The Rock’s Backpages Flashback: Early Glimpses of Nirvana

Barney Hoskyns

Edwin Pouncey was one of the first UK journalists to tip Nirvana for the top. In these two 1989 pieces for NME — an interview published on September 2, a live review published on December 16 — Pouncey talks to and witnesses "Kurdt Cobain" and cohorts——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages

Nirvana: Kills All Known Germs

To reach Nirvana I first have to plug into the band's main man Kurdt Kobain.

He's hanging onto the end of a long distance phone line just itching to tell me his story.

"I started Nirvana because there was nothing else left to do," he explains. "I didn't like sports so a band seemed to be the last resort for something to do socially."

Kurdt's answer is casual enough, but hard to swallow when you hear the wonderful grungy pop that make Nirvana the next in line to the wildly popular Mudhoney. By the time they tour Europe with Tad this coming October, Nirvana's future as the next BIG thing will be in the bag.

If that sounds like this particular power trio are nothing more than a rockin' fashion accessory, then listen to Bleach, the first Nirvana LP. While Kurdt sings tenderly of girls and lost innocence, of youth corrupted and defiled, the other members of Nirvana plough a furrow of straight ahead rock groove.

My first encounter with Nirvana was through their astonishing 'Love Buzz' 45, a limited edition release that Sub Pop pushed out through their Singles Club operation. 'Love Buzz' and its B-side 'Big Cheese' (the latter appearing on the UK release of Bleach) had all the sounds of 'Pop Monster' ringing through it. Kurdt looks back on 'Love Buzz' differently, however.

"I wish we could have recorded it a lot heavier, it was one of our very first recordings. We weren't sure just what we wanted to do so it turned out kind of wimpy compared to our most recent recordings."

One of the things that was left off 'Love Buzz' in its transferral to LP was a couple of seconds of cartoon show soundtrack recorded straight from the TV. This gave it a surreal and crazy quality that fitted perfectly with the opening bass guitar blows. Why did you decide to ditch it?

"Just to make it sound a little different I guess. Originally it was planned to have twice as much cartoon stuff included at the beginning of 'Love Buzz' but Bruce [Pavitt: Sub Pop head man] didn't like that idea, he said it went on too long. I'm into children's records... I collect children's records and obscure things like that. I have a very small rock record collection."

Nirvana were a four-piece for the recording of Bleach, but with the exit of their last guitarist, John Everman, they are back to being a trio.

"We've always been a three-piece," explains Kurdt. "It's definitely not personal difficulties involved here... it's musical differences." Currently joining Kurdt in Nirvana are Chris Novoselic on bass guitar and Chad Channing on drums, a position that is also somewhat subject to change... "So far, we've had four drummers within two years!"

Hottest item this summer has to be the official Nirvana T-shirt with the band's logo emblazoned over what looks like a set of tree rings or perhaps a detailed cross section of a piece of bone. Neither of my guesses is right, however.

"It's a graph of the third ring of Hell from Dante's Inferno," reveals Kurdt. "On the back of that shirt it says, 'Crack Smokin', Fudge Packin', Satan Worshippin' Motherf***ers'. Each member of the band represents one of those categories."

So which one are you, Kurdt?

"I haven't decided yet," he laughs. "We alternate!"

Meanwhile, if you hunger for more Nirvana after Bleach then be sure to pick up a copy of C/Z Records' Teriyaki Asthma EP which features Nirvana's three-year-old 'Mexican Seafood' contribution. Alternatively, wait for their upcoming promo EP that is soon to be released on Tupelo under the temporary title of Winnebago.

Sounds like heaven to me.

Nirvana at the Astoria in London

"CHECK!... CHECK!..."

This is one little improvisation that the fans freezing outside were missing as Sub Pop stalwarts Nirvana struggled valiantly to balance the sound to their satisfaction, mere minutes before the doors were about to be flung open.

"Give us everything you've got!" barks Nirvana's beanpole bass player Chris Novoselic to the mixing desk. "Give us more tubas, more cellos!" A mini-LP of Nirvana's soundcheck would not be a totally unlistenable artefact. Sure, there's the usual tub-thumping run-through of the drum kit, the seemingly endless bass boogie and the usual guitar noodling. Once that's out of the way, however, Nirvana begin to flex their imaginations and turn an equipment run-through into a free-form composition, a taste of what to expect in a few minutes when Nirvana take the stage for real... "CHECK!"

The trio of bands who make up this evening's bill under the temporary banner of 'Lame Fest UK '89', are proof positive that the Seattle scene, and Sub Pop in particular, are no sudden next-big-thing hype. A spirit of comradeship, of artistic equality is in the air at the Astoria this evening, a feeling of wellbeing is omnipresent and everybody's adrenalin is channelled into enjoying themselves.

For Nirvana and Tad it's the end of this particular road and so they choose to play party animal rather than prove their worth all over again.

"This is the last show on the tour so we can do what the f*** we want!" yells Novoselic to the masses, his excuse for the doodling interlude that both he and drummer Chad Channing have had to perform while guitarist Kurdt Kobain fixes a broken string that snapped during Nirvana's opening number...

A bad omen? Kurdt returns, plugs in and smashes into 'Love Buzz', Nirvana's neatest song in my book and one that still showers sparks. Kurdt Kobain and his guitar remain super-glued together throughout Nirvana's nonstop high-voltage performance. Occasionally he'll take a head dive onto the stage to land awkwardly like a busted rag doll at the feet of bass beatnik Novoselic, only to rise again unharmed and play on without his fingers ever leaving the fretboard.

Nirvana are Sub Pop's answer to the Beatles, pop masters with a sense of hard rock and songs that penetrate the memory of their audience. 'Blew' (their latest 45) is a classy example of this, a hit for sure if the rest of the world wasn't so stupid and half asleep.

Nirvana kicked off tonight's set by busting a guitar string, as an encore they decide to bust up their guitars! Chris pulls his bass over his shoulder like a baseball bat and gives Kurdt's flung guitar an almighty THWACK! The guitar explodes into matchwood and the audience leap onstage to pick up the pieces; Nirvana have fans already.

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