There was this famous Nirvana gig where there’s people on the side of stage, and that was what really got me into Nirvana.” MB

‘Lithium’ by James Dean Bradfield of Manic Street Preachers

Manic Street Preachers’ James Dean Bradfield Credit: Press

“When I listen to ‘Nevermind’, I just think: ‘My God – it’s just fucking amazing’. ‘Lithium’ is the one I love. You hear that song and you just know that the band are all looking at each other and swinging, saying, ‘We know how to do this’. It’s a beautiful moment where you know everything clicks. [Manics] had that on ‘The Holy Bible’, and just knew that we had it in the bag with the way that we were playing in the studio.

“I’ve said a couple of stupid things about Nirvana in the past, but I think I was always a bit pissed off about how people said that ‘Nevermind’ was Year Zero, when really it was a massive echo of Sex Pistols’ ‘Never Mind The Bollocks…’, in my opinion. You know: the cohesiveness of that record, the beautiful straight lines that were recorded so clearly but were still so powerful…

“There are no frills on either of those records. They’re both startlingly concise but still recorded so beautifully. The guitars are like a mobile panza division of molten lava coming towards you, but never disorganised. It’s always so organised. I was jealous of ‘Nevermind’ for a long time, and always will be. A truly great rock record is one of the hardest things to achieve.” AT

‘Polly’ by Izzy ‘B’ Phillips of Black Honey

“I love the fact that it’s so subverted. It’s a rape story, but it’s a really brave perspective to take – the perspective of the rapist. It’s got a Nabokov slant, where you almost become empathetic to the people that are abusive. It’s a real story as well – a girl was raped by a dude with a blowtorch, which sounds like creative embellishment but is actually true.

“[Despite Kurt singing from the POV of the rapist], he’s still telling me how he feels about it. As a song, it’s very critical  – you can tell Kurt’s doing it fully knowing and as a modern feminist. It’s almost him acknowledging that him as a white man telling that story, it’d be fucked-up if he tried to tell it from her perspective.

“[The quietness of ‘Polly’] is what really struck me for the first time when I heard it. It’s acoustic, but it’s grunge acoustic and it shows you grunge can also be in the style of the chords used or the way something’s played. This song would lose meaning if Kurt shredded a big, screaming guitar riff – it’s more menacing to whisper, especially at [that] junction of a record that is so fucking loud.” RD

‘Territorial Pissings’ by Sam Fender

Tom Oxley for NME

“I’m really stuck between ‘Breed’ and ‘Territorial Pissings’, but [my favourite] would be ‘Territorial Pissings’ every day of the week. When I was 11, it was the tune that if I was pissed-off or whatever at school, this was my pissed-off song and it was such a release. I used to smash my room up to it playing my guitar. My brother is 10 years older than us so he had this album before I was born. I remember seeing ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ on the TV and thinking it was class, and then my brother gave us ‘Nevermind’ when I was like seven. I had the Nirvana t-shirt as well with the yellow smiley face on it.

“My brother used to look like Kurt Cobain – he had bleach blonde hair – so when I was a kid I loved Nirvana and idolised my brother because he looked like Kurt. He used to wear the same sort of clothes as well, with flannel shirts and baggy jeans. It’s just an absolute, rip-roaring screamer – it’s just the aggression, it’s fucking infectious. I’d still smash up my bedroom when I listen to it now and I still put it on when I’m pissed off.” RB

‘Drain You’ by James Smith of Yard Act

Credit: James Brown

“I was a music teacher for a long time and I’ve taught ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ probably like 800 times, so I can’t listen to that song any more, even though I know it’s incredible. Whereas the second half of ‘Nevermind’, starting with ‘Drain You’, is way more enjoyable to me because I’ve heard it so much less.

“It’s amazing that track eight on an album like this starts with a hook that good. A big thing that Yard Act take from Nirvana is coming in straight with the vocals – I love that there’s no faffing around. It’s got that pure ’60s pop feel to it… it’s just a Beatles tune that’s fuzzed up, isn’t it? At the heart of it, it’s all just brilliant pop music.

