10 Facts You Didn’t Know About Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’

30 years since its debut, find out 10 lesser-known facts about the monumental album

(Photo by Paul Bergen/Redferns)

Three decades since the beginning of the revolutionary Grunge era, one album has continued to stand out more than any other: Nirvana’s Nevermind. Not only dominating the charts from the moment of its release, the album also initiated an entire shift in pop culture, with its legacy coming to define the decade that followed.

Most famous for tracks including ‘Come As You Are’, ‘Lithium’ and, of course, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, Nirvana quickly established themselves as one of the most successful artists of all time and became figureheads of the Grunge Movement. Yet, despite the overwhelming success and the legacy it left behind, few know the full extent of the album’s history.

Now, put your knowledge to the test with our top ten facts you probably didn’t know about Nirvana’s Nevermind.

  1. It Marked A Pivotal Shift In Their Sound 

Relatively unknown across the music scene up until this point, the decision to start writing their second album, Nevermind at the beginning of 1990 signified a brand new direction for Nirvana.

Previously capturing a more raw, angst-driven sound in their debut, when it came to writing the second album, the members sought out a new, increasingly mainstream sound.

Looking to break out of the underground scene and capture an increasingly radio-friendly sound, the members put their gritty, niche sound on hiatus and began incorporating elements that were more accessible to bigger audiences. These new influences came from a wide range of acts including Pixies, R.E.M. and Melvins. Much more straightforward and PG-13 than before, Grohl later compared the simplicity of the new tracks to that of “children’s music”.  

However, despite achieving their initial goal of making an album suitable for radio airplay, Cobain later went on to regret this decision, expressing open embarrassment toward the album and stating it was “closer to a Mötley Crüe record than it is a punk rock record.”

2. Dave Grohl Wasn’t The Only Drummer On The Album

Whilst it is general knowledge that Nevermind was the first Nirvana album to feature legendary drummer, Dave Grohl, few know that the final recording of the album also featured the band’s original drummer, Chad Channing. 

Leaving the band whilst in the midst of writing the album, Channing’s abrupt departure from Nirvana placed the recording process on halt, with some songs for the upcoming release already recorded and finalised.

Now on the hunt for a replacement, the members became acquainted with Grohl after seeing him perform with his original hardcore punk band, Scream. With Scream disbanding around the same time as Channing’s departure, Grohl travelled to Seattle where he was later asked to join the band and complete the remainder of recording the album.

3. Their Main Aim Was To Merge Bay City Rollers With Black Sabbath

After failing to leave a lasting impression following the release of their debut, in 1989, the band aspired to capture more momentum with the upcoming release. Looking to steer their sound into new, more mainstream territory with the upcoming release, the members changed their songwriting process and began to intertwine catchy, pop-inspired hooks into the new tracks, in an aim to break out of the underground scene.

Unequivocally more accessible than their previous album, Nevermind was written with the intention of combining the uptempo choruses of Bay City Rollers with the harsh distortion of acts including Black Sabbath and Black Flag.

Whilst achieving the initial aim of getting their tracks onto the mainstream radio, this unorthodox blending of genres is also credited with giving the band their distinctive sound and, thus, defining the genre of Grunge.

4. ‘Sheep’ Was The Original Title The Band Had In Mind

Most notable for its brazen, laissez-faire title, Nevermind became a symbol for the Grunge movement as a whole. Representing the laid-back, apathetic approach that the genre held in comparison to its shred-dominated, image-fixated counterparts at the time, the choice of title was actually a last-moment decision shortly before the album’s release.

Originally entitled Sheep during the time of recording, the initial choice was meant to be a commentary on society. Reflecting Cobain’s contempt for the music industry, ‘Sheep’ was meant to reference those who would only purchase the upcoming album because of any mainstream popularity it would gather. 

Yet, whilst wanting to poke fun at the fans through the initial title, the recording process was prolonged and began to grow tedious for the members. Due to this, Cobain ultimately got bored of the original choice, instead opting for the grammatically incorrect choice of Nevermind– reflecting his deteriorating interest in both the album and life itself.

5. It Killed The Era of Shred

One of the best selling records of all time, Nevermind‘s success stemmed from its wider impact on the music industry. In an era fixated on shred, flamboyance and elaborate personas, the beginning of the Grunge movement symbolised a shift in the industry as it approached a new decade.

An outright contrast from acts such as Mötley Crüe and Twisted Sister, the overly saturated Glam metal scene was overshadowed by the newfound dissonance and indifference of Nirvana. This came from the shift in dynamics the members had when it came to songwriting. Incorporating dramatic changes within each song, the band found their signature sound by merging quiet verses and excessively loud choruses in the tracks- something unseen in the charts prior.

From the lethargic, hopeless sound of tracks such as ‘Polly’, to the overly dressed-down image the members presented onstage, Nevermind symbolised a new era of rock and metal. Essentially killing off the era of ballads and anthems from then onwards, the album marked a pivotal shift in societal attitudes: now reflecting on the issues and sense of frustration embedded in everyday life.

