15 songs that influenced Nirvana (probably)
We've been doing some Nirvana lists here on BrooklynVegan lately, including their 15 Best Non-Album Songs, their 10 Best Cover Songs, and 15 Great Covers of Nirvana songs (by other artists). Here's another list in the series, not of songs written or performed by Nirvana, but of songs that (probably) influenced them.
When Nirvana took over the mainstream with 1991's Nevermind, they had a sound that most of the mainstream world had never heard before. It was kinda punk and kinda metal, but not fully either of those things. It was aggressive, but had a real pop sense too. Once a few other bands hit it big from the same general location (the Seattle area), with a similar fashion sense (flannel and long hair), and with a vaguely similar sound, the mainstream slapped a new label on it: "grunge." Most bands rejected it, but it stuck. Grunge was portrayed in the media as a brand new phenomenon, but Nirvana themselves would be the first to tell you that their music wasn't really as original as people were saying it was. They spent their brief time in the mainstream (cut short by Kurt Cobain's tragic death) shining a light on the smaller bands who helped shape their sound, be it talking about them in interviews, covering them, releasing splits with them, wearing their shirts, bringing them out on tour, or bringing them on stage for MTV Unplugged. Kurt made a list of his 50 favorite albums of all time, which circulated around the world when his journals were published in 2002. Nirvana were the reason a lot of these bands ended up on major labels and scoring hits of their own, years after releasing the albums that influenced Nirvana.
By now, it's been well-documented that the underground music of the late '70s and the '80s impacted the mainstream boom of Nirvana and alternative rock in general in the '90s. Books like Route 666: On the Road to Nirvana and Our Band Could Be Your Life talk in great detail about this very thing, and by now most of these bands are household names in households that listen to punk and indie rock. But Nirvana are still gaining new fans every day, and even if you're already an expert on the '80s underground, it can be fun to revisit some of the specific songs that so clearly influenced one of the biggest rock bands of all time. This list isn't meant negatively against Nirvana's level of originality in any way -- Nirvana wanted you to hear these bands as much as they wanted you to hear their own music, and at the end of the day, they may have borrowed some ideas but Kurt Cobain was a natural-born songwriter, he always knew how to create something new with old ingredients, and he truly deserved the mainstream spotlight that was afforded to him. Plus, "great artists steal," etc, etc.
I can't be 100% sure that the specific songs on this list influenced Nirvana, but I'm at least sure that these bands overall did, and I firmly believe that these songs were strong precedents to the sound that Nirvana would popularize. Nirvana's influences also span much wider than the songs on this list, which are all heavy songs. They loved The Beatles and indie pop like The Vaselines, Beat Happening, Young Marble Giants, etc, and those bands' pop sensibilities popped up in Nirvana's own songs, but they don't really predict the overall Nirvana sound the way the songs on this list do.
Read on for my 15 picks -- in chronological order -- below, and listen to a playlist of all 15 songs at the end. What songs do you love that (probably) influenced Nirvana?
The Stooges - "Search and Destroy" (1973)
The Stooges' Raw Power was Kurt's favorite album of all time, and it's not hard to see why. There's rarely a true "first" in music, but the perfectly named Raw Power is at least one of the very first times that a band made music this raw, this loud, and this intentionally sloppy at once -- all traits that would come to define Nirvana. Raw Power is one of the earliest albums that qualify as punk, and you could argue it's one of the earliest to qualify as grunge too. The preference for fuzz rather than crunch, the interest in both dirgey slow songs and rapid fast ones -- it's all very grunge. It's hard to pick one song on Raw Power that most strongly hints at the Nirvana sound, but the timeless opener "Search and Destroy" seems like a pretty good bet. It's all there -- an iconic power chord riff, a messy solo, out-of-key screams, an unfairly catchy chorus... not many other songs in 1973 smelled like teen spirit the way this one did.
