Most music fans didn’t realize it at the time, but the seeds of a future musical revolution were being planted on June 15, 1989, with the release of Nirvana‘s debut album, Bleach.
The disc arrived via Sub Pop in June of ’89 with little fanfare. In fact, it failed to crack the Billboard 200 Album Chart, but a buzz was building in Seattle about this band and their sound. The group settled into Reciprocal Recordings in Seattle between December 1988 and January 1989 to record Bleach with producer Jack Endino. On Christmas Eve, they spent five hours in the studio, returned again for a three-day run culminating on New Year’s Eve and finished off the disc on two dates in January.
Earlier in 1988, Nirvana had booked some studio time with Melvins drummer Dale Crover behind the kit. While they eventually chose Chad Channing for the album, attempts to re-record the songs “Floyd the Barber,” “Paper Cuts” and “Downer” with Channing on drums didn’t work out like they hoped and the band decided to remix Crover’s versions for the disc.
Nirvana, “Floyd the Barber”
In addition to Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and the drumming combination of Channing and Crover, Bleach had another musician credited as well — guitarist Jason Everman. Endino had billed the band $606 dollars for the 30 hours of recording sessions and Everman footed the bill for the struggling group.
As the story goes, Everman was so impressed by their demo with Crover that he helped back the sessions. He briefly joined the band as a second guitarist, but things didn’t work out and they ended up as a three-piece. Still, the guitarist received a credit on the disc despite not playing on the album. Novoselic stated, “We just wanted to make him feel at home in the band.”
Initially going with the working title Too Many Humans, Nirvana eventually settled on Bleach as the moniker for the disc after Cobain spotted an AIDS prevention poster advising heroin addicts to “bleach their works” before using.
Once the album arrived, only one single was released — a cover of the Shocking Blue song “Love Buzz.” The cover received mixed reactions from the original band, as Klassje van der Wal stated he was happy that Novoselic had cited him as “a bass god,” but guitarist Robbie Van Leeuwen was not as thrilled. He reportedly had listened to Bleach and returned it to a friend feeling that the cover was inferior. Even Cobain had his issues with the song, stating in an interview with NME, “I wish we could have recorded it a lot heavier. It was one of our first recordings. We weren’t sure just what we wanted to do so it turned out kind of wimpy compared to our most recent recordings.”
Nirvana, “Love Buzz”
In the long term history of the album, other tracks may have been well known for Nirvana. There was “About a Girl,” a song that almost didn’t make the disc due to Cobain’s uncertainty about how it would be received amidst the pressure to record a heavier, grungier disc. “Even to put ‘About a Girl’ on Bleach was a risk,” recalled Cobain to Rolling Stone. “I was heavily into pop. I really liked R.E.M. and I was into all kind of old ’60s stuff. But there was a lot of pressure within that social scene, the underground — the kind of thing you get in high school. And to put a jangly R.E.M. type of pop song on a grunge record, in that scene, was risky.” The track would go on to receive greater fame years later for its inclusion on their MTV Unplugged album.
Nirvana, “About a Girl” (From MTV Unplugged)
The song “Blew” also drew some attention, enough that the band decided to spin off an EP for the track in December of 1989. The track kicked off with a killer bass sound from Novoselic before kicking into its grinding rock sound. Joining “Blew” on the aforementioned EP were “Love Buzz,” as well as “Been a Son” and “Stain.” The latter two songs would eventually appear on 1992’s Incesticide.
Fans also latched onto “Negative Creep,” a reflective song with Cobain realizing his less than positive tendencies. “It’s just general bitching,” stated Novoselic in an interview with Metal Forces Magazine. “Sometimes we have to go back and see our parents and we just hate going back at all you know.” And the super heavy “School,” with its minimal lyrics and “no recess” chorus, also remains a standout track on Bleach.
Nirvana, “Negative Creep”
In general, Cobain admitted that the lyrical content often came from a negative place. He told Sounds, “When I write a song the lyrics are the least important thing. I can go through two or three different subjects in a song and the title can mean absolutely nothing at all. Sometimes I try to make things harder for myself, just to try to make myself a bit more angry. I try out a few subconscious things I suppose, like conflicts with other people. Most of the lyrics on the Bleach album are about my life in Aberdeen.”
By the time all was said and done, Nirvana had a very raw-sounding disc on their hands, which was quite alright with Cobain. “I think a lot of music today sounds far too polished,” the singer said at the time. “There’s no energy. It’s too programmed and fake, you hear too much. I want a little mud in my music.”
Though the album initially failed to chart, it was solid enough to start the word of mouth rolling on the band. Though not heavily promoted, Bleach was a pretty steady seller for Sub Pop and got the recognition it deserved when the label re-released it in 1992 after Nirvana’s meteoric rise with Nevermind. This time around, the disc hopped onto the Billboard 200 chart at No. 89.
History now shows that Bleach was a gem ahead of its time. The disc has now sold over 1.7 million units and remains the best selling Sub Pop release to date.
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