Nirvana: Good Riffs, Good Drumming, Great Screaming!

Good Riffs, Good Drumming, Great Screaming!… that’s how producer Jack Endino recalls Nirvana’s first proper studio stint. Three hours and 10 songs later, Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic had recorded a tape that would secure them a deal with Sub Pop and would see their ascent begin. Here Gillian G. Gaar chronicles that rise from the start, session by session.

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FECAL MATTER session, Mari Earl’s House, Seattle, December 1985

IT IS SEVEN MONTHS since the 18-year-old Kurt Cobain dropped out of high school, without graduating. Since then, he has been arrested for spraying graffiti on the walls of the Seafirst Bank building in Aberdeen, Washington, for which he received a $180 fine and a suspended 30-day prison sentence, and begun rehearsals with his first band, Fecal Matter, featuring Dale Crover, the drummer with local heroes the Melvins.

Cobain recorded the Fecal Matter tape at the Seattle home of his aunt, Mari Earl, handling guitar and vocals, with Crover on drums and bass. Early versions of ‘Spank Thru’ and ‘Downer’ were recorded on Earl’s 4-track TEAC deck, along with ‘Sound Of Dentage’, ‘Bambi Slaughter’, ‘Laminated Effect’, ‘Buffv’s Pregnant’, ‘Class Of ’86’, ‘Blathers Log’ and ‘Instramental’, plus untitled tracks. Cobain dubbed copies onto cassette, drawing a large pile of excrement on the J-card.

“They would put down the music first, then Kurt would put the headphones on and all you could hear was his voice screaming through the house!” says Earl. “It was pretty wild. My husband and I, we’d say, You think we should close the window so the neighbours | don’t hear? So they don’t think we’re beating him?”

The music veers wildly between heavy metal riffing and punk, and, though derivative, it was interesting enough to capture Krist Novoselic’s interest, and the band that would become Nirvana began taking shape.

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KAOS radio session, Evergreen State College, Olympia, April 17,1987

For approximately six months Kurt has been jamming with Novoselic. After working their way through various names (Stiff Woodies, the Sellouts), and drummers (Mike Dillard, Robert McFadden), they eventually settle on Skid Row and the moustachio’d Aaron Burckhard.

“I didn’t know they were musicians,” Burckhard says. “I just met them [at Melvins practices] and they said they were looking for a drummer. And I was a drummer. So we rounded up some drums and started practising. I thought Kurt’s songs were great. But I never thought anybody would like them.”

By March, the nascent band was playing shows, and an April gig at the closing night of Olympia’s GESCCO Hall led to their only live radio session, on KAOS, the student-run station at Olympia’s Evergreen State College. Two members of another band on the bill (Danger Mouse), John Goodmanson and Donna Dresch, had back-to-back shows on KAOS, and offered the band, then called Skid Row, the chance to make an appearance.

Skid Row would perform 10 songs: ‘Love Buzz’, ‘Floyd The Barber’, ‘Downer’, ‘Mexican Seafood’, ‘White Lace And Strange’ (by long-forgotten ’60s band Thunder and Roses), ‘Spank Thru’, ‘Anorexorcist’, ‘Hairspray Queen’, ‘Pen Cap Chew’, and ‘Help Me, I’m Hungry’.

“They didn’t seem nervous at all,” remembers Goodmanson. “Krist was always a sweetheart. Kurt was pretty quiet. The drummer was this metal dude; he had a funny moustache. He was way more macho than anybody else.”

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Dale demo session, Reciprocal Recording, Seattle, January 23, 1988

Kurt is living with his girlfriend Tracy Marander at 114 North Pear Street, Olympia. Still in search of a full-time drummer and undecided over their name, Cobain and Novoselic, plus Crover, limber up for a gig at the Tacoma World Community Theatre (as ‘Ted, Ed, Fred’) by recording with Jack Endino, the man who would produce their first album.

“They showed up right after noon,” says Endino, who’d taken Cobain’s call setting up the session, mishearing his name as ‘Kurt Kovain’. “We ran through the songs instrumentally, then Kurt said. ‘OK, I’m going to do the vocals now,’ and just went through them, one take. They were probably done recording by 3.30, 4 o’clock, the mixes done by 5.30, and they were out the door by six.”

The 10 songs were: ‘If You Must’, ‘Downer’, ‘Floyd The Barber’, ‘Paper Cuts’, ‘Spank Thru’, ‘Hairspray Queen’, ‘Aero Zeppelin’, ‘Beeswax’, ‘Mexican Seafood’ and ‘Pen Cap Chew’. “They were very into being Melvins-like at that time, so it’s very punk-metal,” says Endino. “Good riffs. Good drumming. Good vocals. Great screaming!”

