Anarchy In The UK
They were inspired by British punk. Many of their defining moments were experienced here. Andrew Perry traces the story of Nirvana in the UK.
BEFORE NIRVANA, BRITAIN already had a small but fiercely fanatical audience plugged into American underground rock, which had grown out of the early '80s hardcore punk scene in New York, LA and Washington DC. Groups like Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, Lemonheads, Big Black, Butthole Surfers and Mudhoney were already cult heroes across the country when, in 1989, Nirvana's Bleach arrived here on import.
To coincide with their co-headline tour in October of that year, Nirvana and Sub Pop labelmates Tad shared the cover of Sounds. For a while at least, Cobain felt that he was best understood by the UK music press and, as Chad Channing's replacement Dave Grohl joked in Rolling Stone, the band appreciated the way British journalists corrected their grammar and made them sound educated. From their two appearances at the Reading Festival to Kurt's oddly unrepresentative vocal rendition of Smells Like Teen Spirit on Top Of The Pops, many of the band's most fabled moments happened in the UK.
Russell Warby Booking agent at Nomad, then Concorde, then The Agency:
"I had literally been an agent for about five minutes, and this guy Cameron from a band called the Cateran had sent me the 7-inch of Love Buzz. I fell in love with it immediately - a beautiful sense of melody, but brutal too. I started badgering Sub Pop, telling them I really loved the band and that I wanted them to come over. Eventually the word came that they were coming here with Tad. I booked the UK dates out of my bedroom in Nottingham."
Anton Brookes Nirvana's UK publicist:
"I was working for Sub Pop in 1989 on the first Nirvana records, the Blew EP and then Bleach. At this stage, if I'm honest, I just though they were an exciting band in the same way as Screaming Trees, Tad, Mudhoney, Soundgarden. I liked all the band for different reasons. Nirvana had energy, power, presence and songs, that heavy guitar sound, his voice, the screeching and the veins standing out at his temples. They had School, but they also had About A Girl. They were like Zeppelin meets The Beatles."
Keith Cameron Sounds freelancer:
"We'd been covering this strand of music at Sounds, from Big Black and Sonic Youth, building up to the Pixies. Nirvana were almost the logical result - a pop group in essence, but also punk rock. We had a split cover with Tad and Nirvana for the tour, but the cover was dominated by Tad - just because of the logistical problems of getting a small picture of Tad."
"We went to picking them up at the airport, and from among all these American tourists, Tad came through, this huge guy in a straw hat, and then shuffling behind was this funny little fella with bleached hair. They were immediately engaging, and very excited, being so far from home. At that stage, Nirvana had only done one American tour where mostly they'd been camping. So to come over to Europe, and stay in cheap bed and breakfasts - it was like they were already touring at a better level."
"There was a lot of expectation. The word had got round completely naturally. Friends were telling friends. There wasn't a big press hype, just Sounds. The first gig was Newcastle, and they were absolutely awesome. There was a real sense of anarchy and randomness about it. Krist totally his bass cab."
"The next night, they played at the Duchess of York in Leeds. Nirvana were first on and as Krist walked off, I said to him, krist, you didn't throw your bass across the stage, and he goes (dopily) 'Oh yeah,' and just throws his bass over his head behind him, and you just saw all these heads in the pit following the bass as it flew through the air and wiped out all the mic stands."
"The gigs were blistering. There would be me and Anton, and Alex McLeod, the tour manager, on-stage. One minute we'd been trying to hold the monitors down, there were so many people pushing forwards, and the next minute we'd all be stage-diving. Everyone there was stage-diving."
Jenny Bulley Fan:
"I'd read a bit about them in Mudhoney interviews, this fantastic band from Seattle. We were quite surprised when Tad went on last at SOAS [School of Oriental and African Studies, London]. I know this is right because me and my friend were only 18 and we can't remember Tad because we were pissed on cider. But we can remember Nirvana. It was so loud and sweaty and exciting. A mad night. I went and bought Bleach on the strength of that gig. All the loyalties started shifting from Mudhoney to Nirvana."
Andy Pearson Fear & Loathing fanzine:
"Me and a couple of friends used to put on bands at Canterbury Art College, and were offered Tad and Nirvana as a package. The idea was they would be driving back from the European leg through Dover, and they could stop off in Canterbury on the way to the Astoria. We were offered both bands for 350 quid. But the Social Secretary wouldn't underwrite it."
