Back on the 11th of January 1992, three guys on their major label début, whom hardly anyone outside of Washington State had ever heard of before, knocked Michael Jackson off of the No.1 Spot of the Billboard Charts. The album that caused this, one of the biggest upsets in the history of music, was entitled “Nevermind” and it remains one of the most talked about and influential albums of the 20th century.
On that fateful date I would have been 4 years old. And on my upcoming 5th birthday my parents brought me Dangerous, the Michael Jackson album that Nirvana knocked off of the top of the charts. Nevermind would have to wait a further ten years when I would be fifteen. I brought it with money I had received for Christmas in a Virgin Megastore (remember those?) and even then it was a two for three deal bundled in with (What’s the Story) Morning Glory by Oasis and Urban Hymns by The Verve. I think that trio may have been the very first albums I had ever brought of my own accord.
“Nevermind” currently lies on top of my CD rack, case broken and ripped from its hinges. The cracks and scratches all came from me swinging a body part around when I was listening to it in my bedroom and becoming… um, shall we say a little too enthusiastic? Its battered state is a testament to the power of the songs and the effect they had on the last two generations of an alienated youth.
But I’m not here to talk about “Nevermind”. I doubt anything I have to say here will convince you to give it a try if you haven’t already. Too many people have said too many things about it. If you’re reading this you’ll probably know whether or not “Nevermind” is for you. What I’m here to talk to you about is the extras.
The first thing you’ll notice after the last tones of “Something In The Way” fade out, the producers have decided (bafflingly, almost stubbornly) to include the ten minutes silence before the hidden track. What makes this such a confusing choice is the inclusion of the B-Sides after “Endless/Nameless”. It effectively renders half the content on the first CD as hidden. And when you’re marketing you’re product on the extras your audience might not have heard before, what sense is there in hiding them behind a wasteland of silence to the point that they might just decide that they’ve wasted ten quid on an album they’ve already owned for two decades?
Having said that if you do possess the powers of deduction with which to discover the mystery of the missing B-Sides, you will find your persistence rewarded. The studio B-Sides all seem to be the missing link between the rough, distorted edge of “Bleach” and the polished production of Nevermind. The live tracks all capture the excitement and unpredictability of this monster act. How a three piece band made up of such a weedy looking trio of wimps could come across so powerfully is a testament to the power of artistic talent.
Moving on to the second CD it’s very much a disc in three parts. Firstly, and perhaps most successfully, is the Smart Sessions, recorded in Madison, Wisconsin. They provide slightly rawer, less refined versions of some of the first draft songs of the album. They provide a great insight into the production process. “Pay To Play” will be familiar to anyone who ever listened to “Stay Away” and we find that in the few short months between the album’s release and this recording the song’s name and lyrics were changed to better fit in with the over arching themes.
The education we get from the early versions of tracks like this is invaluable. The education we get from tracks like the Boombox Rehersals is invaluable too but in a different way entirely. The Boombox Rehersals teach us that early demo’s from the 90’s are for the dedicated fans only. Did I say dedicated? Sorry I meant devout. Fundamentalist even. The songs are scratchy, hidden behind peaks and troughs of distortion that are jarring to the ears; worse is that Kurts voice is unintelligible and at times the words are indecipherable. They may be some old lyrics there, some hidden gems behind the coarseness of the recording, but it would take a more patient man than me to try and figure out what they are.
This section starts off badly with “Smells Like Teen Spirit” making it unlistenable, an incredible accomplishment considering its universal appeal and an outright tragedy as it’s the only other alternate version available. It gets better from there but really the only track of any worth is “Old Age” one of the only available recordings of this song out there. But even that becomes redundant when you find the version on “With the Lights Out”
The last two tracks are BBC Live sessions and it’s really a shame that it’s just the two. The recording quality is excellent and this version of “Something in the Way” vastly improves upon the original. I don’t know if they had more like this, but if they did they should have fought tooth and nail for it to be put on the record.
If you really feel like splashing the cash there is also a Super Delux version available with the whole original album with Butch Vig’s original mixes. These are slightly dirtier, with more grit sticking to the CD. Doubtless these would have been Kurt’s favoured mixes what with his distaste for the poppyness he felt the album came to represent.
And CD 4 goes back to the live stuff with a set from The Paramount Theatre in Seattle. Damned awesome gig but the price they are asking is unquestionably too high for anyone just starting to discover the band (i.e. the kids who have only just begun to feel dejected) but anyone who has remained faithful should be able to treat themselves (i.e. the ones who grew too old to be dejected and went out to get a job).
Nevermind is still one of the best albums in the history of recorded sound. No amount of hastily constructed extras can ruin that fact. But not all the extras feel rushed in this album, although there is some filler here and there. Ultimately if you wish for a small history lesson of the band and their biggest album, definitely give this one a go. But if you’re just interested in owning a copy of a great album, there are cheaper options out there.