Prompted by the 30th anniversary of the release of Nevermind, or “the seminal classic Nevermind” to give it its full title, BBC documentary When Nirvana Came To Britain explores the special relationship that developed between this island and a bunch of scruffy Seattle punks who slummed it around the country on tour before somehow becoming the biggest band in the world.
The UK was home to some of Nirvana’s favourite groups – from big hitters like The Beatles and Led Zeppelin to largely unsung cult heroes like The Raincoats and The Vaselines – and we responded by returning the love, embracing the trio earlier and with greater enthusiasm than their own nation. “You guys were the first with everything,” says Dave Grohl. “It really is like a second home.”
Told using archive footage and with the help of journalists, bookers, tourmates, fellow musicians and fans, the story starts with struggling Nottingham-based promoter Russell Warby forging chance connections with US bands and labels and subsequently finding a copy of Nirvana’s 1988 debut single on his doormat. Blown away by their take on Dutch rockers Shocking Blue’s Love Buzz, Warby made it his mission to bring Kurt Cobain and company across the pond for some live shows. There followed a 1989 tour in support of Sub Pop labelmates Tad and then, a year later, a six-night run as headliners that Grohl confesses “was my rock’n’roll fantasy come true”. Krist Novoselic agrees: “All we had to do was play the music. No saviours of a generation, or spokespeople for a generation.”
All that was to change with Nevermind. “They made it alright to be an outsider; they made it alright not to fit in,” says Biffy Clyro’s Simon Neil, a Nirvana superfan in his teens – but suddenly grunge had gone overground and the band were no longer outsiders themselves, forced to acclimatise to new and unfamiliar surroundings. Their TV debut on The Word – booked by Jo Whiley and prefaced by Cobain’s memorably romantic dedication to Courtney Love – was glorious chaos, but a subsequent appearance on Top Of The Pops was even more remarkable.
Uncomfortable with the concept of miming along to the pre-recorded version of Smells Like Teen Spirit, they struck a compromise in being permitted live vocals – and Cobain duly took the opportunity to drone “Load up on drugs, kill your friends” in an absurd baritone. “They were just asking for it,” smirks Grohl, ever the naughty schoolboy – but Alex Weston, their sour-faced UK tour promoter, evidently remains unamused even 30 years later. “This was their big, big moment and he completely sabotaged it.” That’d be why Nirvana subsequently sank without trace. (Presumably she’s also still fuming about what they did when they were allowed to perform live: terrorise the eardrums of Jonathan Ross’ audience with an entirely different song to the one planned.)
Add those TV performances to the recollections of tour antics, the camcorder footage of the band goofing around en route to and in London, and Steve Lamacq’s account of their first NME interview (which included a lengthy conversation about the ideal pet), and the documentary helps to dispel one of the enduring myths about Nirvana: that they were humourless miserabilists. At the Reading Festival in August 1992, after a year of intense pressure and personal problems, Cobain satirised rumours about his health by appearing in a medical smock, symbolically wheeled onstage by Everett True (the first UK journalist to evangelise about the Seattle scene).
Grohl recalls feeling as though they needed to prove themselves all over again and being doubtful that they could – but experiencing enormous relief when catastrophe was averted. Cobain had dislocated his shoulder launching himself into the drumkit the previous year (to the amusement of onlooking members of Mudhoney and Sonic Youth, but to the shock and concern of The Vaselines’ Eugene Kelly), but this time it was the band’s “interpretive dancer” Tony Hodgkinson who injured himself, headbanging so hard he suffered whiplash and wound up wearing a neck brace.
Tragically, that triumphant show was to be Nirvana’s last in the UK. Cobain’s Reading performance was precisely that, masking his increasing struggles with addiction and depression. The band rollercoastered dangerously through 1993 and early 1994 until, on 8th April, Cobain was found dead at the age of just 27. This documentary suggests that he and his band arguably burned brightest in Britain before they burned out – and that their memory is far from fading away.
Available on BBC iPlayer now. Info: here
words BEN WOOLHEAD
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