Nirvana can be attributed to the honour of being regarding as one of the most influential bands of all time. Ever since they burst onto the worldwide scene in 1991 with their seminal album Nevermind and their ubiquitous Gen-X anthem ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl have had a habit of informing a whole heap of music that came after them. There isn’t a decent rock band in the world worth one’s salt who wouldn’t cite Cobain’s pop subversion on that record, and others, as one of the crowning moments of alternative music in the last 30 years.
Cobain uses his uncanny ear for a pop melody throughout the aforementioned behemoth record and flips the sound on its head, charging up what would have been delightful chords into a raucous and chaotic mess of massive guttural riffs, all completed by his unusually wry lyricism. However, like many unique musical idols, Cobain has never been afraid to pay homage to the past and share the music of his own musical forefathers for all to see. It means that he, and Nirvana, have covered some classic tracks in their time. Below, we’ve got ten of our favourites.
It’s easy to get lost in the mythos of Kurt Cobain. Whenever a pop idol loses their life earlier than expected, it is a tragedy that is felt beyond the parameters of their fandom. But when that loss of life comes at the singer’s own hands, then the situation’s gravity feels inescapable. Of course, Cobain went one step further and saw fit to blame the increased fame and pressure as the central reason for killing himself, leaving his fans crushed in more ways than one. That said, underneath it all, Kurt Cobain was just a normal guy who loved music.
He studied it, he consumed it every way he could and, above all else, he loved it with his every being. It means that he was often happy to share his favourites albums or the bands he held dearest. It also means that he was happy to share the songs which had meant the most to him outside of Nirvana, and provided the grunge trio with plenty of covers because of it.
Some are more famous than others, but they show the connection the band held to music. While it may seem contradictory, more often than not, one can ascertain a sincere sense of an artist by how they approached the expressing of other people’s work and, it’s safe to say, Cobain and Nirvana were one of the best. Only ever using their own voice, they shared the words and emotions of so many previously unknown acts.
Nirvana’s 10 best covers:
10. ‘Return of the Rat’ – The Wipers
If there were two things in music that Kurt Cobain loved more than most it has to be punk rock and the record label K Records. One member of that illustrious roster was Wipers, a band who Cobain often labelled as one of his favourites.
In 1992, Nirvana were asked to contribute to Eight Songs for Greg Sage, a tribute album for The Wipers, and provided a searing reminder of their fast-no-holds-barred-punk side with this cover of ‘Return of the Rat’. It’s a fire-breathing version of the song and one that deserves some special attention. While Sage’s original vocal had a nervous quirk to it, Cobain arrives like the fully-fledged rock star he was in ’92 and delivered a powerhouse moment.
9. ‘Here She Comes Now’ – The Velvet Underground
Nirvana were the kings of the underground scene in Seattle for some time before they truly exploded. During that moment, they were happy to play the tortured artist and not chase the major label deal that would eventually see them dominate MTV and beyond. Instead, they preferred to sit back and release split singles with their friends The Melvins.
Not such a strange proposition until you realise that it was a split release of Velvet Underground covers. While we’re not sure how many they did, in fact, sell to their audience, we can all be glad they made the record. Without it, we wouldn’t have heard Cobain and Nirvana’s cover of Velvet Underground number ‘Here She Comes Now’. It’s one of the more crystalline moments of Nirvana’s cover-career as they provide a completely unique take on the 1968 track.
8. ‘Turnaround’ – Devo
Nirvana’s 1991 gig at OK Hotel in Seattle has gone down in the grubby annals of grunge history. While it was memorable as one of the pivotal moments of the new wave of music the show also paid homage to the past with the band’s cover of Devo’s 1980 B-side ‘Turnaround’.
In the early nineties, the passion for Devo had drastically waned. The band once labels as the future of music by David Bowie had become tiresome among Gen X rock and roll fans. When their 1990 record Smooth Noodle Maps, which tragically contained the song ‘Devo Has Feelings Too’, failed to chart and their live audiences dwindled, Devo decided to split in March 1991.
Just a few short weeks later, one of the band’s biggest fans chose to honour the group with a performance of one of their rare B-sides. The track, ‘Turnaround’, was released in 1980 as the B-side to Devo’s biggest hit ‘Whip It’. Nirvana had picked up the song in their live set the previous year but something about this performance rings out as the essential version.
7. ‘Love Buzz’ – Shocking Blue
It’s not often that a huge band will delve into the murky waters of seventies Dutch music to bring out a searing cover but, then again, Nirvana never really did play things by the book. Their magnificent version of Shocking Blue’s ‘Love Buzz’ was so good that many thought it was an original from the Seattle trio.
The band, Shocking Blue, had largely been forgotten about until Kurt Cobain went digging into the dusty piles of recordings from the decadent decade. Cobain used the song as part of their debut release and the feathered riffs within the cover feel like a fallen angel ready to make Lucifer a new hero.
6. ‘Jesus Don’t Want Me For A Sunbeam’ – The Vaselines
As well as being forever connected to the Pacific North West of America, Kurt Cobain will also always be forever entangled with Scotland. Not only did the band take on a few shows in some of the country’s filthiest bars before they blew up, but Cobain often cited his adoration for the indie-pop outfit The Vaselines.