"They came back from Europe and missed their ferry over. They got the next one and arrived at the Astoria half an hour before they were due on-stage for Sub Pop's Lamefest UK, with Tad and Mudhoney. The running order was decided on the flip of a coin. Nirvana lost and went on first. But because we'd told everyone to get there early because the running order wasn't decided, practically the entire audience was in by seven o'clock. The band must've been exhausted - they'd driven overnight and only just made it. There was no soundcheck and they came on and did the most amazing performance."
"There was a genuine sense of tension in the air from the three people on-stage, and the climax of that show was the explosion at the end where they trashed all their gear, Kurt threw his guitar at Krist, Krist smacked it with his bass like a baseball bat, and the guitar just disintegrated. It was magical."
"Afterwards, I met Kurt, and he was really nice. You had this huge contrast between this guy on-stage who seemed on the verge of total self-immolation, and the guy I met who was quietly spoken and genuinely humbled that anyone from a magazine wanted to ask him about his music."
"I asked him his hopes for the '90s, and he said, 'Our band want to debase every known form of modern music.' I said, Really, and he said, 'Yeah, we missed a couple this year...' Not a bad prediction, really."
"At one point, Kurt sent me this tape of Bleach which he'd recorded over - it still had Sellotape over the top, with songs like In Bloom and Lithium and Breed and Stay Away on it. halfway through one track is cut off, and you had to turn over and it continued on the other side. The idea was I play this to senior journalists and editors, with sellotape over the top and a sticker on it saying 'New Tracks'!"
"I thought these were some of the best songs I'd hear in my life. I rang him up and he had this message on his machine which went, (desperate voice) ' I can't come to the phone, I've fallen down the steps and broken my legs, aaaah!' In the end he had to take the message off because one day he had the police break in trying to rescue him. Eventually I got ahold of him and explained about the state of the tape and he goes, 'Yeah, what's wrong with that?'"
"Around September 1990, I went out to Seattle for a Sounds cover story. The band had just sacked Chad Channing. They'd hired Dan Peters from Mudhoney for the night. Dave Grohl was actually staying at Krist's house, where we were staying. So I had the distinction of sharing a floor with the incoming drummer. The next day we did the interview and photo shoot with Dan, and about two weeks later he was put."
"A month or so later, they came over for a six-date headline tour with L7. The Astoria gig virtually sold out just on word of mouth. No record to promote and the place was rammed. You knew something was happening. people were saying, 'You know, one day, they might be as big as Sonic Youth.'"
Eugene Kelly Singer, The Vaselines, and later Captain America/Eugenius:
"I was asked to re-form The Vaselines for a Nirvana gig at Edinburgh Carlton Studios. I'd heard of them, I knew they were covering Molly's Lips, but I was intrigued to find out why they were so keen on us, because we'd split up and we were incredibly obscure. I thought only about a thousand people in the whole world knew about us."
"It was strange, we didn't know what they'd sound like. We went over there with Norman Blake, 'cos we'd had to borrow all of Teenage Fanclub's gear to re-form, so we drove over in the back of a van with a crate of beer, having a laugh. When we arrived, their agent approached me and goes, 'Do you want to meet Kurt?' He said that Kurt was really nervous about meeting me! It was around the time of Martin Goodacre's famous picture of Kurt, with the bleached hair and dark eyeliner, that's how he looked."
"We actually made a small profit on the tour so they went home with a bit of money. They hadn't done the big deal yet. They were just starting to be courted, the odd A&R man turning up."
Nigel Coxon Scout and junior manager at Island, now director at A&R, Polygram/Island:
"Nobody had really picked up on it in the UK, and certainly no-one in America. That was the great days when there could be a record like that, and you wouldn't have 100 million A&R men trying to sign it. I went to see them play in Birmingham, and thought they were fucking amazing, just the energy of it. When I went backstage, there was no antagonism."
"We had them in to Island for a meeting. They were very nice. it was the afternoon, and I think we were probably all hungover and were drinking a lot of coffee. Kurt had Crazy Coloured his hair blue. I remember thinking, Cool! I hadn't seen that kind of behaviour for a while."
