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Oh well, whatever, etc

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By Andrew Stafford

Today is the 20th anniversary of the release of Nirvana’s second album Nevermind. [This article originally appeared on Andrew’s own blog on 24 September 2011 – Ed] A rash of earnest think pieces have already appeared in yesterday’s papers – isn’t this a bit like celebrating your birthday by opening your presents at midnight? – but since this record was such a game-changer in the musical-industrial complex and a life-changer for thousands of individuals besides, it would be churlish of me not to add to them. I was one of those thousands, after all.

I listened to the album for the first time in many moons a couple of weeks ago. I’ll probably listen to it again later; I certainly don’t need to put it on now for inspiration. I think I know every note of the damn thing backwards; such was Nevermind‘s power at the time of its release that it quickly became embedded. These days, there aren’t too many real reasons to pull it out, simply because it’s always there within you. ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, once so transcendent, can even sound a little shopworn for being overplayed. But if you catch it on a classic rock station and it gets you at the right angle, at the right moment, it still creams the competition with muscle to spare.

I can’t tell you where I was when I first heard ‘Teen Spirit’; in fact I can’t recall hearing it for the first time at all. It just suddenly seemed to be everywhere. Actually, I’d just arrived in Melbourne after a seven-week jaunt around some fairly remote parts of the country, so I certainly wasn’t even aware of any music press hubbub. And I hadn’t heard Bleach, the band’s first album. If I had, it wouldn’t have prepared me in any way for the avalanche about to be unleashed.

So I know I didn’t hear it at least until I got back to Brisbane a couple of weeks later, in October. It might have been on Triple J, but also might have been on Triple Zed. Can’t say. But I soon became aware of the groundswell. That couple of months, leading up to the beginning of 1992, was among the most exciting of my life. I was 20, and probably everyone who’s 20 and waiting for their life to start probably still gets nostalgic about what it was like to be that age and feel like anything’s possible. ‘Teen Spirit’ seemed to make everything possible again.

(continues overleaf)

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9 Responses to Oh well, whatever, etc

  1. Everett True October 21, 2011 at 4:01 pm

    I saw Violent Femmes on the first ever tour of UK. They’d been refused work permits so it was a busking tour: Covent Garden, outside Rough Trade Records in Talbot Road, and so on. I saw at least three of these, in between going to work. The one outside Rough Trade was filmed. To the best of my knowledge, this film has never been released – shame, because it was so awesome, just those voices, an acoustic or two, and brushes on whatever surface came to hand for percussion. Plus, the considerable bonus of The Legend! (one of the dozen-strong crowd) dancing at full tilt …

  2. Everett True October 21, 2011 at 4:09 pm

    I like *this* story from their site.

    Smiths singer Morrisey attended a Femmes show in London. Informed of his presence the Femmes came out for the encore and sang the Smiths song,”I would go out tonight, but I haven’t got a stitch to wear” clad only in their underwear.

  3. JohnnyKidKnowsAllHisStuff October 23, 2011 at 1:19 pm

    Pixies didn’t have same mainstream success Nirvana did because they weren’t on a major label – simple as that really.
    Also rightly or wrongly Francis Black was not as photogenic as Kurt Cobain was.
    The suggestion that Nirvana sounded exactly like Pixies imo is ridiculous (tho not made by this article)- yes Teen Spirit had the dynamics thing but FFS – Cobain trolled himself there when said “Pixies rip off”
    Did Cobain sound like Francis Black? No.
    Did he play guitar like Joey Santiago ? No.

    Worth noting Pixies and Sonic Youth sold far more records after Nirvana’s Nevermind had been released than did before hand.

  4. Stocky October 23, 2011 at 7:39 pm

    My eldest sister bought back from her first year of uni The Femmes first album and Why Do Birds Sing? I learnt to play every song from those two albums on acoustic. Why Do Birds Sing? is one of their better later albums – Used To Be is a beautiful song:

    One of the differences I find between Nirvana and The Pixies is that with Nirvana there was more of a personal, heartfelt communication coming from the frontman. (This is also one of the differences between Paul McCartney and John Lennon, Paul Kelly and Tim Rogers, etc.) I think the Pixies are great, but the songs of the Pixies don’t really tell you anything about who Frank Black is: they don’t express his ‘heart and mind’. I don’t know if this necessarily has anything to do with commerciality, it’s more just an observation.

