Playlist: Nirvana’s Cover Versions


As Nirvana’s mainstream breakthrough Nevermind approaches thirty, we take a look at the indie bands Cobain covered and, therefore, brought to new, wider audiences…

Last week marked the thirtieth anniversary of grunge legends Nirvana signing to Geffen – a signal of intent that would bring mainstream success beyond their wildest dreams. That success came in the form of Nevermind, an album that propelled Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl to hitherto unforeseen heights. Even with major label backing, it’s fair to say that the critical and commercial success enjoyed by their second studio album was unexpected. Eventually topping the album charts the following year, at its peak it was selling around 300,000 copies a week.

These remarkable milestones aside though, this isn’t another article about three decades of Nirvana’s biggest album; rather, this serves as the departure point for a trip through some of the varied songwriters that Cobain, et al borrowed from. Indeed, Nevermind is something of a rarity among the band’s output, in that all of its tracks were written either by Cobain, or a combination of band members (however, a later ‘deluxe’ release would include The Velvet Underground’s Here She Comes Now).

“Cobain makes David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World his own”

Great though Nirvana undoubtedly were, just as noteworthy (to me, at least) was Cobain’s ear for magpie-ing; and, in recent years, it’s become clear to me that many (indeed, most) of my favourite Nirvana songs were written by others. One of these is David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World (from the MTV Unplugged in New York recordings). Despite my familiarity with and love of the original, though, the vocals and arrangement means Cobain makes the song his own; if you Google it, the MTV Unplugged version is the top result.

Nirvana did this time and again across their tragically short lifespan. For less than a decade, they merrily pilfered from traditional American folk, rock history, UK indie-pop, their inspirations, and much in-between. Their genius for this was such that you could listen to an album from start to finish and – unless you arrived armed with prior knowledge – only later find that any covers fit so seamlessly that you’d never know they weren’t Cobain originals. If and when you did finally twig, the Nirvana version might still be your favourite.

“Nirvana’s cover versions shone a bright light on often underexposed, sometimes forgotten talents”

Aside from Bowie, I was largely unfamiliar with the bands they were paying homage to – Turn Around (Devo), Son of a Gun (The Vaselines) and Love Buzz (Shocking Blue) were just great songs amongst many others. Often, they’d lift more than one track per band; Cobain returned more than once to Scottish indie mainstays The Vaselines, and to his friends Cris and Curt Kirkwood of Meat Puppets. While this meant that Nirvana might be erroneously credited with someone else’s song, it can also be read as an act of generosity, with these new versions shining a fresh bright light on often underexposed, sometimes forgotten talents.

While the somewhat unlikely mainstream success of 1991’s Nevermind remains a great legacy for Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, in retrospect, maybe just as fitting is the tribute – and quid pro quo – they paid to those they opted to cover and, therefore, bring to new, wider audiences. While I’ve chosen Nirvana’s versions (primarily to point out just how good they were at this, but also for coherent listening), this playlist has been written in that spirit, and below you can see the track listing along with the original artists to search at your leisure.

The Man Who Sold the World – David Bowie

Son of a Gun – The Vaselines

Turn Around – Devo

Love Buzz – Shocking Blue

Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam – The Vaselines

Where Did You Sleep Last Night – Lead Belly

Plateau – Meat Puppets

Molly’s Lips – The Vaselines

Here She Comes Now – The Velvet Underground

And I Love Her – the Beatles

Lake of Fire – Meat Puppets

Mike Pinnington

Image: Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

Posted on 05/05/2021 by thedoublenegative