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"Nevermind" 30 years on — how Nirvana’s second album tilted the world on its axis

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For many of us back in 1991, it felt as if the planet tilted slightly further on its axis when "Smells Like Teen Spirit" — the lead single from Nirvana's "Nevermind" album — began to dominate the airwaves. The song's compelling fusion of blast furnace punk, whimsical melody and inscrutable lyrics was unlike anything else commercial radio had embraced up to that point.

Friday, Sept. 24 marks the 30th anniversary of the release of "Nevermind." Materialising apparently out of nowhere, within four months the album had shoved its way to the top of the U.S. charts, dislodging Michael Jackson's Dangerous in January of 1992. It did almost as well in Australia, reaching number two.

"Nevermind" has gone on to become a recording phenomenon, with over 30 million copies sold. Nobody saw this coming, not least the band's record company. John Rosenfeld, who worked for Nirvana's label, Geffen, at the time of its release has said they originally projected sales of 50,000.

Nirvana formed in 1987 in the logging and fishing town of Aberdeen, Washington. Featuring guitarist, vocalist and principal songwriter Kurt Cobain, bass player Krist Novoselic, and new drummer Dave Grohl, "Nevermind" was Nirvana's second album — the first for a major label.

Instantly identifiable by its cover image of an infant swimming toward a fish hook baited with a dollar note, it included three more frenetic-cum-fragile singles — "Come As You Are," "Lithium" and "In Bloom" — as well as two haunted acoustic tracks — "Polly," a repudiation of sexual violence, and the cello-bathed "Something in the Way," which alluded to homelessness.

A range of factors converged to draft Nirvana into the mainstream with "Nevermind." Certainly, the quality of the songs helped.

So did "Teen Spirit"'s incendiary video, which conveyed generational antipathy through robotic cheerleaders, a swarm of convulsive teens and a wizened school janitor (Cobain having held down just such a job for a short time). Producer Butch Vig and mixer Andy Wallace were also vital, applying precisely the right amount of gleam to the band's coarse-grained, jet engine roar.

Significant, too, were the many post-punk musicians who in the 1980s shaped what Nirvana biographer Michael Azerrad subsequently termed a "shadow music industry". This underground faction of American bands — Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, Dinosaur Jr, Mudhoney, Sonic Youth and others — forged a crucial alternative, do-it-yourself aesthetic pathway through the ultra-conservative Reagan-Bush era.

Sometimes important art takes time to inject itself into the bloodstream of the culture. While the Velvet Underground are now acknowledged as a pivotal force in early rock music, at the time their records had limited critical cache and sold poorly. With "Nevermind," however, audiences caught on quickly, leaving cultural commentators scrabbling to hook on to a hurtling zeitgeist.

Three stars from Rolling Stone

Bass guitarist Novoselic has since spoken........

© Salon

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