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'No One Knew That This Storm Was About to Blow Up': Steve Lamacq on 'Nevermind' and the 'Massive Emotional Impact' of Kurt Cobain's Death

'That album was never off some people's turntables, it became the go-to record for any emotional hurdle they were trying to get over.'

kurt cobain
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Kurt Cobain died on April 5, 1994.

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When Nirvana’s second album Nevermind was released in September 1991, BBC 6 Music DJ Steve Lamacq was working at the NME and had interviewed the band the year before. On the 30th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death, he tells Q about the effect the album had on him – and how he believes that there hasn’t been another frontman like Cobain since.

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So just for context, before Nevermind I was not a massive grunge fan. I thought the Mudhoney records were all right, but that whole scene hadn't been important to me, because [at the NME] we were covering a lot of what was going on in Britain at the time. But I then interviewed Nirvana around the release of “Sliver” and I got this inkling that something was evolving here.

The PR guy for Nirvana sent us a cassette which had some of the demos for the songs that would become Nevermind. And they were quite rough, but there was a version of “Polly” on it which was just terrific and you could almost feel the band reaching out, the sound was expanding. And then a little while later I got the advance cassette of Nevermind… and of course it was brilliant.

Nevermind was not an instant success though, was it? I think it took something like 16 weeks to break into the Top 10 in this country.

Yeah it was a real slow burner. In fact, when we finally came to review the record at the NME, it was relegated to 400 words on the fourth page of the album review section, overshadowed by, I think, Guns N' Roses, Primal Scream and the Jesus and Mary Chain. It seems crazy now.

But you have to remember it's not like everyone had been anticipating this record. It just comes out and then it starts to grow and grow and grow. I actually found my original review of it and it's interesting because in it I make the point that there was a gap somewhere between Metallica and Pixies – and that's where Nevermind fitted in, taking elements of proper rock music, but also the melodic idea of the Pixies, and in between that, also inspired by R.E.M. and the Beatles.

kurt cobain nevermind
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'Nevermind' took 16 weeks to break into the British Top 40 but would go on to sell 30 million copies worldwide.

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That three-song opening of the album: “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, “In Bloom” and “Come As You Are” – that’s quite extraordinary, isn't it? As a statement of intent, it takes some beating.

Yeah, but the album as a whole is incredibly consistent. I mean, what would you take off? Possibly “Lounge Act” if you’re being picky, but apart from that, I think everything feels like it's there for a reason. The whole record has such a belligerent confidence about it. I don't know what the feeling in the studio was, what atmosphere [producer] Butch Vig managed to create, but it really feels like they had found this freedom on Nevermind, and from that point on all bets were off.

For me, listening to it the first time, I think “Come As You Are” was the key because of the incredible tension in that song. If Bleach had been one side of them, they almost reversed the black and white, flipped it over. Instead of this barrage of noise, they found out what you can do when you take your foot off the pedal occasionally.

There was nothing else like it. I think one of the reasons that it made such a statement and felt so different is that Nirvana had gone against the accepted norm of what you expected a rock record to sound like in 1991.

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How big a factor is Kurt’s voice? I feel like on Nevermind especially he's got this amazing kind of ache to it, he's really not pretending...

It's incredible. You can howl and shout your way through a record and the listeners won’t feel they’ve really made contact with the person behind the songs, apart from knowing that they're quite angry or frustrated, or backed into a corner. With Nevermind though, he was creating images and emotions in his words and voice which connected in a way that maybe something more upfront and obvious probably wouldn't have done. There is something to be said for the primal anger of that punk rock scene around Sub Pop, but there’s also something very moving and engaging when you have somebody who sounds more fragile, less angry and more introspective.

“Ache” is a great word for it – he was opening the door into his psyche. I think these songs were his way of making sense of life. So yeah, there was a real ache there which I think a lot of people connected with.

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kurt cobain reading
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'There’s something very moving and engaging when you have somebody who sounds more fragile.'

There's a horrible irony there as well, because after Nevermind’s success Cobain was saddled with the whole “Voice of a Generation” tag which he clearly wasn't comfortable with. Do you think that Nirvana becoming the biggest band in the world was also part of what ultimately undid him?

I think that’s probably true. When I interviewed Nirvana before Nervermind came out they in no way felt like they had the drive to be the biggest band in the world. They just wanted to make great songs. We spent ages talking about what made memorable, classic songs, talking about R.E.M. and the Beatles and just how they wanted to crash those kind of melodic influences into the noise that they were making. And I got the impression that Kurt would much rather be writing songs than talking about them. I think that all they really wanted out of it was to be able to make great records.

Nobody could have predicted at that point what would happen to Nirvana. No one knew that this storm was about to blow up around them, least of all them. And yes, ultimately the “Voice of a Generation” label hung very uncomfortably around his neck.

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kurt cobain unplugged
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Kurt Cobain was never comfortable with being labeled 'The Voice of a Generation'.

And there were only three years between Nevermind and Cobain’s death. Do you think that then kind of added a whole other level of importance to the album, where people looked again at the songs and retrospectively reinterpreted them?

Yeah, that's quite possible. I didn't go back and try and look for clues or anything because I felt like you could already hear the hurt at the time. But certainly there's some mythologizing which has gone on. His death was so sudden and so shocking, it was incredibly impactful. There was just this incredible outpouring of sadness around the world.

And it had a massive impact on everyone in music. Just watching the footage of the vigils from around the world… we all knew how big Nirvana were commercially, but suddenly we saw how much they meant to people on a really personal level.

The void that his death left for so many people was the first time in years and years that we saw that incredible level of investment from music fans into a band. Everyone who really fell in love with him, and had given so much of themselves and trusted in this group so much… that for the man at the center of it to then take his own life? It was unthinkable. It was incredibly emotional.

Do you think there has been anyone since that has had that depth of emotional connection with their fans?

I don't think so. Not in the same way, not in the way that that album was never off some people's turntables, that it became the go-to record for any emotional hurdle that they were trying to get over. As a lyricist who simply kept people company, I don't think there's been anybody like Kurt Cobain since.

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BBC Radio 6 Music will be remembering Kurt Cobain on Friday 5th April with Kurt Cobain Forever (7am-7pm) and a collection of programmes dedicated to Kurt will also be available on BBC Sounds. BBC Two and BBC iPlayer will broadcast a night of TV programmes to mark the 30th anniversary of his passing - including Kurt Cobain: Moments That Shook Music - on Saturday 13th April.


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