You’d be forgiven for thinking John Lydon something of an iconoclast. As the sneering frontman of Sex Pistols, Lydon made a career out of tearing down cherished idols and institutions. So it comes as a surprise to hear that one of the bands Lydon cherished was the Seattle-based grunge outfit Nirvana.
Fronted by Kurt Cobain, Nirvana’s music contain much of the DNA of punk bands like Sex Pistols, The Ramones, and even proto-punk bands like The Stooges. With albums like Bleach and In Utero, Nirvana’s punk ethos is front and centre, as characterised by the swirling of dual guitars and Cobain’s chaotic vocal performances. However, Nirvana’s 1991 album Nevermind marked a distinct shift towards a more radio-friendly sound. With the help of Butch Vig, the grungesters achieved worldwide airplay and became the poster-children of a genre that overthrew metal and dominated the charts throughout the 1990s.
You’d expect that kind of commercial success to leave a bitter taste in Lydon’s mouth. But, then again, for all his hatred of commercially, he himself fronted one of the most popular and important bands of the 1970s. Lydon’s legacy is unavoidable. Everywhere you look, there is some remnant of the trail of glorious destruction that Sex Pistols left in their wake. In a recent interview, he described some of the albums that have shaped him throughout his career, a career that has cut a markedly jagged shape in the landscape of UK music.
Included in his choices – which featured records from everyone from Kraftwerk to Iggy And The Stooges – was Nirvana’s album Nevermind. Of the 1991 LP, Lydon said: “I remember being very angry at their album title being Nevermind. I thought ‘Nevermind? Have you lost your bollocks or something?’ I was drawing a line on it all, perhaps too sharply, but I have to say ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ is one of pop music’s all-time greatest. That song is firmly embedded in my psyche. So, I forgive them.”
For Lydon, it was Nirvana’s ability to capture the imagination of the world’s youth that really marked them out. With ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, Nirvana created one of the defining anthems of the 1990s. It so perfectly captures those feelings of hormone-driven angst and disillusionment that, so many decades later, it still forms the soundtrack of countless teenager’s lives. Is it any wonder Lydon had such affection for Nirvana?
With Nevermind, Nirvana achieved what the Pistols had with Never Mind The Bollocks in the 1970s. Like the Pistols, they somehow found a way of acknowledging and exorcising the frustrations of an entire generation in one fell swoop.
Lydon saw in Nirvana, a band with all the power to change the world. Still, he couldn’t ignore the seed of melancholy that had its roots in the foundation of their songcraft. In Lydon’s own words: “Most bands can’t come up with one complete song, and sometimes one is enough. By ‘Heart-Shaped Box,’ it was all starting to sound a bit suicidal. I felt it coming.”