Now here’s an ugly duckling if I ever heard one; Nirvana Bleach. Nope I didn’t pick up on this until after Nevermind had blown my little woolly student socks off and nope I don’t own the cool ultra-rare white vinyl, or an original pressing or anything. I bought the cassette of Bleach a few months after I bought nevermind and replaced it with the cheapest vinyl copy I could find in 2001.
Now I had picked it up and looked at it record shops back when it was released but I found the LPs title off-putting*, the sleeve made me feel a bit uneasy and I thought the music inside would be all jagged, unfriendly and unlistenably discordant. You know what? I wasn’t too far off the mark either, and yet, and yet…
‘Blew’ kicks us off, a great insistent gnawing toothache of a song with a brilliant bass sound. I remember an interview where Kurt (or Kurdt as he appears here) basically said none of his lyrics meant anything and they were usually written the night before the recordings to just fit phonetically into the music, personally I think he was being disingenuous but there are times on Bleach when you can just tell he was telling the stone cold truth. Like one of my heroes, no lesser a personage than the mighty, mighty Ronnie James Dio most early Nirvana lyrics sound absolutely fine until you see them written down. ‘Blew’ gives us,
Is there another reason for your stain
Could you believe who we knew was stress or strain?
Here is another word that rhymes with shame
Oi, Kurt! That’s not even trying properly!! and yet, and yet … I really like this song. As most of the best tracks here do, it reminded me that just how rocky Nirvana were, how grounded on Sabbath and other chunks of metal their sound, the whole Sub Pop sound at the time too, was – Celtic Frost were a real Nirvana fave apparently. Just listen to the riff on ‘School’, ironically a bit of a rant about the pressure to conform to the Sub Pop sound, it is just stone-cold brilliant, it’s easy to forget what a good guitarist Cobain could be, Chad Channing’s drumming is also pretty damn fine on this track. Altogether now – ‘No Recess !’.
The real game changer on Bleach and the track I clung to for dear life when I first bought this LP is, of course, ‘About a Girl’. Playing it today, it was heavier and a less polished than I remember, but anyway this is where they smuggled some melody into the room at Reciprocal Recording. Damn fine it is too, the tune hiding the helplessness in the lyrics slightly,
I’ll take advantage while
You hang me out to dry
I used to really like ‘Big Cheese’, but it just sounded a bit half-baked and simplistic to me tonight and the lyrics are, I’m afraid, shite. ‘Paper Cuts’ which closes the first side is slow, heavy and has an utterly testing lack of melody / tunefulness / harmony, it hurts and not in a painfully-cathartic-worthwhile-arty-manner either.
Thankfully the second side opens with the best track here, ‘Negative Creep’. The opening riff is just incredible, one of my favourites full-stop.** Now I have been known to rant and shout a bit if provoked for long enough, often enough, but I really have nothing on this track – ‘I’m a Negative creep and I’m stoned!!’. To further underline their rock credentials ‘Swap Meet’ kicks off with a guitar sound any of the big 4 would have been proud of, it’s not too much of a song though.
Unfortunately that’s true of quite a bit of the second side. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve got a pretty high LFG tolerance^, I own and have made it through all the Nirvana multi CD set With the Lights Out and believe me on the earlier CDs you need a LFG score of +- 3.99 to stay in the game at all. Plenty of us started out listening, young and strong, and only a few of us made it through, wiser but sadder. But – it does start to grind me after a few of the more undistinguished tracks here and even though I’ve just listened to this three times, I’d struggle to pick out ‘Mr Moustache’ from ‘Scoff’.
Which I guess is why those in the know just thought the Sub Pop / Seattle sound was a minor local scene of limited interest, I certainly would never have tipped Nirvana for glory on the basis of Bleach if that’s all I had to go on. Which in a nutshell is exactly why I’m not a top record company A&R guy who gets to wear fancy white suits with shades at night and can have all the hot chicks, burritos and lipo he could possibly want on expenses.
I enjoyed giving this one a spin again tonight.
*I have a real negative thing about that horribly astringent smell of bleach.
**check it out and compare it to Celtic Frost’s ‘Mexican Radio’ – you read it here first. Okay so it’s completely tenuous and the comparison only lasts for seconds of the CF track … but hey, I’m showing off.
^Low Fidelity Grunge; as defined by Storey, J (1992) How Much More Tad can my F****** ears take?, Cambridge University press (Cambs., UK).