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kottke.org posts about Nirvana

The Westworld season two soundtrack covers Kanye & Nirvana

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 13, 2018

One of my favorite aspects of HBO’s Westworld is the music, particularly the acoustic covers of modern rock and pop songs, many of which sound like they could be coming from a player piano in the show’s Old West saloon. The first season’s soundtrack, composed by Ramin Djawadi, featured covers of songs by Radiohead, Amy Winehouse, and the Rolling Stones. The second season is starting in just a couple of weeks, but they’ve already released two new covers from this season’s soundtrack: Heart-Shaped Box by Nirvana and Kanye West’s Runaway.

Djawadi, perhaps best known as the composer of the Game of Thrones theme song, spoke to Pitchfork about the rationale behind the cover songs:

What I love about that is it just comes out of nowhere and you don’t expect it at all. You see the settings and the way people are dressed and even though you know it’s robots and it’s all made to be modern entertainment, you would think the people in control would make everything authentic, including whatever is played on that player piano. It would be from that time period. And when it’s not, it’s that subtle reminder that, ‘Wait, there is something not right. This is not real.’ It’s just such a powerful tool that only music can do.

Smells Like Teen Spirit in a major key is an upbeat pop-punk song

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 06, 2018

This bent my brain a little: if you re-tune Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit in a major key, it sounds like an upbeat pop-punk song. Like, Kurt Cobain actually sounds happy when he says “oh yeah, I guess it makes me smile” and the pre-chorus — “Hello, hello, hello, how low” — is downright joyous. Although I guess it shouldn’t be super surprising…in a 1994 interview with Rolling Stone, Cobain admits that the song was meant to be poppy.

I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it [smiles]. When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily I should have been in that band — or at least in a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.

“Teen Spirit” was such a clichéd riff. It was so close to a Boston riff or “Louie, Louie.” When I came up with the guitar part, Krist looked at me and said, “That is so ridiculous.” I made the band play it for an hour and a half.

Like me, if you don’t know a whole lot about music, here’s the difference between major and minor chords & scales.

The difference between major and minor chords and scales boils down to a difference of one essential note — the third. The third is what gives major-sounding scales and chords their brighter, cheerier sound, and what gives minor scales and chords their darker, sadder sound.

You can also listen to the song on Soundcloud.

See also this falling shovel sounds exactly like Smells Like Teen Spirit.

Update: I heard from a few people that the changes made to the song aren’t as straightforward as shifting from minor to major. See this series of tweets by Jesse Appelman.

This is fun and well-executed, but it’s not just Smells Like Teen Spirit transposed as-is from minor to major. They changed the chord progression (from 1-IV-bIII-bVI to I-V-vi-IV) and altered the melody to better fit the chords…

If they had just switched all the minor stuff to major it would sound, well, pretty hilarious but less like a radio-ready pop song. This is not to take away from the joy of this clever reimagining…

…but it’s not quite as simple and miraculous as “change from minor to major and voila!” It’s more like “write new changes and melody while preserving the rhythmic phrasing and general contours/directionality of the original.” Still great stuff and sorry if I un-blew your mind.

And to appreciate the difference between major and minor keys, this six-minute video of Chilly Gonzalez is highly entertaining and worth your time. (via @karolzyk)

Update: On his YouTube channel, Oleg Berg has reworked dozens of songs from major-to-minor or from minor-to-major, including Don’t Worry, Be Happy in a minor key, Louis Armstrong’s What A Wonderful World in a minor key, and the Game of Thrones theme in a major key. Surprisingly, the comments of the GoT theme are pretty good:

Meet Brienne, the beautiful maid of Tarth. Meet Jon, the legitimate son of Ned Stark. Meet Cersei, the queen of hearts. All these characters meet at the Blue Wedding and vow eternal friendship.

Spring is coming

If the plot ran backwards, this would be the theme.

You know everything, Jon Snow.

(via @volapuk)

Nirvana on the cusp

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 30, 2016

This is a video of Nirvana playing Smells Like Teen Spirit in a small club just two days after Nevermind came out in 1991. There’s a freight train bearing down on those boys and they don’t even know it. (via digg)

See also The Notorious B.I.G. freestyling on a Brooklyn corner at 17 and LL Cool J plays to a mostly empty gymnasium in Maine…he was also just 17.

Update: And here’s 40+ minutes from the same show at which they played Drain You, Polly, and Breed. (via @fimoculous)

The most timeless songs of all time

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 31, 2015

Matt Daniels of Polygraph used playcount data from Spotify to identify the most played songs from the past, which he labeled The Most Timeless Songs of All Time. The most timeless song of the 90s, by a wide margin? Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit.1

Out of the entire catalog of music from the 90s, these are the tracks on the trajectory to survive. Some of my friends were deeply disturbed by what’s been lost in time (e.g., Pearl Jam). And No Diggity isn’t just anecdotally timeless, it’s the fifth most-played song from the 90s.

