Irish Proverb: The road to hell is paved with good intentions

Nirvana’s Nevermind: 20 Years Later

This weekend marks the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s seminal album Nevermind, originally released on September 24, 1991.

It is not uncommon to mark the end of an era with a single, memorable event. Both the Charles Manson murders and the Altamont stabbing are often cted as the end of the free loving, Haight-Ashbury hippie movement that took place in the mid-to-late 1960s. In reality such large, sweeping social changes are much more gradual than that. Still, especially in a historical sense, it’s easier for us to be able to reference a single moment in time and say, “this is what caused that.”

In the 1980s, out of glam rock grew what became known as the genre “Hair Metal” — “Metal” referring to the style of hard rock the bands begat, and “Hair” referring to the band members’ hair (always long, usually big). It’s a shame that Hair Metal has become somewhat of a derogatory term over the last several years, as many of the bands and musicians were actually quite talented. Other than big hair, one thing they all have in common is, when asked, they will all deny that their band was a “hair metal” band like all the others.

The decline of Hair Metal was more gradual than music historians would have you to believe. In the mid-to-late 80s we see bands like Guns N’ Roses coming out with a heavier “street” image. Lots of bands would follow. The writing was clearly on the wall for Hair Metal, but it wasn’t until the Fall of 1991 that we discovered what would dethrone it.

And what dethroned it were a bunch of guys wearing flannel shirts and blue jeans. Grunge music was everything Hair Metal wasn’t, and wasn’t anything that Hair Metal was. Hair Metal bands were known for their flashy outfits, make up, and lots of Aqua Net hair spray, Grunge performers, on the other hand, wore flannel shirts over t-shirts, cargo shorts, and sneakers. Their hair was not hair sprayed … or particularly clean. Hair metal guitarists were known for their flashy guitar solos; this new wave of grunge guitarists almost appeared apologetic for appearing in front of the camera.

Although there were others before them, there were three bands, all from Seattle, all of whom released albums in 1991 (one month apart, in fact) that defined grunge: Pearl Jam’s Ten (August, 1991); Nirvana’s Nevermind (September, 1991) and Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger (October, 1991). Each did their part to contribute to the “grunge collective”, but it was Nirvana’s Nevermind and their single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” that became the voice for Generation X.

“Here we are now. Entertain us.”

In stark contrast to hair metal, no longer were we looking at guys on TV driving fast cars and getting hot chicks. Instead we were looking at a bunch of slackers playing sloppy rock and roll in a high school gym. We didn’t want to be like these guys, we were these guys.

I remember the first time I heard Nevermind. I was at a concert and the house DJ started playing the album in between bands. No one in the room knew exactly what we were hearing. When the next band took the stage, kids in the crowd actually booed and begged to hear more of the album being pumped into the PA system. True story. It wasn’t until a couple of weeks later that I saw Teen Spirit on MTV and realized what we had heard. And the funny thing is, at that point in time I already owned Nirvana’s previous album, Bleach. I heard about them from a friend of a friend and picked up a copy of the cassette. It was good, but not great, and certainly not life changing.

If you don’t get the hoopla surrounding Nevermind, then you either weren’t there or you weren’t the right age. Pearl Jam felt more “important”, and Soundgarden’s Sabbath-throwback riffs may have been heavier, but, at least for a little while, it felt like Kurt Cobain was, if not speaking for us, at least speaking to us … even if we weren’t always exactly sure what he was saying. Within a few weeks, Nevermind knocked Michael Jackson down off the charts and became the number one album in the country. Currently, more than 30 million copies of the album have been sold.

Two years after Smells Like Teen Spirit, Nirvana released Heart Shaped Box. I have always loved the lyrical word play in this song.

Two years after that, Kurt Cobain, age 27, died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He, and Nirvana, were dead.

Kurt Cobain was, as my dad would say, “a puke”. By all accounts he wasn’t a particularly nice person. He hated being famous and hated the fact that the same jocks that tormented him in high school were buying his albums. You can say a lot of bad things about the guy, but none of that will change the fact that in the fall of ’91 hundreds of hair metal bands simultaneously figured out that they were out of a job.

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5 comments to Nirvana’s Nevermind: 20 Years Later

  • Zachary Hibbard (TheCheesyAssassin)

    Great review. Good job Rob.

  • Rob

    I would be curious to hear what you think about the album, as someone who wasn’t born when it was released. Does it seem like a “big deal” to you?

  • Nancy

    I played Nirvana’s Unplugged for a solid year in my car, to the exclusion of anything else. Andy’s friends were amazed that I liked it, but I’ve always preferred alternative-type music. And remember that I’m 18 years older than you.

  • Well stated, Mr. O’Hara.

  • Awesome post Rob. When Nirvana hit the scene back in the early 90’s, I was living in Southern California and actually in a metal band playing guitar, and no, not a hair band hehe. We had long hair, wore jeans and t-shirts (still do) but never did the make up or big hair. I recall when the band Poison came out, I was like “wow, those are some ugly girls” then later seeing them in concert and going “woah, those are dudes!”.

    I can confirm your statement “metal bands simultaneously figured out that they were out of a job” is so true. My band at the time had a 3-year record deal with Capitol in 1990. We recorded 1 album, did some touring, made some really good money and then by mid 1991 the plan was to record the second album, Capitol dropped us and a slew of other metal bands because of the Seattle grunge scene. I remember seeing pictures of the band Warrant coming off the walls in the Capitol record building front office. It was a sad day hehe.

    Funny part is 20 years later I still play guitar, wear jeans and t-shirts but the long hair is gone… and for the record, no I didn’t play guitar for Warrant and no I won’t put the band name in my comment either… hehe… send me a private message if you want to mock me and I’ll tell you LOL…

    The last thing to add is 6+ years ago I moved from SoCal to the Pacific Northwest, home of Seattle grunge… I do miss the metal scene of LA though… lots of good times, music and rocking out m/