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Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ at 30: The Inside Story of the Album’s ‘Overnight’ Success

Nirvana
Chris Cuffaro

Every person who worked on Nirvana’s “Nevermind,” released 30 years ago today, says that the album basically broke itself, almost immediately taking on a life of its own in a way that could never have been planned — “Get out of the way and duck” was a phrase that record company executives said often at the time. But dozens of people were working at the top of their respective games to make sure that the band was heard and seen.

Nirvana — Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl — did not come out of nowhere, as many seemed to think at the time. Even outside of their Northwest base and their original label, Sub Pop, the American indie-alternative “underground” of the era — an ecosystem comprised of college radio, independent record stores, fanzines and local clubs — and the influential British music press had been championing Nirvana loudly from the release of their debut single, “Love Buzz,” in the spring of 1988.

But the multi-platinum, global success of “Nevermind” did come out of nowhere — and caught absolutely everyone by surprise, not least the band, their management (Gold Mountain) and their label, DGC, a subsidiary of Geffen Records, which at the time was arguably the dominant major label in the business, with powerhouse acts like Guns N’ Roses, Aerosmith, Cher and upstart multi-platinum hair merchants Nelson. But Geffen in 1991 was hardly known for breaking underground rock acts, so the support and precedent of Sonic Youth, the New York band who dominated the underground scene that spawned Nirvana and brought the group to both Gold Mountain and the label, was crucial.

Yet even with all that support, it’s hard to describe how everywhere “Nevermind” was at the time — you’d hear people playing it at work, then go to a concert and hear it playing over the P.A. between bands, then to a bar where they’d be blasting it, and finally get home to a breathless message on your answering machine from your teenaged cousin thanking you for sending her the CD because “Oooh my God.” You couldn’t escape it because nobody wanted to.

Even 30 years later, looking back at a pre-internet, pre-social media, pre-email era of CDs, magazines, FedEx, faxes, cable TV and snail mail, it’s hard to think of any stars before or since who rose so far, so fast. “Nevermind” was released on September 24, 1991 and reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart in the issue dated January 11, 1992 — three and a half months. Michael Jackson’s 1982 blockbuster “Thriller,” the top-selling album of all time by most metrics, took three months.

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Chris Cuffaro

The story of Nirvana has been told in depth in countless books, documentaries, articles and virtually every other form of human communication — so the challenge on this anniversary was to find voices that haven’t been heard quite as much. So Variety reached out to some boots-on-the-ground people who worked closely with the band and on the record’s promotion during those three and a half months and the weeks leading up to them. (We broke that different-voices rule for former co-manager Danny Goldberg, who even wrote a book “Serving the Servant” on his experience with Nirvana; other Gold Mountain execs who worked with the band declined Variety‘s requests for an interview, as did several others we approached.)

Anyone seeking a more conventional history is directed toward Michael Azerrad’s 1993 book “Come as You Are.” But read on for a rare view from the front lines, from the perspectives of the people who took the band to interviews and in-stores and radio stations and concerts during that insane, unprecedented autumn when a scruffy rock band from Seattle became a global phenomenon in a matter of weeks.

With thanks for their time, courtesy and memories, here they are now:
PETER BARON: Head of video promotion, DGC/Geffen Records (now an independent consultant)
JENNIE BODDY: Publicist, Sub Pop Records (now VP of publicity, Capitol Music Group)
RAY FARRELL: Sales, DGC Records (now director of content acquisition, the Orchard)
LISA GLADFELTER: Publicist, DGC/Geffen Records (now co-founder/CMO, L2O Entertainment Agency)
DANNY GOLDBERG: Co-managed Nirvana (now founder, Gold Village Entertainment)
MARK KATES: Head of alternative promotion, DGC/Geffen Records (now artist manager, Fenway Recordings)
CRAIG MONTGOMERY: Nirvana sound engineer, 1988-1993 (now a “semi-retired” sound engineer)
JOHN ROSENFELDER: Director of alternative and metal promotion, DGC/Geffen Records (now manager of data visualization and analytics, Warner Music Group)

In 1990, Nirvana made four moves that set them up for “Nevermind”: They recorded a demo with producer Butch Vig that included several songs that would be re-recorded for “Nevermind”; Dave Grohl replaced Chad Channing as the band’s drummer; they signed with Gold Mountain for management; and after a heated bidding war, they signed with Geffen Records subsidiary DGC.

