On the 30th anniversary of Nirvana's Nevermind album release, September 24 1991, Nicholas Sheppard takes a wistful look at the last of those great alternative genres that extend beyond the band into a culture with its own clothes and frame of reference.
In 1991, the music scene was dreary and seemed to be driven along by its own inertia. 80s hair metal still held sway, a shallow aesthetic of posturing self-image and fast times, epitomised by technically proficient, frenetic but ultimately pointless guitar solos, and keyboard players who would hold down a chord on one synthesizer, while stretching across to play notes on another synthesizer.
It was a year when big stadium acts from the 80s were releasing underwhelming albums: Queen, Bruce Springsteen, Dire Straits. For a year or so, there was a half-hearted notion that a genre of ecstasy-driven synth-pop might plausibly be cool, with Jesus Jones releasing songs like International Bright Young Thing, and EMF getting crowds dancing to Unbelievable.
The music scene languished in relation to broader tensions in society. The "greed is good" mentality of the materialist 80s, exposed by the financial spasm of the Wall St crash of 1987, was further exposed by the nasty recession of the early 90s. This wider disillusionment and uncertainty formed a backdrop for a more abstract wanness, and lack of expectation, about popular culture.
Often, verbs can be particularly clinching. You experience childhood. You enter adulthood. You approach old age. But you hit puberty - and I couldn't think of a greater soundtrack to coincide with that particular collision than Nirvana's 1991 release, Nevermind.
Clusters of us would hook up at friends' houses to listen to the album, have it blasting from cassette decks in cars and hunch forward with cheap guitars, learning the songs, until our soft, middle-class suburban fingertips were so thickened with calluses they had lost all sensation.
From the first second, Nevermind was the centre of gravity. The new, absolute contrasts between clean verses and loud, distorted choruses. The new idea of brilliant melodies delivered in a screaming, excoriating voice. The new idea of lyrics that were somehow both angsty and blithely detached. The new idea of punkish vocals full of surrealist imagery. Smells Like Teen Spirit featured a new dynamic range for an alternative track, where the vocal, at one point in the chorus, hurtles up just short of an entire octave. It was everything you liked about pop and everything you liked about raw indie music, divested of the thin, manufactured aspects of the former and the shrill, lo-fi sloppiness of the latter – a combination it was hard to believe had occurred.
There was also the new idea that you could like music that was hard, fast and edgy - and there were girls who liked it too: pretty, mainstream girls, as opposed to the gloomily pensive counter-cultural chicks who disported themselves in punk paraphernalia.
Nevermind caused convulsions in the music industry. In the space of a few months, Nirvana had gone from obscure underground band to knocking Michael Jackson off the top of the US Billboard charts. Eighties hair metal bands were now painfully uncool and being summarily dropped by their record labels. For a year, probably less, alternative music meant something, and you couldn't help from wanting to be swept up in the grimy, slovenly, visceral glee of it.
By his own admission, Kurt Cobain wasn't a particularly great guitarist, technically. But his stabbing, scuffing and aggressive playing was perfect for the moment, the antithesis of the era's self-indulgent solos designed to dazzle with their speed and dynamics.
The key with Cobain was that he was an extraordinary melodist. Nirvana's songs are deliberately simple. The guitar playing is often limited to "power chords" which involves playing just the top three strings and the sound is drenched in distortion and feedback; but an eager 15-year-old, working out the chords, will be struck with an excited incredulity as they sing or hum the melody over the top.
Just as with Bob Dylan, where the allure of the lyrics has driven countless teens to sit down with a notebook, hoping to emulate the imagery and themes, only for them to give up 10 minutes later with nothing produced beyond an abstract doodle in the margins, working out the chord-pattern for the Nirvana song Lithium leaves you with a tantalising sense that you could come up with something similar. Drain You is another great example. Its verse is four simple chords but the melody is surprisingly elaborate. The power chords Cobain mostly uses are so simple that they don't always establish whether a chord is a major or minor. This is another unique aspect of Cobain as a melodist, because this stripped-down playing allows him to tug melodies slightly askew into places you might not have been expecting.
