A musical icon and the figurehead of the grunge counterculture, his influence stretches on into the sounds and styles of the present day. Regardless of the tragic events surrounding his untimely passing, Cobain’s influence on music endures.
Here are 10 marks left by Kurt Cobain and Nirvana upon modern music makers and bands today.
10. His influences
It may seem odd to begin a list of a person’s influence by listing their influences, but Cobain’s disparate and wide ranging tastes were both key to his song writing and the legacy it left behind.
From The Beatles to Neil Young, King Crimson, Lead Belly, Daniel Johnson, KISS and hardcore punk and beyond, Cobain created something both powerfully melodic and brutally immediate that was greater than the sum of its inspired components.
According to Jonathan Poneman, co-founder of Sub Pop, “Part of what was so captivating about Nirvana’s music was not so much its stunning originality, but its remarkable fusion of so many different strands of influence.”
9. …and influence
Or perhaps impact. Cobain is often credited with slaying the bloated beast of stadium-rock (or any of the derogatory prefixes available poodle-, cock- etc.) that Nirvana’s success signalled the death knell of.
It seemed that no longer were the likes of Guns’N’Roses and Motley Crue allowed to dominate rock with all their meaningless, arena filling bombast. Kurt Cobain’s raw emotion and the stripped back sound of Nirvana snatched back the zeitgeist.
Vernon Reif of Living Colour sees the front man as a lightning rod: “Cobain changed the course of where the music went […] There are certain people where you can see the axis of musical history twisting on them: Hendrix was pivotal, Prince was pivotal, Cobain was pivotal.”
Cobain’s influence has spread far and wide, to artists you wouldn’t necessarily expect. M.I.A., Friendly Fires, Blink 182 and Nickelback have all gone on record in the past to speak of how his music has affected their own work.
8. Making music accessible again
As mentioned above, the over-the-top stadium-rock of the 80s had become too big by the time Nirvana were ready to make their presence known. Their costumes, attitudes and music was seemingly detached not only from reality but the feelings of a whole new, downcast generation.
Nirvana smashed through the pretentiousness, leaving a huge, wrecking ball sized hole for ‘alternative’ music to climb through after them.
Whilst ‘alternative’ was hardly new, the attention and opportunities Nirvana’s success brought allowed people to reconnect with music that felt more real, intimate and relevant. It was like punk mk. II!
7. A call to arms!
One of the most powerful elements of Kurt Cobain, Nirvana and Grunge’s success was that, at least initially, the entire scene sprung up from the oft-forgotten, back water city of Seattle to conquer the world.
Suddenly, remote scenes were empowered. Teenagers were inspired to pick up a guitar, form a band and do it for themselves!
Whilst music had hardly been cleansed into a pure artistic pursuit, for people switching onto Grunge, it no longer had to be some distant, cynical career path full of gimmicks and commercialism. Cobain gave rock’n’roll its soul, bite and energy back for the disenfranchised youth of the early 90s.
Chris Cornell, the former singer for follow Seattleites Soundgarden, remembers Jonny Ramones thoughts on the city in the late 80s: “the Seattle scene was the first scene he ever came across where all the bands were friends. In the New York punk scene he grew up in, everybody was a rival.”
6. Being a great guitarist without being a great guitarist
Kurt Cobain was not a virtuoso guitarists my any means. He’d never trouble technocrat metal heads or perfectly polished exhibitionist soloists, but his playing had a sort of contagious charm and musicality that didn’t require breathtaking feats of musicianship to be great.
Cobain had power, presence and a natural ear for a song. He somehow made his blocky, heavy handedness utterly captivating, and was another way in which he opened up music for others. You no longer had to be perfect to be a lead guitarist. Expression could win the day.
5. Popularising loud-quiet dynamics like never before
As with many of these points, Cobain and Nirvana spread ideas rather than invented them.
The Pixies were arguably the band that worked the alt-rock loud/quiet contrasts to perfection, but Cobain took this simple technique to the world.
With Nirvana, this simple dynamic trick became a tidal wave with every chorus.
4. Pedal power
From fuzz distortion to chorus and wah-wah effects pedals, Nirvana brought weirdness and dirt back into the guitar sounds of the day. Things could be messy and textured rather than preened and perfect. Guitars could roar like monsters rather gently weep.
For audiences brought up on Prince and Madonna, hearing a cacophony of fizzing, biting noise coming out of your radio was fresh, new and exciting.
3. Pop sensibilities and underground bite
Cobain matched the feral energies of Nirvana in full tilt to his wit for a verse or memorable melody.
Tracks such as ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, ‘Come As You Are’, ‘Sliver’ and ‘Heart Shaped Box’ are headed up by a strong sense of melody and song writing balance.
Nirvana songs were catchy, fun and easy to hum along to, with an engrossing snarl that kicked every track into overdrive. What wasn’t there to like?
2. Legendary live shows
Once more, neither Kurt Cobain nor Nirvana invented intense live shows, but, as with their music, attitude and approach, they reminded the mainstream of what a rock gig should be like.
There were no glitter ball space ships or over-worked stage props, just a band playing their music at painful decibels to a fully committed crowd.
Take Nirvana’s now legendary appearance at Reading festival for instance:
Somehow, over thinking the design of your bassist’s dorsal cape seemed horrendously out of touch.
1. The cult of the outcast
The main reason for Kurt Cobain’s success as a musician and an icon is that large swatches people could relate to him and his music.
Danny Goldberg, manager of Sonic Youth commented on the first time he saw Nirvana live: “I was stunned how intimate the relationship was between Kurt and the audience, even with material that a lot of people didn’t know. There was something about the way he performed that made him seem like a member of the audience and being on stage at the same time.”
Cobain appeared as ‘one of them’ in the way he dressed, the songs he wrote and the things he said. Rather standing out as a figure of aspiration, he was more like a summarised vessel of their thoughts, feelings, despair and anger; at least he was to his fans.
Today, the likes of My Chemical Romance and 30 Seconds To Mars tap similar tactics, albeit rather more obviously and costumed up.
Did Nirvana influence you as a musician? Has their music ever influenced your playing? Maybe you just don’t get what all the fuss is about?
As always, let us know in the comment box below!