BODDY: I was at the show where Nirvana first played “Teen Spirit” [on April 17, 1991], which they insisted on playing at the OK Hotel because it was all-ages. When they played the song there were all these shirtless guys, sweating so hard, moshing and smashing into me — for a song they had never heard before. My friend Susan started hyperventilating, she had to run outside for a minute: “Oh my God, this is so good!” I ran outside to get her and then we went back inside and got slimed some more.

GOLDBERG My management company, Gold Mountain, had had success with Bonnie Raitt and the Allman Brothers, but I knew there was this new generation of rock that I wasn’t fully tuned into. So John Silva joined in 1990, he had a couple of [alternative] bands like Redd Kross and House of Freaks, and together we signed Sonic Youth, who had just signed with Geffen and were about to put out “Goo” [which was basically their breakthrough album]. That’s how we found Nirvana. John saw them opening for Sonic Youth, and Thurston [Moore, Sonic singer-guitarist] said “I know you don’t really like new acts” — not that I didn’t like them, but it usually took a couple of years to make any money with them — “but in this case you really wanna make an exception.”

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Trade ad for the Album Network, a radio tip sheet; “Nevermind” advance cassette; “Smart Studios” demo 1990 Courtesy Jem Aswad

FARRELL When I first came to the company in 1989, one of the first conversations I had was with David Geffen. He knew a lot about a lot of independent bands: He asked me about the Meat Puppets and Dinosaur Jr., he knew about my association with Sonic Youth, who had just signed with the label. I said, “I want to be here because I love Sonic Youth, but I don’t understand how they’re ever gonna be on mainstream radio.” And he said, “That doesn’t matter — they’re going to lead us to the next big band.” That was a genius move — he knew Sonic Youth represented the top of the heap and everyone respected them, and he knew there were a lot of bands in that realm. Sonic Youth were even part of the reason Beck came to Geffen [three years later]. David Geffen had more on the ball than most A&R people when it came to understanding the core of this music, and it was Sonic Youth’s trust in the label that helped bring Nirvana to Geffen.

“Nevermind” was recorded with Vig in May and June of 1991 at Sound City in Van Nuys, California (even the studio has been immortalized, by Grohl with his 2012 “Sound City” documentary). Later in June, the band set off on a West Coast tour opening for Dinosaur Jr.

GOLDBERG When I first heard the album, I knew they would become bigg-er — “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was an incredible song, “Come as You Are” had a chorus I could imagine regular rock fans liking, and the wind was blowing in the right direction generationally and culturally. But I had no idea that any artist from that subculture could have a global pop hit.

GLADFELTER I always asked artists, “What’s your dream?” Nirvana said, “To be on the cover of the Rocket,” Seattle’s alternative weekly newspaper.

GOLDBERG Kurt’s thing was, “I wanna be as big as the Pixies,” and that was our horizon. Sometimes, when no one else was around, in the back of my mind I’d think, “Maybe they could be as big as Jane’s Addiction!” (laughter), who were maybe twice as big as the Pixies. Kurt loved Black Flag and the subculture, and he also loved the Beatles, and he figured out a way to combine those two loves. I think he always had an intuitive sense of the mass audience, because he was part of that mass audience, even though he was also part of the punk subculture.

ROSENFELDER I first heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” when Gary Gersh [Geffen A&R exec who signed the band] played it for me in his office. It was one of those times when you’re playing something as loud as it can go and it doesn’t even seem loud, you’re just like “Holy shit, that’s the best song I’ve ever heard, play it again!” I get chills just thinking about it.

FARRELL Gary gave me a cassette that led with “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and he wanted me to play it for anybody and everybody. So I was bringing it around to parties, stores and a few shows in Florida. I asked the soundman to play the tape ten minutes before the band went on, and each time people would ask what it was.

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Courtesy Jem Aswad

GLADFELTER We all loved it, and when we started sending out advances, people just freaked out. I barely even got to pitch it because everybody already wanted to talk to them.

FARRELL They asked me in a meeting what I thought “Nevermind” was gonna sell and I didn’t feel like I was going out on a limb by saying 250-300,000 — based entirely on the enthusiasm I was getting from stores, who were saying, “We can’t even sell this album yet, but we’re still playing [the advance CD] all day long.” Stores didn’t usually play albums they couldn’t sell yet, but in this case they’d say “It doesn’t matter — people will come back when it’s out.”