More important than the session was what happened next. “I convinced them to leave the 8-track master, so I could make a mix of it for myself,” says Endino, who also passed a copy on to Jonathan Poneman, co-owner of Seattle’s Sub Pop Records. The result: Nirvana’s first recording contract.

Songs from the session have regularly appeared over the years: ‘Floyd’ and ‘Paper Cuts’ on Bleach (‘Downer’ was later added to the CD), ‘Hairspray Queen’, ‘Aero Zeppelin’, ‘Beeswax’ and ‘Mexican Seafood’ on Incesticide, and ‘If You Mus’t and ‘Pen Cap Chew’ now on With The Lights Out.

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Love Buzz sessions, Reciprocal Recording, June 11 and 30, July 16,1988

After the band’s disastrous Seattle live debut in April, latest drummer Dave Foster leaves and is replaced by Chad Channing (via a brief reunion with Burckhard). Despite an inauspicious first meeting with Sub Pop, where Krist got drunk and insulted everyone, they get the OK to make a record. The trio finally has a permanent name: Nirvana.

The session began with ‘Blandest’, then considered a B-side. Next came first takes of ‘Love Buzz’ and ‘Big Cheese’, early versions of ‘Mr Moustache’, an instrumental version of ‘Sifting’ using a wah-wah pedal, and ‘Blew’.

The songs survive thanks to cassette reference copies the band made, as the original versions were recorded over. “The band didn’t want to spend another $50 on a reel of tape,” Endino explains. “They were like ‘These takes suck, let’s record over them.’ We did that routinely. I fitted new tracks over unwanted old takes right in the middle of the reels if necessary.”

So at the next session, a new version of ‘Spank Thru’ (with Endino on backing vocals) was recorded over ‘Blandest’, later appearing on Sub Pop 200, and a second take of ‘Big Cheese’ was recorded over the first take of ‘Love Buzz’.

Take two of ‘Love Buzz’, with a re-recorded vocal, became the single version, released that November as the first offering in the subscriber-only Sub Pop Singles Club. It featured a brief sound collage intro, and another sound collage during the instrumental break.

“Kurt had it on a cassette,” Endino explains. “But I didn’t have any more tracks, so while I was rolling the mix, we had the cassette going through the mixing board. It was a one-off deal; when we remixed the song for the album, he didn’t have the cassette with him.”

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Bleach album sessions, Reciprocal Recording December 24, 29-31,1988, January 14, 24, 1989

Having released their first single, had their first press interview and smashed their first guitar, Nirvana have a budget to make their first album. Rehearsals take place above Krist Novoselic’s mother’s hair salon.

“Recording was a pretty straight-ahead process,” says Novoselic. “Just replicate the live sound, get it sounding good. Kurt always nailed his vocals. He didn’t ever have to do any trickery. He just did it straight-ahead. He was also a very unconventional guitar player; dissonant, yet melodic too. Some guitar solos would just be crazy. But the vocal melodies were the clincher. It just seemed to work.”

Many of the lyrics weren’t finalised until right before recording; Channing recalls Cobain writing lyrics to ‘Swap Meet’ while the band drove to the studio. “And ‘Swap Meet’ was originally spelled ‘Meat’,” adds Endino. “Which would’ve been much funnier.” At the final session, ‘Love Buzz’ and the Dale demo versions of ‘Floyd’ and ‘Paper Cuts’ were remixed for the album (and a harmony vocal added to ‘Paper Cuts’). Neither ‘Hairspray Queen’ or ‘Big Long Now’ made Bleach‘s final cut. The album’s original, band-chosen running order was also substantially different: ‘Floyd’, ‘Mr Moustache’, ‘School’, ‘Scoff’, and ‘Sifting’ on side one (Endino: “We weren’t thinking in terms of CDs then”), ‘Love Buzz’, ‘Swap Meet’, ‘Paper Cuts’, ‘Negative Creep’, ‘About A Girl’, and ‘Blew’ on side two (the UK release replaced ‘Love Buzz’ with ‘Big Cheese’). Bleach was released June 1989.

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‘Do You Love Me’ session, Evergreen State College, Spring 1989

In January, Nirvana’s three album deal kicks in. They play their first gig outside Washington state, then embark upon a West Coast tour in February, where they unveil second guitarist Jason Everman.