Neil Young - "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)" (1979)
Neil Young's been called the Godfather of Grunge, and it's true for more reasons than just his love of flannel (although that's surely part of it). He was writing proto-grunge riffs as far back as 1969's "Cinnamon Girl" (which Hole and Mudhoney both incorporated into their respective 1991 grunge-era albums), he made an album with Pearl Jam, and he had the punk/grunge mentality of passion and noise being more important than technical prowess and studio polish. The sad truth is that we know Kurt was impacted by "Hey Hey, My My" because he quoted it in his suicide note, but it was clear that the song was proto-Nirvana before that. More so than "Cinnamon Girl," the heavy, rough-around-the-edges riff of "Hey Hey, My My" was a direct ancestor to the kind of riffs that Nirvana (and Hole and Mudhoney) wrote. Even now, it's hard to believe this song came out as far back as 1979; it sounds even more like true grunge than the album Neil made with Pearl Jam. The dark tone, the themes of death in the lyrics -- it all sounds so much like the angst and melancholy that swept the nation in the wake of Nevermind's release.
Wipers - "Potential Suicide" (1980)
Kurt -- and the Pacific Northwest punk scene in general -- loved the Wipers. He included the Portland band's first three albums on his favorite albums list and Nirvana covered two of their songs, "D-7" and "Return of the Rat." One Wipers song that definitely influenced Nirvana, though, was "Potential Suicide" from their 1980 debut LP Is This Real?. If you've never heard this song but the bassline sounds familiar, that's because Nirvana took it and turned it into the guitar riff to "Breed." The desperation in singer/guitarist Greg Sage's half-sung, half-shouted delivery, the lyrical themes, and the half-sloppy guitar solos are also all very Nirvana.
Flipper - "Nothing" (1982)
We've all seen the pictures of Kurt in his Flipper shirt -- it's arguably a more iconic image than the also-iconic album art to Flipper's 1982 debut Album – Generic Flipper. Flipper broke up before Nirvana's first album came out, but Nirvana helped their influence live on, and Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic ended up joining Flipper when they reunited in the mid 2000s. It's hard to pick one Flipper song where the Nirvana influence is most obvious, but it's pretty obvious on "Nothing." It opens with the kind of feedback Nirvana would open songs with all the time, and it goes into the kind of messy chord progression that Nirvana loved to write. And though the barked vocals are nothing like Kurt's, the repetitive, downer lyrics are.
Black Flag - "Can't Decide" (1984)
Black Flag majorly impacted sludge metal and grunge with 1984's groundbreaking My War, which introduced a slower Black Sabbath influence into the hardcore punk sound they'd already established. The album has been cited as a major influence by bands like Melvins and Mudhoney, Kurt listed it at #11 on his favorite albums list (with Black Flag's Damaged coming in at #40), and it's so easy to hear how influential it really was. The album's slower second half basically functions as the invention of sludge metal, but it's actually "Can't Decide" from the first half that sounds most like Nirvana. When Greg Ginn does those fuzzed-out, sloppy guitar trills in the chorus, you're practically hearing the seeds being planted for Kurt's guitar style on Bleach. Like a lot of '80s hardcore bands, Black Flag have retroactively received a lot of the attention they deserved, and though Damaged tends to go down as their iconic record, there's a good argument to be made that My War is actually the Black Flag album that changed the course of popular music the most.
Meat Puppets - "Lake of Fire" (1984)
I listed Nirvana's cover of "Lake of Fire" (performed on MTV Unplugged with Meat Puppets' Cris and Curt Kirkwood joining them) as the #1 best Nirvana cover, but the original song deserves a spot on this list too. Meat Puppets II is sort of to grunge what The Stooges' Raw Power is to punk; the term may not have existed when it came out, but Meat Puppets II isn't proto-grunge so much as it truly is a grunge album. More so than popular grunge acts like Alice In Chains or Stone Temple Pilots, who were really just metal or hard rock acts, Meat Puppets were coming from the same place Nirvana and their closest peers were coming from. They were rooted in punk, but they loved country and psychedelia and it showed. Nirvana and their ilk always found time for trippier parts or folky ballads, and the idea of a punk band doing that in a shaggy, messy, flannel-covered way really goes back to Meat Puppets II. And the song that does it best is "Lake of Fire." Nirvana's acoustic cover on Unplugged suited the song well, but it's even clearer from the distortion-drenched original how much this song impacted Nirvana. It's got a swaying, stoned vibe, and Curt Kirkwood is straining his voice as far as it goes to hit those high notes, just as Kurt Cobain often would. After Nirvana brought the Puppets on MTV, they ended up scoring their first (and only) hit with 1994's "Backwater," but they should have had a hit a decade earlier when they predicted the sound of the '90s with "Lake of Fire."
