20 Years of Nevermind

"The teen spirit that is always a component of the ether can hover for years without coalescing into anything more than a haze — that vague, uneasy, something-in-the-air feeling rising like swamp gas as a byproduct of living young and unsteady in a hostile world that hasn't yet made its intentions clear. But it can also go off with a spectacular atmospheric bang. The catalysts that ignite such cultural explosions rarely survive the experience, and the havoc they instigate is invariably all out of proportion to their efforts. But the changes so wrought can be vast, leveling the land and ushering in an era to which old rules no longer apply."

- Ira Robbins, on the Nirvana phenomenon and specifically their album Nevermind in the invaluable "Trouser Press Guide to '90s Rock" [Fireside-1997].

It could be speculated—well, as much as one could under these circumstances, with hindsight enabling the ability to easily deduce patterns—that Nevermind would not have had the monumental impact for which it is often times credited, if the album had been released, say, 5 years earlier or 5 years later. Although, honestly, its release in 1996 would be cause for endless speculation as Nevermind had a tangible influence on the indie rock scene—and the mainstream, as well—in the years following its appearance in 1991. But on the other side of the argument we can say with some confidence that Nevermind would’ve gone virtually unnoticed had it been released in the late '80s.

By that time Nirvana had their debut Bleach [Sub Pop-1989] under their belt; an album released by the “it” independent label of the time, which made the band a known quantity in contemporary punk circles. Bleach, however, was not a revolutionary album but a revealing one: despite being of respectable caliber, present but still undeveloped are the elements Nirvana later refined—punk’s aggro bent; the Black Sabbath/Melvins influence; Kurt Cobain's affinity for an infectious melody—on the album that secured them a place in music history.

To be in the right place at the right time often presages the arrival of success in any facet of life and Nevermind saw the light of day on September 24th, 1991, the same day as The Red Hot Chili PeppersBloodSugarSexMagik and The Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest, two of the most subsequently acclaimed albums of the decade. In addition, a few months prior, the album debuts by Smashing Pumpkins (Gish) and Pearl Jam (Ten) had been released; and that summer, with Jane's Addiction leading the way, the first edition of Lollapalooza took place. So there was already something in the air: a wave of musical renewal which Nevermind took advantage of in a big way.

But Sonic Youth had somewhat paved the way for this phenomenon, as the veteran New York avant rockers enjoyed great popularity and respect within the ranks of so-called alternative nation. And when that foursome left the world of independent labels and signed with Geffen’s DGC label in 1989, with the understanding that they would serve as pseudo talent scouts for the label, Nirvana eventually turned out to be the most favored recipients of this designation.

Butch Vig, who had recorded demos that were later used to convince DGC to sign Nirvana, was selected as a producer of what would become their landmark album. Definitely a significant leap from Bleach in terms of songwriting and production, Nevermind benefited from the to-this-day underrated rhythm section of Krist Novoselic on bass and then-new, hard-hitting and impressive drummer Dave Grohl. Upon completion of the album sessions the band hired Andy Wallace, who had become known for his work with thrash metal legends Slayer, to mix the album.

Two weeks before the album was released the first of its four singles, the unforgettable "Smells Like Teen Spirit" arrived—followed by "Come As You Are", "Lithium" and "In Bloom"—its popularity rising in an explosive and unexpected manner, taking Nevermind to the top of the Billboard charts, where it dethroned Michael Jackson’s Dangerous in January of 1992.

With 20 years to look back on, we can safely say Nevermind—like another album which it partially shares its title with: the iconic Never Mind the Bollocks by the Sex Pistols—is more hard rock than punk. It did, however, help bring a new version of punk rock to the masses and also gave voice to a generation that had been somewhat marginalized by the classic rock of the ‘60s. Not bad.

To date Nevermind has sold over 30 million copies worldwide, one third of these sales (10 million) in the US alone.


The End of the Music Blog?

