HAPPY on the INSIDE - ESSENTIAL: Nirvana
Do you remember what teen spirit smells like? How did you first hear of Nirvana?
For those of us who were there, you didn't just hear Kurt Cobain, see him or hear of him - you met him, you were him and he seemed to sing from your soul too. He said things you wanted to say, he expressed your inner self.
This one band is responsible for every single rock band that exists today. They tore up the rock of the 80s. They threw out the hairspray and ridiculous hair styles. They shut down the extended guitar solos of the previous rock Gods like Bon Jovi, Guns N Roses, Van Halen and Aerosmith. In the dawn of the music video, image and sex appeal screamed out of them. But when Nirvana hit the air waves, that all changed. How?
Nirvana exposed those bands. They did it in the only way a rock band can, through their music. They shone a light on music as sexist, homophobic, shallow and rotten to its very core. Nirvana were scruffy and dirty, they sang as feminists and their music was raw heavy rock. Given the name Grunge, it was a mix of every form of rock, from the Beatles all the way through the sex pistols, the glam rock of the 80's and American bands like mud honey. Their lyrics were deeply poetic, sometimes on the surface they were disgusting, but when analysed, they were in response to the most abhorrent behaviour you can imagine. From rape, to prostitution, to unloving parents to disease and violence. Nirvana mattered to everyone because they sang as all of us.
In reshaping culture, they made us stop and look away from the conventional. We looked at a different shelf at HMV, we tore up our clothes and we wrote slogans on our back for the things that mattered to us the most. Nirvana recreated 1970s punk rock, with their own twist. Instead of the anger of 70's punk, it was replaced with honesty and openness. They showed us things that we were most likely ignorant to, or ignore.
One such song is Polly, about the abduction and rape of a 14 year old girl. Much Cobain’s song writing related to disturbing subject matter, but he would also use his lyrics to represent a vulnerability – as with Heart Shaped Box, where he cryptically discusses his love for his wife Courtney Love. Tourette's is a song close to my heart, having been diagnosed with the condition about the same time it was released. It was angry and it was raw and it spoke to my soul like no other song ever has. These challenging subjects were turned into songs, and realities of life were broadcast everywhere.
Nirvana was primitive, messy, misshaped and yet, defined a generation. They knocked Michael Jackson off the number one spot in the charts, were everywhere and in your face. Nirvana paved the way for new styles, new sounds; like Blur, Green Day and the Prodigy were amongst many others that were reshaping music. Bands worshipped or took influence from Nirvana.
When Kurt Cobain died, we all wrote in scruffy marker pens on our favourite clothes "Grunge Is Dead". Grunge was laid to rest with Kurt. Many bands went on to play grunge music but most us refused to call it grunge. Bands like smashing pumpkins became pop music. Now people refer to Nirvana as pop music - back then it was not cool to be a pop band, we called Nirvana grunge. It was a mash up of punk, rock, and thrash metal, it was everything and it was individual.
This band made us look at ourselves with confidence, break through barriers and say"I am what I am, and I don't give a fuck". We weren't moody teenagers anymore, we had something to fight about, and we certainly did.
I drew Jesus on an army jacket, and wrote beneath it "God Is Gay" - one of Kurt's favourite lines. It was so bold to do those things, and to go out in public. But I didn't care anymore, I wanted to expose life to a stuffy society that swept issues under the carpet and which pretended everything was fine when it was fucking horrible and evil.
And this is why Nirvana are essential.
Words: Alan Hunt
To accompany this article, the HAPPY on the INSIDE Essentials playlist brings together a taste of the breadth and depth of the influence and use of Nirvana's music - from a soul legend, to an Icelandic singer-songwriter and a string quartet, to music for babies.