Teenage angst has paid off well
Now I’m bored and old
In 1993 Nirvana faced the challenge of following up the groundbreaking Nevermind. That album was already acknowledged as a turning point in the history of rock and pop music. In Utero was supposed to be its counterpart, but then again not. The story of the third and last Nirvana studio album.
On March 19, 1988, Nirvana played their first show. At the time the band was made up of Kurt Cobain (guitar, vocals), Krist Novoselic (bass) and Aaron Burckhard (drums). The number of drummers the band sequentially wore down is of This Is Spinal Tap-like proportions. After Burckhard came Melvins drummer Dale Crover, Dave Foster, Burckhard again, Foster again, followed by Chad Channing. In November 1988 the band debuted with the release of single, a Shocking Blue cover, Love Buzz on the famous Sub Pop label from Seattle. In June 1989 debut album Bleach was released. The album sold reasonably well, especially given the poor promotion for the album. Late 1989 the EP Blew followed.
The drummer saga restarted again. Channing was replaced by Dan Peters, by Crover, only to settle on a young drummer named Dave Grohl. Recordings for the new album commenced, but first a search for a bigger label was undertaken, in order to secure a deal with a label that was able to fulfill the needs of Nirvana. They signed with DGC Records, a sub label by David Geffen.
The album Nevermind was recorded with Butch Vig. The final mix was done by Andy Wallace, a move the band was unhappy with afterwards: the sound was too smooth. On September 1991 the album was released. The record company hoped for a sales total of 250,000 copies. But, the first single Smells Like Teen Spirit, became an overnight sensation. By Christmas 1991 the album sold 400,000 copies a week. Nirvana became huge, extremely huge even. Nevermind reached the first position of the American Billboard charts. Worldwide more than 30 million (!) copies were sold.
But, maybe more importantly, Nirvana was recognized as the flag bearer of a new musical movement, called grunge, that kicked the butt of the music industry, just like The Sex Pistols had done in 1977. Therefore, the importance of Nevermind was compared to the classic Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols album, coincidentally one of Cobain’s favorite albums.
In 1992 Nirvana played at the English Reading Festival, later released as Live At Reading, a highlight in the band’s career. In the meantime Cobain was not well, heroin had entered the equation. Because new material was lacking, DGC, in conjunction with Sub Pop, released the compilation Incesticide in December 1992. The band, and Cobain in particular, was completely overwhelmed by the sudden and unexpected success and couldn’t really cope with it. The fact that the band was single handedly held accountable for popularizing grunge and alternative rock certainly didn’t help.
On September 21, 1993, (September 14 in Europe) Nirvana released the eagerly awaited successor to Nevermind, an album that was supposed to be the counterpart to everything Nevermind was. But, does that story hold up?
When work on In Utero was started, producer Steve Albini was behind the recording desk. Albini was known as an independent and a critic of main stream music. That was exactly what the band wanted. Recordings started on February 13, 1993, in Cannon Falls, Minnesota. Within a period of two week the album was recorded and mixed. Upon hearing the result the record company wasn’t happy. Cobain’s songs were “not up to par” and the overall sound was “unlistenable”.
At first, the band wanted to release the album as it was, but they got cold feet along the way. They asked Albini for a remix, which he refused. In April 1993 Albini stated in the press that he wasn’t sure whether the album would be released or not: “I wasn’t there when the band was having their discussions with the record label. All I know is … we made a record, everybody was happy with it. A few weeks later I hear that it’s unreleasable and it’s all got to be redone.” The band reacted with a letter (see below), which was printed in full in a number of publications. Even David Geffen reacted and assured that the record company would release everything the band presented to them.
Scott Litt was asked to remix some songs that were intended for single releases, Heart-Shaped Box, Pennyroyal Tea and All Apologies. The rest of the songs remained unchanged. However, after the mastering was done and Albini heard the album, he said “The record in the stores doesn’t sound all that much like the record that was made, though it’s still them singing and playing their songs, and the musical quality of it still comes across.”
The album entered the charts at the 1st position in many countries around the world, affirming Nirvana’s status. Even though In Utero sounded much harder and uncompromising than Nevermind, the success was huge once again. To date, more than 20 million copies have been sold. Counterpart, how?
Song by song
The opening line (see the quote at the top of this article) really says it all, or is it irony? Serve The Servants, great song title by the way, is a glorious album opener. Scentless Apprentice rocks hard and is inspired by Patrick Süskind’s superb novel Perfume. The screaming “Go away!” cuts through the bone.
The first single Heart-Shaped Box has been remixed, but doesn’t feel out of place with the rest of the album at all. Written after Courtney Love had sent Cobain a box in the shape of a heart, upon learning he was unattached. Next is one of Nirvana’s most controversial songs, Rape Me, a manifest for women and anti-violence. Musically the song is Smells Like Teen Spirit, part II. Following complaints the song was renamed Waif Me on the double A-side single All Apologies/Rape Me.
Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle is about the actress from Seattle who was decried by the press, because she was uncontrollable. Later, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Dumb is a calmer, accessible song, like the ones that can be found on Nevermind. According to Cobain the song is about people with a “shitty” life who are ‘just’ happy nonetheless.
