Nirvana: 10 of the best

With the Kurt Cobain documentary Montage of Heck imminent, here are 10 rage and pain-filled classics from the unwitting and unwilling poster boys of the alternative revolution

1 About a Girl

Beneath all that cooler-than-thou championing of the obscure, Kurt Cobain also deeply loved popular culture – trashy, sometimes conservative and often tragically unhip. Though he claimed the first gig he attended was Black Flag, it had really been Sammy Hagar. Nirvana might have been influenced by the Pixies, the Wipers, and their slightly older Seattle peers the Melvins and Mudhoney, but Kurt’s head was also turned by the jingle-jangle pop of REM, the dogged AC/DC and the harmonically dexterous Queen and the Beatles. The latter were more than just a primary influence on About a Girl; it was surely the best Fab Four song Lennon and McCartney never wrote, composed following a whole afternoon spinning Meet the Beatles! in the Cobain’s bedroom. It is welcome succour from all the barbarity of Nirvana’s debut album Bleach, even if it does sound a little out of place. About a Girl is an early indicator that, for all of Cobain’s rage, there was always a melodic wellspring bursting to make itself known, usually against what he thought were his better instincts. Lyrically, it is as close to a love song as Cobain could muster at the time, with the line “I can’t see you every night” the first salvo in a campaign to gently let down his first serious girlfriend, Tracy Marander.

2 Aneurysm

According to biographer Charles R Cross, the Nirvana frontman eschewed direct confrontation at all costs, going to elaborate extremes to end relationships and fire drummers. Such prevarication involved writing letters he’d never send, or breaking the band up, only to form again days later with a different guy at the back. Drummer Chad Channing and girlfriend Marander got their marching orders in the same week – not that either would have known much about it, such was the passive-aggressive equivocation. In his personal life, Cobain had secretly moved onto Tobi Vail of Bikini Kill, who is credited with putting the grrr into riot grrrl (she coined the spelling). Their dalliance lasted less than six months, and the pain of an unrequited infatuation would inspire much of Nevermind – but first it inspired the line: “love you so much it makes me sick.” The other thing that made Kurt sick was his untreated stomach problem, and Aneurysm kicks and screams and writhes with all the agony of an inflamed gastrointestinal condition. It’s conjecture, but the title might have come from one of Cobain’s three great-uncles on his father’s side, who died from an aneurysm caused by a fall down the stairs, precipitated by a drinking problem. Cobain’s other two great-uncles shot themselves.

3 (New Wave) Polly

Polly was written around the same time as About a Girl, but Cobain decided to leave it off Bleach because he felt it was at odds with the rest of material on the album. If the melody felt lighter, then the subject matter was heavier, described by the rock journalist Everett True as a “chilling evocation of the dark side of maleness, its alienated narrative refusing to take sides”. The lyrics are based on a horrific rape Kurt read about in a newspaper, and he wrote from the perspective of the perpetrator, who even used a blowtorch on his 14-year-old victim. Authors from John Milton to Bret Easton Ellis have seen through the eyes of devils in order to expedite their narratives, but in recorded song it’s rarer, with Cobain joining Johnny Cash, Nick Cave, Polly Harvey and Eminem as artists who’ve recorded popular songs from the perspective of a miscreant performing some kind of grisly act. Bob Dylan was apparently impressed when he saw Nirvana, singling out Polly for special praise and noting “the kid has heart” in reference to Kurt. The song was eventually released on Nevermind, and that slowed-down version almost lurches in its chilling, singsong juxtaposition, whereas the version on outtakes album Incesticide is brutal. Take your pick, both are harrowing if you listen closely enough.

4 Smells Like Teen Spirit

As tempting as it would be to leave Smells Like Teen Spirit out, owing to its overfamiliarity, it would also be duplicitous, given the impact it had. The single turned the music world upside down: alternative rock became mainstream, for a while at least. It was a hand grenade tossed into the charts at the end of summer 1991, and its detonation took out a swath of hair-metallers in one devastating blast, making groups such as Geffen labelmates Guns N’ Roses – who’d been so vital and anarchic not long before – seem anachronistic. Time magazine said Nevermind “fibrillated the psyche of a generation”. A song that mentioned “a mullato, an albino, a mosquito” and “my libido” suddenly spoke to the disenfranchised, and the fact that it was gibberish was almost entirely the point. “I’m a spokesman for myself,” said a spooked Cobain. “It just so happens that there are a bunch of people that are concerned with what I say. I find that frightening at times because I’m just as confused as most people.” Teen Spirit was the pre-internet equivalent of a viral hit, on heavy rotation on MTV and radio, and you’d hear it wherever you went. You sense in hindsight that its ubiquity was everything Cobain had ever wanted, but that when it arrived it couldn’t have been any more horrific for him.