"That guy from Island got us really drunk in Edinburgh. Suddenly there was lots and lots of booze to be drunk, all free. Fantastic! I was the tour manager for the last few days, because Alex had to go off to Japan with The Mega City Four. I slept in a room that night with Krist and Craig, the sound engineer, and we got really drunk in the bar at the Ailsa Craig Hotel. We checked in about five people there, but in the end there were about 16."
"Krist had got really drunk. There was a toilet cubicle in the room, and he climbed up on the roof of it in the middle of the night. I was carrying all the money and I was having this dream that all the money was fluttering down on me through the air. I woke up with a scream, covered with paper, and I was thinking, My God, the money! In fact, Krist had found all these leaflets on top of the cubicle and he'd been throwing them in the air, shouting 'Frou-frou!' That was always known as the The Frou-frou Night."
"Kurt was always questioning me about music, because I ha loads of punk 7-inches and new wave stuff. SO we'd talk about the Young Marble Giants and The Raincoats and Kleenex. It genuinely was a big thrill for them here."
"I booked them for John Peel. They never liked the first Peel session very much, but the second one was all covers - The Wipers, Devo, The Vaselines... That was the first indication of what Nevermind would be, and that in tandem with Sliver made you think they were going to make a very commercial, hard-hitting record."
"After that tour, Nirvana went away for a long time. They did the Geffen deal, got management at Gold Mountain... Sonic Youth had obviously told Geffen, you have to sign Nirvana. It went very quiet for us, but they were making the record, and by the time they came back for Reading '91, the word was out."
Jo Bolsom Nirvana's product manager, now at Chrysalis:
"Nevermind just sort of landed in my lap. At the time, you were marketing singles into the charts - doing umpteen different sleeves, cardboard packaging. With Guns N'Roses, every format was a special package. On Nirvana, the most we did was a picture disc. Their records were all music-driven, lots of B-sides and live tracks. You couldn't 'sell' Nirvana. The fans wanted music, not 3D pop-up sleeves. All I wanted was for people to hear the song, and then the album, and then the music would do the rest. Our plugger had heard Teen Spirit and just said, 'I can get this on Radio One.'"
"When Nevermind came out, nobody would entertain us for covers. It was the converted who were raving about it, Andrew Perry reviewed it for Select and Keith Cameron at Vox, and in some cases it didn't even get a picture with the review."
"I met them the night before Reading '91. My new band Captain America were supporting Hole and Mudhoney at New Cross Venue. The next day Kurt asked me to come on and sing Molly's Lips with them at Reading. By then, you knew you were at the centre of something that was about to explode."
"They played after Silverfish and before Chapterhouse. That was a really anarchic show. My mate Tony danced with them that day, and I wrote on his torso, 'Lose weight now/Ask me how' and Kurt wrote 'God is gay'. Krist threw his bass in the air and completely missed it on the way down, and then Kurt ran from one end of the stage to the other, straight through the drum kit."
"After that, everyone went mad. They went to Europe and people were going crazy there, too. They went back to America again for a month, did some dates, and by the time they came back, it was Nevermind-mania."
"I went to the Astoria in November with a load of cynical MCA old-timers and the crowd were going mental. The balcony was shaking. A few people were going, 'Fuck, we've got something here'. They hadn't realized they'd got something until then.
Jo Whiley Music researcher, The Word, now Radio One DJ:
"I was dead keen to get them onto The Word. I was saying to everyone, we've got to have them on, but nobody had particularly heard of them. We discovered the song was really long, four and a half minutes, but for the show, it had to be under three minutes. I was told, 'Tell them to do an edit!' I'm going, You don't understand, we've got to have them on the show, they're more important than... Yes, Intastella, it was.. One of Terry Christian's favorites. In the end it only ran about a minute and a half. For TV viewing it was incredibly frustrating, but this was the one time I thought, Fuck it, I'm not being a TV researcher here, I'm a fan. I stood down the front for when Kurt said, 'Courtney love is the best fuck in the world.' Then it kicked off and it was so exciting."
Mary Ann Hobbs NME journalist, now Radio One DJ:
"I'd been raving about nevermind since I'd heard it, basically telling the people at the NME how it would change everything. Me and Steve Lamacq were screaming about it, but at the time they didn't want Nirvana on the cover. They had two other stories that fell through - one was The Cure, and I can't remember the other - so I was allowed to do it if I could sort it out that day and then write it overnight."
