Kurt Cobain’s songwriting technique – in many ways – seems an enigma. Both musically simple and lyrically complex, and taking both from previously unrelated sources such as mainstream and alternative punk rock, it formed the basis for many of Indy music – which would become the default form of rock for at least the next twenty years.
Whilst Kurt and Nirvana were at the forefront of the neo-punk breakthrough into mainstream music, much of his songwriting influences came from much more conventional sources. Indeed, it may be his education in the ‘dad rock radio’ music of the 1960s, 1970s and ’80s that enabled Nirvana to break through into a mainstream consciousness. How this occurred will be the subject of this analysis.
One of Kurt’s first bands was a Credence Clearwater Revival cover band, perhaps a natural development for someone brought up in Washington state in the early 1970′s. The Beatles, and in particular John Lennon, were other important and early influences. Producers later learned that they could encourage Kurt to record double vocal tracks on Nirvana albums by reminding him that John Lennon would always do it. Whilst John was a self proclaimed hero, and the Beatles’ early work can be seen in some of Kurt’s songs, perhaps incidentally, John and Yoko’s experimental collaborations have been credited as early pioneers of punk music.
For Kurt, later hard rock informed the increasingly marginalized young individual, including AC/DC, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Queen, Kiss, and even Aerosmith. The androgyny of many of these bands was an attraction for someone who hated mainstream, often homophobic, culture. Punk was an even more important influence, with influences including The Clash, the Stooges, the Sex Pistols, The Velvet Underground, Black Flag, Bad Brains, and the Melvins (also from Aberdeen) explaining nearly all of the Nirvana ‘sound’. The Pixies – as we shall see in Nevermind – were perhaps the most important of these later sonic influences.
In our brief tour of Kurt’s Songwriting technique we will focus on his breakout album Nevermind, and in particular Smells Like Teen Spirit – if only because its success was so unexpected, and its effects so widespread. How did such a unique, catchy version of Punk ever arise?
Kurt’s desire to extend himself after Bleach was well known. That he wanted something he could hum was recorded at the time. Yet it would be a mistake to dismiss Bleach merely as an album of overly distorted power chords. About a Girl was written after spending three hours listening to Meet The Beatles!
The 1980s American alternative rock band Pixies were instrumental in helping an adult Cobain develop his own songwriting style. In a 1992 interview with Melody Maker, Cobain said that hearing their 1988 debut album, Surfer Rosa, “convinced him to abandon his more Black Flag-influenced songwriting in favor of the Iggy Pop/Aerosmith–type songwriting that appeared on Nevermind.
Another, often neglected influence on the more radio friendly direction of Nevermind may be the influence of Dave Grohl in the band, after the departure of Chad Channing. Through the Foo Fighters, Dave has shown a willingness to embrace the mainstream, and the creative tensions between Kurt and Dave are well documented.
Not many people know Teen Spirit was originally written as a joke – a mocking cover (although, with Kurt’s mainstream roots, who can say) of Boston’s More Than a Feeling. When he showed the riff to the rest of his band, bassist Krist Novoselic instantly dismissed the song as “ridiculous,” but Kurt made the band play it repeatedly for an hour and a half until they had transformed it into their own sound.
If you listen to the Boston original, you will hear almost all of the melody and notes of Teen Spirit – from its riff (perhaps miss-transcribed), to its high plucked notes of the verses. Indeed, you could almost put the Melvins in a room with Boston to come up with Teen Spirit.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” was his attempt at “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 and then loud and hard.”
The genesis of the title has become a rock cliche, but on learning its genesis came from a deodorant, Kurt didn’t mind. The song was a joke anyway, and the kind of badass revolutionary slogan Kurt read into “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” had already let him find a way into the lyrics. They were “just making fun of the thought of having a revolution….Load up on guns and bring your friends.”
The rest of Teen Spirit’s lyrics are largely nonsensical, or spontaneous rants against the pressures of being a musician. After all, it was Kurt’s technique to write lyrics just before going on stage, or as he practiced, or right before recording an album. But more than that, Kurt was clear that the music came first, and the lyrics second. It was only when got that to something “that sounds listenable” (i.e. catchy) did he start adding lyrics to the existing music.
Yet there is a unique approach to his lyrics, with a decidedly more aggressive flavor than the seeming nonsense of Beck, or even Dylan. Kurt described them perhaps best:
a big pile of contradictions. They’re split down the middle between very sincere opinions that I have and sarcastic opinions and feelings that I have and sarcastic and hopeful, humorous rebuttals toward cliché bohemian ideals that have been exhausted for years.
His journal, particularly once processed via a cut-up technique (from Bowie and Burroughs), was an important source. Also so was the channeling of energy from breakups, or anger at types of people or situations. (Many of Nevermind’s lyrics related to his breakup with Tobi Vail, and similar emotional stress informed In Utero.) Other sources for songs include literature (Scentless Apprentice, about the novel Perfume), Newspaper stories (Polly), and general angst about the media, the expectations of fans and the pressures of fame (Rape Me, and Smells Like Teen Spirit). A large amount of disparate influences, but not so much of an enigma, after all.