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Credit: Rosario Lopez

Music

Why Black Francis thinks Nirvana ripped off Pixies

Nirvana are one of the most influential bands of all time. From their early sludge-inflected days of Bleach, to their breakthrough masterpiece Nevermind and their third and final album In Utero, they gave us many stellar moments over their short career. 

The story of the band’s frontman, Kurt Cobain, is a tale as old as time, and the fact that he was a star that burned so bright before combusting, has, at many points, threatened to overshadow his genius musical ability.

The way that Cobain managed to fuse pop melodies inspired by The Beatles and David Bowie, merging them with the raw power of punk was nothing short of groundbreaking. By doing this, Nirvana became the poster boys of Generation X in the wake of the release of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. 

The cat was out of the bag. This was how musicians were now making music. Their anger was being augmented by sugary pop melodies and huge choruses, giving them a crossover appeal of the kind that the world had never seen. 

Anyone and everyone were trying to replicate Cobain’s knack for penning a catchy yet dark anthem. Bands such as Bush, Feeder and Local H owe everything to Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. Even bands such as Placebo, who cultivated their own iconic style, are indebted as much to Nirvana as they are David Bowie and The Velvet Underground. 

Today, Cobain’s influence is evident on chart-toppers such as Machine Gun Kelly, Youngblud and Olivia Rodrigo. Although your opinions on the aforementioned may be strong, it’s a testament to both Nirvana and Kurt Cobain’s cultural and musical legacy that they’ve managed to have such a far-reaching impact. 

Whilst Kurt Cobain is rightly lauded as one of the best songwriters of all time, there’s long been the argument that not all of Cobain’s songwriting came from a place of originality. When Nirvana popularised the quiet-loud-quiet dynamics, they weren’t the first to do so. 

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Boston alt-rock heroes, Pixies, had been doing it long before, and their 1989 album Doolittle remains a masterclass in the art form. Famously, after writing ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, both Cobain and Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic thought: “This really sounds like the Pixies. People are really going to nail us for this.”

They weren’t wrong, but it didn’t matter, as ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ turned out to be the song that galvanised a generation and altered the course of music forever. But what did Pixies feel about their formula being appropriated?

During an interview with Reuters in 2013, not long after Pixies had reformed, the band’s frontman, Black Francis, discussed the band’s legacy. Asked what his contribution to rock was, Francis replied sarcastically: Being original, influencing Nirvana so they could rip a song. I’ll admit it — if Kurt Cobain’ fessed up to it, fuck it, I’ll agree with it, you ripped us off.”

There you have it. Even Black Francis agrees that Nirvana ripped them off. He doesn’t seem so happy about it either. What was once his band’s USP, is now a fundamental facet of modern alternative music. 

Listen to Pixies’ Monkey Gone to Heaven’ below.