Unforgettable innovation

Sunny Tse
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A short-lived 1990s band still influences millions of rockers around the world, writes Sunny Tse

If you’re still at school, and you’ve heard of the band Nirvana, chances are you have a hard-core rock-loving older sibling, or know of the untimely death of Kurt Cobain, the band’s frontman, from some 'top-earning dead celebrity' list.

The American alternative rock band was huge in the early 90s. Along with Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains, the band was responsible for starting the grunge movement.

Grunge, a subgenre of alternative rock, is a mixture of punk energy, heavy metal riffs and indie rock attitude. The distorted electronic guitar sound, emotional, usually angst-laden lyrics, and gritty musical and fashion style made grunge the most popular rock genre in the US for many years. Nirvana spoke aloud the thoughts of generation X.

The charismatic and talented Cobain was the band’s lead singer, songwriter and guitarist. He and bassist Krist Novoselic had played with several drummers before settling on Dave Grohl, now singer and guitarist for Foo Fighters.

Cobain once explained that he wanted a pretty-sounding name for his band, not the mean punk rock names of groups playing similar music. But their music stood in total contrast to their moniker: fierce, angry and rebellious. Their 1989 limited-release debut, Bleach, is a blend of punk, black metal and negativity, and it attracted some faithful followers.

But it wasn’t until the release of their second album, Nevermind, in 1991 that the band was catapulted to the mainstream and grunge introduced to the world. Its iconic cover showing a baby swimming toward a U$1 bill, a metaphor for the loss of innocence, is still among the most talked-about cover art.

The first single Smells Like Teen Spirit, remains one of the most (over)played rock songs in history. The album, which also includes career-favourites In Bloom, Breed, and Come As You Are, was a number one hit globally, and earned Nirvana its first Grammy nominations.

Nirvana’s success surprised the entire music industry; even pop-loving music magazine Billboard praised them: 'Nirvana is that rare band that has everything: critical acclaim, industry respect, pop radio appeal, and a rock-solid college/alternative base.'

Naturally, the band started to become a media target. Feeling uncomfortable with the popularity and people not understanding the music, Cobain famously said: 'I’d rather be hated for who I am, than loved for who I am not.'

Rumours concerning Cobain’s health and a predicted disbandment ran wild. But Nirvana played at the 1992 Reading Festival and pulled off a concert so staggering that rock music magazine Kerrang! put it at the top of their list of 100 gigs that shook the world.

Despite a massive and growing fanbase, the band felt the need to reinstate their grunge roots on their third and final album In Utero. It’s deliberately raw and less polished, and a clear detour from the commercially successful Nevermind. But it still won the hearts of fans and critics alike, and debuted at top of the Billboard 200 in 1993.

Cobain’s shocking death on April 8, 1994, put an end to the band, but the legacy continues. After all, Nirvana created a genre, wrote songs that touched people’s cores and put on unforgettable shows. That sort of impact never dies.