“I’d rather be hated for who I am, than loved for who I am not.”—Kurt Cobain
If you had people name the biggest band from the 1990s, it’s a safe bet that many of them would pick Nirvana. Even though hair metal was already a dying fad, Nirvana’s breakthrough in 1991 changed the music scene forever as “grunge” took over. The insane success of their album Nevermind proved once again that there was a lot of money to be made in alternative music.
Whether you got completely sick of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or not, it’s hard to deny the impact that they had back in the day. Where they stand in the history of great rock bands is up for debate, and we certainly aren’t going to settle that here, but nevertheless here are some little-known facts about this iconic band and their tragic lead singer.
45. Close Call
It was January 1992, and Nirvana had just made their first appearance on Saturday Night Live. After the show, Kurt Cobain overdosed on heroin, nearly losing his life. This was just a few months after their breakout album Nevermind was released.
Cobain would have died before In Utero or providing MTV with arguably one of the best “Unplugged” performances of its history. Unfortunately, this near-death experience ends up being just a cautionary bit of foreshadowing for what happened later.
44. Try Picking on Us!
In 1992, Nirvana was set to perform at a big stadium in Buenos Aires, but they were infuriated when they saw their opening act, an all-girl band named Calamity Jane, pelted with mud and bottles from the disrespectful audience.
Cobain was all for leaving without playing, but bassist Krist Novoselic had a better idea: they took to the stage and teased the audiences with opening riffs of their popular work but then switching to all their least-known songs. The audience was predictably outraged, but Cobain later reflected on that concert as “one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had.”
43. Keeping it Clean
In the music video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” you can see a dancing janitor. Nirvana deliberately did this as an inside joke at frontman Kurt Cobain’s expense. Cobain had previously worked as a janitor in the high school that he’d dropped out of as a youth.
42. Let’s Try and Be Somewhat Classy!
Before they were known as Nirvana, the band went through some interesting names. Among them were Skid Row, Ted Ed Fred, and (strangely) Fecal Matter. Safe to say that Nirvana was their smartest choice with alternatives like those.
41. Early Days
Although their big break didn’t happen until the 1990s, the band later known as Nirvana formed in the late 1980s, releasing their first single in 1988. It was a cover of Shocking Blue’s song “Love Buzz.”
40. The Grunge Movement
Nirvana was part of the grunge movement in the early 1990s. Grunge rock combined alt rock, punk rock, and heavy metal into a blended sound which would go on to inspire rock bands long after the movement faded.
The grunge movement mostly began in Seattle, and several of the bands beginning in the Seattle grunge scene went on to huge critical and financial success, such as Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, and Pearl Jam.
39. Nirvana, Assemble!
The main lineup of Nirvana consisted of Kurt Cobain on guitar and vocals, Dave Grohl, who went on to front the Foo Fighters, on drums, and Krist Novoselic on bass guitar.
38. Sixth Time’s the Charm
Before Dave Grohl joined Nirvana, the band had gone through five previous drummers—but when you get Grohl, you know you’re all set!
37. Thanks, Ozzy!
Initially, Nirvana’s sound was influenced by both dirge-rock bands like Mudhoney and 1970s heavy metal bands like Black Sabbath.
36. A Good First Impression
In 1990, Dave Grohl was searching for a new band to join when he was introduced to a band named Nirvana looking for a new drummer. According to Cobain, he knew that Grohl was the perfect replacement in about two minutes.
35. Small Discography
For such an influential band, Nirvana ultimately released only three albums: Bleach, Nevermind, and In Utero. They also released the compilation album Incesticide.
34. Money Money Money
Nirvana’s most successful album, Nevermind, and its main single “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” are among the highest selling albums and singles of all time. They sold 30 million and eight million copies respectively.
33. We’ll Take the Cheque
The first album that Nirvana released, titled Bleach, cost a total of $606.17 to produce. Musician Jason Everman provided the necessary funds, and he was brought onto the band as a second guitarist. He also got a credit on the album even though he didn’t play a single note on it.
32. Bigger and Better
By contrast to Bleach’s low budget, Nevermind had a budget of $65,000. Safe to say album more than made its budget back!
31. Old and New
Nirvana’s final album, In Utero, was comprised of new songs that were written for it specifically, as well as a number of older songs which had been written as far back as 1990.
30. Money Troubles on the Cusp of Success
Shortly after he finished recording Nevermind with the rest of Nirvana, Kurt Cobain went home and discovered that he had been evicted! He spent the next several weeks living in his car, even as Nevermind became a hit beyond his wildest expectations.
29. Going in a New Direction
Despite the success of Nevermind, Nirvana grew to strongly dislike how “polished” it sounded. When it came to In Utero, their next album, Nirvana wanted its songs to embody “both of the extremes,” with Cobain insisting at the time that “it’ll be more raw with some songs and more candy pop on some of the others. It won’t be as one-dimensional [as Nevermind].” Based on how it polarized popular audiences more than their sophomore effort, I’d say they succeeded.