Scratch Acid - "Cannibal" (1984)
"The reason I like Scratch Acid so much was because they had structure to their songs, real simple pop structure that you could follow real easily, and it was almost like an Aerosmith song, but it was really fucked up. And that's what I was doing and that's what I wanted to do," Kurt said of Scratch Acid, whose 1984 self-titled debut EP was his 8th favorite record of all time. And all it takes is one listen to David Yow's unruly wails on the EP's opening track "Cannibal" to see just how much Scratch Acid were doing what Kurt Cobain wanted to do. Kurt borrowed from Yow's vocal style plenty of times, especially during the early, pre-Nevermind years. So much so that -- if you didn't know any better -- "Cannibal" could pass as a deep cut from Bleach. "Cannibal" was such a fully-formed version of the alternative rock sound that took off in the early '90s that Scratch Acid deserved to make it big themselves. And Nirvana eventually sort of helped that happen. They did a split with Yow and David Wm. Sims' post-Scratch Acid band The Jesus Lizard, and it feels safe to assume that that was part of why The Jesus Lizard signed to a major a few years later.
Husker Du - "Makes No Sense At All" (1985)
Nirvana was the mainstream explosion that alternative rock had been building to for years, but they weren't the first alternative rock band that major labels took interest in. Following years of albums on Black Flag's SST Records, Husker Du signed to Warner in 1986 and even managed to land a bit of radio and MTV play. They obviously didn't take off the way Nirvana eventually would, but even Nirvana's members agreed that Husker Du should have been the band to burst the alternative rock bubble. "What Nirvana did was nothing new; Husker Du did it before us," Krist Novoselic once famously said. Krist is being modest, but there's a lot of truth to that statement. Husker Du were as real-deal punk as it gets, but then they started incorporating pop melodies, slower tempos, and more complex song structure, and thanks to them -- and their Twin Cities neighbors The Replacements and a few other bands -- alternative rock was born. Husker Du's most classic album is the 1984 double album Zen Arcade, but alternative rock as we know it really started taking shape on 1985's Flip Your Wig, which is full of songs that should've been alt-rock hits. "Makes No Sense At All" is just one that gives you a pretty good idea of just how ahead of their time Husker Du really were. Their songs were a bit poppier than most Nirvana songs (actually, Husker Du and related band Sugar were probably an even more direct influence on early Foo Fighters than on Nirvana), but the ingredients are the same. Without this mix of punk energy and pop songwriting, we may have never gotten some of Nirvana's biggest hits.
Celtic Frost - "The Usurper" (1985)
With most of Nirvana's most direct influences coming from the American underground, you may not have immediately expected a Swiss extreme metal band to heavily impact their sound. But as legend has it, Nirvana had a cassette in their tour van in the early days with jangle popsters The Smithereens on one side and Celtic Frost on the other, and Nirvana's first album Bleach often sounds like if the two sides of that tape somehow melted together. Nirvana had more of an interest in pop than Celtic Frost, but some of that early Celtic Frost guitar style worked its way into Kurt's own riffs in the Bleach era and that's especially clear from listening to "The Usurper." If you picture Kurt singing over this one, it sounds like it could've turned into any number of Nirvana songs. Even the atonal guitar solo is a clear precedent for Kurt's own solos. Nirvana toned down the metal influence as they got more famous, but a handful of Kurt's Bleach-era riffs are pretty fucking metal, and Celtic Frost deserve a lot of credit for that.
