Kurt Cobain, frontman and primary songwriter for Nirvana – and the reluctant voice of Gen X in the early 1990s – would have turned 45 years old on February 20, 2012. Instead, he died at age 27, a controversial death that left fans debating to this day whether it was suicide or murder. But the most important legacy he leaves isn’t one of tantalizing conspiracy theories. It’s the music.
For a band that released just three studio albums, Nirvana had a remarkably big impact on the music world. They’re credited with being the force that pushed alternative music from the quiet corners of college radio stations and indie record shops into the mainstream. They were followed by a horde of alt-rockers who ran through the doorway Nirvana opened to grab their chance at success.
Kurt Cobain has inspired 20 years of alternative and indie music, but who inspired him? For Cobain’s 44th birthday, we present four artists who influenced the style and vision of his music.
1. The Beatles. The lads from Liverpool were one of the earliest influences on Kurt Cobain’s musical taste. His aunt said he was singing “Hey Jude” at age two. Cobain claimed to have listened mostly to The Beatles as a kid. His aunts bought him Beatles records and occasionally, when he was able, he’d buy one of their singles. “If I Fell” was reportedly his favorite Beatles tune, and Nirvana often played it in concert when technical problems arose. He cited John Lennon as one of his heroes in his posthumously-published Journals. The 1964 album Meet The Beatles figured into Nirvana songwriting legend: Cobain said he wrote “About a Girl” – originally on Bleach and released as a single after its inclusion in MTV Unplugged – after listening to Meet The Beatles for three hours.
The influence of the early Beatles sound can easily be heard in “About a Girl” and other tracks – on a basic level in the verse-chorus-verse simplicity of many of both bands’ songs, but in other nuances of song structure too. “About a Girl” almost directly mirrors the structure of “The Things We Said Today,” released on The Beatles’ Meet The Beatles follow-up, Hard Day’s Night.
2. The Pixies. The Pixies hit the U.S. alternative music scene with their full-length debut, Surfer Rosa, in August of 1988. It was just a few months before Nirvana recorded their own debut, Bleach. Cobain loved Surfer Rosa – so much that it made him rethink his approach to songwriting. Bleach was grungy, sludgy, promising but not very nuanced. Just a few years later, Nevermind was the promise come true. One of the album’s hallmarks is the interplay between moments of spare, stripped-down bass and drums and moments of turned-to-eleven guitars and vocals. This quiet-loud-quiet-loud structure is used to fantastic effect in the single that changed the music world, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
And where did Cobain get his inspiration? From the Pixies. They were already doing quiet-loud on Surfer Rosa, and the sound thrilled Cobain. He even called “Smells Like Teen Spirit” his attempt to rip off the Pixies. “When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily that I should have been in that band – or at least a Pixies cover band,” he later said. “We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.”
3. R.E.M. Early-‘90s music fans might be surprised to see R.E.M. in this list – even though they were both considered alternative music, Nirvana and R.E.M. were about as different as it gets. In 1991, one was hitting us with a wall of guitar and screaming vocals, while the other was adding mandolin and pedal-steel to their jangly pop. But Kurt Cobain was unashamed about his deep admiration for R.E.M. – “If I could write just a couple of songs as good as what they’ve written…” – and he was a good friend to lead singer Michael Stipe.
In 1992, R.E.M. released Automatic for the People, a crossover smash that hit No. 2 on the U.S. charts and yielded six singles. It was an unusual feat for a subdued, often acoustic, shimmering and solemn album that dwelled on themes of death and mortality. But maybe it’s not too surprising that it strongly affected the often emotionally fragile Cobain. The album was released at a time when he wanted to stretch his wings and do more with his songwriting, and he began planning for a studio album that would be, he said, ethereal and acoustic, “like R.E.M.’s last album.” It wasn’t to be – within a few months, Cobain would be dead.
4. Lead Belly. Not long before his death, Cobain discovered the blues of Lead Belly. He credited William S. Burroughs for the tip, having read about Lead Belly in a Burroughs interview. “I’d never heard about Leadbelly before so I bought a couple of records, and now he turns out to be my absolute favorite of all time in music,” Cobain said. “I absolutely love it more than any rock-n-roll I ever heard.”
Cobain loved to cover songs of artists he admired, both in concert and in the studio. Through his covers, he helped introduce his fans to The Vaselines, Meat Puppets, Fang… and Lead Belly. In Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged performance, recorded half a year before Cobain’s death, the band closed the show with a powerful rendition of Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” The show’s producers wanted the band to follow it with an encore, but Cobain refused, knowing he had ended with the perfect performance and couldn’t top it. The entire Unplugged show was a glimpse of what we might have been able to see from Nirvana in the future: the acoustic sound he admired in R.E.M., Lead Belly’s rootsy blues, new instrumentation with strings added. But in his life as well as on the show, he didn’t give us an encore – just left us with this haunting performance.
Written by Linnea Crowther. Originally published February 2011.