Nirvana was an American rock band formed in Aberdeen, Washington, in 1987. It was founded by lead singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain and bassist Krist Novoselic. Nirvana went through a succession of drummers, the longest-lasting and best-known being Dave Grohl, who joined in 1990. Though the band dissolved in 1994 after the death of Cobain, their music maintains a popular following and continues to influence modern rock culture.
Since its debut, the band has sold over 25 million records in the United States alone, and over 75 million records worldwide, making them one of the best-selling bands of all time. Nirvana has also been ranked as one of the greatest music artists of all time with Rolling Stone placing them at number 27 on their list of the “100 Greatest Artists of All Time” in 2004, and at number 30 on their updated list in 2011. Nirvana was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014, in its first year of eligibility.
Formation and early years
Cobain and Novoselic met while attending Aberdeen High School, although they never connected, according to Cobain. The pair eventually became friends while frequenting the practice space of the Melvins. Cobain wanted to form a band with Novoselic, but Novoselic did not respond for a long period of time. In persuading Novoselic to form a band, Cobain gave him a demo tape of his project Fecal Matter. Three years after the two first met, Novoselic notified Cobain that he had finally listened to the Fecal Matter demo and suggested they start a group. The pair recruited Bob McFadden on drums, but after a month the project fell apart. In early 1987, Cobain and Novoselic recruited drummer Aaron Burckhard. The three practiced material from Cobain’s Fecal Matter tape but started writing new material soon after forming.
During its initial months, the band went through a series of names, starting with Skid Row and including Fecal Matter and Ted Ed Fred. The group finally settled on Nirvana, which Cobain said was chosen because “I wanted a name that was kind of beautiful or nice and pretty instead of a mean, raunchy punk name like the Angry Samoans“. With Novoselic and Cobain having moved to Tacoma and Olympia, Washington, respectively, the two temporarily lost contact with Burckhard. The pair instead practiced with Dale Crover of the Melvins, and Nirvana recorded its first demos in January 1988. In early 1988, Crover moved to San Francisco but recommended Dave Foster to the band as his replacement on drums. Foster’s tenure with Nirvana lasted only a few months; during a stint in jail, he was replaced by a returning Burckhard, who himself didn’t stay with the band after telling Cobain he was too hungover to practice one day. Cobain and Novoselic put an ad in Seattle music publication The Rocket seeking a replacement drummer, which only yielded unsatisfactory responses. Meanwhile, a mutual friend introduced them to Chad Channing, and the three musicians agreed to jam together. Channing continued to jam with Cobain and Novoselic, although the drummer noted, “They never actually said ‘okay, you’re in,'” and Channing played his first show with the group that May.
Nirvana released its first single, a cover of Shocking Blue‘s “Love Buzz“, in November 1988 on the Seattle independent record labelSub Pop. They did their first ever interview with John Robb in Sounds who also made the release single of the week. The following month, the band began recording its debut album, Bleach, with local producer Jack Endino.Bleach was highly influenced by the heavy dirge-rock of the Melvins and Mudhoney, 1980s punk rock, and the 1970s heavy metal of Black Sabbath. Novoselic said in a 2001 interview with Rolling Stone that the band had played a tape in their van while on tour that had an album by The Smithereens on one side and an album by the extreme metal band Celtic Frost on the other, and noted that the combination probably played an influence as well. The money for the recording sessions for Bleach, listed as $606.17 on the album sleeve, was supplied by Jason Everman, who was subsequently brought into the band as the second guitarist. Though Everman did not actually play on the album, he received a credit on Bleach because, according to Novoselic, they “wanted to make him feel more at home in the band”. Just prior to the album’s release, Nirvana insisted on signing an extended contract with Sub Pop, making the band the first to do so with the label.
Following the release of Bleach in June 1989, Nirvana embarked on its first national tour, and the album became a favorite of college radio stations. Due to increasing differences between Everman and the rest of the band over the course of the tour, Nirvana canceled the last few dates and drove back to Washington. No one told Everman he was fired at the time, while Everman later said that he actually quit the group. Although Sub Pop did not promote Bleach as much as other releases, it was a steady seller, and had initial sales of 40,000 copies. However, Cobain was upset by the label’s lack of promotion and distribution for the album. In late 1989, the band recorded the Blew EP with producer Steve Fisk.
In a late 1989 interview with John Robb in Sounds, Cobain noted that the band’s music was changing. He said, “The early songs were really angry… But as time goes on the songs are getting poppier and poppier as I get happier and happier. The songs are now about conflicts in relationships, emotional things with other human beings”. In April 1990, the band began working with producer Butch Vig at Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin on recordings for the follow-up to Bleach. During the sessions, Cobain and Novoselic became disenchanted with Channing’s drumming, and Channing expressed frustration at not being actively involved in songwriting. As bootlegs of Nirvana’s demos with Vig began to circulate in the music industry and draw attention from major labels, Channing left the band. That July, the band recorded the single “Sliver” with Mudhoney drummer Dan Peters. Nirvana asked Dale Crover to fill in on drums for a seven-date American West Coast tour with Sonic Youth that August.
In September 1990, Buzz Osborne of the Melvins introduced the band to Dave Grohl, who was looking for a new band following the sudden break-up of Washington, D.C., hardcore punksScream. A few days after arriving in Seattle, Novoselic and Cobain auditioned Grohl, with Novoselic later stating, “We knew in two minutes that he was the right drummer”. Grohl later told Q “I remember being in the same room with them and thinking, ‘What? That’s Nirvana? Are you kidding?'” and “Because on their record cover they looked like psycho lumberjacks… I was like, ‘What, that little dude and that big motherfucker? You’re kidding me’. I laughed. I was like, ‘No way'”.