ROSENFELDER Everywhere we brought it, people had the same reaction: Whooo! We took it to big college stations like KCMU and KXLU and commercial stations too, and everybody loved it.

FARRELL When they played in Tijuana opening for Dinosaur Jr. [in June], this kid had already figured out how to look like Kurt Cobain, with the flannel and the dyed hair. I talked to him and he was like, “Nirvana’s gonna be huge!” After the show [Dinosaur Jr. frontman] J. Mascis said to me, “If I could be the second guitarist in that band, I would break up Dinosaur Jr. tonight.” They were that incredible and exciting live.

In August, the band set off on a tour of Europe opening for Sonic Youth, including several festival dates.

MONTGOMERY The Sonic Youth tour was really fun, it was just before it all exploded. “Nevermind” was recorded but it hadn’t been released yet, Nirvana played in the middle of the day, there was no pressure and no expectations. It was almost like a big party.

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Courtesy Jem Aswad

ROSENFELDER They were great to work with — there were food fights in the car while we were driving around, they’d be throwing pizza at each other. But they were nice, funny, cheerful, enthusiastic, on time — Kurt was a little serious.

MONTGOMERY They were total smartasses. I remember one festival in Belgium there was this really nice catering tent with a table for each act with name cards — the Ramones had a big group of people with them, like 18 people, and Black Francis from the Pixies was doing a solo tour so he had three, and they switched the name tags so the Ramones had a table for three. That day ended with a food fight — a lot of days ended with food fights! I was always trying to be the responsible one.

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Courtesy Ray Farrell

Late in August, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was serviced to radio stations, around a month before the album’s release. On Friday, the 13th of September, a record-release party was held at Re-bar in Seattle.

GOLDBERG Two things happened the week after “Smells Like Teen Spirit” first went on the radio that made me think this might be something unusual. Mark Kates at Geffen, who is a very understated guy and had been around the underground scene a lot, was reading the responses from radio stations and record stores and he said, very uncharacteristically, “I’ve never seen anything like this in my life.” The other was when John got a call from someone who had been at a Guns N’ Roses show in New York, and when they played “Teen Spirit” over the P.A. in between bands, the crowd cheered. He was like, “How did they even know this song when it’s only been out a few days?” — and this was a Guns N’ Roses audience!

ROSENFELDER It became the number-one most-requested song on [L.A. alternative powerhouse] KROQ after they played it once. KNAC, the big metal station in L.A., played seven songs from the album. Even KMEL [in San Francisco], a “rhythmic” station, played it. Smith College [in Massachusetts] played “Smells Like Teen Spirit” seventy times in one week.

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Courtesy John Rosenfelder

MONTGOMERY Those dates with Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth, we were playing pretty sizable places and the buzz was growing and growing — they were almost co-headlining, because you could tell there were a lot of people there to see Nirvana. You could see how much they were connecting.

GLADFELTER The music just seemed to make people crazy. At the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video shoot, when the extras came rushing down out of the bleachers, the directors had a hard time controlling them.

BODDY The band got kicked out of their own record-release party for sneaking a whiskey bottle into the photo booth — I think it was a no-hard-liquor party, for some reason — and a food fight involving stuffed grape leaves.

ROSENFELDER The release party at Re-bar ended up with Grohl covered with onion dip in the front seat of a Caddy, and me holding him up so he wouldn’t lean into me on turns and get dip all over me.

BODDY The party moved on, and a game ensued involving stacking Nelson CDs into a pyramid to slide into. The guys in Nirvana put on dresses and would take these running starts and slide into the pile. It was an homage, if you will.

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Courtesy Jem Aswad

On September 20, the “Nevermind” North American tour officially launched in Toronto; the album was released four days later.

KATES We shipped 35,000 units of “Nevermind.” We thought it might have the potential to go gold, which is 500,000 units. [It has sold an estimated 30 million copies worldwide.]

FARRELL Sometime in September, Lyle Hysen from Das Damen called me and said, “We played with the Beatles last night.” I said “What?” “We opened for Nirvana. I’ve seen them before but there’s nothing to express how great they are now. We might as well just give up.”

