The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

25 years ago, Nirvana was skyrocketing to fame so fast, The Washington Post couldn’t keep up

Kurt Cobain and Dave Grohl of Nirvana performing live in December 1993. (Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc)

It was the definitive soundtrack of the 1990s, a musical bible to a disillusioned generation of punks and rockers and flannel-clad, angst-ridden teenagers. It was the record that changed everything. You know the one.

In honor of the 25th anniversary this fall of “Nevermind,” the album that launched the underground Seattle rock band Nirvana to staggering fame in a mere matter of weeks, we combed through The Washington Post’s archives searching for the earliest glimmer of grunge — the defining moment when the band’s name first graced our pages.

Here it is:

In a cursory recap of a 9:30 Club show in the May 1, 1990, issue of the Style section, 21 of the review’s 147 words were devoted to Nirvana, openers for the headlining British band Loop.

“Also on the bill was Nirvana, a Seattle trio that — despite the trippy name — was the evening’s most traditionally song-oriented band,” freelance reviewer Mark Jenkins wrote.

That’s it.

To be fair, this was more than a year before the September 1991 release of “Nevermind.” So we tweaked our search parameters, and found The Post’s record review from December 4, 1991. Jenkins described the trio as “a young band talking to its peers, and not in a pensive tone of voice.” Their sophomore album, he said, was “hook-laden without being conventional, carefully arranged without sacrificing the trio’s loose, rampaging energy.”

A positive review. Still, it appeared nearly 2½ months after “Nevermind” was released and well after it had made its mark on the charts.

Look, it’s not as though we weren’t aware of Nirvana. When the Style section published its annual “In/Out” list to salute the new year — 1992 — Nirvana was most emphatically “In.” (Out: Guns N’ Roses.)

And, hey, you can’t say The Post was not cool enough! As the grunge revolution took hold, the Style section was routinely reviewing the new releases by bands much more obscure than Nirvana — L7, Babes in Toyland, Mudhoney — often with reference to the bigger act (“But only time will tell whether Teenage Fanclub ends up like the million-selling Nirvana”).

Alas. The band’s ascent was so rapid, its newfound popularity so overwhelming, its name recognition so vast, that the window for a timely introduction to readers was astoundingly small. And The Washington Post totally missed it.

A passing reference in the pop music critic’s column, dated Jan. 29, 1992, made it clear that the ship had sailed:

“With the SoundScan record sales measuring system in place, it’s now easier to gauge immediate results of major media exposure for top acts. For instance, Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ is back atop Billboard’s album chart after the group’s “Saturday Night Live” appearance two Saturdays ago,” critic Richard Harrington noted.

In 1992, Nirvana was briefly referenced in a story about English singer-songwriter John Lydon. “Nevermind’s” formidable producer, Butch Vig, made cameo appearances in a couple of other record reviews — and Style unleashed a major profile of none other than Weird Al Yankovic, giving particular attention to his “Smells Like Nirvana,” a parody of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” By late summer of ’92, The Post’s music coverage was referencing the “post-Nirvana era.”

And when the band released its third record in 1993, Mark Jenkins opened his review with a nod to the lasting impact of “Nevermind”: “For its most enthusiastic exegetes, Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ changed everything,” he wrote. “Here was loud, aggressive, guitar-drunk music that sold, that drove Michael Jackson right off the top of the charts.”

It was the most that was said about Nirvana or “Nevermind” in The Post — until April 1994, when the story of Cobain’s shocking suicide made the front page.

“By virtue of Nirvana’s stunning record sales and MTV exposure, Cobain, 27, was presumed to speak for a youth subculture whose fatalistic outlook was forged by the dissolution of family, lowered expectations in the job market, and endemic drug abuse and violence,” Harrington and then-staff writer Richard Leiby wrote.

The article noted that, as of 1994, “Nevermind” had sold a “staggering” 10 million copies worldwide. Today, that number tops 30 million.


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