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Come as you Were: Nirvana's Enduring Influence

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Twenty years old this weekend and celebrated by the release of a gigantic 4-CD/ 1 DVD special edition, Nirvana's Nevermind has had many adjectives associated with it. People have called it ground-breaking, game-changing, iconic.

In the UK at least, it followed on the back of a buzz created at that August's Reading Festival, where Nirvana's mid-afternoon set debuting some of their new material became the talk of the weekend. The band had been on a long tour with Sonic Youth, and the senior headlining band documented the proceedings for a film that would be called The Year That Punk Broke.

Did they know at the time that Nevermind was the album to bring 'alternative' rock to a more mainstream audience?

My first experience of the songs that made up Nevermind came at that festival, where they were sandwiched between the UK grunge of Silverfish and Reading's own shoegaze band Chapterhouse.

I wasn't a huge fan of much of the heavy rock-influenced records that Sub Pop had been releasing that year, so I initially skipped some of Nirvana's set. When I started paying attention though, it became clear that they had taken the fine blueprint of their debut album Bleach and added some poppier influences.

They had hinted at this with the previous single Sliver, but that afternoon I heard Drain You, Smells Like Teen Spirit and Come As You Are and it was obvious that something big was on the horizon.

It seemed that REM, Pixies and the Smithereens had been a big influence on Cobain's newer songs, but the band also played their cover of Shocking Blue's Love Buzz, a 1970s bubblegum cover that had also served as their first release on grunge label SubPop.

People forget that the pop sensibilities were always there, and the anthemic feel of some of the tracks on Nevermind was not a huge surprise.

A month after Reading, Nevermind arrived. The first single was Smells Like Teen Spirit and it was everywhere! On the radio, on MTV and inside every indie or rock club and student disco. I lived in Belfast at the time and some on-the-ball local promoters had booked them to play the student's union in the Art College.

Success changed their plans - in fact I think it was cancelled because they had to do Top of the Pops! - and the gig ended up being moved to the much larger King's Hall several months later.

For those of us attending the gig, it was a revelation to see them, accompanied by Teenage Fanclub and the Breeders in support, filling the concert space associated with rock bands from an older generation.

By the time they finally played all their rescheduled UK dates, Nevermind had replaced Michael Jackson's album Dangerous at the top of the Billboard charts in America, and it was selling 300,000 copies per week. Twenty years later, the album has sold over 30 million copies worldwide.

Alternative rock had entered the mainstream, and the major players in the music industry began to take notice of the independent sector, seemingly willing to throw money at anyone who sounded vaguely like Nirvana.

A lot of the interest centred on Sub Pop, a Seattle-based indie record label that at the time was well known for bands who were mixing alternative punk with powerful heavy rock, such as Mudhoney, Soundgarden and Tad, a sound that had already been called 'grunge' as early as 1986, when it was used to describe the pre-Mudhoney band Green River.

Many other labels such as K Records and Kill Rock Stars benefitted from associations with Nirvana and their support bands, and seeing Kurt's photo shoots wearing his Daniel Johnson 'Hi, How Are You' t-shirt, made me aware of Johnson for the first time.

Through interviews, cover versions and inviting bands to support them, Nirvana introduced me to bands like Shonen Knife, Beat Happening and The Vaselines - acts who have may otherwise have remained hidden in the world of limited edition releases on small labels - and the back catalogues of artists like Black Flag, the Minutemen and the Meat Puppets suddenly became cool again.

Nevermind's impact on a generation was significant. Indie-rock had a steady underground audience through the music press and John Peel's show in the UK, and college radio and fanzines in the States, but Nirvana had widened its appeal and a whole group of young people suddenly had a music to connect with that wasn't based around clubs or heavy metal.

While Nirvana were soon to challenge their audience with the abrasive and natural sounding follow-up In Utero, recorded with few overdubs by the now legendary Steve Albini, it was Nevermind that sealed their reputation. Their influence remains both in the anguished soft-metal that has remained popular since, but also in their efforts in bringing indie-rock to the masses.

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