Our friends at eMusic are sharing some of their favorite albums with us each week. This week, the focus is on those bands that helped shape Kurt Cobain’s own musical vision.
“Our songs have the standard pop format: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, solo, bad solo. All in all, we sound like the Knack and the Bay City Rollers being molested by Black Flag and Black Sabbath.” In that one pithy phrase, Kurt Cobain summarized not only the entire Nirvana aesthetic, but also his own wide-ranging, idiosyncratic tastes. Over the course of the last two decades, much attention has been given to Kurt Cobain the musician; but just as noteworthy—especially at the time—was Kurt Cobain the music fan. He was a tireless proselytizer, devoting more time in interviews to talking about his favorite bands than his own. It’s because of Kurt Cobain that many people first heard groups like Os Mutantes, the Raincoats and Beat Happening. His journals are full of tracklistings for mixtapes that he either made or thought about making. In honor of the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s paradigm-shifting second record, take some time to explore the bands that inspired them to make it.
(Sources cited: Come As You Are by Michael Azerrad; Heavier Than Heaven by Charles R. Cross; Journals by Kurt Cobain)
The Punk Influencers
The fingerprints of punk rock are all over Nirvana’s music, from the broad, slashing chords to the audible fury in Kurt’s voice. But as commercially successful as their music may have been, Nirvana’s entire aesthetic pushed against the current, embodying the spirit of punk rock defiance in the face of those who simply, to paraphrase Kurt himself, liked to sing along and liked to shoot their guns. “I have a request of all of our fans,” he wrote in the liner notes to Incesticide. “If you in any way hate homosexuals, people of a different color, or women, please do this one favor for us: leave us the fuck alone. Don’t come to our shows, and don’t buy our records.” It doesn’t get more punk rock than that.
The Raincoats – The Raincoats
How Kurt Felt: “When I listen to The Raincoats I feel as if I’m a stowaway in an attic, violating and in the dark. Rather than listening to them I feel like I’m listening in on them. We’re together in the same old house and I have to be completely still or they will hear me spying from above and, if I get caught — everything will be ruined because it’s their thing. If The Raincoats really did catch me, they would probably just ask me if I wanted some tea. I would comply, then they would finish playing their songs and I would say thank you very much for making me feel good.” — Liner notes to the 1993 reissue of The Raincoats
Sex Pistols – Nevermind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols
How Kurt Felt: “One million times more important than the Clash.” — Journals, p. 173
Black Flag – Damaged
How Kurt Felt: “One night [Kurt and a friend] noticed a huge, ornate Pink Floyd mural which someone had painstakingly painted in one of the alleys. Kurt had silver spray paint and [his friend] had black. Right over the “Pink” [his friend] wrote “Black,” and over the “Floyd,” Kurt wrote “Flag.” — Come As You Are, p.39
Bad Brains – Bad Brains
Stooges – Funhouse
Flipper – Generic
Saccharine Trust – We Became Snakes
The Northwest Peers
Nirvana were, in many ways, a product of their environment, a band spawned from a burgeoning Pacific Northwest scene that was built as much on mutual respect and support as it was on detuned riffing and superfuzz distortion. Kurt spoke about other bands in the regional scene the way you’d speak about an older sibling: full of equal parts envy and admiration, occasionally affecting an air of nonchalance but secretly driven by a desire to impress.
The Melvins – Bullhead
How Kurt Felt: “In one live Melvins performance you won’t be able to understand very many words, but you will FEEL the negative ENERGY. Music is ENERGY. FEELING. The Melvins have and always will be the kingpins of EMOTION.” — Journals, p. 63
Screaming Trees – Buzz Factory
How Kurt Felt: “Whoah! Polly Pereguin is my favorite song as of this decade. I’ve been soaking up the sound of the Screaming Trees for a few months, and I think it’s way better than most. ‘Polly Pereguin,’ JESUS GOD! What a complete masterpiece.” — Journals, p.38
Beat Happening – Jamboree
How Kurt Felt: “It opened up new doors to music I hadn’t heard before. It made me realize that for years I hadn’t looked back on my childhood. I tried to forget about it. It made me look back at my childhood and have fond memories of it. It was just a nice reminder of innocence.” — Come As You Are, p.47
Bikini Kill – CD Version of the First Two Records
Wipers – Over The Edge
Mudhoney – Superfuzz Bigmuff
Tad – 8-Way Santa
The Indie Standard-Bearers
For a band that flourished within the traditional major-label system, Nirvana’s aesthetic remained stubbornly independent. Kurt often expressed misgivings about having to play shows for—as he put it—the people who beat him up in high school, and used any opportunity he was given to deflect attention from his own band to those operating outside the public eye (he even took the semi-obscure Portland all-girl band Calamity Jane on tour with them to Spain, but the crowd’s despicable reaction to the band caused Cobain to disgustedly summarize the situation as “the largest display of sexism I’d ever seen at once”). Kurt’s love of independent music culminated in one of his most famous non-musical acts: getting a tattoo of the logo for Olympia indie label K Records on his arm—an always-visible reminder to himself to stay true to his roots.