5 Come As You Are

The similarities between the riff from Come As You Are and the riff from Killing Joke’s Eighties are well documented, though no less striking for that fact, and as Nirvana cited Jaz Coleman and crew as a major influence, you suspect they would have been taken to the cleaners had they ever ended up in court. Thankfully for Nirvana, Killing Joke never sued, even though Cobain himself was twitchy about releasing the single as a follow-up to Smells Like Teen Spirit, while Dave Grohl has been making amends by drumming with Killing Joke on and off since 2003. Regardless of whether it’s an “homage” to Eighties, Come As You Are is still a stunning song. Lyrically it appears to preach a hippyish message of acceptance, even if Cobain said he “wouldn’t wear a tie-dyed T-shirt unless it was dyed with the urine of Phil Collins and the blood of Jerry Garcia”. He liked to mock the “bigoted, redneck, snoose-chewing, deer-shooting, faggot-killing logger types” of his hometown of Aberdeen, Washington, and this was a call to arms to the alternative types the band felt were their kind of people. In Bloom, the other side of the coin, mocked the gun-toting jock who might not “know what it means”. Much has been read into the “I swear I don’t have a gun” line, given Cobain’s subsequent suicide, though one suspects it was being deployed as metaphor and had little bearing on future events.

6 Lithium

Lithium is as beatific as it is on-the-edge, deploying the quiet/loud dynamic Cobain famously pinched from the Pixies to great effect. For many, his portrait in this song of fluctuating moods, from self-hatred to self-aggrandisement, exhibits the torment of depression on one hand, and the euphoria of a manic episode on the other. As such, it can be regarded as one of the most empathetic lyrics tackling mental health in a genre generally devoid of much real understanding of it. Musically, Lithium possesses perhaps the most anthemic chorus of any Nirvana song, while the gentle fretwork on the verses is redolent of Washington’s other legendary musical son, Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix’s influence is hardly overt in Nirvana’s output, but it’s still difficult to imagine any musician hailing from the Evergreen state and not having absorbed through osmosis some of Jimi’s voodoo. The guitar line was actually so difficult to play that Cobain beat his guitar against the studio floor out of frustration – all of which was recorded by producer Butch Vig and used on Endless, Nameless, Nevermind’s secret track.

7 Heart-Shaped Box

By the time Nirvana came to record In Utero, three significant changes had occurred in Cobain’s life: he was married to Courtney Love, he was a father, and he was a full-blown heroin addict. Despite the fact it was going to be called Heart-Shaped Coffin originally, and although lyrics about being “forever in debt to your priceless advice” sound sarcastic now, Heart-Shaped Box was a love song to his wife. The most striking line – perhaps one of the most striking lines in pop – “I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black”, is about as dark a shade as romance gets. In 1978, Susan Sontag had written Illness as Metaphor chastising the lazy usage of terminal illness as a metaphor for war, as she felt it reinforced stigmatisation and perpetuated misunderstanding. Cobain was still using cancer as a metaphor, but had turned it on its head as an astonishing proclamation of love. Few lyricists would have had the nerve, or the imagination.

8 Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle

Although the producer Scott Litt was drafted in by DGC to make the singles Heart-Shaped Box and All Apologies more radio friendly, the rest of In Utero – under the watchful eye of Steve Albini in the production booth – was raw in excelsis. The album was going to be called I Hate Myself and I Want to Die. It is bristling, corrosive and full of bile – and was surely the answer to Nirvana’s excess baggage problems, as they sought to drive away all but the most devoted. It has sold 15m copies, so it’s fair to say that plan didn’t exactly pan out. Cobain instinctively wrote words and chords and hooks that resonated, and even the album tracks, like Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle, were furious fireballs that burned more incandescently than most. It was inspired by the 1930s and 40s actress and notorious Washington celebrity Frances Farmer, who’d been given electro-convulsive therapy and insulin shock treatment for her paranoid schizophrenia. Cobain no doubt related to her. Love even wore an antique dress that the actress had owned on her wedding day, according to Cross’s Heavier Than Heaven.

