There are probably millions of people in the world who, over the years, have made new music. And by new music, we mean producing an original composition, rather than performing or recording a rendition of an existing work.
Much of this new music - in fact probably the overwhelming majority of such material - relies heavily on existing tradition. And why not. This is pretty much a staple feature of human development in every area of life. Someone built the first house, someone painted the first portrait, someone assembled the first sandwich. Other people admiring and copying these developments is only natural - I have personally made many sandwiches that lack the 'genesis' element, but still tasted pretty damn good. And as with sandwiches, so with music - there is more than just one symphony, just one opera, and just one lengthy blues song littering the planet, and humankind is all the better for it.
But tradition naturally has its limits, and this is when mankind’s occasional flair for total originality fortunately appears. Because in music, as with everything else, there are always pioneers - some hailed as such during their lifetimes, others retrospectively following their death. Some even become figureheads for their contributions, possibly attaining a status that goes beyond simple recognition for their principal achievements, but elevates them to that rare position known as 'the face of a generation'. One musician that managed all this, albeit very unwillingly, was Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain.
I'm writing this article on the 26th anniversary of the discovery of Cobain's body, which coroners estimated had lain in his Seattle home for three days following his suicide. Hard to believe that it's 26 years to the day since teenage me, sat with my best friend in his family kitchen, witnessed his twin brother run crying into the room shouting "Kurt's dead!" Similar scenes were duplicated worldwide.
Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich has given one of the best explanations for the incredible sense of personal loss that fans experienced, saying that "with Kurt Cobain you felt you were connecting to the real person, not to a perception of who he was — you were not connecting to an image or a manufactured cut-out. You felt that between you and him there was nothing — it was heart-to-heart. There are very few people who have that ability".
But it was more than just a personal bond with one individual that caused such mourning - the whole package of what Kurt and the rest of Nirvana represented to young people was on the same level as what rock'n'roll had originally done in the '50s and '60s, just from a different angle.
This was the band that infamously brought alternative rock into the mainstream, more-or-less with just one track - the awesome "Smells Like Teen Spirit" from 1992's Nevermind. A magnificently simple anthem for Generation X that, unlike much of the other very-high-profile rock music since the early 1980s, wasn't written or performed by leather-clad, hard-drinking, hard-fighting, motorcycle-riding, self-professed chick-magnets with glam hairstyles...
In fact Cobain, along with bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl, could have easily been your neighbours. Rather than presenting and acting like walking rock clichés, they looked and sounded more like 99% of most teenagers. Here was a band that the misfits could identify with, and which could easily compete with the high-volume anthemic power of music by Guns'n'Roses, Mötley Crüe, and other stalwarts of the LA scene that seemed so far removed from reality.
Which brings us neatly onto...
Wow. Just wow.
There are many guitar blogs that carry any number of “greatest-players-of-all-time” articles, and we’re no exception (check out our “Ten Guitar Players You Should Know and Listen To” or “Why Was Jimi Hendrix So Important” pieces for example). And very few of these feature Kurt Cobain, who himself freely admitted that “I have no concept of knowing how to be a musician at all what-so-ever... I couldn’t even pass guitar 101”.
But attempting to focus on any kind of virtuosity completely misses the point of punk rock and the subsequent grunge sound that it ultimately gave spawn to. Punk music has always been rooted in a DIY, lo-fi, erratic, almost minimalist production/performance ethos, with fast edgy songs featuring hard singing styles, played loud, keeping rejection of the mainstream as the principle guiding light. Grunge simply slowed this down and made things a little deeper and darker – the words “sludgy” and “dirge” have been often used by critics – but absolutely retained the haphazard and untrained approach along with lashings of free-form noise.
All of this was perfectly demonstrated in the music of Nirvana, and particularly the song writing and guitar performance style of Cobain. Primarily a rhythm player, much of his sound was rooted around loosely-played power chords and low-down riffs, with a signature variation between clean and distorted passages throughout song structures. Such solo work that he added to Nirvana performances tended to be either simple, single-line melodies that repeated or quoted the sung theme (and Grohl has reflected that Kurt mainly focussed on the tune rather the than lyrics when writing a song), or wonderfully cacophonous sections of noise that were almost an atonal blues.
But one of Kurt’s greatest skills was to simply leave a guitar-free space in the music much of the time, allowing his beautifully gravelly vocals free rein to shine out over Novoselic’s spartan bass lines and Grohl’s intense drum parts. This added to the sheer quantity of contrast that appears in so many guises on most Nirvana songs – quiet/loud, clean/dirty, simple/rich – and it’s this level of contrast that helped to both typify grunge as a genre, and shine a light on both Kurt Cobain and Nirvana as its principal ambassadors.
Wrapping it up
Thinking about anniversaries, I can console myself with the fact that, in two days’ time, it will be six years since Nirvana were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It’s just a shame that Cobain wasn’t here to witness it. But, to quote probably his most famous lyric, “Oh well, whatever, Nevermind...”