Nirvana’s Radio Friendly Unit Shifters

This week, a small group of people who have taken it upon themselves to tell us what matters and what doesn’t have decided to induct Nirvana into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Kurt would have loved the recognition, that ultimate piece of validation from a committee whose knowledge of the band most likely starts and stops with the Wikipedia summary of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’

To be fair, the moment Nevermind came out in 1991, Nirvana was guaranteed a place in the Hall of Fame, which inducts artists it feels have made a “significant contribution” to music, whatever that might mean. There’s no reason to go into how influential that album was. Everyone knows Nevermind was mainstream perfection: heavy but accessible, noisy but surprisingly polished, it was structured, straight to the point angst from beginning to end. Every track, besides maybe ‘Territorial Pissings’ and ‘Endless, Nameless’, could have been a single that would have captured an entire generation’s disillusionment with their parents and hair metal. It’s a thoroughly stunning album, but it doesn’t capture everything Nirvana did.

Nevermind was something of an anomaly in Nirvana’s catalogue. Most of their music before and after was much less radio-friendly, often deliberately so. While we should look back on Nirvana in light of this completely meaningless honour, instead of reminiscing over ‘In Bloom’ and ‘Come as You Are’ for the thousandth time, then, let’s look at ten songs that capture a more aggressive, angry side of Kurt Cobain’s mouthpiece.

‘Scentless Apprentice’- In Utero

‘Scentless Apprentice’ is Nirvana at their absolute best. The interplay between Dave Grohl’s faultless drumming, which in itself is the highlight of the song, and Cobain’s riffs and noisy interludes is phenomenal. It’s a perfect backdrop to the vicious shrieks that remind us that “Most babies smell like butter” and “Electrolytes smell like semen.” What a beautiful chaotic mess of a song.

‘Pen Cap Chew’-Demo, With the Lights Out

Recorded during Nirvana’s first studio session, ‘Pen Cap Chew’ is a precursor to the sound the band would perfect on In Utero. It’s messy, has very little direction, and features Cobain’s characteristic incoherent mumbling.

‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’- MTV Unplugged in New York

When the band played MTV’s Unplugged in 1993, they refused to play their biggest hits. Instead, fans were treated to a set that included this fantastic rendition of the traditional American folk song, ‘In the Pines.’ If you haven’t already, listen to the whole concert, recorded just months before Cobain’s suicide.

‘Marigold’- B-side, ‘Heart-Shaped Box’

Written entirely by Grohl, ‘Marigold’ is, for all intents and purposes, a proto-Foo Fighters song performed by Nirvana. You could immediately tell what direction his music would take in the second half of the 90s.

‘Milk It’- In Utero

In another track from In Utero, Nirvana push the dynamics of grunge to their natural conclusion. The verses are mumbled on top of instruments that never quite figure out what they’re doing, while every other part of the song is an unrestrained aural assault. And let’s not pretend you’re not impressed by the lyrics: “I own my own pet virus/I get to pet and name her/Her milk is my shit/My shit is her milk.” Who knows what it means? Does it even matter?

‘School’- Live at Reading

As one of the highlights from their first album, Bleach, the one thing holding ‘School’ back from its potential as one of Nirvana’s best songs was Chad Channing’s drumming, which lacked his successor’s intensity and creativity. Luckily, this performance of the song at Reading exists with Grohl at the rhythmic helm.

‘I Hate Myself and Want to Die’- The Beavis and Butt-head Experience

No list would be complete without the song that was meant as a joke Cobain thought the public wouldn’t get. Tragically, ‘I Hate Myself and Want to Die’ became all too appropriate a few years later.

‘Aneurysm’- Incesticide

Released in a few different formats, this version of ‘Aneurysm’ on the compilation album Incesticide could almost fit on Nevermind, if it weren’t for the intro that stretches to almost a minute and a half. This is what Nevermind might have sounded like if it were less structured and concise.

‘Negative Creep’- Bleach

Cobain calling himself a “negative creep” on top of muddy repetitive riffs – classic. There is no pretense or beating around the bush here from anyone in the band. It’s a short song that captures the spirit of the album in the most raw, heavy way imaginable.

‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’- Live at Reading

Nirvana had a habit of taking their signature song and making it as unpleasant as they could because what else could someone as opposed to fame as Cobain do when he accidentally wrote the biggest song on the planet? It’s as if the band couldn’t take anything that had such widespread appeal seriously even if that thing was a song they themselves wrote. And then to prove that they could have played the song correctly if they had wanted to but just chose not to, they went straight into a perfect rendition of ‘On a Plain’. This performance sums up what Nirvana was about outside of their refined radio-friendly studio album, and of course fans loved it.