The Vaselines – Enter The Vaselines
How Kurt Felt: “Dear Eugene, Here’s the ‘Mollys Lips’ 7?. I find it embarrassing because it’s just simply a bad version, but it was a great privilege to play one of your songs and to meet you all. It was easily the greatest moment of my life — the Vaselines have been my favorite #1 band for a while now.” — Journals, p. 103
Shonen Knife – 712
How Kurt Felt: “When I finally got to see them live, I was transformed into a hysteric nine year-old girl at a Beatles concert.” — Journals, p. 173
Butthole Surfers – Locust Abortion Technician
Jesus Lizard – Goat
Young Marble Giants – Live At The Hurrah
Daniel Johnston – Yip/Jump Music
The Guilty Pleasures
Even someone as musically unimpeachable as Kurt Cobain was not without his musical soft spots. For as much as he loved Beat Happening, Fugazi and Bratmobile, Cobain was just as quick to point out his debt to bands occupying the other side of the FM dial. When he wasn’t describing it as an attempt to “write a good Pixies song,” Cobain would describe “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as being essentially a rewrite of Boston’s “More Than a Feeling.”
Various – Radio Hits Of the ‘70s
How Kurt Felt: “I cried to [Terry Jacks’s] ‘Seasons in the Sun.’ My mother played a song by Chicago on out piano. I don’t remember the name of the song, but I’ll never forget the melody.” — Journals p. 160
The Knack – Get The Knack
How Kurt Felt: “In 1988, Kurt summoned his friend Damon Romero to his apartment by telling him, ‘There’s this great record that I’ve discovered that you HAVE to hear.’ When Romero arrived, Kurt pulled out Get the Knack. Romero thought Kurt was being sarcastic, and inquired, ‘Are you serious?’ ‘You’ve got to listen to this — it’s an awesome pop album,’ was Kurt’s deadpan reply.” — Heavier Than Heaven, p. 118
Boston – Boston
Aerosmith – Rocks
Cowsills – The Best Of The Cowsills
The Carpenters – A Kind Of Hush
For as much ink has been spilled over the stake Nirvana drove through the heart of classic rock, Kurt Cobain would be the first to admit his admiration for pop music’s foundational figures. He was a musical omnivore, so it’s only natural that Sabbath and Zeppelin would be just as much a part of his DNA as, say, British post-punk. Two decades later, instead of being young admirers, Nirvana have officially joined the pantheon, classic rock for a new generation of searchers.
Black Sabbath – Past Lives
How Kurt Felt: “Kurt dug Black Sabbath, but he dug the pop side as much as the heavy side. ‘I remember years ago asking [a friend], ‘How successful do you think a band could be if they mixed really heavy Black Sabbath with the Beatles? What could you do with that?’” — Come As You Are, p. 103
Lead Belly – Where Did You Sleep Last Night: Lead Belly Legacy, Vol. 1
How Kurt Felt: “Kurt had become obsessed with the great Leadbelly, the black folk troubadour of the ’30s and ’40s. Kurt had gotten into Leadbelly after reading an article by William Burroughs…He was completely taken. He started buying all the Leadbelly records he could find. ‘It’s so raw and sincere,’ he says. ‘It’s something that I hold really sacred to me. Leadbelly is one of the most important things in my life. I’m totally obsessed with him.’” — Come As You Are, p. 121
Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin III
Creedence Clearwater Revival – Bayou Country
The Velvet Underground – White Light / White Heat
Alice Cooper – Billion Dollar Babies
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