KATES In Boston there was so much demand for their show at [750-capacity] Axis that they added a second one. Seeing the reaction they were getting 3,000 miles from their home base was amazing, but I was concerned that their next big show, at the Marquee in New York, hadn’t sold out yet. [It did.]

ROSENFELDER They had a Crisco fight at the release party in Boston.

FARRELL Every show was different, nothing was ever repeated, the songs never sounded exactly the same. That had nothing to do with how good the record is, but seeing them live, it was obvious how great they were.

GLADFELTER On that tour the shows seemed to get more and more crazy.

GOLDBERG It was overnight! Within one week of the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video going on MTV, everything changed forever.

BARON I ordinarily would fly out to New York to present a video to MTV, but they already had an ally and advocate there with [music and programming exec] Amy Finnerty — she was a friend of Kurt’s and the band and she loved them. We didn’t want to rush it, so she and I worked out a plan together, where it would start on [the Sunday night alternative specialty show] “120 Minutes” for a month. But it took off almost immediately and next thing you knew it was getting played all the time.

MONTGOMERY The tour had been booked before the album came out, and because nobody could have seen what was about to happen, they were playing a lot of the clubs they’d played before — which were nowhere near big enough [for the demand]. So every show was packed sold-out, and the music just whipped people into a frenzy like I’ve never seen. It was fun but they were difficult situations to be in, really crowded and stressful. And the band enjoyed it, but they were frustrated because lots of people couldn’t get in.

GLADFELTER After the show at the Marquee in New York, it was game on. The fans were so passionate that these weren’t just shows, they were events.

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Courtesy Jem Aswad

KATES I went on my honeymoon in the middle of that [period], and when I came back we had sold 400,000 albums in 12 days.

MONTGOMERY It seemed like that tour went on forever — two months with all of us in one big van with a trailer.

GOLDBERG In terms of a sense of self and identity, the success didn’t change who they were to themselves or their friends — they stayed in the psychological lane they had created, and fame didn’t change that. But it did enormously change their career and widened enormously the options of what they could do. They were very conscious of their roots and original audience, but they liked the bigger audience and having hits — Kurt in particular. If he was watching MTV and didn’t see a Nirvana video within a certain period of time, he’d let me know it, and I assume other people as well.

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Chris Cuffaro

KATES I remember at the Minneapolis show — where a couple of people I knew from L.A. had flown in because they said they knew it was the last time they’d get to see them in a small venue — Dave Pirner from Soul Asylum came in and Kurt was like, “Wow, it’s Dave from Soul Asylum!”

MONTGOMERY Suddenly everyone had to talk to Nirvana — really Kurt, it was all on him. He started getting obligations he didn’t want to do, he just didn’t want to do interviews all day.

GLADFELTER At first, they were really excited and would do almost anything we asked, lunches with journalists and all that. They didn’t really understand the business yet. Krist would be like, “I don’t understand why you gave tickets to Guns N’ Roses and Slash is here but our friends can’t get in.” I had to explain that Guns N’ Roses were the biggest act on the label and we couldn’t really tell them no.

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Courtesy Jem Aswad

MONTGOMERY Suddenly it was not fun — the business machine was amping up. Everyone who worked with Nirvana were all great people, but artists need a lot of freedom and Kurt had none. I could see that being a huge source of stress and he seemed like he was questioning what he wanted from all this.

GLADFELTER Then, they stopped doing so many interviews — especially with metal publications — because they were so appalled at the coverage they were getting. Kurt got more and more suspicious, he wanted to vet the magazines he was talking to, he didn’t like not having control.

FARRELL I don’t think Kurt started [getting second thoughts about fame] until later on. I think he was excited that so many kids were into it and his message was coming across and maybe they were really understanding the lyrics, but that wasn’t always the case. His ideal audience was probably younger people and, ideally, enlightened punk rock fans who understood the problems with sexism and racism, and understood that Nirvana supported that culture. I think it did get to him when it got super popular and people were misconstruing and some of the identity got lost.

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Courtesy Peter Baron

BARON We were shooting the Guns N’ Roses video for “Don’t Cry” just before the “Nevermind” release and I brought a CD, a cassette and a hat to the set to give to Axl. He proceeded to use the hat in the video as a prop, as well as wearing it during some interviews.

