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Six definitive songs: The ultimate beginner's guide to Kurt Cobain

Formed in Aberdeen, Washington, in 1987, after navigating line-up changes, the band we remember today as Nirvana were: vocalist, guitarist and principal songwriter Kurt Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl.

Together, they changed the musical landscape forever, encapsulated by the world’s reaction when sophomore album Nevermind was released in 1991. Described as an “international phenomenon” by former co-manager Danny Goldberg, Kurt Cobain spearheaded this sensation. He quickly gained iconic status for many reasons. These included his musicianship, much-publicised relationship with Hole frontwoman Courtney Love, and, later, his tragic suicide in April 1994.

As chief songwriter, Cobain discussed themes covering parental abandonment, childhood isolation, heroin addiction and depression.  Consequently, he became widely regarded as the spokesman for Generation X, that heavily politicised demographic of young adults, whose socio-economic situation was often related to Reaganomics. This generational motley crew, the “MTV generation”, were characterised as cynical and disaffected, a stark contrast to their baby boomer parents.

There is no doubt about Cobain’s dark genius. His penchant for blending pop melodies with heavy musicianship was era-defining, culminating in Nirvana being seen as leading the Seattle ‘grunge’ scene.

Whilst this was contested by the band, their contemporaries and fans alike, Nirvana kicked down the door for alternative music in the ’90s, and the massive scope of Cobain’s influence is still heard today. Contemporary heavyweights such as Lana Del Ray, Muse and Machine Gun Kelly all cite him as a massive influence on their music.

Furthermore, Cobain’s iconic status can be beheld in the numerous films, books and merchandise that exist regarding him. The scale of such is mammoth and can be viewed by anyone via the internet, by simply typing in his name.

Ultimately, Cobain’s legacy was cemented by his tragic death and mythologised by his entry into the so-called ’27 Club’. However, this does not overshadow his musical talent and off-stage charisma, two facets of his personality that have often been impersonated but never matched.

Through Nirvana’s relatively short career, they released three full studio albums, and posthumously they have released numerous live albums and compilations. In short, Cobain penned too many great songs to discuss, so we’ve narrowed our list down to six – in an attempt to really capture the essence of such a legendary songwriter. 

Kurt Cobain’s six definitive songs:

‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ – (1991)

Where else to start than the song that kicked off the tsunami of guitar bands in the 1990s – and the song that is synonymous with Nirvana. Released on 10th September 1991, it was the lead single and opening track from Nevermind.

The song is often criticised for being overplayed, and Cobain even came to hate it because of this, however, there can be no doubting its brilliance. It is widely documented that the song’s dynamics were largely influenced by the Pixies “soft and quiet and then loud and hard”, a pattern that Cobain would often utilise in Nirvana songs.

Reflecting on the song, Cobain called the riff “clichéd”, and when playing it to the band for the first time, bassist Novoselic labelled it “so ridiculous”. Ironically, Novoselic was right, as the size of the anthem would become so. It was massive, played everywhere, and nine months after release they performed it on Saturday Night Live. It became an anthem for Gen X, and every disaffected teen since.

The lyrics criticising the politics of the baby boomers, music video, and the title sharing its name with a teen deodorant, all culminated in its legendary status as an anthem for teen-angst and anti-authoritarian anger. David Goldberg sums it up succinctly, “that was the genius of the song: It combined a fierce commentary on shallowness while still having a mass-appeal musicality.”

Furthermore, in an interview with Rolling Stone in 1994, Cobain said: “Everyone has focused on that song so much,” continuing, “The reason it gets a big reaction is people have seen it on MTV a million times. It’s been pounded into their brains. But I think there are so many other songs that I’ve written that are as good, if not better, than that song, like ‘Drain You.’ That’s definitely as good as ‘Teen Spirit’. I love the lyrics, and I never get tired of playing it. Maybe if it was as big as ‘Teen Spirit’, I wouldn’t like it as much.”

Taking a step back from all the discourse surrounding it, it is still an amazing song, one that serves its original purpose in riling you up against the establishment, whilst wrapping that anger up in a brilliantly written, catchy, anthem.

‘In Bloom’ (1991)

The fourth and final single from Nevermind, ‘In Bloom’ was released in November 1992 and is a tour de force of Cobain’s magnificent songwriting. The song is noted for the tension created in its verses, augmented by Grohl’s addition of that famous bass drum beat upon joining the band. This makes the Nevermind version feel totally different to the earlier recording featuring original Nirvana drummer Chad Channing.

The tension is released using power chords, shifting from a B flat and G fifth, catapulting the listener into the anthemic chorus. This use of power chords is typical of Cobain, showing his punk roots and adding bite to the song, as it contrastingly incorporates elements of the sugary 1960s pop that Cobain listened to as a child.

