With the colossal success of Nevermind, Nirvana brought grunge to the masses, a phenomenon which has radicalised “mainstream” rock across the board.
As with the populist revolutionaries of the past, Nirvana’s influence and appeal is reflected in the buoyancy of their stock in the rarities/bootleg market. To purchase the 15 songs on Incesticide in their original formats – as Sub Pop singles, B-sides, tracks on obscure compilations, demos and Peel/Goodier sessions – would cost a small fortune.
What’s more they actually sound pretty good. Two numbers are immediately familiar: ‘(New Wave) Polly’ is a full-tilt, plugged-in version of ‘Polly’ from Nevermind (where it is arranged as a quiet interlude for acoustic guitar) and ‘Downer’ is the original Sub Pop B-side version of the song which closes Bleach, an identical arrangement but not such a good recording.
A handful of little-known covers – Devo ‘s ‘Turnaround’ and two Vaselines songs, ‘Molly’s Lips’ and ‘Son Of A Gun’ – highlight Nirvana’s often overlooked love of the punk-pop aesthetic: revving power chords, neat harmonies and are all well under the three-minute mark. ‘Sliver’ and ‘Been A Son’ are in a similar vein – short, melody-driven songs which belt past with brisk, uncomplicated glee.
At the other end of the spectrum are several longer, heavier workouts. An early demo, ‘Aero Zeppelin’, is an impressively dense number with complex changes and flashy soloing; ‘Big Long Now’ is rather a dull five minutes despite starting out with a riff that wouldn’t disgrace Metallica; and ‘Aneurysm’ is a more scatterbrained rocker with odd tempo changes that again doesn’t quite hit the mark.
Nirvana eventually prevailed when they discovered the alchemy required to splice these various strands – punk attitude, pop melody, musicianly metal and hardcore roots – into one seamless sound, and the best numbers here are the ones which find them edging towards that holy synthesis, notably the chugging ‘Dive’ and the eccentric grunge of ‘Beeswax’, where Cobain indulges in a fine Jaz Coleman-style rant.
Best of all is a glorious weird-out which doesn’t relate to anything very much, called ‘Hairspray Queen’. The clangy, funk guitar and pugnacious bass line sound like something the Gang Of Four might have thought up, while Cobain’s deranged vocal could have found a home on freakshow albums by anyone from Zappa to Primus.
In joining up the dots on the periphery of Nirvana’s early work, Incesticide provides some exciting moments and a fascinating insight into what makes the band tick. Hardly a classic compilation, but a must for fans nevertheless.
© David Sinclair, Q, January 1993