This Day in Music Spotlight: Nirvana Begins Recording ‘Nevermind’
May 2, 1991
Sean Patrick Dooley
Special thanks to ThisDayinMusic.com
Nearly 20 years after its release, the impact of Nirvana’s groundbreaking album Nevermind still reverberates in the music industry. It can be strongly argued that it is the single-most influential album in the history of recorded music. Hyperbole? Not even remotely, not when you consider just how suddenly the paradigm of popular rock music that had remained relatively static from the mid-’80s through very early ’90s, was shattered by an album – in particular, a song – from a little-known alternative band from Seattle.
Formed by singer-songwriter-guitarist Kurt Cobain and bassist Krist Novoselic, Nirvana released their debut album Bleach in 1989 on the indie Sub Pop label. Their drummer at the time, Chad Channing, was replaced in 1990 by former Scream drummer and future Foo Fighters frontman, Dave Grohl. Cobain and Novoselic had seen Grohl perform at a Scream show, and they were more than impressed.
At the time, Cobain had been growing weary of the heavier rock sound so prevalent in the grunge scene in Seattle. He’d been listening to groups like R.E.M. and the Pixies, and his writing was evolving as he experimented with infusing more melody into his songs. In 1990 Nirvana released the single “Sliver,” which Cobain later remarked “was like a statement in a way. I had to write a pop song and release it on a single to prepare people for the next record. I wanted to write more songs like that.”
Nirvana’s Sub Pop indie label was having a tough time financially, so the band began kicking around the idea of signing with a major label. There was interest on a number of fronts, especially from the Geffen Records imprint DGC Records, who eventually signed the band. By the spring of 1990, Nirvana was shoring up songs for the second album. Deciding to use Butch Vig as their producer, and with a recording budget of $65,000, they went into Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, California on this day in 1991.
Well-oiled from rehearsing the songs for Nevermind for months leading up to its recording, the band nailed most of the songs in the studio within just a couple of takes. The instrumentals were laid down first, primarily with Grohl and Novoselic recording their bass and drum parts first, with Cobain coming in after to record the guitars and vocals. Many times, Cobain had just finished writing lyrics only minutes before recording them. Vig noticed that when Cobain sang, he had the uncanny ability to deliver take after take with nearly identical phrasing. This allowed Vig to double-track Cobain’s vocals, something he explained to Cobain that John Lennon did. The recording process was particularly taxing on Cobain, who at times was on fire and raring to go, while other times despondent and moody; often he’d hunker down quietly in a corner by himself for an hour until he was ready to go again.
When Nevermind was released on September 24, 1991, it came with very little fanfare and few commercial expectations. But then the unexplainable happened, and this little album blew up like a nuclear bomb. Barely three months after its release it was a commercial phenomenon, thanks in large part to the success of the album’s first single (and subsequent video) “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” By January of 1992, barely 100 days after its release, it knocked Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album off of the #1 perch, a watershed moment that instantly transformed alternative rock into mainstream.
The music industry has never been the same.