Everman’s only session with Nirvana resulted in a shambolic cover of ‘Do You Love Me’, released on the Kiss tribute album, Hard to Believe, and an early version of ‘Dive’, apparently originally slated for a split single with ‘Alphabet Swill’. The session was produced by Greg Babior, an Evergreen student who’d shared bills with Nirvana in his own band, Lush. Babior needed to produce tracks for a class project while Nirvana welcomed the free time in their first 24-track studio. “Though I can’t even imagine we used all 24,” says Babior.

Fuelled by a gallon of red wine, the. band listened to a tape of ‘Do You Love Me’ on the way to the studio, then “just went in and had fun,” says Novoselic. “They were really into the hard panning of their improv rants toward the end of the song,” says Babior. “They’re in different channels, left and right, so you can actually turn the balance on your stereo and hear them individually.” The track originally ended with the sound of the tape slowing down as the machine was shut off, replaced on the album by a quick fade. “The thing I picture is the people doing the mastering going, ‘Oh my God! What the hell is this at the end? This is so unprofessional’.”

As for ‘Dive’, “Kurt wrote the lyrics as we were listening to the playback,” Babior says. “It was interesting to watch him too, because he really worked himself up into a frenzy right before he sang.” When Babior gave his mix of ‘Do You Love Me’ to Kurt, “He was like, ‘Oh yeah, thanks. The deadline for this is today.’ He hadn’t even told me when it needed to get done.” Fittingly, perhaps, Nirvana played the song live only once.

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The Jury sessions, Reciprocal Recording, August 20, 28,1989

“They’re young, they own their own van and they’re gonna make us rich!” goofs Sub Pop upon the release of Bleach. The band’s first nationwide US tour ends prematurely following a shambolic showcase at the New Music Seminar in New York, after which Everman is sacked.

“We were all becoming big blues fans,” is Screaming Trees’ drummer Mark Pickerel’s memory of how he, Mark Lanegan, Cobain and Novoselic came together on the Jury sessions. “We were trying to create a modern-day version of Cream or Led Zeppelin.”

Lanegan and Cobain brought cassettes of their favourite Leadbelly songs to Nirvana’s practice space. “We started with Leadbelly, and we were going to branch out from there,” says Pickerel. But ironically, the sessions were stymied by the respect Lanegan and Cobain had for each other. “They looked like junior high kids at a dance, a couple of wallflowers,” Pickerel says. “It was really frustrating. Neither one would take the initiative.”

Nonetheless, the session got off to a good start with ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’, featuring Lanegan on lead vocals. Then came an instrumental version of ‘Grey Goose’, followed by a bravura ‘Ain’t It A Shame’ with Cobain turning in a searing lead vocal. He then performed a solo version of ‘They Hung Him On A Cross’, accompanying himself on guitar.

The group was dubbed the Jury at Pickerel’s suggestion; Cobain had favoured the name Lithium, and Endino later referred to the group as “Screaming Nirvana” on the session’s paperwork. ‘Where Did You Sleep…’ appeared on Lanegan’s solo album The Winding Sheet, but the other tracks remained in the vaults until With The Lights Out. “I really had high hopes for it,” says Pickerel. “I wanted it to be a working band. But it just wasn’t meant to be, I guess.”

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Blew EP sessions, The Music Source, Seattle, September 1989

Across the Atlantic, as the enthusiastic patronage of John Peel stokes Sub Pop mania, Bleach is released in the UK. The more perspicacious elements of the music press dare to suggest Nirvana could be “bigger than Mudhoney”.

The songs recorded at this Seattle session indicated the band was pursuing a poppier direction. “There wasn’t anything like a ‘Sifting’ or a ‘Scoff’, nothing brutal like ‘School’,” Channing agrees. “They were a little more pop, a little more along the lines of ‘About A Girl’, but the progression we made felt pretty natural.”

In preparation, Novoselic tried to get the band’s worn equipment into better shape. Channing’s kick drum was held together with “reams and reams of duct tape”, producer Steve Fisk recalls. Still, the band had no trouble laying down five tracks on the first night: ‘Stain’, ‘Been A Son’, ‘Token Eastern Song’, ‘Polly’ and ‘Even In His Youth’. Overdubs were added to ‘Stain’ and ‘Been A Son’ at a session the following week; two guitar solos on ‘Stain’ (“They’re equal volume, like squabbling hens,” says Fisk), and a bass solo on ‘Been A Son’. “Which Krist never liked,” Fisk admits. Cobain also doubled his vocals on the two tracks, adding “Rubber Soul, John Lennon kind of harmonics” to ‘Been A Son’. Both songs appeared on the Blew EP

The session came to a memorable conclusion. “They really liked the studio’s monitors,” says Fisk, “because they were so huge-sounding. When ‘Been A Son’ was done, Kurt and Krist asked, ‘Can we dance on the tables?’ They jumped on one table and I jumped on another, and as we listened to the song, we rocked.”