Very Ape is a perfect Nirvana song, where the band plays with dynamics (an area where The Smashing Pumpkins were the true masters). The next Milk It also dabbles with dynamics. It’s seemingly about Cobain’s troubles with fame and drugs. After his death, the first sentence of the chorus, “Look on the bright side, suicide”, was interpreted as an announcement of his pending suicide.
Pennyroyal Tea is a catchy song, that was going to be released as a single, but was retracted after Cobain’s sudden death. Radio Friendly Unit Shifter is a bit meaningless, just like Tourette’s (which slightly resembles Crass‘s Banned From The Roxy).
The closer All Apologies is a favorite song for many. It details Courtney Love and their daughter Frances Bean and just how happy Cobain was with them.
After the initial release, and most certainly after Cobain’s premature death, In Utero was data-mined for signals and clues about what was really going in in Cobain’s life. How (un)happy was he really with his wife Courtney Love? How did he handle the pressure? What was going on with his health? How did fatherhood fit with his rock star status? Was the band in turmoil over royalties? If you so desire, one can interpret and read into things however one likes to. It’s a blessing the band didn’t call their album I Hate Myself And Want To Die, as Cobain has (jokingly?) stated in interviews…
Personally, I like In Utero more than Nevermind, even if that album contains Nirvana’s best song Come As You Are. In Utero feels more direct, more honest and raw, even though the albums more or less contain the same ingredients. Rock, hard and fast, a slow ballad and pop music.
I don’t listen to Nirvana that much and I think the hype surrounding the band and Cobain’s so-called genius is rather excessive, but the band did release a number of beautiful and touching songs. For me, In Utero wins on points when compared to Nevermind, but not much.
In the first weeks of In Utero‘s release Nirvana was interviewed by MTV. In the hour long program some of the attention was geared to the reception of the new album In Utero. A number of students had been given a copy of the cd and two days’ time to form an opinion and present it to MTV. They all took their role (very) seriously and all came up with notes and certainly criticism. Even though Nirvana were huge in 1993, really huge, not everyone was convinced. There were even some who had never heard of them.
Watch the remarkable video here.
Two singles were released off In Utero.
- Heart-Shaped Box
(released on August 30, 1993)
- All Apologies / Rape Me
(released on December 6, 1993)
As stated above, Pennyroyal Tea was retracted after Cobain’s death.
All songs written by Kurt Cobain, unless stated otherwise.
- Serve The Servants
- Scentless Apprentice (Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, Dave Grohl)
- Heart-Shaped Box
- Rape Me
- Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle
- Very Ape
- Milk It
- Pennyroyal Tea
- Radio Friendly Unit Shifter
- All Apologies
Non-American pressings were followed by 20 minutes of silence and the song Gallons Of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through The Strip (written by Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, Dave Grohl). The song was recorded in January 1993 during a jam-session in Brazil.
- Kurt Cobain – vocals, guitar
- Krist Novoselic – bass
- Dave Grohl – drums, percussion, background vocals
With help from:
- Kera Schaley – cello on Dumb and All Apologies
After In Utero
In November 1993 Nirvana recorded a show for the television show MTV Unplugged. It was an intense broadcast, where the band played a lot of covers. One year later it would become the first posthumous Nirvana release, Unplugged In New York.
Early 1994 Nirvana went on a European tour for In Utero. Their last show of the tour was performed on March 1, 1994, in Rome. Three days later Courtney Love found Cobain unconscious in his hotel room. He was raced to the hospital. The combination of (prescribed) rohypnol and alcohol had almost killed Cobain. The rest of the tour was cancelled.
In the following weeks heroin re-entered Cobain’s life, he was forced to enter rehab, where he left within a week. A week later Cobain was found dead in his house in Seattle. Three days before, on April 5, 1994, he had shot himself though the head. He left a note, where Neil Young was quoted: “I don’t have the passion anymore, and so remember, it’s better to burn out than to fade away”. Cobain’s suicide was world news. Nirvana albums sold by the millions.
Following Cobain’s death Nirvana disbanded and over the years many (live) albums have been released:
- MTV Unplugged In New York
(released on November 1, 1994)
- From the Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah
(released on October 1, 1996)
- Live at Reading
(released on November 3, 2009)
- Live At The Paramount
(released on April 5, 2019)
- Live And Loud
(released on August 30, 2019)
Of course many compilation albums have seen the light of day, but when it comes to Nirvana, just buy the 3 studio albums, complemented with the great MTV Unplugged In New York.
What’s your opinion on In Utero and Nirvana? Let me know!
Nirvana 1993 image: kurier.at
Nirvana – Bleach & Nevermind, Nirvana – In Utero & Nirvana – Unplugged In New York images: spotify.com
Nirvana – Letter to Newsweek image: livenirvana.com
Nirvana – In Utero – Ad image: thenostalgiashop.co.uk
Nirvana – Reaction to fans reacting MTV image: youtube.com
Nirvana – In Utero – The singles image: discogs.com
Nirvana – In Utero – CD image: theaudiodb.com
Nirvana – In Utero Tour image: proximus.be