50 Things You Might Not Know About Nirvana's 'Nevermind'
By Dave Basner
September 23, 2022
On September 24th, 1991, Nirvana released their second studio album, Nevermind. To mark the iconic record’s 31st anniversary, here are 50 things you might not know about it:
1. The album was tentatively titled Sheep, a joke about the people singer Kurt Cobain expected to buy the record. In his journal, Kurt wrote a fake ad for a record called Sheep. It said, “Because you want to not; because everyone else is.”
2. Kurt decided instead to name the record Nevermind because it was a metaphor for his attitude on life and because it was grammatically incorrect.
3. Cobain got the idea for the cover art for Nevermind after watching a show about water births. To create the cover, Art Director Robert Fisher found footage of water births, but they were too graphic. He also found shots of kids in a pool but the licensing company for those photos wanted $7,500 a year to use them, so he had a photographer take new photos. Spencer Elden, a son of one of that photographer’s friends, was the naked boy on the cover.
4. Nirvana’s label wanted to censor the baby boy's penis but Kurt would only allow a sticker to cover the penis if the sticker said, “If you’re offended by this, you must be a closet pedophile.”
5. The collage pictured on the back of the album, behind the monkey, is one Kurt created with photos of raw beef from a supermarket ad, images from Dante’s Inferno and pictures of diseased vaginas from a collection of medical photos he had.
6. Kurt once said that if you look real close on the back cover, you can see a picture of Kiss standing on a slab of beef.
7. Rather than including all the song lyrics in the liner notes, the band put in random song lyrics and unused lyrical fragments that Kurt turned into a poem.
9. Nirvana chose producer Butch Vig because they liked his work with noise rock band Killdozer. They even said to him, “We want to sound as heavy as that record.”
10. Nirvana began work on Nevermind at Butch’s Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin in April of 1990.
11. The band arranged eight songs in Wisconsin and planned to do more but Kurt strained his voice on “Lithium,” putting an end to the sessions.
12. The guys recorded the album in May and June of 1991 at Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, California.
13. The only recording from Wisconsin that carried over to the official album production was “Polly,” which features original drummer Chad Channing’s cymbal crashes.
14. Kurt didn’t want to double track his vocals, but Butch knew it would give the songs a fuller sound that he wanted. Butch also knew Kurt was a John Lennon fan so he told the rocker “John Lennon did it” and Kurt agreed to do it.
15. When the group laid the tracks, it only took a few takes because of how much they had rehearsed them.
16. Vig has said that Kurt would get moody and difficult at times, explaining, “He’d be great for an hour, and then he’d sit in a corner and say nothing for an hour.”
17. The band wasn’t happy with how the album’s mixes were sounding with Vig so they asked their label for a list of mixers. The last name on the list was Andy Wallace, who co-produced Slayer’s 1990 album Seasons in the Abyss. Nirvana originally loved what he did on Nevermind, but in retrospect, Cobain said he was embarrassed by the production stating, “It’s closer to a Motley Crue record than it is a punk rock record.”
19. Vig once said of Kurt’s somewhat incoherent way of singing, “Even though you couldn’t quite tell what he was singing about, you knew it was intense as hell.”
20. Many of the lyrics to Nevermind are reportedly about Kurt’s dysfunctional relationship with riot grrrl and Bikini Kill member Tobi Vail. Among the songs that reference her are “Drain You,” “Lounge Act” and “Lithium.”
21. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was Nirvana’s biggest hit, reaching number six on the Hot 100.
22. Cobain said he wrote “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in the style of the Pixies, telling Rolling Stone, “I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it. When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily that I should have been in that band – or at least a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet then loud and hard.”
23. When Krist Novoselic first heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” he called it “ridiculous.” Kurt made the band play the riff for 90 minutes. During that time, Krist slowed it down and drummer Dave Grohl added a beat. Together they wrote the studio version and it’s the only track on Nevermind credited to all three.
24. Kurt got the title to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” with his friend, Bikini Kill singer Kathleen Hanna, who wrote “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on his wall after the two discussed anarchy and punk rock. Hanna meant he smelled like the deodorant, Teen Spirit, which his girlfriend, Tobi Vail, wore. Kurt said it wasn’t until after the song came out that he learned that it was a brand of deodorant.
