In the early days of Nirvana—before Dave Grohl, the split with the label Sub Pop, the intra-band royalty disputes and the success that elevated many indie bands to major labels and also partially crippled the system that nursed them—the band almost didn’t make it out of Rome.
As detailed in the book Experiencing Nirvana, which focuses on a 1989 European tour, Cobain was several songs into the group’s Rome set when he smashed his guitar and climbed on top of a pile of speakers, threatening to jump. He eventually climbed down, but further antagonized the venue by trying to give his microphone the same treatment as his guitar. That night, the band “decided to break up.”
Of course, the group changed its mind the next morning. But this moment presented a potential hiccup in a carefully orchestrated plan by Bruce Pavitt—author of the book and founder of Sub Pop—and his partner Jon Poneman. Pavitt believed that Europe, specifically England, held the key to building a buzz that could then cross the Atlantic and bolster Nirvana’s credentials in America.
Pavitt got his start in 1980 by putting together a ‘zine titled Subterranean Pop. In 1986, he formed the Sub Pop record label in Seattle, still going strong today, more than 25 years later. But back in 1988, the label’s foundation was still shaky, the future uncertain.
When Pavitt and Poneman saw Nirvana play for the first time—with Cobain handling guitar and vocals, Krist Novoselic wielding bass and Chad Channing on drums—only “four people were in the club.” Despite the low turnout, Sub Pop still signed the band, “for 600 dollars.” According to Pavitt, that was actually money they didn’t have: “we couldn’t even afford to pay them.”
Pavitt may not have had funds, but he developed a plan, with the indirect help of Sylvester Stallone. On a previous trip to Europe, Pavitt recounts, “seeing a huge poster of Sylvester Stallone as Rocky. I had a profound epiphany about how much Europe loved America… Sub Pop could find a market for American music around the rest of the world.”
This is an amusing story, but also a poignant one. Rocky typified the kind of corporate juggernaut that Nirvana initially set itself against. But the band would eventually achieve a similar status, as an underdog that somehow made it to the height of the mainstream.
What made England so important in this process? Compared to the U.S., huge and disconnected in the pre-Internet days, England, Pavitt believed, offered “the swift transmission of information” ideal for quickly making a band worthy of serious consideration. This “swift transmission” stemmed from two factors: “the mutually combative ethos of the weekly UK music magazines and the country’s geographical compactness.”
It didn’t hurt that these competing magazines commanded a high level of respect—Pavitt refers to them as “the most influential music media at the time.” So he accompanied several of his bands—Nirvana, and also Tad and Mudhoney—to the LameFest UK on December 3, 1989.
Pavitt wasn’t the first or the last to take advantage of England in this way. Jimi Hendrix—who, like Cobain, came from the Pacific Northwest—couldn’t catch a break in the U.S. in the mid-60s, unless he wanted to tour as a guitarist in a soul singer’s backup band.
Chas Chandler, former bassist of the English invasion group the Animals, convinced Hendrix to head to England after hearing him play in Greenwich Village. Once there, Hendrix connected with the other two members of the Experience and started recording. The next time he crossed the Atlantic, he did so as a superstar. More recently, The Strokes got the royal treatment in England’s New Music Express before they even released an album.
But not every band stood to benefit from the English press bump. Pavitt suggests that his groups, unlike other indie acts, came uniquely positioned to use this positive reception to their advantage.
In the late ‘80s, “the indie scene in America had a diverse mix of highly respected groups,” he writes, “such as Fugazi from DC, Beat Happening from Olympia, and Sonic Youth from NYC.” This competition, however, seemed “too idiosyncratic to cross over to a larger audience.” Sub Pop favored groups that “were less stylized and less conceptual, typically triggering a more immediate physical response, and from a wider group of fans.” They only needed access to a bigger audience.
The UK’s music magazines could help with that.
So Nirvana et al. headed across the pond. Before LameFest, the tour crisscrossed Europe, England to Hungary, Denmark to Italy, and on. Much of Experiencing Nirvana is a photographic tour diary: Cobain mugging for the camera, looking grim in front of the Coliseum, eating contentedly beneath a large selection of sausages hanging from the rafters.
Nirvana enjoyed arguing over the best Stooges album. (Cobain believed in Raw Power; Pavitt voted for Fun House). On the trip, the different groups discovered that the origin of the “Seattle Sound” may have been a show by the group Black Flag on September 25, 1984, attended by Cobain, Pavitt and future members of Mudhoney. (The bands didn’t know each other at the time.)
“The heavy tempo of Black Flag’s new sound,” Pavitt writes, “had challenged the punk culture.”
As evidenced by press clippings Pavitt collects, his strategy paid off. Melody Maker suggested begrudgingly, “Britain is being swamped in a deluge of long hair, hoary old Black Sabbath licks, and American upstarts from Seattle.” Sounds advised readers to switch their focus from the English dance music scene in Manchester towards the music of Nirvana and their comrades—“forget Manchester for a moment, today’s state capital has to be Seattle, the Sub Pop Rock City.” NME heaped the most praise: “Nirvana are Sub Pop’s answers to the Beatles, pop masters with a sense of hard rock and songs that penetrate the memory of their audience.”
Its generation’s Beatles or not, Nirvana needed a little help from friends—the UK writers. Cobain told Sounds, “If we hadn’t done this band thing, we would have been doing what everyone else does back home, which is chopping down trees, drinking, having sex and drinking, talking about sex and drinking some more.”
Instead, the band went on to achieve cultural ubiquity. Experiencing Nirvana ignores the consequences of this unmatched grunge success. (Another recently published book referred to Sub Pop as a “hegemony” and Seattle as “the city where …where punk was broken.”)
Still, it’s nice to glimpse Nirvana—unsure it was doing the right thing and unimpressed by the Coliseum—before the madness of Rocky-like success enveloped the band.
Elias Leight’s writing about books and music has appeared in Paste, The Atlantic, Splice Today and Popmatters. He comes from Northampton, Massachusetts, and he can be found at signothetimesblog.