“I was looking for something a lot heavier, yet melodic at the same time. Something different from heavy metal, a different attitude.” — Kurt Cobain
Nearly three decades after Nirvana man Kurt Cobain’s tragic suicide brought the march of Gen X to a standstill, the singer’s influence is still being felt today. Along with Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl, he created a movement that had been rarely replicated in the annals of music history. Through a series of guttural releases, wrenching performances and authentic lyrics, the group emerged from the early ’90s as the biggest band on the planet—something they had miraculously achieved without too much compromise.
Of course, those compromises would eventually arrive and push Cobain toward his eventual passing. It’s because, at the heart of things, Cobain was an artist intent on keeping his art pure. He wanted to deliver an expression that made sense of his feelings, offered them out to his fans as lifelines and remained a force pushing against the dirge of mundanity. It was an ethos he had ascertained from his favourite bands.
A keen lover of music, Cobain was, like all accredited musos, a lover of a wide range of tracks, albums and bands. In his epic list of 50 favourite albums of all time, Cobain notes a plethora of acts including, David Bowie, The Clash, The Beatles, Public Enemy and countless more. But there are some bands and artists who simply meant more to Cobain and ended up shaping not only his young life but, in turn, the lives of millions.
Each one noted below has a different connection to Kurt Cobain but the beating heart of each inclusion is their own visceral connection to their art. Nearly all mentioned committed themselves entirely to their projects and it was this intrinsic factor that would have endeared these acts to Cobain more so than others.
Kurt Cobain’s 7 favourite bands of all time:
One of the surprise inclusions on the list for some is the punk pioneers, the Buzzcocks. Fronted by the late, great Pete Shelley, the Mancunian band put the pop in punk and finessed the aggressive sound into something wholly more digestible. It would be a fusion of pop sensibilities and punk rock attitude that Cobain would employ on a lot of his other work. The band were so integral in the punk rock movement it’s hard to imagine Kurt not thrashing around to one of their incendiary numbers.
Buzzcocks and Nirvana would share a European tour in 1994, within weeks of Cobain’s tragic suicide. Buzzcock member Steve Diggle tells the Clitheroe Advertiser, “When Nirvana played, Kurt wore a Buzzcocks beanie hat on stage. I said to him, ‘I’ll see you when we get to London, ’ and by the time we got back there, it was all over the news that he was dead.”
The band’s sometime singer continues, “We’d been with him all week and while Kurt was a nice guy he was dealing with a lot of pressure. He seemed a tortured soul. I remember Kurt asking how we’d survived all these years. When you’re in a band you need to look after your soul.”
There is perhaps no band as influential on Nirvana as The Melvins. Arguably considered Kurt Cobain’s idols, the band represented an untouched unbiased straightforward avant-garde rock unit. They embodied everything that excited Cobain, and he was an avid fan for most of his adult life. The singer helped produce their album Houdini and even became a roadie for them in his adolescent years.
Cobain would use similar sonic phrasing to The Melvins, looking at Nirvana’s ‘Milk It’ and it is easy to hear comparisons with Melvins’ single ‘It’s Shoved’, which had been released by two years prior. Thanks to his rising star with Nirvana, the association with Cobain boosted Melvins’ kudos in the scene and saw them gain some moderate commercial success, likely something that would have annoyed Cobain. But, in truth, the connection runs far deeper than just music.
In Buzz Osborne, Cobain found himself an icon. Often cited as one of the hardest working men in rock, Osborne’s unique viewpoint on rock ‘n’ roll made him the perfect hero for Cobain.
Unrelenting and unwilling to conform, Osborne expresses the punk rock attitude with a new twisted and severe sonic output. While it remains not entirely clear whether he and Cobain fell out before his death, their relationship together, for a time at least, was stronger than blood.
The Vaselines are another band that are intrinsically linked to both Cobain and Nirvana.
Least of all because they covered ‘Molly’s Lips’ and most of all because Cobain adored them. The duo of the band, which Cobain typifies with “Eugene + Francis = documented love,” offered up a harmonious image that endeared the Nirvana singer to the punk rock group.
“I just have this feeling they had a really cool relationship,” explained Cobain in 1992. “I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I just think it’s a really amazing thing when a couple can get together and write some of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. They’re kind of sharing their life with people. Eugene and Francis are the Captain & Tennille of the underground.” It’s something that Cobain himself would employ through his songwriting.