28. Describe it in One Sentence, Kurt
When it came to the subject matter and music of Nevermind, Kurt Cobain’s intention was to produce an album that sounded like “The Knack and the Bay City Rollers getting molested by Black Flag and Black Sabbath.” That’s certainly a unique way to describe how the album…
27. I Hate It…
It turns out that Cobain disliked most of Nirvana’s first album, Bleach. He claimed that most of the album’s lyrics had been written the night before recording happened. He also disliked how negative the songs felt in the attempt to have them fit in with the grunge movement that Sub Pop was trying to craft.
26. In the Name of Artistic Freedom
Nirvana, while working with engineer Steve Albini, set a two-week deadline on themselves to finish recording In Utero. In an effort to keep their recording label from interfering with the process, Albini suggested that Nirvana pay for the recording sessions out of their own pockets.
25. Man of Principalities
Speaking of Steve Albini, he only took a flat fee of $100,000 for his work on Nirvana’s In Utero. Albini refused to take a percentage on the album’s record sales, as he considered it “immoral” and “an insult to the artist.” You sure don’t see integrity like that very often anymore.
24. Typical Rock Stars
No doubt Nirvana was in the mood to party when their album Nevermind was released. At a party celebrating the album’s release, the band arrived completely inebriated. They caused such a ruckus that they even began a food fight and ended up getting kicked out of their own party!
23. Revisionist Hit
Bleach sold around 40,000 copies and received mediocre reviews when it was first released in 1989. However, it benefited from renewed attention when Nevermind was released and made Nirvana into superstars. Cobain’s death accelerated this process even further, until Bleach eventually went gold in Poland and Canada, two times gold in France, and platinum in the UK and the US.
22. I Don’t Mean to Brag But…
One of the tags that Nirvana was given during their heyday was “the ‘flagship band’ of Generation X.” Cobain went further and called himself the “spokesman of a generation.” He must have gotten self-promotion lessons from the Beatles.
21. We Want Butch
When it came time to find a producer to help them record Nevermind, Nirvana was recommended Butch Vig by Bruce Pavitt, the head of Sub Pop. Even after Nirvana signed on with DGC and they recommended veteran producers Don Dixon or David Briggs, Nirvana stuck to their guns and brought Vig into the project.
20. Too Soon
On the 8th of April 1994, Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain was discovered dead of gunshot-related injuries. In the aftermath of this tragedy, the remaining members of Nirvana initially planned to release an album of live footage, but they ultimately delayed the process, as it was much too upsetting for them to assemble and organize footage of their friend and fellow band member.
19. Where Are They Now?
Nirvana didn’t try to replace Kurt Cobain with another front man, breaking up in the aftermath of his death. Bassist Krist Novoselic focused on becoming a political activist while Dave Grohl helped found the Foo Fighters. They also set up an organization with Cobain’s former partner Courtney Love to manage any products related to Nirvana (though this would lead to a lot of bickering and legal action).
18. We Found Them First!
The Seattle-based indie label Sub Pop was the first to sign the up-and-coming Nirvana. In the late 1980s, they not only signed Nirvana, but also other soon-to-be hit grunge bands like Soundgarden and Mudhoney. They would later go on to sign on bands like Fleet Foxes, The Shins, and Flight of the Concords.
17. The Goose That Laid Golden Eggs
Nirvana didn’t sign with Sub Pop for long, leaving them to sign with the major label DGC in 1990. However, the sales from their album Bleach would keep Sub Pop in business for years afterwards.
16. Never Mind About Nevermind
Especially in the heyday of Nevermind, Nirvana was often criticized for being highly overrated—which I suppose makes sense when they were the biggest band in the world—and this was only enhanced by the tragic death of Kurt Cobain. But while the band’s hype was almost insurmountable in the ’90s, most music critics agree that Nevermind has stood the test of time as a rock and roll classic.
15. Who Needs More Money?
After the release of Nirvana’s album Nevermind and the EP Hormoaning, their label, DGC Records, was approached by Sub Pop, Nirvana’s former record label, with a proposition. They had a number of unreleased Nirvana recordings that they wanted to release.
The original plan had been to release it under Sub Pop, even as Nirvana had cynically suggested that the album title should be Cash Cow.
14. An Album is Born
Ultimately, these unreleased recordings were sold by Sub Pop to DGC for a new album to be released by December 1992. This became the compilation album Incesticide.
13. The Revolution Against Bad Odor!
The origins of the song “Smells Like Teen Spirit” are an immortal part of pop culture at this point, but it bears repeating for the good story that it is. Kurt Cobain was inspired by a bit of graffiti written by his friend on the wall of his bedroom which read “Kurt smells like Teen Spirit.”
Cobain was so inspired by this revolutionary message that he used it as the title of a new song. What he hadn’t realized at all was the fact that his then-girlfriend was using a deodorant whose brand name was Teen Spirit.
12. The Joke’s on All of You
Despite his mistake in understanding the joke at his expense, Cobain didn’t mind when he found out the truth. He didn’t mind because he thought the song “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was a joke anyway.
