"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 Peppers’ BloodSugarSexMagik 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.