"They did things on their terms and we didn't fuck with that. We sat backstage, giggling away, when they did Territorial Pissings on the Jonathan Ross show. They were meant to do Lithium, because it was more TV-friendly. The producer was running round going, 'I'm gonna get such shit.' but we were like, THis is hilarious, fantastic television, what's the problem?"
"They'd moved from the Dalmacia to the Embassy in Bayswater. Fifty quid a night! The big time! There was never ever any arrogance about them. The record was racing up the charts, and Krist and Kurt said to me one time, 'Well, pretty soon the U2 and Michael Jackson albums are going to come out and this madness is going to end.' But it didn't, it just snowballed."
"There was a posse of people who'd follow them around, and I think everyone was a bit of disgruntled when the album went sky-high. Our little scene was blown open. We could turn up for gigs without tickets, even when Nevermind was out, and we'd get in, no problem, especially out of town. I think the first date was in Sheffield or Nottingham, and this student union was mobbed. The queues went all the way up the road. I was like, I'm buggered if I'm not getting in because half a million people have just heard Teen Spirit."
"Kurt asked us to support on the Teen Spirit tour. It was great to be caught in the excitement, watching the best band in the world every night. When we played Sheffield, they'd just recorded Top of The Pops. We were in some students union and sat watching Nirvana watching themselves on TV. Kurt was right at the front and the more it went on, the more you could see he was sinking deeper and deeper into the chair, cringing, really embarrassed. But everyone burst into applause at the end - 'You fucked up the Pops! You got them! Yeah!' You knew Nirvana were changing things - a cool influential punk band who were going to kick out all the poodle perms and guys with the horrible-shaped guitars. It was epic."
"That was kind of my fault, that Kurt did the Sisters Of Mercy vocal on Top of The Pops. He'd been complaining about a sore throat and I told him you could mime on there, but then they decided you had to do a live vocal. Eventually Krist and Dave made no effort at all to look as if they were playing their instruments, and Kurt just opened his mouth and did this completely wayward vocal. The people from TOTP said, (pointedly) 'Would you mind doing that again?' and Kurt went, 'No, I'm quite happy with that, thank you...' I was so relieved when the record went up the charts the next week."
"I went to the tour's last gig, Kilburn, one of the hottest and sweatiest. It was so impossible to get a ticked, you felt, God, I've made it in through the front door. it was a wild, huge celebration."
"I saw them the next night at Transmusicales in France; the last gig in Europe. They had to cancel loads of dates in Spain because they were fucked. They came on and did this amazing version of Baba O'Riley by The Who with Dave Grohl singing, and he changed the words to 'It's just a major-label wasteland'. They smashed every piece of gear on the stage, and then Krist carried Kurt off-stage - he liked like this tiny kid in Krist's arms."
"After that, they went on every magazine cover around the world. They were untouchable."
"We were recording our album in spring 1992 and there were loads of messages from their tour manager to call them. I phoned them up in los Angeles and had a chat. I've never talked about this, but Kurt asked me to join nirvana. i saw that thing in MOJO, the Pete Best Club. This is my pete Best story. Kurt said to me, 'We're having a three-month break, then I want you to come over and write songs, maybe join the band.' I was like, yeah, definitely, but I've got to finish this record first. After that I never heard anything more. I'm kind of glad it didn't work out because I'd have come along and hit them with happy, poppy tunes, and In Utero wouldn't have happened."
Dave Cavanagh Freelance journalist:
"I went to Belfast to interview Kurt in March/April 1992 for Select. There was quite a mood of fear. One the plane over, Anton said to me, 'Id' really like you to just talk about the music with Kurt.' I was like, What else am I supposed to talk about? Are there any other subjects?"
"I interviewed him for about an hour - a nice guy, sweet, cute, dry and self-depreciating. It was ridiculous to see this tiny blonke with dyed blonde hair, in a mohair jumper, eating a peanut and jam sandwich, with grubby clothes, a second-hand watch... He looked like his entire life had cost about 10 quid and he was deliberately eating the worst food he could buy, while everyone around him was becoming a millionaire. That's how it seemed to me."
"When they came on-stage that night, Tori Amos' cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit was playing on the PA, and they pirouetted to their places like ballerinas. Very funny. It was a great show."
"The next morning, I was woken very early and told we had to leave for the airport. It was about eight o'clock and the flight, which was domestic, wasn't till 11. We were all being shepherded away from the hotel because, we later found out, Cobain had run out of methadone. He'd started withdrawing and paramedics had had to be called. When we rang up to ask more about this a couple of days later, we were told, 'Oh, he had a dodgy kebab' or something."
