WHEN NIRVANA appeared at the Reading Festival earlier this summer, they were just one more obscure American underground rock trio with a good LP and a low standard of personal hygiene to recommend them. Then their second album Nevermind sold a million copes in sixth weeks, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ corroded its way onto Top of The Pops – a landmark which Kurt Cobain chose to commemorate by singing it an octave lower than usual (much to the confusion of TOTP presenters who wouldn’t know teen spirit if someone dropped it in their tea).
Now a British tour has left a trail of sold out notices all across the country when other supposedly better established bands have been hard-pressed to pack in enough recession hit teenagers to pay off the van-hire.
The cause of Nirvana’s rapid ascent becomes apparent within moments of their arrival onstage at the Kilburn National Ballroom. Hyperbole has nothing to do with it: they’re just a great band. The most striking thing about them is the contrast between their languorous general demeanour and the animal ferocity of their performance. Drummer Dave Grohl is the classic Muppet blur of hair. Giant giraffish Yugoslavian bassist Chris Novoselic bounces goofily up and down, his absurdly long arms plucking at the knobbly ankle region where, for reasons known only to himself, he opts to keep his instrument. On the other side of the stage, Kurt Cobain’s guitar seems to be trying to escape which is not surprising given that he’s tearing at it like a hungry Alsatian devouring a discarded pizza.
There is delicacy on show here, as well as gore. Kurt’s voice switches with ease from full-blooded yell to whispered supplication, and he does all his own backing vocals. Three men in overalls come on to dust the band’s instruments between songs, as if the subtlety of their music were not riposte enough to those who would brand them shiftless ne’er-do-wells. They may sometimes treat their guitars disrespectfully and the drummer finally leaves the stage with half his kit balanced precariously on his head, but these are just momentary lapses.
Nirvana’s disconnected demeanour should not be mistaken for moral listlessness. “Withdrawing in disgust is not apathy,” observes a character in Richard Linklater’s forthcoming film Slacker – a generation-defining trawl through the minds of the young people of Austin, Texas – and that just about sums up the thinking behind Nirvana’s rejection of traditional rock star profligacy. Novoselic has even professed a determination to get a vasectomy “so as not to be responsible for anyone but myself”.
‘Teen Spirit’’s battle cry “Here we are now, entertain us”, along with the tracer lights that dart around Nirvana as they play, suggest a band trapped inside a video game. But this is no passive surrender to the pleasures of sensory overload; Nirvana’s name is as much an ironic shot at middle American mindlessness as a statement of belief in the considerable redemptive power of what they do. They are a reaction – and a magnificently psychotic one at that – to the passivity of a rock culture whose only function is to be consumed.
© Ben Thompson, Independent on Sunday, November 1991