11 Surprising Facts About Nirvana's 'Nevermind'
On September 24, 1991, a relatively unknown rock band from Aberdeen, Washington, released its second album and first on a major label. What happened next radically changed the face of pop music and altered the cultural landscape for years to come. The group, of course, was Nirvana, and the album was Nevermind, an irresistible amalgam of youthful angst and loud-quiet-loud guitar dynamics that signaled the ascendance of “grunge.”
Led by the world-beating single “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Nevermind sold in droves, killed hair metal, kickstarted the alt-rock revolution, and made a superstar of troubled Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. In honor of the album’s 30th anniversary, here are 11 facts about Nirvana’s magnum opus.
1. Nevermind was released on the same day as several other classic albums.
If you went to your local Sam Goody or Tower Records on September 24, 1991, there’s a good chance you blew your entire allowance on CDs. In addition to Nevermind, the new release shelf that day would’ve featured Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger, Red Hot Chili Peppers’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik, and A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory.
2. The album wasn’t originally going to be called Nevermind.
Nirvana’s working title for their sophomore LP was Sheep. This was apparently a snide commentary about the people who might buy the album, as Cobain drafted some ad copy in his journal that read: “Because you want to not, because everyone else is.” Bass player Krist Novoselic has said the title was a reflection of the band’s cynicism.
3. Geffen had low expectations for Nevermind.
When Nevermind came out, Geffen shipped a mere 46,521 copies to American retail outlets. The label was hoping to sell 250,000 copies—the same as Sonic Youth had with 1990’s Goo. The upper-level predictions were that Nevermind would achieve gold status and move 500,000 units. Then “Smells Like Teen Spirit” hit and blew all sales projections out the window. At the peak of Nirvanamania, the album was selling 300,000 copies per week. By 1999, it had been certified 10x platinum in the United States. All told, it has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide.
4. Nevermind topped the charts and toppled the King of Pop.
On January 11, 1992, Nevermind hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 album chart. In reaching the summit, the LP dethroned Michael Jackson’s Dangerous, which had held the pole position for four consecutive weeks. It was a symbolic victory for both Nirvana and the rising alternative rock movement, though Nevermind was unseated a week later by country superstar Garth Brooks’s Ropin’ the Wind, the year’s top album. Nevermind returned to the top of the chart for one more week in February 1992—right before Brooks reigned for another eight straight weeks.
5. The baby on the cover of Nevermind is all grown up—and litigious.
Cobain began brainstorming ideas for the Nevermind cover after watching a documentary about underwater births. He originally wanted to use an actual photo of a water birth, but the record label wasn’t too psyched about the graphic image. So Nirvana went with plan B, the album’s now-iconic image of a naked baby swimming toward a dollar bill on a fishhook. Photographer Kirk Weddle chose as his cover star 4-month-old Spencer Elden, the son of a friend. Elden’s family was reportedly paid $200 for the 15-second shoot, and as of 2016, Elden had never met any members of Nirvana.
In August 2021, as the albums’ 30th anniversary approached, Elden announced lawsuits against Cobain’s estate and Nirvana’s surviving members, alleging sexual exploitation. According to the suit, Elden has suffered “extreme and permanent emotional distress,” among other things. Elden had previously made headlines for recreating the Nevermind photo several times, most recently in 2016, when both he and the album turned 25.
6. Dave Grohl isn’t the only drummer heard on Nevermind.
In April 1990, before signing with a major, Nirvana went to Madison, Wisconsin, and made a series of demo recordings with producer Butch Vig at Smart Studios. At the time, the lineup still included drummer Chad Channing, who wound up leaving a few months later. Channing was replaced by Dave Grohl, who played on virtually all of Nevermind. But Channing’s ride cymbal can be heard on the acoustic ballad “Polly,” a holdover from the Smart Studios sessions.
7. A Nevermind outtake became a proper release for Hole.
During sessions for Nevermind at Sound City in Los Angeles, Nirvana worked on four songs that didn’t make the final album. One of them was “Old Age,” a tune the band recorded quickly and abandoned after adding a guitar overdub. Butch Vig never even mixed the track.
Cobain’s wife, Courtney Love, wrote new lyrics and recorded “Old Age” with her band Hole as the B-side for the 1993 single “Beautiful Son.” Hole released a second version of the song as the B-side of 1995’s “Violet.” A snippet of this rendition can be heard during the intro for “Credit in the Straight World,” a Young Marble Giants cover included on Hole’s 1994 blockbuster sophomore album, Live Through This.
8. “Lithium” was a real bear to record.
Most of the songs on Nevermind were completed in two or three takes. “Lithium” was an exception. After three or four misfires, a furious Cobain shifted gears unexpectedly and led the band through “Endless, Nameless,” a caustic tune that would be released as a hidden bonus track on later pressings of Nevermind. When they were finished, Cobain smashed his guitar to bits, effectively ending the day’s session.
Cobain wasn’t the only one struggling with “Lithium.” Vig suggested that Grohl play to a click track, a metronome tool that drummers use to maintain a steady tempo. This devastated Grohl, who feared he’d never be good enough to be a session drummer. That night, Grohl went home with Vig’s drum machine—another useful way to keep tempo—and the next day, he knocked out “Lithium” perfectly on the first take.
9. Cobain didn’t think “Smells Like Teen Spirit” rocked very hard.
For millions of listeners, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was a furious rock anthem that exploded out of the speakers and made everything else on MTV sound puny and inconsequential by comparison. The song’s author heard it differently. “It’s such a perfect mixture of cleanliness and nice, candy-ass production,” Cobain told biographer Michael Azerrad. “It may be extreme to some people who aren’t used to it, but I think it’s kind of lame, myself.”
10. Nevermind cost more than 200 times what its predecessor did.
The original budget for Nevermind was $65,000. But by the time Nirvana wrapped up sessions at Sound City, they’d reportedly spent $120,000. While this wasn’t a massive sum compared to other major-label albums being made at the time, it was roughly 200 times more than the $600 Nirvana spent making their debut album, 1989’s Bleach.
11. Nevermind was mixed by a guy who had worked with Slayer (and Madonna).
Butch Vig was very successful at eliciting strong performances from the band. But when it came time to mix the record, he ran into some problems. “I was just going to mix it really straightforward, but the band came to all the mixing sessions and honestly they didn’t really know at the time how to mix,” Vig told Billboard. “Kurt kept coming up to the board saying, ‘I want it to sound more like Black Sabbath,’ and turned the treble off on everything. It sounded like sh*t.”
The band’s management suggested they consider an outside mixer, and when looking at a list of potential candidates, Cobain selected Andy Wallace, since he’d engineered albums by thrash-metal gods Slayer. As Vig points out, Cobain probably didn’t realize Wallace had also remixed some tunes for Madonna.