6. Most Of The Lyrics Concerned Cobain’s Recent Breakup

Although most notarised for capturing the bleak, dismal view of society commonly associated with the Grunge movement, the majority of inspiration for Nevermind came from a much more personal angle.

Much more intimate than the members initially let on, a vital source of the lyrical content in the album came from Cobain’s recent breakup with Tobi Vail. These references can be seen throughout numerous tracks, including the opening line of ‘Drain You’: “One baby to another said ‘I’m lucky to have met you […] It is now my duty to completely drain you”

Similar references are seen in ‘Lithium’, which had its lyrics rewritten after the breakup to reference Vail and also within ‘Lounge Act’, with the line “I’ll arrest myself, I’ll wear a shield” referencing Cobain’s tattoo of the K Records logo on his arm which he had to impress Veil. 

7. The Cover Isn’t Quite As Symbolic As You Thought

A mockery of the ‘American Dream’, a comment on consumerist society and a jab at the music industry itself are just a few of countless interpretations of Nevermind’s infamous album cover. Yet what few realise is that the inspiration for the image isn’t quite as meaningful as expected, and certainly not intended as a statement against society.

Instead, the idea for the cover spawned from Cobain after watching a television show about water births with Grohl. Initially intending to use stock footage of water births for the album cover, this idea was later disregarded as too graphic and expensive by the record company. Instead, photographer, Kirk Weddle, was hired to take the soon-to-be iconic shot at a local pool, with his friend’s 4-month-old son, Spencer Elden as the subject.

Although still censored by the record label upon its release, the band stood by their choice of cover, with Cobain later stating “If you’re offended by this, you must be a closet pedophile”.

8. The Success Of The Album Came as a Surprise 

Despite being their first album with a major label, expectations for the album remained relatively low throughout the time of recording. In fact, upon its initial release, Nevermind fell upon mostly deaf ears, with many publications overlooking the album and blatantly refusing to review it due to low expectations.

With hopes of matching the success of Sonic Youth’s debut album, Goo, both management and the members expected Nevermind to sell around a quarter of a million copies at best. Yet, after gradually gathering momentum in underground scenes, it was a couple of months after the initial release date that the album finally began to infiltrate the mainstream music scene and gather international airplay.

By January 1992, the album had surpassed Michael Jackson’s Dangerous and skyrocketed to number one on the Billboard charts- breaking records by selling around 300,000 copies per week. With this immense, unexpected success, Nirvana’s shows became dangerously overcrowded and many publications who had originally ignored the album began rushing to discuss the spectacle.

Some of these reviews remained doubtful of the band; labelling the album as cheaply thrown together, bumbling and an imitation of the Punk scene. However, for the most part, the album received excessive praise, becoming hailed as one of the most important releases of all time– much to the surprise of all those who had worked on the album.

9. The Spotlight On Cobain Overtook The Focus on The Music

Following the immense success of the album, international attention was drawn to the band, with most of the focus becoming centred on Kurt Cobain. Capturing a sound quite unlike anything else available on the scene, both publications and fans became intrigued by the frontman, trying to understand the lyrical content on a deeper level. 

Undeniably intense and emotion-fuelled through its entirety, the meaning behind each track was never overtly clear, with Cobain’s mumbling-style vocals never becoming fully coherent to the listener. Whilst being a huge target of speculation for fans, the members themselves placed little importance onto the lyrics, with Cobain declaring that in Nevermind, “Music comes first and lyrics come second”. 

10. It Reinvented Pop Culture and Shaped The Generation 

A figurehead for the Grunge movement, the release of Nevermind not only represented a shift in the music industry, but also an entirely new era in Western culture. Marking the end of the shred and Glam era, the dissonant and lacklustre aura of Nevermind represented the changing attitudes of the 90s youth and came to be a symbol of the decade as a whole. 

Inspiring a dressed-down, less image-conscious brand across mainstream culture, the impact of Nevermind provoked a resurgence in angst, punk attitudes across the globe. Effectively ending the heyday of flamboyant, technically excessive bands that dominated the 1980s, what was most unusual about Nirvana’s impact on the scene was that it offered a paradox: simultaneously refusing to conform to any expectations, yet also appealing to the masses through its melancholic, withdrawn sound.

Representing the overlooked, awkward outcasts in society and depicting a controversial alternative to the glamorous optimism of American culture at the time, the album seemed destined to fail at the time of its release. Yet, despite its controversy, Nirvana captured something with Nevermind that musicians globally were previously unable to: an unmissable, overpowering voice over a generation. Assuring fans that it was acceptable to be outsiders and encouraging a generation to embrace their discontentedness, the punk-based attitudes of the album was seen to liberate the overshadowed members of society and become one of the most important records of all time.

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What are your thoughts on Nevermind? Is there anything we missed? Let us know via the comment section!

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