25. Some radio stations were hesitant to play “Smells Like Teen Spirit” because the lyrics were so hard to make out. MTV even put captions on the video for the song that they aired.
26. Cobain once said “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is about his friends, explaining, “We still feel as if we’re teenagers because we don’t follow the guidelines of what’s expected of us to be adults. It also has a kind of teen revolutionary theme.”
27. Dave Grohl doesn’t think there is a message to “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” saying, “Just seeing Kurt write the lyrics to a song five minutes before he first sings them, you just kind of find it a little bit hard to believe that the song has a lot to say about something. You need syllables to fill up this space or you need something that rhymes.”
28. Kurt wrote “In Bloom” about people not in the underground music community, who didn’t understand Nirvana.
29. Cobain once said “Come As You Are” is about “people and what they’re expected to act like,” and that the song has contradictory lyrics.
30. The song “Breed” is about being trapped in middle-class America.
31. The band worked on “Breed” during live performances as they toured Europe in 1989.
32. “Breed” was originally called “Imodium.” Kurt used that titled to express verbal diarrhea.
33. “Lithium” is about a suicidal man who turns to religion. While the song is fictional, Kurt said he infused some personal experiences in it, like breaking up with girlfriends and having bad relationships.
34. “Polly” dates back to at least 1988.
35. “Polly” was originally called “Hitchhiker,” then “Cracker.”
36. Kurt didn’t include “Polly” on 1989’s Bleach because it wasn’t consistent with the grunge sound.
37. Cobain was inspired to write “Polly” after reading a newspaper article about a 14-year-old girl who was abducted, tortured and raped after a rock concert in Tacoma, Washington. She escaped when her kidnapper stopped for gas.
38. At the start of “Territorial Pissings,” Krist sings part of the 1967 Youngbloods’s song “Get Together.”
39. “Territorial Pissings” shows that Kurt was a feminist. He included the lyric, “Never met a wise man/If so, it’s a woman.”
40. The strange noises in the middle of “Drain You” were from a rubber duck toy.
41. While Kurt said he made most of “Drain You” up on the spot, he noted that the song’s opening line is important to how it is interpreted. That lyric is, “One baby to another says I’m lucky to have met you.”
42. In “Lounge Act,” Kurt sings, “I’ll arrest myself, I’ll wear a shield.” It’s a reference to a tattoo he had on his shoulder – a shield with the letter K on it.
43. Nirvana called the song “Lounge Act” because they felt that the bass intro sounded like something from a cheesy lounge band.
44. “Stay Away” was originally called “Pay to Play.”
45. At the end of “Stay Away,” Kurt says “God is gay.” When he was in high school, he spray-painted that phrase on a friend’s car to push his buttons. Kurt meant the statement to support gay rights, not to be against God.
46. “On a Plain” is a song about writing a song. It describes writer’s block and the difficulty of finding one’s voice.
47. Many people believe Kurt wrote “Something in the Way” while he was homeless and living under a bridge in Aberdeen, Washington, but that is not the case since he likely never slept there. If Cobain ever did sleep under the bridge mentioned in the song, he would’ve likely been swept away by the tide of the Wishkah River. Instead, he slept at friends’ houses.
48. The hidden track, “Endless, Nameless,” was accidentally left off the first pressings of Nevermind. Howie Weinberg, who mastered the set, said it was a “verbal thing to put that track at the end,” and he might have misconstrued the instructions. When Kurt found out it wasn't there, he demanded that Howie fix it, so Weinberg added ten minutes of silence between the end of “Something in the Way” and the start of the hidden track on future pressings. 50,000 copies don't have it though.
49. The band’s label hoped that Nevermind would sell 250,000 copies. The record debuted at number 144 on the Billboard 200, but later started selling out. It went to number one on January 11, 1992, replacing Michael Jackson on top of the chart. At that point, it was selling 300,000 copies a week. Nevermind has since been certified diamond for sales in America of over 10 million copies. It’s sold 24 million worldwide.
50. In 2005, the Library of Congress added Nevermind to the National Recording Registry, a collection of sound recordings from the 20th century deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically important.”