The song is widely acknowledged as being about Cobain becoming uncomfortable with the new types of Nirvana fans after gaining popularity. They had gone from playing to friends and die-hard fans in the Seattle area, to having universal acclaim, and with this came people turning up to shows that the band and Cobain were ideologically opposed to. There is also another theory, that the song is a “thinly disguised portrait of Cobain’s friend Dylan Carlson”.

Typically, the actual meaning of the song is unclear. As with every Cobain song, it is vague but also carries a degree of self-awareness within it. Novoselic backs this up, and stated in an interview with Rolling Stone: “He was cagey about his lyrics,” he said, before adding: “You could read into them anything you want… Kurt — I would call him a windmill… He wanted to be a rock star — and he hated it.”

‘In Bloom’ is not only a brilliant song, but is one that also reflects the inherent juxtapositions of Nirvana and Kurt Cobain.

‘About A Girl’ (1989)

A classic Nirvana song, ‘About A Girl’ is the third track on debut album Bleach, released in 1989. The song gained further popularity when it was released in October 1994 as a single from MTV Unplugged. This version was the first single after Cobain’s death and reached number 22 in the rock charts. 

The song was originally written in 1988 after an afternoon listening to 1964’s Meet the Beatles!, the second American release by the Liverpudlian icons. According to Bleach era drummer Chad Channing, the title comes from the fact the band did not have a name for the song at the time of recording, and when being asked what it was about, Cobain simply stated:  “It’s about a girl.” It was written about Cobain’s then-girlfriend, Tracey Marander, and that was that.

Additionally, the song was also Cobain trying to write a ‘grunge’ song that concealed his pop sensibilities, and he was reluctant to include it on Bleach. In a 1993 interview with David Fricke, he explained: “Even to put ‘About a Girl’ on Bleach was a risk. I was heavily into pop, I really liked R.E.M., and I was into all kinds of old ‘60s stuff. But there was a lot of pressure within that social scene, the underground — like 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.”

Bleach producer Jack Endino expanded on Cobain’s anxieties: “I think Kurt felt nervous about putting ‘About A Girl’ on there, but he was very insistent on it. He said, ‘I’ve got a song that’s totally different from the others, Jack, you’ve gotta just humour me here, because we’re gonna do this real pop tune.’ The question was raised at some point, gee, I wonder if Sub Pop’s going to like this, and we decided, ‘Who cares?’ Sub Pop said nothing. In fact, I think they liked it a lot.”

Referring back to our earlier assertion that Cobain was a man of contrasts, the origin story of ‘About A Girl’ only reinforces this, as it shows his love for the Beatles and their contemporaries and the massive impact they had on his songwriting. This influence can be heard on most of his songs, but on ‘About A Girl’, it is most clear. There was much more substance to Nirvana than plainly punk and ‘grunge’. 

In 2004, Butch Vig, producer of breakthrough album Nevermind, crisply added: “Everyone talks about Kurt’s love affair with… the whole punk scene, but he was also a huge Beatles fan, and the more time we spent together the more obvious their influence on his songwriting became.” 

‘Come As You Are’ – Nevermind, 1991

Another legendary hit, ‘Come As You Are’ was the second single from Nevermind. It was the band’s second and last American top 40 hit, released in March 1992. After the explosion of success that ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ had, the band’s management toiled with whether to release it or ‘In Bloom’ as the second single.

There was much discussion as Cobain felt the song was too similar to Killing Joke’s 1984 single, ‘Eighties’. It took some persuasion, but the song was eventually released as the second single from Nevermind. The record label DGC were acutely aware of its commercial potential. Subsequently, ‘Come As You Are’ became a massive success, so much so, rumours swelled of an incoming lawsuit from Killing Joke, but it never came to fruition. 

Regardless of the alleged copyright issues, the truth of which you can decide for yourself, this is another song that is synonymous with Cobain and Nirvana. From the chorus drenched guitar intro, to the distressing hook line ‘And I swear that I don’t have a gun’, to the liquidy, saturated music video, the song is classic Cobain. Again, using the quiet-loud dynamics first utilised by the Pixies, his classic guitar tone, and dark wordplay it captures the essence of Cobain’s songwriting during the Nevermind period. Dave Grohl told VH1: “We wanted them to be almost like children’s songs; we would tell people they were intended to be as simple as possible,” he said, adding: ​“Kurt’s focus was the melody – he used to say that the music comes first and the lyrics come second.”

Furthermore, Cobain’s massive influence on pop culture can be viewed in the way that Blink 182 referenced the line “Take your time, hurry up, the choice is yours, don’t be late,” in ‘Adam’s Song’. The 2000 hit features the lyrics, “I took my time, I hurried up, the choice was mine, I didn’t think enough.” This encapsulates the massive influence Cobain has had on other legendary bands.

The song even had an effect on Cobain’s hometown of Aberdeen. In 2005, a welcome sign was erected in tribute to him reading: “Welcome to Aberdeen: Come As You Are”.

Additionally, it is no secret the band were huge fans of Killing Joke, and in 2003 Dave Grohl played on their comeback album.