This week, along with “5”, Glorious Noise also celebrated its 10th anniversary…and announced it was going on hiatus. GloNowhich once carried my byline on a Raconteurs album reviewis our favorite music blog. A misnomer perhaps, since, truth be told, it’s the only music blog we read on a regular basis. Yeah, we take the occasional peek at EarFarm, Spinner, Stereogum, and the dreaded Pitchfork, of course, to take the pulse of the hipsterati, but GloNo was a daily pit stop and frequent source of both fun (all the spirited exchanges with fellow, knowledgeable music geeks) and irritation (exemplified by the unchecked hyperbole in calling The White Stripes “The Last Great Band” when announcing the duo’s dissolution) that we will miss.

In his quasi eulogy for GloNo, contributor Todd Totale bemoans on his own blog, Glam-Racket, how the music blogosphere is quickly becoming a place for those who want a quick fix and no longer the province of music geeks and their opinions. And how that culture may have led to GloNo’s hiatus.

[W]e are living among a younger generation of interweb controllers. Those who couldn’t be bored with the endless parade of no-it-alls who talk about music. ‘Just put up a link, for christsakes, and let me judge for myself.’ They’re immune to the clutter. They view the internet as something they must tame upon each login. To get to the goal is their task—like an endless version of Super Mario Brothers, they click, close and minimize until they get the advance of the new Decemberists album.”

Totale’s post got us thinking about a topic that’s been very much on our minds lately.

It used to be that once you reached a certain age whatever current popular music was of the time didn't make sense to you, and you moved on and/or found solace in the music of your own youth. And that, was that.

But a funny thing—which, if we're not mistaken, has been referred to as "the acceleration of the culture"—happened along the way to the 21st century: much of the music of our youth has become timeless (or just plain ubiquitous, take your pick), sometimes regardless of musical merit, simply by being embraced by those who, in many cases weren't even born when these tunes were originally released. For example, it would seem that Abbey Road was more of a cool relic to a 15 yr old in 1989 than, say, Nevermind is to a 15 yr old today. In other words, the latter album could be more of an everyday record to the current teenager, than to his 1989 counterpart vis-a-vis Abbey Road. We're not suggesting that Nevermind is what today's teenagers are listening to, but trying to illustrate a point: that it seems less foreign to them. In other words, it's not that strange to encounter the possibility of a teenager and his 60 yr old grandpa both having Led Zeppelin on their respective iPods, right? Yet, what were the chances of us Gen-Xers and our gramps having overlapping albums in our record collections 20-25 years ago? Slim, at best.

Which leads us to the following: those of us past the age of 35 still feel we have the right to opine on pop music as if we're still part of the conversation/experience. Why? Because we're immersed in a culture that puts a premium on youth, that tells us we don't need to curtail our extended adolescence or stop wearing Chuck Taylors as we hit the big-40. (60 is the new 40, haven't you heard?) And so, we oblige.

But soon enough we start comparing current music—and movies, etc—to that of our youth and feel the new thing just doesn't live up to the level of our old standard bearers. But instead of stepping aside, like every previous generation did, we step forward. Which is when the offended young'uns casually and cruelly remind us that—at least as the pop music game is concerned—we are in fact, old. And quite possibly irrelevant, as well.

Are they right? I conveniently don't have the answer to that question, but their finger-pointing does lead to the obvious: it's not music made for us and we shouldn't care. But accepting that would render us out of touch. Or worse: our parents. Good grief! heh, heh

Like the music biz itself, everything in its periphery is in a transitional phase and music blogs are not immune to the changing tide. Which means they are, in addition to the lack of interest in actual content, suffering from the same glut of competition and over-saturation—regardless of quality—as are music artists posting on the web; all victims of the absence of gatekeepers. Anyone can post anything at any time. Hey, go ahead, do your thing. But who weeds out the wheat from the chaff?

To quote Mr. Rose, where do we go now? Where do we go?