The Free-Spirited Genius of ‘Nevermind’

Writer Al Belling reflects on Nirvana’s groundbreaking second studio album three decades after its release.

As with any nostalgic anniversary in the musical calendar, there will be all manner of op-eds, essays and retrospective interviews landing this week, processing the fact that today marks 30 laps around the sun since a punk-rock buzz band from Aberdeen, Washington went supernova with a fuzzy, dirty 12-track LP.

Of course, we’re talking about Nevermind, the sophomore release from Nirvana, a band whose legacy shines so bright that, three decades down the line, they’ve been described as the ‘last great rock band’, and the group that killed rock and roll.

Such proclamations are hyperbolic nonsense, but there’s no denying the cultural impact of Nevermind. The record sold 300,000 copies a week by the turn of 1991; it knocked Michael Jackson’s Dangerous off the number 1 chart position; and it ushered into the mainstream a whole new era of grunge. It brought back flannel, for god’s sake.

With all the accolades heaped upon Nevermind – combined with feverish reverence for the band members and a painstaking dissection of every movement and interview they made over their three years at the cultural zenith – it can be easy for the rose-tinted time machine to obscure the fact that, at its core, Nevermind is a very simple, solid collection of melodic punk rock.

Embedded with monstrous hooks, spattered with distortion and riffs reminiscent of The Melvins and The Ramones, and written by normal dudes who were beginning to make their mark on the underground alternative touring circuit, there’s a distinct normality about the album that is often missed.

Those ‘something from nothing’ stories that surround Nevermind also don’t quite hit the mark, with the band’s debut Bleach finding them headlining clubs around both the US and Europe – the sign of a band generating considerable buzz and laying its foundations.

With the intensity of ’70s and ’80s hard rock and metal acts – fused with the melodic sensibilities of John Lennon and Neil Young – Bleach was an excellent example of the Nirvana blueprint that would be streamlined to perfection on LP #2. They were songs that did a lot with not much.

This is evident from the get-go on Nevermind opener and global coming-out party “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. A song that exists in the same bracket as Lennon’s “Imagine” and Zeppelin's “Stairway to Heaven”, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” manages to make its mark with a simple four chord riff, anchored by the steady engine room of bassist Kirst Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl.

With “Teen Spirit” and with other world-dominating singles “Lithium” and “Come As You Are”, the magic was in the simplicity.  Solos were traded for power chords, double bass chops exchanged for solid back beats and metal theatrics swapped for a no-nonsense live show (dress code: t-shirt and jeans – stage diving encouraged).

Like most classic albums, though, it’s the treasures that lie in the wake of the behemoth singles that make Nevermind worthy of many, many revisits.

Both “Breed” and “Territorial Pissings” are outright ragers, channeling the unrestrained madness of Black Flag and The Dead Kennedys, while lo-fi acoustic number “Polly” and closing masterwork “Something In The Way” cash in anthemic rock tropes in favour of haunting melancholic storytelling.

Nevermind also heralds the mainstream arrival of Dave Grohl – then the newest member of the band after a revolving door of drummers – with the precision of “In Bloom” and choppy ending of “Stay Away”. These were just two examples of a distinctly signature drum sound that would go on to inspire countless stick-men and women around the planet.

And then there’s cult-favourite “Drain You”, arguably one of the best Side-B non-singles in rock history. Possessing a magnificent riff and punch-in-the-face chorus, before a “Won’t Get Fooled Again”-style psychedelic breakdown – complete with oral percussion, squeaky toys and a blood-curdling scream courtesy of Grohl – there’s a case to be made that this is the best song on the record. It’s no surprise that it made an appearance in nearly every set the band played after release, remaining a staple well after “Teen Spirit” was dropped from live shows.

From front to back, Nevermind is a quality record full of simple yet dynamic songs with well-placed harmonies that never out-stay their welcome. Maybe what’s most exciting about the album is that these songs can be played by almost anyone, with the mechanics of each tune proving the effectiveness of the old Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS) adage.

As Dave Grohl himself told Rhythm Magazine in 2005, “Our intention was to do something so straightforward that it was almost childlike; simple rhythms and simple patterns – the most direct songwriting.”

“It’s bare bones, simple drumming and I think the fact that it is so stripped down and so easy to nod your head to is why people still listen to it.”

There’s so much already written about Nirvana's Nevermind; its songs, its aftermath, where the record took the band and of course, what could have been. But at the end of the day, it’s Nevermind’s simplicity, resistance to ‘being cool’ and great melodies that I celebrate today.

With music’s viral white whale now dominating the industry more than ever before, today’s  anniversary marks an example of the goodness of three talented dudes doing their thing.

Of course, writing simple tunes may not make you the next culture-defining rock band. But maybe that’s the magic of Nevermind: Nirvana was never aiming for that in the first place.

…. or maybe world domination was the plan all along and we’ve been duped into an underdog story, executed with the same cynical, money-obsessed motivations that continue to  plague the industry today.

Oh well, whatever….

This is an opinion piece written by Al Belling, a Sydney-based writer with a soft spot for test cricket and death metal. More from him here.

More good stuff:

A Love Letter To The ‘90s

Do Hip-Hop Legends Really Live On Forever?

10 Years Ago, Azealia Banks Was Set For World Domination

Latest News