Punk music, a decade before, had produced some classic songs, mainly from The Clash, but the genre had been more about spirit and attitude than musicianship. Cobain was a huge fan of The Beatles and had already developed a pop sensibility with the song About a Girl, from the band's previous album. The harmonies on Nevermind, another thing rarely found in prior hard alternative music, are clever and tight: On a Plain, Drain You, In Bloom all have fantastically layered voices. Dave Grohl recently admitted that he borrowed some of his characteristic beats and fills from prominent 70s disco drummers. His value is perhaps best summed up with a particular accolade: Smells like Teen Spirit joins Ringo Starr's [drumming on] Come Together and Phil Collins' In the Air Tonight as one of those rare songs that can be recognised by their drum beat alone. This alchemy of punk attitude, a grab-bag of disparate musical influences, great lyrics, angst, minimal instruments and a rare aptitude for melody produced success on a scale no one could have conceived of, least of all the band, who dubbed the succeeding year of touring as "the year of insanity".
Being in your early 40s today means hearing about a new performer whose song is pushing the boundaries of melody and production, is revolutionising the music scene, is causing a groundswell of excitement in the culture and is changing the game – only to listen to it - and it's a song about how summer is fun.
It has literally been 30 years since young people experienced a sudden eruption in the musical scene, a new genre that seems to both shape and reflect a young generation's mood, tensions and mindset, and expanded to encompass its own "look" in dress sense, hair length and accessories. Grunge, like psychedelia, glam and punk before it, was a youth culture narrative as well as a style of music. Another poignant thing about looking back on Nevermind after so many years is that grunge was probably the last there will ever be of those cool musical and cultural narratives.
There are several reasons for this. Firstly, in the pre-internet age, it was possible for bands and musical scenes to develop and thrive before they caught on. David Bowie had bombed with three previous albums by the time he seemed to suddenly appear with Ziggy Stardust. With home studios and downloadable music programs, musicians can produce albums and release them online by themselves without needing, or especially caring, to hone their skills in front of audiences or to be part of a scene.
Secondly, there is no longer a largely white, monolithic "youth culture". With Western society now so diverse, beset by tensions over identity politics and so atomised by technology, there is no longer the same singular concept of "the youth" to be drawn, en masse, by a new act or genre.
Lastly, the modern age of music is characterised by the triumph of theme over substance.
Empowerment, diversity and inclusivity have become such a focus, that their expression in music has led to the prizing of such themes over the music itself. Body positivity and the struggle against misogynistic societal expectations around women are incredibly important and vital themes – but Lizzo cavorting around the stage in spandex, playing the flute, is not good substance in terms of musicianship, melody, or production. LGBT progressive ideals, the acceptance and embrace of sexual identity, all seen through the lens of racial stereotypes and related conflicts are powerful themes – but Lil Nas X sliding 100 miles down a stripper pole into hell to give Satan a lap-dance is not good substance musically. Coldplay's music has valuable themes about our shared need for sensitive understanding and companionship, but there are few experiences more dismal than listening to one of their ballads over the speakers as you push your trolley down a supermarket aisle. WAP (you may have to look up the acronym) has an undeniably great and empowering theme – but the music track itself is tuneless trash. Since theme is extolled so much over substance in the modern age, youth have become accustomed to this conflation: that if the themes are good, then the substance, the music, is, by connection, good as well.
This prevailing mindset is a key reason why music today feels as insipid and centreless as it was in the years before Nevermind. Nirvana didn't discuss social issues or themes – the medium, the music, was the message.
For some years, I tutored guitar, and whenever I introduced Smells Like Teen Spirit to youngsters, there was often instant recognition that the track, even if known only vaguely, was somehow cool. Often, kids were aware of it because they had been exploring their parent's music collection more avidly than they cared to explore the contemporary music scene. On cue, a term later, they would show up wearing an oversized Nirvana shirt. A month later, like clockwork, they would relate how they had discovered, and were thrashing, Nirvana's MTV Unplugged in New York album. The generation gap isn't what it used to be, and many kids these days relate to their parent's formative musical influences.
Something indefinable happens towards the end of Smells Like Teen Spirit. Over the throb of the bass, the guitars become shriller and the drums crash with rolling, driving fills. Over the top of this primal sound, Kurt Cobain screams out "a denial", over and over and, even though I've heard that ecstatic tantrum hundreds of times, it still overwhelms and enthrals. Some albums, Jeff Buckley's Grace, for example, have an uncanny ability to evoke various times in life, heavy with poignancy and nostalgia.
Smells Like Teen Spirit does just the opposite, returning me to that same heightened, surging moment, during which 30 years completely disappear.