9 All Apologies (live)

The fact that Nirvana’s appearance on MTV’s Unplugged has stood the test of time is testament not only to how good it is, but also to the scarcity of studio recordings by the band. Had Cobain not died – and so soon after the recording of this event – it may well have diminished in relevance, along with the reverence in which it is held. But as a result of its canonisation, the consensus goes that the live version of All Apologies is better than the single version. And the consensus is not wrong. Propelled by Krist Novoselic’s plaintive, meandering acoustic bass and Dave Grohl’s skittering brush strokes, Kurt’s voice is heartbreakingly tender, husky and vulnerable. Nirvana achieved a lot of things with Unplugged, not least proving that underneath the musical melee was a band of tender, soulful and sensitive types. Perhaps even more impressive was the fact that they recorded a David Bowie cover that was even better than the original – something that had only ever happened once before, when Mott the Hoople recorded All the Young Dudes. Bowie covers are invariably awful; The Man Who Sold the World might be one of the best covers in popular music, Bowie or otherwise.

10 You Know You’re Right

Recorded at the end of January 1994, You Know You’re Right is one of the last songs Cobain ever wrote, and almost certainly the last he recorded. The subject matter and the refrain of the word “pain” came as a result of the singer suspecting his wife had resumed assignations with Billy Corgan, with the repeated cracking of his vocal in the second verse almost too much to bear. The song finally saw the light of day in 2002, following a legal row between the remaining members of Nirvana and Love. While that fracas could have overshadowed the release, thankfully the track was just too powerful for that to happen, waxing and waning in characteristic fashion before blowing us away with its immediacy and its viscerality, an almost atavistic purging of the soul. As a songwriter, Cobain’s canvases were as vivid and exhilarating as those of Van Gogh. Like the painter, Kurt made you see things from a perspective or vantage point you might never have ventured to without him, and while he was a huge loss to the world, his importance and his influence have only grown in death.


Jeremy Allen

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Nirvana's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame collaborations: why they worked
At the grunge band's induction last night, remaining members reunited for performances with Joan Jett, St Vincent, Lorde and Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon. Here's why each choice provided a masterful stroke of musicianship

Ben Travis

11, Apr, 2014 @11:36 AM

Article image
Teenager finds photos of first Nirvana gig tucked inside her dad's books
Maggie Poukkula’s father put on the first Nirvana show and jammed with the band – she didn’t realise the significance of the pictures when she tweeted them

Guardian music

22, Jul, 2015 @7:36 AM

Article image
Nirvana: Scentless Apprentice – New Music Extra

Here's an exclusive first look at one of the video extras from the new reissue of Nirvana's In Utero

Guardian music

17, Sep, 2013 @1:00 PM

Article image
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck soundtrack to be filled with his home recordings
The album of the documentary, which will include recordings Cobain made on a cassette player at home, will emerge in two versions on 20 November

Guardian music

29, Sep, 2015 @6:54 AM

Article image
Kurt Cobain film is 'not a good legacy', says the Melvins' Buzz Osborne
Childhood friend of Cobain stands by his review of Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck and criticises it for taking Courtney Love’s side

Guardian music

12, Jun, 2015 @7:20 AM

'Tonight Matthew, Jared Leto's going to be ... Kurt Cobain!'

Ben Myers: As tributes to the Nirvana legend go, dressing up as him and covering one of his songs is certainly different

Ben Myers

06, Apr, 2011 @12:09 PM

Article image
The Lemonheads: 10 of the best
From an unpromising start trying to play hardcore, the Lemonheads developed into one of alt-rock’s most charming groups – and it wasn’t all about Evan Dando

Michael Hann

26, Aug, 2015 @10:06 AM

Article image
10 of the best: Bob Mould
From hardcore pioneer to subdued solo artist to unlikely hitmaker, here are highlights of the former Hüsker Dü frontman's career

Stevie Chick

09, Apr, 2014 @10:47 AM

Article image
Frances Bean Cobain: 'I don't really like Nirvana that much. Sorry'
Kurt Cobain’s daughter speaks about her father ahead of the release of the documentary Cobain: Montage of Heck

Guardian music

09, Apr, 2015 @8:06 AM

Article image
Dinosaur Jr's J Mascis turned down Nirvana offer
Kurt Cobain asked Mascis to join Nirvana not once but twice – an offer which he declined, the guitarist has revealed in an interview

Sean Michaels

05, Oct, 2012 @10:25 AM