  5. Andrew Stafford October 24, 2011 at 11:23 am

    I think that’s a good point by Stocky about the differences between the vocal and lyrics contrasts between Black Francis and Kurt Cobain. Cobain did establish a far more personal connection with his audience. (I don’t find this comparison at all valid between Paul Kelly and Tim Rogers, but that’s peripheral to the article.)

    I’m not necessarily satisfied by Johnny Kid’s explanation that the Pixies never had a hit with Here Comes Your Man simply because they weren’t on a major label. The picture is more complicated than that in my view. Famously, DGC only printed 40,000 initial copies of Nevermind and were anticipating selling maybe a few hundred thousand at most. In Australia, the album wasn’t even available two months after its release, except on import! That it became such a huge hit was, at least initially, one of those flukes that if record company people were able to explain such things, there might still be a record business as we once knew it.

    The thing that you have to remember is that Nevermind’s runaway success fundamentally changed how so-called “alternative” music was viewed. Before then, the Pixies were still regarded as a weird college-rock band, and that’s the only reason I can think of that Here Comes Your Man didn’t receive saturation commercial radio airplay. Had it come out after Nevermind, I suspect it would have received saturation radio airplay and probably have become a huge hit – just as the Breeders had with Cannonball, which was released by 4AD/Elektra, like Here Comes Your Man had been a few years before. Timing is everything.

  6. JohnnyKidKnowsAllHisStuff October 24, 2011 at 12:31 pm

    @ Andrew Stafford .

    I made a fairly muddled previous comment.
    I wasn’t saying The Pixies would have been big under a major label.
    My (drunken) comment was more about how Nirvana didn’t sound the same as The Pixies -which some journalists (not yourself obviously ) would have you believe just because of Cobain’s own “Pixies rip off” comments in regards to Teen Spirit.
    Agree there is countless variables like you say why Nirvana were so big – and not just to do with being on big label like DGC – like you say they didn’t originally print that much copies of Nevermind and were just hoping to sell as much as Sonic Youth’s – Goo album and over a period of time.

    @ Stocky – i think Francis Black could be as “heartfelt” as anyone just had not everyones cup of tea type voice .

    Cobain whether he quite fully knew it or not had that type of voice when recorded that was incredibly powerful yet radio friendly and cut above most bands of the time . His songs weren’t bad either. Nirvana were very good.

  7. Andrew Stafford October 24, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    Ha ha, don’t post drunk Johnny Kid! 😀

  8. Stocky October 24, 2011 at 1:40 pm

    Andrew, Re: my Paul Kelly v. Tim Rogers aside (my two favourite Australian songwriters), I was thinking about how Paul Kelly is not a ‘confessional’ songwriter (he says so himself in his autobiography How To Make Gravy.) He creates stories, writes about other people, other situations and is arguably Australia’s finest in doing so. His songs are authentic but not in a personal way. He was a heroin addict for many years but hardly, if at all, mentions this in any of his songs. Tim Rogers is more of a ‘heart on my sleeve’ songwriter. He has frequently got up on stage drunk and made a fool of himself, but that’s a part of his art. I’m not just talking about lyrics, it’s the emotional power of the voice, too.

    Generally speaking, John Lennon wrote songs about himself and Paul McCartney didn’t. But I wouldn’t say that John is a better songwriter than Paul because of this and I wouldn’t say that Black Francis is ‘faking it’. You don’t have to express your own sad ragged soul to be a great songwriter. But I guess it can help.

  9. Andrew Stafford October 24, 2011 at 7:32 pm

    I feel like I’m splitting hairs and drifting away from the point, but I can’t resist commenting on the Lennon/McCartney dynamic. McCartney gets a bit of a bum rap next to Lennon; he certainly wrote some clunkers (so did Lennon), his solo career mostly sucks (so does Lennon’s) but ALSO like Lennon, and as Erika points out, he too ran the gamut of popular songwriting. Anyone who can go from the chamber-pop of Eleanor Rigby to the beauty of Here There and Everywhere to the monstrous proto-punk of Helter Skelter is OK in my book. Plus syrupy standards like Yesterday (in its own way, wearing its heart on its sleeve every bit as much as Lennon’s Help), the medley on Abbey Road including Golden Slumbers … The guy was a fucking genius!

    Stocky, good explanation re Paul Kelly/Tim Rogers. Like you, I love both. Post is my favourite Paul Kelly album, and interestingly, it’s also his most confessional outing with songs like Little Decisions, Incident On South Dowling, Blues for Skip, White Train, Standing On The Street of Early Sorrows, etc etc. I still think your point regarding the difference between Cobain/Black Francis is excellent and has really opened up the discussion.

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