"You had to say and do a lot of things to keep face for the band. I did that out of loyalty, not because they were paying me, but because they were friends. Everything had changed. Nirvana had become multi-million pound industry. To management and everyone else, it was still the same close-knit family, but I remember we all went around together then - the band, crew, Teenage Fanclub - everybody except Kurt and Courtney, who stayed in their hotel room. It became them and everyone else."
"I went out to Spain for the NME, and everything had changed beyond recognition. All the talk was of heroin; the gigs almost seemed a diversion. They seemed static and distant from each other. I imagined that selling a lot of records might empower them. Success seemed to make Nirvana powerless. it was all doom and gloom by the time I wrote a piece to coincide with Reading '92."
Mary Ann Hobbs:
"There were so many rumors about whether they'd turn up to Reading. There were even rumors about their rider - a dead fish tied with a red ribbon and put in a special box. Weird things. Nobody though they could pull it off, because everyone though they'd been absolutely crippled by the smack."
Phil Alexander Presenter of the rock show Raw Power, Kerrang! editor:
"Before Nirvana played I interviewed Krist Novoselic for Raw Power. Everyone had heard the rumour about the band splitting up, so I had to ask Krist to comment. He just laughed and said, 'Well, as you can see, we haven't!' Despite that, you could still sense that they were unhappy about being so successful. They felt they'd become so big that they couldn't control what was happening."
"There was just a tidal wave of questions at Reading: 'Are Nirvana playing? 'Are they splitting up?' People knew that Dave and Krist were on-site, they'd watched a few bands on the Friday night, but people were still saying that they wouldn't play. Yes, there was turmoil in the Nirvana camp, but at the time you have to deny it."
"Kurt felt that there was a strong anti-Courtney vibe in the crowd. He actually asked the crowd to shout out that they loved her."
"Kurt was in a very relaxed mood. There was a really good vibe around the band. I remember Kurt watching Bjorn Again, the Abba tribute band. he loved them."
"I just remember standing there laughing because they were so big and they were just brilliant. I wouldn't say it was the pinnacle of Nirvana's career, but it felt fantastic to be there. It had been raining really hard and there were a few mudfights in the crowd, so there were gaps in the crowd for some of the bands, but for Nirvana there were people packed in for as far as you could see. There was steam rising off the crowd and everyone was singing every word of every song. it made the hairs stand up on your neck."
"The whole event was so exciting. This is going to sound a bit posey, but I was watching Nirvana from the side of the stage, and I just felt incredibly privileged to be there for such an important occasion. I was thinking, 'Pinch me, I'm dreaming.' It really was a special moment."
"Strangely, I remember Nirvana at Reading for everything but the music. There's a part of me that is relieved that Nirvana didn't carry on forever and dilute what they had, but obviously I wish that all this stuff hadn't led to Kurt's death."
"The thing I'll always remember from that gig was Kurt being pushed on-stage in a wheelchair with a wig on. He was just larking around with a huge grin on his face."
Everett True Freelancer, Melody Maker, later editor of Vox:
"There were plenty of bad days around then, but Reading wasn't one of them. I remember it as a very happy day. I myself drank the best part of a bottle of vodka, so I don't remember a great deal about being asked to wheel Kurt on-stage. I remember seeing L7 at the side of the stage and trying to run them down with the wheelchair. There were all these managers and promoters standing around there too, looking really worried, thinking, 'Why are we letting this drunk anywhere near our precious artist?' When we got about halfway across the stage, Kurt reached up and grabbed my shoulder and I though, 'Excellent, he wants to start a ruck with me on-stage.' But then I realized he was trying to tell me I was pushing him towards the wrong microphone."
Mary Ann Hobbs:
"Kurt got everyone to shout, 'Courtney, we love you,' because she'd had so much bad press. That was the day everyone expected them to fail, but they really pulled it out of the bag."
"It's a weird thing now - you just yearn for Kurt. It's only when you hear the new Pearl Jam record that you realize how much you fucking miss him. There's this howling noise that screams from the depths of your soul - Why on earth did you have to leave us? I don't think he'd got any concept of how much people here genuinely loved him."
© Andrew Perry, 1998. Transcribed and reproduced by Alex Roberts with permission.