‘Heart-Shaped Box’ (1993)

‘Heart-Shaped Box’ was the first single off Nirvana’s third and final studio album, In Utero. The song was released in August 1993 and marked a darker, heavier direction for the band. The album was produced by legendary musician Steve Albini, and for the first time in their career, the album featured songs that had been written by all three band members.

Cobain wrote the song in early 1992 and had forgotten about it until he and his wife Courtney Love moved into a house in the Hollywood Hills a year later. In a 1994 interview, Love said she had heard him working on the song’s main riff and asked to use it for her band, Hole. Allegedly Cobain responded: “Fuck you!” and closed the closet door.

According to Cobain biographer Charles R. Cross, the couple shared a journal where they would write lyrics, and Love’s lyrical style informed Cobain’s for ‘Heart-Shaped Box’, along with the time when she gave him a heart-shaped box as a present. Although, the song was originally called ‘Heart-Shaped Coffin’ – take from that what you will.

The song’s lyrics are particularly dark. Cobain said the song was inspired by documentaries about children with cancer. He told biographer Michael Azerrad, “Anytime I think about it, it makes me sadder than anything I can think of.” He also stated that the song’s chorus of “Hey/Wait/I’ve got a new complaint” was him sardonically giving an example of how he felt he was portrayed by the media.

However, many people maintain that the song is actually about Courtney Love.  In the Cobain biography Heavier Than Heaven, Charles R. Cross alleges that the lyric: “I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black”, was ” the most convoluted route any songwriter undertook in pop history to say ‘I love you'”.

Love herself alleged it was about her feminine parts on Twitter in 2012, after Lana Del Ray had performed it, but her tweets were swiftly deleted, leaving many questions unanswered.

Regardless of the oblique, dark tone of the lyrics, regarding the musicianship, journalist Gillian Gaar described ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ as “the Nirvana formula personified, with a restrained, descending riff played through the verse, building in intensity to the cascading passion of the chorus.”

‘Heart-shaped Box’ is a gargantuan song, containing the typically Cobain pop melodies, but this time reinforced by Steve Albini’s raw, heavier production.

It was also accompanied by an Anton Corbijn directed music video. Scenes include; warped imagery from The Wizard of Oz, a crow-ridden Christian cross, a little girl reaching for fetuses in a tree, and an old man in hospital.

The idea for the music video came from a “precise” treatment Cobain had devised, and could possibly be taken as reflecting his mental state at the time. Weirdly, it is also the last song Cobain played live with the band, closing their set in Munich, Germany, on March 4th, 1994.

‘All Apologies’ (1993)

‘All Apologies’ is the twelfth and final track on Nirvana’s final studio album, In Utero. Released in September 1993, it was a double A-side single with ‘Rape Me’. It was Nirvana’s last single before Cobain committed suicide five months later. Written by Cobain in 1990, it was first performed at the Wolverhampton Civic Hall, England, on November 6th 1991. 

Dave Grohl recalls that it was “something that Kurt wrote on [a] 4-track in our apartment in Olympia. I remember hearing it and thinking, ‘God, this guy has such a beautiful sense of melody, I can’t believe he’s screaming all the time.'”

The song was recorded numerous times before it made its way onto In Utero, and the first version, recorded in Seattle in January 1991, had “a more upbeat pop-folk sound” than the song that would be the band’s last release. The In Utero version would have the chorus chords accentuated by Novoselic playing sevenths on the guitar, and Grohl incorporating a tambourine as part of his drum kit, giving the song more of a mood.

The In Utero recording also featured Kera Schaley on cello, who also played on ‘Dumb’. She is the only other person to feature as a musician on the record apart from the band. Producer Steve Albini remembered “really liking the sound of that song as a contrast to the more aggressive ones” on the album, stating that “it sounded really good in that it sounded lighter, but it didn’t sound conventional. It was sort of a crude light sound that suited the band.”

Regarding his to pop sensibilities, Cobain stated in 1993 that songs such as ‘All Apologies’ and ‘Dumb’ represented “the lighter, more dynamic” sound that he wished had been more prevalent on the previous Nirvana albums. This hint of regret makes the song a hard listen, particularly knowing this was the last release the band had in his lifetime. 

In 1992, during their now legendary headline set at Reading festival, Cobain dedicated the song to his wife Courtney and their daughter, Frances Bean Cobain. In the 1993 biography Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana, Cobain told Michael Azzerad: “I like to think the song is for them but the words don’t really fit in relation to us…the feeling does, but not the lyrics.” He described the song as being “peaceful, happy, comfort – just happy happiness.” Fans were also treated to an acoustic rendition of this three-minute masterpiece on the MTV Unplugged album.

Happiness can definitely be felt beneath the music and the lyrics. Given what we now know concerning the song’s standing in the timeline of Nirvana, it only makes listening more bittersweet. It truly feels like Cobain is saying his goodbyes, taking off from this world and heading to another, whilst firmly holding two fingers up at his detractors. 

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