While there is one, more famous cover about to reveal itself on the list, this version of ‘Jesus Don’t Want Me For A Sunbeam’ is almost as perfect. Nirvana performed the song in 1993 as part of their iconic MTV Unplugged session and the stripped-back sound is pure magic. The track is a delicate balance of paying homage to the original while adding a fresh spin and it lands perfectly.
5. ‘And I Love Her’ – The Beatles
One of the great moments to emerge from 2015’s Montage of Heck was this brilliantly fragile and touching cover of The Beatles classic ‘And I Love Her’. One of the Fab Four’s earliest hits, meaning it is utterly drenched in pop sensibilities, works as the perfect juxtaposition of Cobain’s performance. Taken on as a solo number, the singer delivers one of his purest vocals on the record, despite the lack of a studio in tow.
Despite taking up the mantle of a pure rock behemoth as the leading man of grunge, it’s easy to see how Cobain could have easily settled into the role of folk singer-songwriter too. This cover of The Beatles acts as a perfect window into what that could have been as his vision for the song, tortured, delicate and ultimately harrowing, which showcases an artist in the prime of his life.
4. ‘Lake of Fire’ – Meat Puppets
Given one of their biggest stages — MTV Unplugged — Nirvana proved why they were so adored on both sides of the business battle lines in music. Not only were they happy to play the commercial cadets and collect their cash but they were also keen to try and help their fellow bands infiltrate the mainstream in the same way. Bringing out Meat Puppets during their Unplugged show is perhaps the best vision of this.
The band welcomed Cris and Curt from Meat Puppets on to the mainstage. They were a band who, without gaining any real promotion, had influenced a whole plethora of grunge bands. After their appearance with Nirvana, they scored their only chart hit and finally received the acclaim they deserved. It was arguably this cover of ‘Lake of Fire’ which helped achieve it.
3. ‘Molly’s Lips’ – The Vaselines
Back to that Glaswegian stalwart band for Kurt Cobain, the Vaselines and the singer’s most compelling cover of their work ‘Molly’s Lips’. The song has become so closely tied with Nirvana that many think it an original composition form the trio. Instead, the song is a painstakingly brilliant tribute to one of Cobain’s favourite bands.
The Vaselines were always on the twee side of indie-pop and their song ‘Molly’s Lips’ was about as close as they got to sit down at a tea party. But when Cobain and the rest of the group grabbed a hold of the track they turned it into a razor-spitting juggernaut of a song. Distortion is kicked up to eleven and Cobain’s vocals are as acid-dripping as ever. It’s easily one of their best covers and arguably better than the original song.
2. ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’ – Leadbelly
“Burroughs said that if you want to hear true, honest music with passion, then you should hear Leadbelly.” For Kurt Cobain, having William S, Burroughs suggest an artist to listen to, was almost as good as certifying Leadbelly as the greatest musician of all time. It’s not surprising then that he covered the great lost folk artist with such integrity.
Another take from their famed MTV Unplugged session, Nirvana are on fine form as they provide a near-perfect reimagining of the track. In truth, Cobain, Krist Novoselic and others had been performing Leadbelly covers for years, but this one lands more heavily than most. The trio ended their iconic set with the song and, as the music builds and Cobain’s vocal gets more erratic, it’s hard not to feel a pang of pain for what could have been.
1. ‘Man Who Sold The World’ – David Bowie
The vocal power of Kurt Cobain is too often overlooked. While his lyricism and attitude are what put him on the bedroom walls of teenagers across the globe in the early nineties as the face of grunge, his vocal performance is still a powerhouse piece of the puzzle. No better is this seen than with the vocal performance of not one of his own songs but as part of Nirvana’s cover of David Bowie track ‘The Man Who Sold The World’—a song they made famous on MTV’s Unplugged and has since become wrongly seen as one of the band’s best original songs.
While the track was originally released by Bowie, the song’s ubiquitous sound has lent itself to many covers over the years from the far reaches of the musical spectrum. The argument over who recorded the most iconic effort was surely settled a long time ago. Nirvana’s cover of the track is the undoubted winner, no matter your allegiance.
Later, the song and the session became an integral part of the band’s output in those last months before Cobain’s sudden death, forming a large part of their rotation on MTV.
Bowie said of Nirvana’s cover: “I was simply blown away when I found that Kurt Cobain liked my work, and have always wanted to talk to him about his reasons for covering ‘The Man Who Sold the World’.” The Starman, ever the lover of any art, added: “It was a good straight forward rendition and sounded somehow very honest. It would have been nice to have worked with him, but just talking with him would have been real cool.”
Nirvana’s stripped-back cover was an authentic tribute to the song but also an honest interpretation of the track’s content. It’s a theme which Cobain delivers perfectly with his vocal. He allows the song’s protagonist to meet his doppelganger and share the odd moment, offering Cobain the chance to perhaps crack open the door to his own feelings of the time.
It naturally fits Cobain’s own paradoxical life, a man with the world at his fingertips so hasty to shove it away. It’s this vulnerability and resignation that resonates so cleanly.