Note the tracks that hardly charted on Billboard, in their day. Smells Like Teen Spirit, a track that never reached the Billboard Top 5 when it was released in 1992, is now the most-played song from the 90s.

Daniels makes the point that it is not the generation that made the music that will determine its long-term prospects for being remembered, but subsequent generations, which sounds obvious when it’s put that way, but I’d never really thought about it.1

Biggie has three of the Top 10 hip-hop songs between 1986 and 1999. This is a strong signal that future generations will remember Biggie as the referent artist of 80s and 90s hip-hop. And there’s No Diggity as the top - perhaps it’s that glorious Dr. Dre verse.

Hip hop heads will lament the omission of Rakim, Public Enemy, or Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt. It’s a depressing reality that exists for every genre and generation: not every artist will be remembered. The incoming generation will control what’s relevant from the 90s and carried into the future, independent of quality and commercial success. For rock, that might be Blink-182. For electronica, that might be Sandstorm.

I made a playlist on Spotify of the top 30 most timeless songs from the article:

Enjoy!

Update: Mike Harris made a Spotify playlist with all 1001 songs from the article. 66+ hours of timelessness is a lot of timelessness.

  1. Keeping in mind that not all recorded music is on Spotify.

  2. And now I can’t stop thinking about it, particularly in the context of the Internet/Web. Who and what from the 1990s and early 2000s will be remembered in the context of the Web 10 or 20 years from now? Marc Andreessen might because he’s relevant to a whole new generation of startup bros right now whereas David Filo or Pierre Omidyar might not be. Flickr might because of Slack but not Delicious. Jorn Barger and Dave Winer may be lost to the sands of time in favor of John Gruber or Dooce.

This shovel falling sounds exactly like Smells Like Teen Spirit

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 07, 2015

♬ With the shovel out, the ice’s less dangerous / Drop the shovel, entertain us / I feel stupid and contagious / Drop the shovel, entertain us ♬

Magisterial. I love the internet. This is even better than the door that sounds like Miles Davis. (via @slowernet)

Update: Oh, and this nightstand door sounds like Chewbacca. (via @steveportigal)

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 12, 2015

HBO will premiere the critically acclaimed authorized documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck later this year on May 4. Here’s the trailer:

Looks promising. The film is directed by Brett Morgen, who also did the excellent The Kid Stays in the Picture documentary about Robert Evans. And the name comes from a late-80s mixtape made by Cobain.

Kurt Cobain’s Montage of Heck

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 04, 2014

In 1987 or 1988, Kurt Cobain made a mixtape called Montage of Heck. The Guardian has the backstory.

The tape itself is a surreal, often psychedelic insight into the mind of the 20-year-old Cobain: cut-ups of 60s, 70s and 80s TV shows interspersed with the sound of the toilet flushing and people vomiting, bits of the Beatles and Led Zeppelin interspersed with troubled Austin singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston screaming about Satan, and white noise so intense that when Simon & Garfunkel’s Sound Of Silence starts up it comes as physical relief.

There are snippets of a few unreleased Nirvana songs, too, among the tumult and screaming and dead-end repetition, amid the excerpts of William Shatner, The Partridge Family, Queen, Queensryche, Butthole Surfers, James Brown. In many respects, Montage Of Heck echoes and predates turntable culture, the ubiquitous YouTube mash-up and the Beatles’ experimental sound collage Revolution No 9.

The entire mixtape is available on Soundcloud and Vimeo.

Here’s a rough tracklist. Just a year or two after Cobain recorded Montage of Heck, Nirvana released their debut album, Bleach, and they were off to the races.

Cobain gone for 20 years

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 06, 2014

Saturday was the 20th anniversary of the death of Kurt Cobain at the age of 27. Many have written of the anniversary, but I liked Dennis Cooper’s piece published in Spin a few weeks after Cobain’s death.

Cobain’s work nailed how a ton of people feel. There are few moments in rock as bewilderingly moving as when he mumbled, “I found it hard / It’s hard to find / Oh well, whatever / Nevermind.” There’s that bizarre, agonized, and devastating promise he keeps making throughout “Heart-Shaped Box”: “Wish that I could eat your cancer when you turn black.” Take a look in his eyes the next time MTV runs the “Heart-Shaped Box” video, and see if you can sort out the pain from the ironic detachment from the horror from the defensiveness.

(via NYT Now app)

Nirvana for two-year-olds

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 11, 2014

On Friday, I mentioned listening to Nirvana with my kids. In January, Thomas Beller wrote a post for the New Yorker about introducing his two-year-old son to Nirvana.

Everything was going along fine in our living room until the song got to the break-the low, murky part-at which point Alexander called out to me, “Daddy! It’s scary!”

Nirvana’s music, in its anguish and energy, is scary. “Nevermind” is scary. But the break in “Drain You” is especially scary. I either had to turn it off or find a way to make this work. I didn’t want to turn it off. Instead, I turned it down an infinitesimal amount and addressed my son’s concerns.

