The Student Playlist

Showcasing the Best New Music, Curating the Classics

CULT ’80s: Nirvana – ‘Bleach’

Influenced: Mudhoney, Alice In Chains, Faith No More, Beck, PJ Harvey, Weezer, Green Day, Bush, Sleater-Kinney, Sebadoh, Garbage, Dashboard Confessional, The Vines, Drenge, Wolf Alice, The Amazons

Influenced by: The Beatles, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, The Stooges, Neil Young, Sex Pistols, Cheap Trick, Meat Puppets, R.E.M., Hüsker Dü, Dinosaur Jr., Daniel Johnston, The Melvins, The Vaselines

Nirvana’s second album Nevermind is pretty much universally regarded as one of the most important records in the development of rock music as we understand it today. It’s seen as the pinnacle of the ‘grunge’ movement of the early ‘90s, along with Pearl Jam’s Ten and Alice In Chains’ Dirt, a genre characterised by heavily distorted electric guitars, loud/quiet song dynamics, angst-ridden lyrics and vocals. But if you cut through Butch Vig’s shiny FM production, you discover that Kurt Cobain is significantly more melody-driven than many of his grunge peers. Cobain was deeply troubled by Nevermind, as he saw himself as an alternative figurehead and felt that his group’s mainstream success was a betrayal of Nirvana’s underground roots. This explains the sonic U-turn of 1993’s In Utero, the sound of its author flinching from the spotlight. This part of Cobain’s career is relatively well-known, but what of Nirvana’s debut record? Is Bleach as good as their two subsequent records? Can you hear the sonic foundations of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’?

No (but not by much) and yes (if you listen closely), are the answers. First of all, it was released on the independent regional label Sub Pop, whereas Nevermind and In Utero were released on the major label Geffen. Bleach therefore had a much smaller budget and a completely different set of expectations upon it. Produced by Jack Endino (who went on to work with the likes of Mudhoney and Soundgarden, also sizeable names in the grunge scene) and in just over 30 hours in December 1988, the first impression you get of Bleach is of claustrophobia. The limited tools at Endino’s disposal mean the production is rather murky and dense, feeding back into that impression. Bass and rhythm guitars meld together in a distinctive buzz, while the percussion (played by original drummer Chad Channing, not Dave Grohl) is noticeably less forceful than the more famous Nirvana releases.

Cobain deliberately tried to suppress his melodic tendencies, but even on such an impeccably ‘underground’ release as Bleach he can’t help but let his natural talents flow. Take ‘About A Girl’, a track owing an overt debt to early Lennon and McCartney songs, the result of a childhood spent listening to Beatles albums over and over again. A dazzling cover of Shocking Blue’s ‘Love Buzz’, boasting a guitar hook so catchy it ought to come with a biohazard warning, also belies the pop orientation beneath the gruff, plaid exteriors of the band. Opening duo ‘Blew’ and ‘Floyd The Barber’ stick to a pretty familiar grunge template, with their freeze-dried anti-pop riffs and mumbled, pained vocals. In the fast-paced ‘Negative Creep’ you can hear a preface of Nevermind’s ‘Territorial Pissings’, in which Cobain delivers a repetition of four lines with ever-increasing urgency (“this is out of our reach and it’s gone / this is getting to be a drone”).

Towards the second half of the record Nirvana become a bit less rigid in their structure, unveiling songs with a more freeform style. The oscillating, hypnotic riff of ‘Mr. Moustache’, in which Cobain biliously rages about the macho culture that pervaded his school and hometown (“yes I eat cow – I am not proud”), and the menacing duo of ‘Paper Cuts’ and ‘Sifting’ that could have passed for Led Zeppelin numbers, provided neatly timed changes of pace. ‘Scoff’ is a dizzying assault of noise that keeps to a simple, driving punk template. ‘School’ critiqued the Seattle music scene that had spawned the first wave of grunge music but had already turned introverted and cliquey.

On its initial release, Bleach was a moderately successful college radio hit but failed to make the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart. By the time of the release of its successor, it had sold a decent 40,000 units in the States, but after the cultural impact of Nevermind a curious public clamoured for Bleach to be re-released. Geffen had acquired the rights to the group’s back catalogue upon signing them and re-released it internationally with two bonus tracks (‘Big Cheese’ and ‘Downer’) in 1992. To date, it has sold just shy of two million copies worldwide. Not bad for a record that cost $606.17 to make.

Looking at it with the benefit of 25 years of hindsight, Bleach is the work of a band who, obviously, have no idea of the hugely significant cultural force they’re about to become, and if you took Cobain’s familiar vocals out of the equation you could mistake it for the work of a different group altogether, and in some ways this is true. Dave Grohl’s percussion powerhouse was the key to the success of Nevermind but, in 1989, he had yet to meet the band; Channing’s drumming, while competent, simply doesn’t compare. Jason Everman, credited as the group’s second guitarist on the back of the record, was barely in the group at all but ponied up the recording fees on behalf of the group. And Cobain himself was credited mysteriously as ‘Kurdt Kobain’. Not the work of a band with its aims set remorselessly on mainstream success, it’s fair to say.

READ MORE: Nirvana’s Nevermind at 25 years old

But Bleach, while characterised by an intrinsic muddiness that makes it difficult to compare to Nevermind and even In Utero, is a significant part of the Nirvana legend, the sound of two talented musical units (Cobain and bassist Krist Novoselic) constrained by circumstance and already impatiently itching to spread their wings. Cobain, as many have commented before, was a man of irreconcilable contradictions. For him, because of his underground musical roots, records were an extension of personal politics, so to make a fiercely independent album like Bleach was important; but at the same time, he railed against what he perceived as the insularity of the scene that helped lift him to prominence. Hence Nevermind, and hence In Utero. It’s inferior to its more famous successors, but perhaps Bleach is the most accurate snapshot of the band Cobain himself would have wanted Nirvana to be regarded as.

Listen to Bleach here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!

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