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Sappy sessions, Reciprocal Recording, January 2-3,1990

Nirvana greet the new decade having barely survived their first European tour, a six-week joint-headlining jaunt with Tad, during which Kurt briefly quit the band following a disastrous gig in Rome. Asked by UK magazine Sounds what his hopes for the ’90s were, Cobain replies: “To debase every form of music that ever existed.”

Perhaps Nirvana’s most extravagant session: two days spent on a single song (seven hours the first day, three the next).

“Part of what took a long time was getting a Steve Albini drum sound,” says Endino. “The room at Reciprocal was very dead, so I did the best I could, and it actually sounds pretty Albini-esque. Thev were particular. Kurt had very specific ideas for how he wanted the drums to sound and how he wanted the vocals to sound.” The band’s first studio attempt at Sappy remains unreleased.

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Smart Studios sessions, 2-6 April 1990

During February, Nirvana support Dinosaur Jr on a tour of the West Coast. At Raji’s In Los Angeles, Kurt hurls himself into Chad Channing’s drum-kit — not for the first time. On March 19, the Seattle scene’s heroin culture claims its first high profile fatality: Andrew Wood, singer with Mother Love Bone.

Butch Vig had already recorded Sub Pop bands Tad and the Fluid when Poneman called him about working on what was planned to be Nirvana’s second album for Sub Pop at Vig’s Madison, Wisconsin studio. “He said they could be as big as the Beatles,” Vig recalls. Vig wasn’t overly impressed bv Bleach, but thought ‘About A Girl’ was “fucking brilliant. Kurt had an amazing voice.”

The band began work on April 2. “Krist was very charming and pretty energetic and talkative and he was saying, ‘We want it to sound really heavy,'” says Vig. “That was basically all he said, they just wanted the record to sound heavy.” Work proceeded quickly, with the band recording ‘Immodium’ (later renamed ‘Breed’), ‘Dive’, ‘In Bloom’, ‘Pay To Play’ (later renamed ‘Stay Away’), ‘Sappy’, ‘Lithium’, the Velvet Underground’s ‘Here She Comes Now’, and ‘Polly’ over the next five days.

“Kurt would sing so hard, I was lucky to get him to do another take,” says Vig. “He was hoarse the whole time he was there. The other guys did some overdubs, but the band was pretty much tracked live.” Vig also placed plywood under Channing’s drums to enhance the room’s live feel.

Vig recalls ‘In Bloom’ as the track he focused on the most, “because it sounded like a single and it had an anthemic feel to it.” In contrast to the Fisk session, the new version of ‘Polly’ was acoustic. “That’s how Kurt heard it in his head,” says Vig. “He used this really shitty 5-string acoustic guitar that had a sort of a plucky ukulele sound, which I thought was kind of cool.”

Cobain was making it increasingly clear he was unhappy with Channing. “Several times Kurt actually got over on the drums and tried to show Chad what to do,” Vig says. “There was some definite tension. And I also noticed how moody Kurt could be. We’d be working on a song, and a half hour later he would just shut down, for no apparent reason. I’d ask Krist, ‘Is Kurt OK?’ And Krist would go, ‘He just gets really moody sometimes.'”

Four of the songs were re-recorded for Nevermind (‘Polly’ was simply remixed), but the others were officially released: ‘Dive’ as the B-side of ‘Sliver’, ‘Pay To Play’ on DGC Rarities Volume 1, and ‘Here She Comes Now’ on the Velvet Underground tribute Heaven And Hell Volume 1.

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Sliver sessions, Reciprocal Recording, July 11,24,1990

Having sacked Chad following the end of a US tour in May, Nirvana are once more in search of a drummer. Amid rumours that J Mascis might get the job, Mudhoney’s Dan Peters bumps into Kurt’s girlfriend at a gig and registers his interest.

“It was brief!” Peters admits of a tenure that included this one-hour recording session, the band’s last for Sub Pop.

Basic tracks were laid down on July 11 while Tad were on their dinner break. “Tad Doyle didn’t believe it was only going to take an hour,” says Endino. “He was sure he’d come back and they’d still be fucking around on his time. But no, they were

I very, very fast.”

“We just went in and banged it out,” says Peters, who used the drums of Tad’s Steve Wied. Cobain cut his final vocal at a second 10-hour session, and ‘Sliver’ was released in September, the same month Peters played his only show with Nirvana, on September 22 at Seattle’s Motor Sports International Garage. His replacement, Dave Grohl, was watching in the audience.

© Gillian G. GaarMOJO, January 2005

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