“Alexander,” I said, bending over to talk near his face. “This is the part where they are in the swamp. The water is dark and murky, and the trees are low. They’re walking through the wet mud in the dark underbrush of the swamp.”

He looked at me with wide eyes. The colored lights added to the discotheque-meets-haunted-house mood. I worried that he would have nightmares, and that I would rue the night I played “Drain You.” People would shake their heads and say, “What were you thinking?”

“Right now, it’s very dark, but they are trying to find their way out of the swamp,” I continued.

That’s some top-notch parenting there. (via @futurerocklgnds)

Nirvana punks Top of the Pops in 1991

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 25, 2013

When Nirvana appeared on Top of the Pops in 1991, they were asked to only sing the lead vocal over an instrumental track. The result was perhaps the most unusual performance of Smells Like Teen Spirit ever, with the band barely playing their instruments in sync with the music and Cobain doing his best Ian Curtis/Morrisey impression.

Steve Albini’s letter to Nirvana

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 26, 2013

I loved every little bit of this letter that producer Steve Albini sent to Nirvana before the recording of In Utero, the band’s final studio album. In it, Albini clearly and succinctly lays out his philosophy about recording music and has specific suggestions for working with Nirvana. But the last few paragraphs, about his payment, are awesome. I’ve reproduced the selection here in full:

#5: Dough. I explained this to Kurt but I thought I’d better reiterate it here. I do not want and will not take a royalty on any record I record. No points. Period. I think paying a royalty to a producer or engineer is ethically indefensible. The band write the songs. The band play the music. It’s the band’s fans who buy the records. The band is responsible for whether it’s a great record or a horrible record. Royalties belong to the band.

I would like to be paid like a plumber: I do the job and you pay me what it’s worth. The record company will expect me to ask for a point or a point and a half. If we assume three million sales, that works out to 400,000 dollars or so. There’s no fucking way I would ever take that much money. I wouldn’t be able to sleep.

I have to be comfortable with the amount of money you pay me, but it’s your money, and I insist you be comfortable with it as well. Kurt suggested paying me a chunk which I would consider full payment, and then if you really thought I deserved more, paying me another chunk after you’d had a chance to live with the album for a while. That would be fine, but probably more organizational trouble than it’s worth.

Whatever. I trust you guys to be fair to me and I know you must be familiar with what a regular industry goon would want. I will let you make the final decision about what I’m going to be paid. How much you choose to pay me will not effect my enthusiasm for the record.

Some people in my position would expect an increase in business after being associated with your band. I, however, already have more work that I can handle, and frankly, the kind of people such superficialities will attract are not people I want to work with. Please don’t consider that an issue.

(via @akuban)

Rare footage of live Nirvana concert

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 28, 2011

YouTube has 45 minutes of previously unreleased footage of a Halloween concert Nirvana played in 1991 at the Paramount Theater in Seattle.

The DVD contains the full performance (there’s also a Blu-ray version out in a few months). I think this might be one of my answers to “what would you do if you had a time machine?”… (via devour)

Update: The video seems to be down right now…not sure if it’ll be back or not. Sorry…

The Nevermind baby works for the Obama poster guy

posted by Jason Kottke   May 05, 2010

The baby pictured here:

Nirvana Nevermind

now works for Shepard Fairey, the artist who did the iconic Obama HOPE posters.

Yo dawg, I herd you like pop culture, so I put some pop culture in your pop culture so your brain can fucking explode from all the popular you’ve cultured. (via mediabistro)

Nirvana covers Seasons in the Sun

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 20, 2010

Cobain with the vocals and the drumming. (thx, jon)

If you thought that Nevermind’s 15th anniversary

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 15, 2007

If you thought that Nevermind’s 15th anniversary made you feel old, try this one on: Radiohead’s OK Computer was released 10 years ago tomorrow. (via 6f6)

Thirteen favorite albums of the last twenty years

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 11, 2005

Spin magazine’s recent list of the best albums from the last twenty years (as well as MSNBC’s alternate list) got me thinking about what my favorites list from that era might look like. Since I’m not Spin and my musical opinion doesn’t carry any weight, I felt free to list what I like, influenced me, continue to find enjoyable, and will still listen to in the future instead of what’s actually good…whatever good means.

In rough chronological order and briefly annotated:

Conclusions: I seem to like all sorts of music, but the common thread is the mainstream-ness of these albums; they’re typically the most popular examples of a particular genre, style, or time period. Gangsta rap wasn’t that mainstream at the time, but The Chronic went multi-platinum. Nevermind was grunge for the mainstream, and The Downward Spiral was one of the few industrial albums to make it big. The same for Rave ‘Til Dawn, Daft Punk, DJ Shadow, Smashing Pumpkins, and Sigur Ros, if to a lesser extent.

Whatever happened to that baby from the

posted by Jason Kottke   May 17, 2005

Whatever happened to that baby from the cover of Nivana’s Nevermind?.