He had to persuade the rest of Nirvana to even consider making the song at all, as none of them liked the guitar riff, let alone the lyrics.
As far as he was concerned, he was mocking the very idea of having a revolution. And ironically, the joke song became hailed as a revolution against musical trends of the time and beginning whole new ones.
11. What’s in a Title?
Kurt Cobain’s original title for Nirvana’s 1993 album In Utero was I Hate Myself and I Want to Die. At the time, Cobain had used this phrase as a sarcastic response to anyone asking him how he was doing. Cobain also wanted to use the phrase as a title to work against Nirvana’s fans “taking this band so seriously.”
Ultimately, bassist Krist Novoselic convinced him to shelve that title, fearing the band might be sued over a title like that. The phrase “In Utero” was taken from a poem by Cobain’s then-partner, Courtney Love.
10. Nirvana Smash!
One trait that Nirvana had was destroying their equipment at the end of their live performances. According to Krist Novoselic, he and Cobain had started doing that out of frustration with a previous drummer, Chad Channing. Channing would often get songs wrong, which infuriated his fellow band members.
Later, Novoselic and Kurt Cobain would continue the schtick “in order to get off stage sooner.” That’s one way to do it.
9. Who Wants to Hear My Foghorn Leghorn Impression?
If there’s one thing Nirvana loved to do, it’s joke around. They were essentially trolls before the term caught on. During their live shows, Kurt Cobain would sometimes stop singing the lyrics and replace them with gibberish. He’d grunt like a caveman, he’d put on an accent, or he’d intentionally slur his voice. All that just to joke around with his fans.
8. Bring Them In!
In 2014, Nirvana was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. What makes it unique is that they were inducted on their first year of eligibility, a rare feat among bands and musicians.
7. Personal Loss, Artistic Gain
According to Kurt Cobain biographer Charles R. Cross, a large number of the songs on Nevermind were actually about his destructive relationship with Tobi Vail. The two of them broke up in the process of making Nevermind, which would explain the themes of anger and self-loathing in several of the songs which feature on that album.
6. Lyric Mish-Mash
According to Cobain, he often wrote the lyrics of his songs right before they were recorded, and he didn’t care much about any kind of deeper meaning behind those lyrics. This was especially true about Bleach, where he summed up his attitude with “Let’s just scream some negative lyrics and as long as they’re not sexist and don’t get too embarrassing it’ll be okay.” To be fair, he was ultimately right in that regard.
5. Making it Rain
Nirvana is one of the best-selling bands of all time, having sold more than 75 million albums worldwide!
4. They’re Kissing! How Dare They?!
Speaking of that 1992 appearance on Saturday Night Live, Nirvana managed to squeeze a minor scandal into the closing credits of the show. Bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl began making out while they were standing around on the stage, only to be joined in their kissing session by Kurt Cobain. After the initial broadcast, SNL producer Lorne Michaels cut the footage of the kissing out of every re-broadcast. Safe to say, the 90s were a really different time.
3. Pain Begets Pain
Kurt Cobain self-medicated for years, which only exacerbated his depression. Eventually, this dark cycle culminated in his suicide, but not many people realize the painful truth behind the way that he abused his body. He claimed to suffer from an undiagnosed stomach illness that left him in terrible pain almost constantly, and drugs were the only thing that gave him relief.
However, some people close to him offered a different version of events that throw his claims into question: His lifelong friend Buzz Osborne has claimed that the stomach illness was simply an excuse that Cobain made to justify his drug use. While Cobain allegedly complained of his stomach issues since childhood and his mother claimed to have suffered from similar pains herself, we will likely never know the whole truth.
2. Couldn’t Be Helped
Years after Cobain committed suicide, his friend and former bandmate Grohl revealed in an interview with BBC that he had always known that Cobain was going to die young, saying “There are some people that you meet in life that you just know that they are not going to live to be a 100 years old… In some ways, you kind of prepare yourself emotionally for that to be a reality.”
However, aside from this sad resignation, he was still shocked when the tragic day finally came: “It was probably the worst thing that has happened to me in my life. I remember the day after that I woke up and I was heartbroken that he was gone. I just felt like, ‘OK, so I get to wake up today and have another day and he doesn’t.’”
1. 20 Year Wait
In 1994, Seattle Police revealed that Cobain’s death was “clearly a suicide,” but due to the high-profile nature of the case and the rampant conspiracy theories perpetuated by fans, they decided to revisit it in 2014. Detectives claimed an undeveloped roll of film with photographs of the scene that had sat in an evidence locker for years. T
hese photos provided a clearer image of Cobain’s final moments than the Polaroids that had been previously used. Upon re-evaluation of the scene, the detective only confirmed the finding that Cobain had killed himself, but they initially refused to release these new photos to the public, saying “What are people going to gain from seeing pictures of Kurt Cobain laying on the ground with his hair blown back, with blood coming out of his nose and trauma to his eyes from a penetrating shotgun wound. How’s that going to benefit anybody?”
However, some of the photos, including one tragically showing the hospital bracelet he still had on his arm from the detox program that he had escaped from just days before his death, were later made publicly available.