Pixies - "Gigantic" (1988)
Before "Smells Like Teen Spirit" came out and made Nirvana stars, Kurt famously feared that everyone would just call the song a Pixies ripoff. That of course was mostly not the case. Most of mainstream America still hadn't been exposed to the Pixies, and if people did call the song out for plagiarism, they compared it to Boston's "More Than A Feeling," because I guess that's the only other song Nirvana's new listeners had heard of with choppy power chords and pick scrapes. But it's easy to see the Pixies' massive influence on that song and Nirvana in general. So much so that it's impossible to pick just one Pixies song that sums up their impact on Nirvana. The loud-quiet-loud formula that Nirvana helped popularize was perfected by the Pixies first, and the Pixies used it on a handful of songs that quickly register as proto-Nirvana. "Tame" could probably fit on a Nirvana album as is and fool some people who didn't know any better, and "Gouge Away" could've been "Teen Spirit" if it had the right push. But if I'm picking one song, it's gotta be a song from Surfer Rosa. Surfer Rosa is the Pixies album that Kurt called his second favorite album of all time, and it's the only Pixies album recorded by Steve Albini, whose work on Surfer Rosa had to be an influence on Nirvana asking him to record In Utero (among other things). Albini gets the greatest snare sound in rock on In Utero, and it's an approach to drum recording that he had already perfected on Surfer Rosa. And what better proof of that is there than the first snare crack on "Gigantic"? "Gigantic" is also a clear proto-Nirvana song for other reasons. It's got the loud-quiet-loud formula, it's got the same approach Nirvana took on "Teen Spirit" (and other songs), where the chord progression in the verse is the same as the chorus, but played just on bass in the verse. And the Kim Deal-sung song also established the style that Kim would take with her next band The Breeders, who also worked with Albini and who also landed on Kurt's top albums of all time. Kim Deal's songwriting is arguably even more directly influential on Nirvana than Frank Black's, and if there's one song that sums it all up best, it's "Gigantic."
Mudhoney - "Touch Me I'm Sick" (1988)
Back when Nirvana were still working on their debut album, the big grunge (which wasn't called that yet) single was "Touch Me I'm Sick" by another Sub Pop-signed, Seattle-area band, Mudhoney. Mudhoney took an even more direct influence from garage punk like The Stooges than Nirvana did, and "Touch Me I'm Sick" was a major milestone for establishing The Stooges' raw power as a key influence on '90s mainstream rock. The song's earth-shattering power chord riff set the tone for the types of riffs that Nirvana would bring to the masses, and it really serves as the proper introduction of the "Seattle sound." More so than pre-Mudhoney/Pearl Jam band Green River, more so than Soundgarden who had already released a few EPs and singles of their own on Sub Pop at that point, more so than Alice In Chains who hadn't yet moved past their glam metal roots, more so than Screaming Trees who were still more of a psychedelic rock band at the time, "Touch Me I'm Sick" was grunge's big bang moment. Without it, the whole grunge explosion -- Nirvana included -- may not have happened the way it did.
Dinosaur Jr - "Freak Scene" (1988)
In one of Nirvana's earliest handwritten pieces of promo material, Kurt Cobain described their sound as "can't decide whether they want to be punk or R.E.M." That tug of war between jangly pop and raw, aggressive music made for some of Nirvana's best songs, but Nirvana weren't the first to do it. Dinosaur Jr, who influenced and later befriended the band (at one point Kurt even asked J Mascis to join Nirvana), had perfected the punk-meets-R.E.M. thing before Nirvana ever released a full-length album. Plenty of Dinosaur Jr songs followed that formula, and "Freak Scene" was one of the most effective. Those influences came together seamlessly on this song, with bright, cleanly-strummed guitars interacting with sludgy riffs in the most natural way possible. "Freak Scene" is also perhaps Dinosaur Jr's greatest anthem for teenage outcasts and weirdos, and a clear precedent to the ones Nirvana (and lots of other bands) would score hits with in the '90s. As with a lot of bands on this list, Dinosaur Jr eventually got scooped by a major label in the post-Nirvana boom and had some modest hits, but "Freak Scene" deserved to be a hit before Nirvana even put an album out. It captured the spirit that so many of Nirvana's biggest songs would capture, and it paved the way for music like this to exist at all.
