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Did Nirvana save rock and roll or did they simply kill rock stars off altogether?

Music DVD Review: Nirvana – Live! Tonight! Sold Out!

If the story of Nirvana is not the strangest and least likely in all of the history of rock and roll, I'm not sure at all what is. So please bear with me a little here as I go out on a limb and deviate somewhat from the standard review.

You see, I was there. But I was not there as part of the Seattle grunge scene. Not at all. Rather, I was there as part of the other, and at the time less celebrated, side of what was going on around 1992, when everything "Seattle" broke wide open to worldwide acceptance. And the time where much of what is captured on this live DVD was – well, captured.

1992 was a strange time to be in the music business in Seattle. And I don't think I ever really got just how big the "scene" had become here, until I moved to Los Angeles to seek my fortunes in the music business. Back then, even as Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was becoming a worldwide phenomenon, most of us here in Seattle always thought of them (as well as Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Alice In Chains, and the rest) as just another great local band.

I can remember working at Seattle's Nastymix Records promoting then up-and-coming rapper Sir Mix-A-Lot for example (that "other side" of the Seattle music scene I referred to earlier). Back then I can also distinctly remember going out on a Friday night after work to see somebody like Nirvana or Soundgarden at the Offramp or RCKCNDY for instance.

For us, it was just another rather routine weekend night of boozing, clubbing, and hopefully getting lucky with that pierced, tattooed angel next to the bar. During my daily routine at Nastymix Records, I can also remember how the guys from Sub-Pop Records would come over to our office to marvel over at how I was able to pull up Billboard's weekly chart reports on my MS/DOS computer system.

Imagine that.

It was only when I got to L.A. in 1992 to work at American Recordings after Sir Mix-A-Lot had signed his deal with them, that I realized just how big a deal this Seattle Grunge thing really was. During our weekly sales meetings at American for example, they used to joke with me how Seattle had exploded at exactly the same time I moved to L.A., and how once I got to L.A. sales of their own artists had died.

Funny stuff, right?

In reality, it was just a nice way of busting my balls.

So I'm gonna say this about Nirvana, at the risk of really pissing my neighbors up here in Seattle off. They were in the right place at the right time. Plain and simple.

Not that I would minimize the impact of something like "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Not even. But there are times when something comes along when it is absolutely necessary to knock a complacent, fat and lazy rock and roll on its collective ass. If Nirvana didn't qualify for doing that in 1992, I honestly don't know what ever has. But the bottom line is they just happened to be there.

There is absolutely no question that Nirvana represented a huge cultural shift back then. One that would later prove to be of historical proportion. They did everything the Sex Pistols were supposed to do at the end of the seventies (but didn't). And nobody — least of all me — disputes that. However, I will maintain this. Nobody saw it coming at the time.

It happened completely by accident.

You want to talk about truly revolutionary music coming out of Seattle at the time? Look no further than Mudhoney. At this point, I seriously doubt Mark Arm and company are ever going anywhere near a platinum or gold record. But Mudhoney's mix of Blue Cheer psychedelia and Stooges-era Iggy Pop paved the way for a certain little band from po-dunk Aberdeen, Washington to knock corporate rock and roll on it's ass.

In my opinion at least, Nirvana lucked into the three minutes of "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Whether that luck came by chance or by design is of course open to question.

That said, Nirvana's impact on rock and roll simply cannot be understated. Nor can Kurt Cobain's immeasurable talent. Cobain had a way with a neat little pop hook like no one has before or since. No question about it.

There are some great performances captured on this DVD from the band's native Seattle to Amsterdam, all recorded during the band's early nineties peak. Originally released on VHS, the quality is often raw. Many of the performances here look grainy to the point that they may as well have been filmed on a Super 8 home movie camera. But that's OK. In fact, it is probably exactly as it should be, in that it quite effectively captures the raw, minimal sort of feel of the time.

Still, as a rock and roll fan, and with the added benefit of hindsight, I'm not sure I really like what rock became after Nirvana. For awhile there, you simply could not turn on a radio without hearing the numerous knock-off bands that came in Nirvana's wake. From Bush to Silverchair, these bands were in many ways every bit as faceless as the REO Speedwagon sort of corporate rock that Nirvana sought to destroy.

Kill Rock Stars indeed.

While guys like U2 and Springsteen tarry on and continue to wave the banner of a bygone era, your choices in music these days basically boil down to flavor-of-the-minute rappers and popsters played through the delivery systems of choice you hear on your tiny MP3 and cell phone speakers. The music business itself is run by and large from the corporate cubicles of software companies.

I'm not even sure that marvels of studio craft like Dark Side Of The Moon, Pet Sounds or Born To Run are even possible anymore.

Nirvana may well be the last of the great rock and roll bands. When Nevermind shocked the world by knocking Michael Jackson's Dangerous off the top of the pops, I cheered just as loud as anybody.

But looking at things as they stand today, you've simply gotta ask yourself. Was this the revolution? There is no doubt that Nirvana succeeded in stripping a bloated rock monster back to it's core essentials at a time when this was sorely necessary. But in doing so, was rock ultimately stripped out altogether?

Think about that while watching this DVD.

About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, Ultimate Classic Rock, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.

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