J.S. Bach, Gershwin, The Beatles — none of these highly influential luminaries were particularly great innovators, rather, they were immensely skilled at looking around at what was happening and creating a new musical lexicon of the styles and ideas surrounding them. Bach incorporated the ideas about counterpoint and form of his contemporaries Palestrina and Vivaldi, among others into his own music and thereby created a body of work, from which were derived what subsequently became known as “the rules of 18th Century counterpoint” and has provided the basis for the music of Mozart, Haydn, and the entire Classical Era. Though a brilliant composer of melody and counterpoint, Bach was actually not a bold innovator, but rather a great codifier of what he saw going on around him.
Likewise, The Beatles were not great innovators but were fantastic sponges that absorbed everything around them, the music of Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, Motown, Dylan, The Byrds and The Beach Boys, Hendrix, and also the old-timey British dancehall music of their youth as well as American Country music. In the process of developing as sophisticated songwriters, The Beatles created a new lexicon of songwriting, fusing disparate elements and presenting them as the modern style. The lexicon they created remains to this day the language of pop songwriting, or at least a major branch of it.
It’s actually hard to find any true innovators in music, so pervasive is the practice of drawing from musical influences. Among the great heroes of the rock era, Dylan, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, even Hendrix, it’s hard to find any true originals (stylistically, Hendrix drew liberally from Curtis Mayfield and Buddy Guy, and was deeply influenced by Dylan as a songwriter).
Which brings us to Nirvana. When I first heard the band (admittedly with their worldwide smash hit album, Nevermind, and not before), I was impressed by the power of the songs, the strength of the hooks, and the sheer force of Kurt Cobain’s sly and desperate vocals. But it wasn’t anything I hadn’t essentially heard before in the “Punk meets Keith Richards” music of The Replacements, the angular music of X, the heavy riffs of Black Sabbath, or the flat-out scream of the hardcore punk music I was exposed to growing up in Detroit. What was different in the music of Nirvana was the structuring of their dynamics, the hushed verses into the nuclear bomb choruses. I found that compelling and new and like so many fans, I was headbanging in their powerful thrall.
Little did I know at the time, even their signature contrasting dynamics were “inspired” by another band.
Kurt Cobain has been famously quoted as saying, he “was basically trying to rip off the Pixies.” And that’s OK. We don’t love Nirvana because they were such fearless innovators. We love them because they were a kickass powerhouse of a band that meant every ugly, uncomfortable word they ever said. And they had an incredible drummer plus an irony-tinged pop sensibility too.
If nothing else, Nirvana were masters of irony and they are at their best when combining the heavyosity of their Zeppelin-Sabbath influence with the melodic hookiness of their pop influences.
Yes, The Pixies were a very influential band, as were The Replacements, X, and Black Sabbath, but it took Nirvana to fuse the influences and light a rocket under it. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” dominated MTV for a season and Nevermind was a number one album, and sold an astounding 30 million copies worldwide. Apart from inadvertently inspiring a generation of commerce-minded punk rockers, the meteoric success of Nevermind and it’s successor album, In Utero was an earthquake that forever changed the landscape of rock music.
30 million. Just as a point of reference, Journey’s most successful studio release, the Escape album which contains “Don’t Stop Believin’” sold 12 million copies.
The influence of punk and hardcore too on Nirvana was pervasive and deep. Iggy and The Stooges, Sex Pistols, Fear, Butthole Surfers, Minutemen, Black Flag, Minor Threat, and countless other indie hardcore bands all played a role in shaping the musical mind of Kurt Cobain and their imprint can be heard in all of their albums, especially in the vocal delivery and the lyrics. But Nevermind signaled a great advance in sound for punk music. Expertly recorded by Butch Vig (who also produced Nevermind) and slickly mixed by pioneering metal engineer Andy Wallace (Slayer), punk had never sounded like this, with such clarity and sonic power. And who can say whether that was the factor that set the band apart, that fired their overwhelming success — it certainly didn’t hurt.
So yes, in 1991, Nirvana, a punk band made an album that sold 30 million copies and, like the original punk movement from the 70s that sent shock waves through the rock word, the impact of Nirvana and other big-selling grunge bands on rock was seismic.
The earth split, a chasm opened between “rock” and “alternative,” and the aftershocks are still being deeply felt across the musical landscape
Alternative is not a genre or a style of music. It’s a marketing term and a radio format. That is not to downplay the importance of the rise of the “alternative” label. On the contrary, back in the mid-90s when record sales were still surging, marketing and radio play were big drivers, having an enormous influence on public tastes and subsequently, the music that was being made. But perhaps even more significant is the effect the “alternative” label had on the remainder of the rock world, who were suddenly perceived as traditional, or worse yet, passé. This was the moment in rock history when the album-oriented rock (AOR) radio format shifted to “classic rock,” when the revered rock artists of the 60s and 70s started to become perceived as museum pieces, relegated to nostalgia tours and (gasp), oldies radio.
There had long been alternatives to album-oriented rock. Major labels courted “college rock” bands in the 80s. Post-punk bands like The Smiths, The Cure, and R.E.M. dominated Billboard’s Modern Rock charts and thrived on stations memorialized in The Replacements song, “Left of the Dial.” But it wasn’t until Nevermind’s impact on the marketplace in the early 90s that these groups started selling in huge numbers. R.E.M. had major hits in the 80s but in the years between 1991 and 1994, the group sold 30 million albums worldwide. Even the mainstream band U2 followed suit and created Achtung Baby, their version of alternative, defining a rock style they would settle into for the rest of their career. Meanwhile, the market welcomed newer alternative bands like Smashing Pumpkins, Oasis and Radiohead, as did labels, who went on signing sprees in what would be the last hurrah for rock as a commercial juggernaut.
Aside from shifts in the marketplace, musically, the wildly successful music of Nirvana created a blueprint for punk-tinged bands with pop sensibilities moving forward
I think we can safely say that Nirvana’s success softened the ground for and directly influenced the music of pop-punk bands like Green Day whose breakthrough album Dookie went on to sell an impressive 20 million copies worldwide and who have endured and developed as a band. Likewise, punk-tinged power pop bands like Weezer, Third Eye Blind, and Fountains of Wayne owe a stylistic debt to the legacy of Nirvana and even more does the entire pop-punk emo genre that found success in the early 2000s with Jimmy Eats World, Dashboard Confessional, Blink-182, and many others bands.
But ironically for a punk band, the most lasting effects that Nirvana had were commercial. With mainstream rock hemorrhaging market share, over time other “alternative” forms of music, rap-rock, industrial, and electronica further splintered the once rock-obsessed youth market. Even the pop mega-wave of the late 90s that still persists today might owe a debt to Nirvana’s slaying of the AOR giant, so lethal was punk to the rock ethos and its dominance among the youth.
The Sex Pistols were an explosion in the 70s that put the fear of God into the rock giants that once roamed the earth. Nirvana came along in 1991 to perhaps inadvertently put them out of their misery, upending the rock-dominated landscape, rendering the rock dinosaurs all but extinct as a vital force in music. Like few other albums in history, Nivana’s Nevermind took on the music world and left it and its history reshaped forever.
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