The Vaselines were the first band in Cobain’s life to really put the soul into punk rock. A romantic man at heart, Cobain was swept away by the couple at the centre of the group. “Could I imagine myself and Courtney ever doing something like that? Absolutely. We play together all the time. Musically, we’re compatible, because we think exactly the same and we feel the same, and it’s really easy to come up with good music if you’re like that.”
On the aforementioned list of Kurt Cobain’s 50 favourite albums of all time, the singer selected not one or two but three different albums from the band Wipers. “The Wipers were a Portland punk band who were started in the late Seventies by Greg Sage and released maybe four or five albums,” recalled Cobain in a feature for Melody Maker.
His favourite albums list contained their 1980 LP Is This Real?, Youth of America which followed in 1981 and Over the Edge from 1983. It’s a huge commendation on the vital importance the group had not only on Cobain as a listener but as a participant in the rock scene.
“The first two [albums] were totally classic and influenced the Melvins and all the other punk rock bands. They’re another band I tried to assimilate,” admitted the singer, who was never shy to magpie his way through the archives of rock. “Their songs were so good.”
Cobain had a particular affection for Wipers’ leader, Greg Sage “[He] was pretty much the romantic, quiet, visionary kind of guy. What more can I say about them? They started Seattle grunge rock in Portland, 1977.”
There are two reasons for the iconic soul man Leadbelly’s inclusion on the list as one of Cobain’s favourite artists. One of them is his incredible album Last Session, which he has claimed changed his life, and the other is his adoration for William S. Burroughs. To Cobain, there was nobody greater than the beat novelist and author of Naked Lunch.
Later in Cobain’s career, he would even work with Burroughs, and it is clear that the writer had more than a hand in turning the grunge singer’s attention toward the legendary singer.
For Cobain, Leadbelly represented music’s crowning achievement, and much of that was down to the advice Burroughs gave him. About the record, Cobain said, “Burroughs said that if you want to hear true, honest music with passion, then you should hear Leadbelly.”
“The songs are just amazingly heartfelt. Leadbelly was this poor black man in the early 1900s who went to jail a few times for wife-beating and robbery and getting into fights and bootlegging liquor,” he adds. “While he was in prison, he started playing the guitar, and he sang so well that the governor started to like him and let him out of jail.”
“He was like the first punk rocker,” Cobain claimed in ’92. “He was such a hardened person. He’d get into town, walk into an all white bar, try to have a drink, get beat up and then go to jail because of it. So it’s really cool to hear this music, especially the air of the recordings themselves, because it’s so eerie to hear it on this crackly two-track. He’ll start off with a little introduction on what the song is about, play a little and [dive] in.”
Kurt Cobain, above all else, was an avid lover of the eccentric.
One man who typified that word was Daniel Johnston. The singer became one of the underground’s darlings after Cobain wore his ‘Hi, How Are You?’ t-shirt, something Johnston always fondly remembered: “Somebody gave me a Xerox copy of the picture, and I had it hanging on the wall. It was a big deal because it was the MTV Awards!”
Johnston may have gained notoriety on a wide scale after Cobain’s informal introduction but he had been creating his own buzz since the early ’80s when he became a local legend in Austin, Texas. The artist was known for handing out homemade tapes of his stripped back and vulnerable work, an action that typified the man. It’s about as pure an image as one can hope to have of the music industry, that of a poet and performer making music for his own purpose.
It was the exact ethos that Cobain adored so much about Johnston. As well as a slew of incredible, heartfelt songs, Johnston was the epitome of the downtrodden, misunderstood artist.
One band often cited as Kurt Cobain’s favourite of all time is the subversive act known as The Frogs. The brothers, who mainly wrote catchy pop-rock songs, were shrouded in controversy… and they absolutely loved it. Most notably, the uproar they caused came from their improvised home studio recordings which touched on issues such as race, religion, and sexuality – predominantly focusing on homoeroticism which royally pissed off the gay community. All of these home recordings were delivered in a comedic manner.
The Frogs managed to garner a cult following which included the likes of Beck, the Smashing Pumpkins, Sebastian Bach, Eddie Vedder and, of course, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain.
After meeting Cobain in 1993, The Frogs wrote two songs about him… as you do. Not content with that, the two brothers also made him a videotape entitled ‘Toy Porno’ which featured a few live performances and stop-motion animation with painted toys. The porno bit? Yeah, that’s because the animated toys were used as sexually promiscuous characters in various short sketches.
According to urban myth, this tape became constant viewing material on Nirvana’s tour bus.