(#436: 5 October 1991, 1 week)
Track listing: Is Your Mama Gonna Miss Ya?/Hey Honey – I’m Packin’ You In/Can’t Stop This Thing We Started/Thought I’d Died And Gone To Heaven/Not Guilty/Vanishing/House Arrest/Do I Have To Say The Words?/There Will Never Be Another Tonight/All I Want Is You/Depend On Me/Everything I Do (I Do It For You)/If You Wanna Leave Me (Can I Come Too?)/Touch The Hand/Don’t Drop That Bomb On Me
Rock as Beverly Moss would have understood it.
"You know we're just using you so we can get to the Bryan Adams audience! Let's see a bunch of pogoing and gobbing. No, come on, gob!"
(Kurt Cobain to the audience in the Kilburn National Ballroom, one of whom was this writer, on Thursday 5 December 1991)
This album entered the chart in the same week, at a modest number thirty-six:
It was a big week for album releases, the last week of September. Screamadelica not unreasonably got most of the attention, not least from myself, but there were also albums by the Pixies and the Cult – Trompe Le Monde and Ceremony respectively – both of which were solid enough but a little disappointing. I bought Nevermind at the same sitting because I’d liked Bleach and it had received really good reviews. I took it home, listened to and enjoyed it, then filed it away (because listening to it was taking up valuable Screamadelica time!).
Then a curious thing gradually happened. I found myself voluntarily reaching for the record again and again, and kept playing it until I gradually concluded that this was something more than others had pretended it to be. I realised that first and foremost it was a terrific pop album, in the way that A Hard Day’s Night and The Lexicon Of Love had been terrific pop albums. Hit after damaged hit – and perhaps it was the slo-mo meteorite which wiped out all of the predominant rock dinosaurs. Three years previously, I’d loved Surfer Rosa as much as anyone – it remains obvious that Kim was that band’s real genius - but this was Surfer Rosa gone supernova pop, as in the Pixies being heard over the supermarket tannoy, on breakfast radio, on television watched crossly by your parents. Or so it would seem was going to be the case. I knew the Killdozer album Twelve Point Buck so was aware of how much Butch Vig was going to bring to that particular table.
Yet there seemed so much more going on than just – just? – twelve amazing songs, many of which are damn-you loud, although the two quiet ones are the scariest. Then “Smells Like Teen Spirit” filtered through, mainly because of its video, and a couple of months later everybody knew, or were afraid to know, who Nirvana were, even the oldsters who thought that they had changed a lot from the days of “Rainbow Chaser.”
They appeared, unforgettably, on Top Of The Pops and The Word. I saw them in Kilburn about three weeks before Christmas, when Cobain dedicated the evening to Captain America and Shonen Knife and the band exploded like no band I had seen since Joy Division at the Glasgow Apollo a dozen years earlier. Eventually the word was out – those moshing kids on TV gave the game away – that this was something new, for so many people, for so many messed-up young people, alienated by gloss and pomposity. The dividing window was opened. This, without any prepared fanfare whatsoever, was what people imagined punk rock had been like.
Of course there had been Hüsker Dü, and Sonic Youth, and the Butthole Surfers, and Beat Happening, and all of those other important American bands who maybe arrived half a decade too early to conquer the world, but as far as messed-up young Aberdeen, Washington State resident Kurt Cobain was concerned, they arrived right on time. I do not intend to enter into an extended discussion of Nevermind here – there is Wikipedia, there are biographies – or any presumed meaning or background to what these songs say, or how, or why, they say it. It’s rather important that I write this quickly as opposed to sitting on it and allowing it to stew, mainly because it doesn’t actually matter exactly what Kurt is mumbling or drawling, or the details of his affair with Tobi Vail, or whatever (nevermind?) – what matters is that he and the band are saying something rather than nothing, that this is not the efficient, professional, polite mutation of “rock” which in the early nineties was mostly listened to and liked by kids’ parents (who just don’t understand – don’t you understand?). What matters is that these songs, one by rapid one, hit the listener like bullets of liquorice kisses, recapture the dizzying elation of being in love and living something called life (and if you think Nevermind isn’t on the side of life you are not listening to it).
Dave Marsh concluded that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was its generation’s “Louie, Louie” – what’s he saying, and why should anyone care; the fact that to The Kids this is NEW, as the Kingsmen were once new to the people of Marsh’s generation. It is not meant to be “appreciated.” It is meant as an unintended and finally unassuming calling card, calling out the rest of pop and rock for not paying attention, or paying it in the wrong direction. The rest of Then Play Long from hereonin, as Lena suggested to me last night, will now be fairly definitively divided between people who heard this record, and those who did not, or chose not to do so. It formed an accidental dividing line. Get off the ‘bus, or preferably back on it.
My conclusion is that Kurt’s use of breath control and manipulation of vowels to convey vulnerable uncertainty reminds me very strongly of Johnny Mathis.