26 Years Ago: Nirvana Only Hint at Future Greatness on ‘Bleach’
The band – which at that time included Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Chad Channing – recorded most of the album with Jack Endino in December 1988 and January 1989, during a series of sessions that cost a whopping $606.17. Jason Everman, Nirvana’s live guitarist, ponied up the cash for this bill, earning himself a credit on Bleach.
The surroundings were rather low-key. In Michael Azerrad’s book Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana, Endino’s Reciprocal Recording Studios was described as a place where “the paint peeled off the particle-board walls, there were cigarette burns all over every horizontal surface, and it didn’t matter a bit if you spilled your beer on the carpet.”
Nirvana added this Endino work to three songs dating from an earlier recording session, which featured Melvins‘ Dale Crover on drums instead of Channing. What emerged was an album full of primitive, brittle grunge dirges (“Sifting,” “Paper Cuts”), scuzz-metal mayhem (“Negative Creep,” “Mr. Moustache’) and the occasional college-pop oasis (“About a Girl,” “Love Buzz”). Cobain’s hoarse-throat lyrics were mostly unintelligible, although a few choice phrases emerged to add angst and despair – or, in the case of “School,” levity: “Won’t you believe it / It’s just my luck / No recess.”
What was perhaps so striking about the greyscale rock ‘n’ roll found on Bleach was how familiar it sounded. The record wasn’t transformative; it was rooted in tradition. As Azerrad notes: “Nirvana’s new wave sound – Scratch Acid, Butthole Surfers, and the like – was derivative. It wasn’t until they acknowledged the fact that they had grown up on Aerosmith and Black Sabbath that their music found its voice.”
Although Bleach is now a landmark release – in fact, it went platinum and is label Sub Pop’s biggest seller – at the time, reaction to the album was mixed. It didn’t appear on the Billboard 200, although the British music press was much kinder. “If you find yourself nodding off to Guns N’ Roses‘ occasional acoustic noodlings then wake up to Nirvana,” wrote the NME. “Scrap all that soft metal crap and get behind these brats!”
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