With one album, Nirvana changed rock & roll. Before "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and Nevermind were released in 1991, alternative and post-punk rock had never been considered profitable or commercial. Nirvana changed the record industry's conception of what was mainstream, as well as the public's. Nevermind marked a shift in the mainstream, when punk rock finally reclaimed the rock & roll mainstream for themselves. Other post-punk bands that crossed over into the mainstream had done so slowly; by the time U2 and R.E.M. became superstars in 1987, their audiences were large enough to guarantee them a hit album. Besides, neither band had as much raw guitars and naked angst as Nirvana; they were as close to a punk band as possible in the 90s.
Nirvana combined strands of rock from all eras into one explosive burst of rage. Combining the melodic pop of the Beatles, the 70s sludge of Black Sabbath, the spiky song structure of the Pixies, with the fierce indie ethics of the American indie underground ofthe 80s, the band came up with a signature pop-punk that was distinctly their own.
Bleach, their 1989 debut, made the band underground darlings and led to a major-label contract. In 1990, Dave Grohl became Nirvana's permanent drummer, teaming with bassist Chris Novoselic to form the fiercest rhythm section in rock. Guitarist/vocalist Kurt Cobain's new songs surpassed anything on their debut; his songs were stunning, concise bursts of melody and rage, that occasionally spilled over into haunting, folk-styled acoustic ballads.
Nevermind wasn't expected to sell over 100,000 copies; by early 1992, the album was the top-selling record in the country. However, the band's personal fortunes weren't as smooth. During 1992, Cobain developed a debilitating heroin habit which strained relations with the rest of the band. By the beginning of 1993, Cobain had admitted that he had just detoxed from heroin, which he claimed he used to fight a chronic stomach problem. Nirvana released their third album, in September of 1993; the album debuted at number one and soon went double platinum. The band launched a US tour in October; all of the articles about the band portrayed a happier, calmer Cobain.
Those images began to unravel in March of 1994, when he overdosed on champagne and tranquelizers while on vacation in Rome. For all of March, rumors were flying about Nirvana's future. All of the rumors stopped on April 8, when Cobain's body was discovered at his home in Seattle; he died three days earlier of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Since his death, Cobain has been equally revered and reviled; he wasn't universally mourned because he wasn't universally loved. Even after Nevermind, Nirvana's music was too raw for many listeners. But that doesn't mean that Cobain was not gifted or that his music was not important. Nirvana proved to both the record companies and the public that post-punk music and culture had a prominent place in mainstream culture. More importantly, the band made some ndeniably great music.
~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Guns n' Roses