“I know when they were recording that album they didn’t know it’d become the record it became – they must have known they were onto something good – but to take a pop song as good as ‘Drain You’ and throw that middle-eight in is just so cool. It’s a testament to Kurt’s willingness to not just do the obvious thing.” TS

‘Lounge Act’ by Jazmin Bean 

Credit: Emma Viola Lilja for NME

“Songs about jealousy and being paranoid about the people you love are kind of my thing right now – so this track speaks to me a lot. It’s quite vague, in a way, lyrically, but I like it when songs are like that; it means that a lot of it is open to your own interpretation. I also love that they called it ‘Lounge Act’ because they literally thought they sounded like a hotel lounge act at the start of it. It’s funny the idea of Nirvana playing in a hotel lobby with people just walking around and receptionists working!”

‘Stay Away’ by Bobby Vylan of Bob Vylan

Credit: Getty

“After ‘Territorial Pissings’, ‘Stay Away’ is my favourite track from ‘Nevermind’. From the opening snare to the last spoken line (“God is gay”) and the gear melting end, it’s an absolute stormer. The punk rock speed is probably what grabbed me initially as my favourite kind of Nirvana is a fast Nirvana (did I mention my favourite track is ‘Territorial Pissings’?). But then there are the almost mumbled lyrics, lazily rallying against conformity in a simplistic but incredibly effective way – lines like “rather be dead than cool” are a reminder to every rebellious outcast that they’re not as alone they may feel.”

‘On A Plain’ by Ronnie Vannucci Jr. of The Killers

Credit: Getty

“It was in the evening. I was in 10th grade and doing some math homework and three very distinct things happened that night. Vegas was in a storm. Thunder and heavy rain. I was on the phone with the prettiest girl in school and lightning struck – literally. The phone went dead. The relationship didn’t blossom, either. The radio, however, was still going: KUNV, the local college radio station played unreleased albums on their show Hot Off The Press – in their entirety. That’s when I heard ‘Nevermind’. If it wasn’t for ‘Nevermind’, I might still be sore from not getting any further with that girl.

“The standout, because of that vocal melody, was ‘On A Plain’. I still sing that song to myself without even knowing it. That album changed me and charged something in me that I still feel today. Or maybe it was the lightning – the loudest damn thing I’ve ever heard through a phone.” AT

‘Something in the Way’ by Yannis Philippakis of Foals

Foals' Yannis Philippakis. Credit: Fiona Garden/NME
Credit: Fiona Garden for NME

“I was probably 12 or 13 when I first heard ‘Nevermind’. There are all of the immediate songs and the revelling in the loudness, the rage and the primal, electrified expression of it all, but what’s interesting about ‘Something In The Way’ is that it shows Kurt’s ability to write something that didn’t rely on all that but was still powerful. You don’t always need to hit the distortion pedal. If you were a young, angry teenager, to be spoken to by a song that was softer and more brooding just opens up a whole world. I went from only listening to punk to thinking that Leonard Cohen was cool.

“It broadened my horizons musically. That’s the power of being spoken to by a singular voice. It’s like [Kurt is] speaking directly to you. You feel like you’ve stumbled into the room and he hasn’t noticed that you’re there. You’ve just overheard him baring his darkest moments.” AT

‘Endless, Nameless’ by Simon Neil of Biffy Clyro

Credit: Andy Ford for NME

“‘Endless Nameless’ was the first hidden track that I ever heard on a record. I just left the album running and this surprise cacophony came bursting out of the speakers. We nicked that trick for our second and third albums with hidden tracks deliberately ripping off Nirvana because we thought it was the coolest thing ever.

“We loved Nirvana so much we used to to perform their records in full while practicing, and when it came to jamming ‘Endless Nameless’, you realise it’s one of the best riffs ever written. I guess they didn’t know that their album was going to be such a smash-hit and knock Michael Jackson off Number One, but the fact that the record to do that has a seven minute atonal heavy monster is just so brilliant. I love that.

“It’s one of the first pieces of extreme music that really turned me on. I didn’t love riffing and showing off – I just wanted intensity. That’s what ‘Endless Nameless’ taught me. At that moment in time, nothing was real in music – especially rock music. Nirvana were just three normal guys from a rainy and miserable part of the world who were expressing themselves in a really primal way. ‘Nevermind’ gave our band permission to exist.” AT

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