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Courtesy YouTube

GLADFELTER Axl actually left me a phone message, begging me to get them to play his birthday party. He loved them but there was no way it was gonna happen. They hated Guns N’ Roses.

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Courtesy Peter Baron

The North American tour concluded with a homecoming show at the Paramount Theater in Seattle, which was filmed and later released as a video and album. Just five days later, Nirvana launched a European tour that was scheduled to last for six weeks.

MONTGOMERY The Paramount was a big, triumphant homecoming. They were always happy playing in the Northwest and Kurt loved having bands he liked touring with us — for that show it was Bikini Kill and Mudhoney. But even that place was too small — the Paramount holds 3,000 people.

FARRELL Susie [Tennant, Geffen’s Northwest regional radio promotion rep] was the real champion in Seattle because she was the local rep and she had a good relationship with Kurt — I think he was crashing on her sofa for a while. She was very sweet and very enthusiastic and I think her heart was really with them. Everything was changing because of them, and this was her band.

ROSENFELDER Susie really rallied Seattle for them. Nirvana were actually a lot more indie than most of the other Seattle bands [like Soundgarden and Pearl Jam] and people there could have been like, “Oh, major-label sellouts,” but they weren’t, and she had a lot to do with that.

MONTGOMERY That European tour started almost right after we finished the U.S. tour. It was hard. Everyone was sick and tired, and we had this English driver who did fine in England, but once we got to the continent we got lost a lot. It was grueling and tiring — it wasn’t a sleeper bus, it was more like a big van. And it was still the band and crew in one bus, playing theaters and large clubs. We ended up cancelling the last few dates in Scandinavia, everyone was so tired.

GOLDBERG Kurt didn’t love touring — he liked it up to a point, but he didn’t love it the way that some bands do.

The band finished the year with a series of arena dates with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam, with Nirvana playing in the middle. At some point early in January, “Nevermind” achieved the astonishing-at-the-time feat of knocking Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous” from the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200 top albums chart.

FARRELL Just before our two-week holiday break, the word went out that we were almost out of stock [of the album]. The alert went up, “Some of you are going to have to come in to work” to make sure that the CD manufacturers were pressing more copies. It was a good problem to have!

MONTGOMERY The Chili Peppers were big at the time and it was still early for Pearl Jam, but it was kind of strange — Nirvana were the new kids and they were opening for bands that never had a No. 1 record, so it was like “Why aren’t we headlining arenas?” There was supposed to be an arena tour in 1992 that ended up not happening, but even if it had, they wouldn’t have made it. Those tours are not fun: you’re not connected to fans, you never see anything, you just end up sleeping on the bus under the arenas. I stopped working with them just before “In Utero,” and when they did an arena tour behind that album [in 1993], everyone was telling me, “You’re not missing anything!”

KATES I remember we were at the Phoenix in San Francisco, this cheap hotel, on New Year’s Eve and hearing the Live 105 countdown of the year and “Teen Spirit” was number one, and we all had champagne, but there were no limos or anything. Even later, they might have acted a little rock star, but that wasn’t really who Kurt was.

GOLDBERG A lot of thought went into the strategy leading up to “Nevermind,” but once it [took off], the business part was easy — it was a manager’s dream. The hard part was trying to deal with the personal issues that would come up over the next few years, particularly with Kurt.

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Nirvana “Saturday Night Live” print Courtesy Lisa Gladfelter

 

“Nevermind” officially reached number one in the issue of Billboard dated January 11, 1992 — and the group made its galvanizing first appearance on “Saturday Night Live” on the same day.

KATES All of us were learning a new perspective — “Nevermind” knocking Michael Jackson out of the No. 1 spot was a massive cultural moment. But a lot of the time, change can’t be appreciated until it’s passed.

GLADFELTER People think Geffen masterminded it, but it was organic. They were equipped to deal with it, but you can’t plan something like that.

MONTGOMERY It’s hard to be objective. Nirvana was a phenomenon and they’re part of the musical firmament. For my kids and their friends, it’s the Beatles and Michael Jackson and Nirvana, and it’s really weird because those guys were my friends and it was a big part of my life.

FARRELL It was a really fun time. It didn’t even feel like a job.

BODDY Seattle was such a small town, everybody was rooting for them. It felt like we won.

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Courtesy Jem Aswad