A quarter of a century ago, a certain scruffy-looking rock musician named Kurt Cobain first sang – no, yelled those words in a song called Smells Like Teen Spirit, and boy were we entertained.
Nirvana – Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl (you may have heard of him as the current frontman of a little band called Foo Fighters) – launched its seminal album Nevermind 25 years ago, and it was an album that completely changed the course of rock history.
In a musical era saturated by an endless conveyor belt of manufactured boy bands and pop stars, and with rock music seemingly on the wane, Nevermind was a burst of rebellious teen spirit and pure unadulterated raw power that sountracked the lives of an entire generation of rock music lovers and dragged the alternative rock movement kicking and screaming out of the shadows of the independent rock music scene.
Released on Sept 24, 1991, Nevermind wasn’t just a music album – to some of us, it was a gateway to a whole new genre of music, one that was rough around the edges, full of raw, rebellious energy.
To others, it was just a great album to blast at full volume and head bang to until the parents break down the door to yell at you.
Even if you had not heard it in years, the moment that iconic riff of Smells Like Teen Spirit kicks in, you are sucked back into that time when that wall of seemingly random sounds, jumbled melodies and half-mumbled, half-shouted words somehow seemed to form a haphazard yet coherent stream of awesome songs that was like nothing you had ever heard before.
After the initial 1-2-3 whammy of lead singles Smells Like Teen Spirit, In Bloom, and Come As You Are, the album delivers a surprisingly varied list of stunners, from angsty “YEAH! YEAH! YEAH!” chorus of Lithium, the quiet acoustic Polly, all the way to the chaos of hidden track Endless, Nameless.
For Fuad Alhabshi, frontman of Malaysian band Kyoto Protocol, Nevermind started a chain reaction that would see him embark on his own personal journey in rock music.
“The first time I heard Smells Like Teen Spirit was on a local radio station in 1995 when I was 10 years old. It completely blew my mind. Up till then I had never heard anything like it. “Prior to that I was probably into the Backstreet Boys!” Fuad said in an interview over social media.
“Within that week, I went out to buy Nevermind from the record store, and discovered more and more favourites like Drain You and Polly. I think I had the whole album on repeat for probably a good half a year!”
Obsessed by this new genre of music, Fuad began talking to his older cousins about it, and they introduced him to other great grunge rock bands like Pearl Jam and Soundgarden.
“In retrospect, I don’t think my music was directly influenced by Nirvana, but from the music that I started listening to after Nirvana got me into rock and roll,” said Fuad.
“After Nevermind, I picked up the guitar at age 11, and then began my education in music through learning the craft of my favourite bands. And it ended up being an education in life itself.
“Learning about their background stories and especially their stumbles when it came to drug abuse really opened my mind and made me alert of the dangers of how easy it is to fall by the wayside.”
TV personality Rina Omar, who used to be part of all-female rock band IntoXicated in the 1990s, credits Nirvana for getting her into rock music. “Sure, I grew up with parents who loved Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, but while those bands rocked, there was something about Nirvana that resonated with me.
“It was a raw, almost visceral mix of angst and fun at the same time. I don’t know how to explain it but I just fell in love,” she said, adding that she was in Form One when she “transitioned out of pop music and fell in love with rock”.
“When I was 14, my bestie Nora and I came up with the idea to start a band, and the first few songs we jammed were, of course, songs from Nevermind,” she recalled.
“The chords were simple enough for us to learn, but the real magic we discovered was rocking out without a care about what people thought of us. Nirvana was a huge influence in IntoXicated’s music and style, not to mentioned the way we dressed as well. Kurt was king!”
Released in a pre-Internet music environment, it was no surprise that many of us in Malaysia were slightly late to get into Nevermind.
In fact, Ham, lead guitarist of local rock band Sevencollar T-Shirt, initially thought it was rather “tame”, compared to its follow-up In Utero, which he heard before Nevermind.
“My first Nirvana song was actually from In Utero, so my original reaction to hearing Nevermind when I was 15 was, ‘Eh this is tame compared to In Utero,’” said Ham, 38, whose full name is real name Muhammad Abdullah.
“It was only in my college years that I realised Nevermind had good songs. Those chords are so simple yet so ferocious, and it made me want to learn all those solos and power chords.”
Even though he wrote (or co-wrote) all the songs, Nevermind wasn’t just Cobain’s show though.
Without the contributions of Novoselic and Grohl, the album just wouldn’t have been the same. Can you imagine Breed without the frenzied insanity of the opening drum intro?
Gerald Sellan, founder and drummer of US-based Malaysian band Beat The System, said that Grohl’s drumming was one of his inspirations.
“I was 15 years old when I was asked to perform Come As You Are on the drums for a school performance. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Wow, what an amazing work of art this is!’ When I first heard it during practice. It was truly mind blowing!” he said in an e-mail interview.
“As a drummer, my inspiration derives mainly from these old time drummers when techniques, talent, and skills are at the forefront in the makings of a great drummer.”
However, self-proclaimed “production geek” Fuad said that the album does sound a little dated today. “The songs are definitely timeless. But it was made at the cusp of the evolution from that reverb splashed drum sounds and chorus-laden guitar effects that were staples of the 1980s and early 1990s,” he explained.
“Nirvana’s later album (In Utero) probably stands the test of time better, when music production for radio started to favour much less effect driven and more organic sounds. I honestly think that there were better albums released over the 1992-1994 period. Soundgarden’s Superunknown comes to mind. However, the beauty of Nevermind is that it had astronomical hits on it that would become loved worldwide. It heralded the end of flash-in-a-pan, hair metal-influenced rock on mainstream radio. It completely bamboozled mainstream media and forced it to have a serious look at rock and roll, and by doing so created a new generation of rockers such as myself.”
Rina, who still has Nevermind on her regular playlist (“it works great for traffic jam stress!”), reckons that the album wouldn’t have had such a big impact if it were released today.
“The music still makes ME wanna headbang and rock out, but I don’t know if the kids of today will connect with it on such a basic level as we did back then,” she said.
Although she admits that Nevermind is not her favourite Nirvana album, it did open the gate to discovering the band itself.
“Back then, it was this beautiful raw dirty sound fueled by such energy and pure abandon, there was nothing I could do but fall deep into this black hole called Nirvana and never want to climb back out!” Rina said.