Sonic Youth - "Teen Age Riot" (1988)
Sonic Youth and Nirvana's careers have long been intertwined. Kurt was clearly influenced by the band early on and listed Daydream Nation as his 17th favorite album ever, and the feeling became mutual. Sonic Youth became fans of Nirvana, they suggested to Geffen Records that they sign Nirvana, and they took them on tour a few times, including the European tour that was documented in 1991: The Year Punk Broke -- the tour Nirvana were on when Nevermind became a surprise success. Sonic Youth's love of atonal freeform noise was a clear influence on Nirvana, who paid some homage to SY with sections like the noise buildup of "Aneurysm" and the trippy interlude of "Drain You," and one of Sonic Youth's most clearly proto-Nirvana songs was Daydream Nation opener "Teen Age Riot." Like “Freak Scene,” “Teen Age Riot” helped spur the teenage revolution that would burst into the mainstream once Nirvana’s success hit, and like “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Sonic Youth had it right there in the name. Sonic Youth were often focused on dissonance, but "Teen Age Riot" showed they were capable of mixing real-deal pop songs in with all the noise, and that's a trait that Nirvana borrowed time and time again. "Teen Age Riot" mixed punk energy, the spirit of teen revolution, good hooks, and just a hint of the spastic noise Sonic Youth were often known for. So many Nirvana songs used those same ingredients.
Melvins - "It's Shoved" (1991)
Nirvana goes back with the Melvins all the way to the very beginning of both bands' careers. Krist Novoselic took the photo used on the Melvins' first EP, Dale Crover played with Nirvana early on, Buzz Osborne introduced Kurt and Krist to Dave Grohl, and Melvins influenced Nirvana's sound from day one. Before Kurt was worrying that people would call them a Pixies ripoff, he was worrying that people would call them a Melvins ripoff. So you could pick a much earlier Melvins song than "It's Shoved" to show how Melvins impacted Nirvana's sound from the get-go, but even Buzz himself would agree that this song really influenced Nirvana. "Of course I like [Nirvana's "Milk It"]! Of course I like it because it's a total, TOTAL rip off of a song I wrote called 'It's Shoved,'" Buzz said. And it's true. The riff to In Utero standout "Milk It" is basically a note-for-note rendition of the riff to Melvins' "It's Shoved." But hey, if Buzz Osbourne likes what Nirvana did with it then there's no shame if you do too. Nirvana used the same riff but made a totally different song out of it, and both songs still hold up today. Few bands were as closely tied to Nirvana as the Melvins were and still are (Krist played on their 2016 album Basses Loaded), and if there's one song that sums up their relationship the most, it's "It's Shoved."
PJ Harvey - "Rid of Me" (1993)
Kurt was into PJ Harvey before Rid of Me and had her 1992 debut Dry on his top albums list, but the title track to Rid of Me almost definitely impacted Nirvana's final studio album, In Utero. PJ had recorded Rid of Me in Minnesota's Pachyderm Studios with Steve Albini just a few months before Albni and Nirvana made In Utero, and apparently Albini had sent Kurt a copy of Rid of Me beforehand to give him an idea of what the studio would sound like. And as influential as the Albini-recorded snare crack of Pixies' Surfer Rosa was on In Utero, the snare crack on Rid of Me was perhaps an even more direct influence. The drums on both Rid of Me and In Utero sound huge in almost the exact same way, and though Nirvana had already borrowed the quiet-loud formula from the Pixies, it didn't get more quiet-LOUD than it gets on Rid of Me. The song starts off so quiet that you always have to turn your speakers up to properly hear it, and once the chorus comes roaring in, you get knocked off your feet every time. Nirvana knocked fans off their feet the same way plenty of times on In Utero. Would "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle" have been recorded the same way if Albini hadn't just given a similar treatment to "Rid of Me"? Maybe, but it doesn't seem crazy to think Nirvana took a few notes out of Rid of Me's book.
FOR MORE NIRVANA LISTS:
* NIRVANA'S 15 BEST NON-ALBUM SONGS
Listen to a Spotify playlist of the 15 above-mentioned songs that (probably) influenced Nirvana: