Last week marked the 11th anniversary of the passing of Kurt Cobain. It seems as good a time as any for an Artist Overview for Nirvana, easily the singular most important alternative rock group in history.
There really is nothing to compare their sudden ascendancy to. Prior to Nevermind breaking, what we now call "alternative rock" was limited to independant record labels, and erratically distributed. While many indie bands of the 1980's found audiences, they remained, with few exceptions, cult phenomena. Nirvana exceeded all expectations, and seemingly overnight managed to raise the profile and commercial potential of alternative rock in general.
It was no overnight success story, though; Nirvana toiled in relative obscurity for years before they became the world's most reluctant superstars.
Nirvana's story began when guitarist/singer Kurt Cobain got together with bassist Chris Novoselic in 1985. Their home was Aberdeen, WA; a semi-rural nowhereville 100 miles from Seattle. Cobain in some respects was typical of a lot of kids his age; he came from a broken home, shuttled between relatives, finding his comfort and solace in rock music. His tastes were relatively eclectic despite his isolated surroundings; he developed a love of the indie rock of his teen years; the Meat Puppets, the Melvins (from Olympia, WA), heavy metal, punk. These influences were absorbed deeply and informed his developing guitar and vocal approaches. It also alienated him from the redneck logging community in Aberdeen.
The young Cobain started hanging out with the Melvins, and began playing in local punk bands with Dale Crover, the Melvin's bass player. Melvins leader Buzz Osborne introduced him to Novoselic; in Novoselic he found a partner with similar musical tastes. They formed a band called the Stiff Woodies, among many other names, with Cobain playing drums, Novoselic on bass, and a constantly changing lineup of guitarists and vocalists. Eventually, they evolved into Skid Row; Cobain moving to guitar and vocals, and Aaron Burkhart joining on drums. This lineup attained fleeting stability until late 1986 when Chad Channing replaced Burkhart on drums. The trio renamed itself Nirvana in early 1987.
Nirvana played gigs mainly around the Olympia area, and word-of-mouth spread. Producer Jack Endino took the band into the studio to cut some demos which he shopped over at Sub Pop records, a small but growing indie label in Seattle, which would eventually become the umbrella under which nearly every grunge band converged. Sub Pop liked what they heard, and signed the band. Their first single, "Love Buzz" (originally by Shocking Blue) was released in late 1988. Sub Pop marketed the band as hillbilly punks from redneck land, an image that infuriated Cobain, but nontheless proved an effective lure. The single generated some local buzz and paved the way for the band's first album.