Here we are now, entertain us!
One of the singular joys of my life is the Classic Album series on DVD. The artists and producers of the albums sit down with the master tape at the mixing console to illustrate how they achieved a sound, or to isolate a guitar solo. It's thrilling to hear these individual components of these towering achievements in music in the same way it's thrilling to open the hood of a really fast car to look at the engine. For music geeks like myself, it just doesn't get any better. My most recent voyage through, well, nirvana was Classic Albums - Nirvana: Nevermind.
For those of you who were trapped under something heavy when Nevermind came out, it was a jet engine blast of sheer rock genius. I have a "where were you/Kennedy" moment from the first time I heard "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on the radio. My wife-to-be and I were headed south on Colorado Boulevard in Denver, and were just off of this triangular park, near the KFC and Target complex, when that unmistakable opening riff jangled out of the radio. By the time it roared into life, I had already said, "Holy cow" right out loud and turned it up. When it finished, I looked over at my sweetie and said, "That was amazing." She said, "Yeah!" We stopped at the next CD store and picked it up. If CDs wore out like vinyl used to, I'd be on my 7th copy of that album by now. I know the song order so well that if I hear one song off of it, I have a Pavlovian need to hear the next song, and so on.
Without a doubt, Nevermind was, is and will remain one of the classic rock albums of all time.
So watching Classic Albums - Nirvana: Nevermind for me was like peering into the mind of Melville while he wrote Moby Dick or standing behind Leonardo da Vinci whilst he worked on the elusive smile of the Mona Lisa, having him explain the trick of shading he employed to make the smile disappear when you looked directly at it, but reappear when you view it obliquely.
Of all the magic moments in program, the best was when Dave Grohl uttered the truism I have found applies to all people who enjoy music throughout their lifetimes - as opposed to those who like it intensely during their young adulthood only to drift away when life keeps happening - and those artists who have that magic touch with great, hooky melodies: "With Kurt, the music always came first, lyrics second." Yes!
Another good one is when Butch Vig, of the group Garbage (fronted by the stunning Shirley Manson), who was the producer of Nevermind, described breaking into a sweat and having to pace off nervous energy the first time Nirvana played "Smells Like Teen Spirit" for him, because it was obvious how good the song was.
Butch was instrumental to the powerhouse sound of the recording. Though still great, the albums on either side of Nevermind have a comparatively thin, inconsistent sound. Butch explains how he essentially got Kurt to do multi tracks of vocals and guitars by either saying that John Lennon did it, too, (one of Kurt's heroes), or by simply lying that he didn't get a good take and they'd have to do it again.
You'd expect that when Cobain would sing harmony with himself it'd sound good because he'd be trying to purposely get the sound right, but when he was under the impression that he was redoing a vocal because Butch said he needed a better one, you'd think it'd be all over the road - paced differently, a different emphasis, and so on. But, no, Kurt clearly had worked out exactly how he wanted the vocal to sound, and would do that take roughly the same way every time, so Butch got to double-track the vocals whenever he wanted to.
Maybe I should be ashamed of this, but once in a while I'm taken by surprise and amazed at the sheer amount talent some musicians have, particularly when the music they make sounds ragged or somehow so spontaneous that I'd assume it was a lucky take. There are enough artists like that out there. (For instance, Tom Scholz of Boston claims in liner notes that "Amanda" was once in a lifetime performance that was not recreatable, so when the master tape was discovered to have turned to glue, they had to invent a substance to allow the tape to go past the heads once to make a copy.) So I was shocked at how consistent and what a visionary Cobain was.
TLD: Another time I was completely blindsided was a one-time concert held by various groups on the Minneapolis music scene when it was the center of the hip music universe back in the 80s. I'd heard many of these bands individually, and the fashion at the time was a ragged, DIY vibe, which sometimes simply came off as though the band needed to rehearse more. Well, these guys got together to do a night of Eagles covers - yes, Eagles covers - and we went just to witness the travesty. To our surprise, all the musicians who made you doubt during their own shows if they even knew how to tune a guitar did pitch-perfect covers. It could have been the Eagles themselves up there. They even closed with the top single of the year, the Bangle's "Walk Like an Egyptian" and just nailed, down to the whistled bridge. It was hilarious.
I was also shocked and pleased to find out how much Nirvana leaned on Dave Grohl, their drummer, to fill in their sound. He was their background vocalist and second guitarist in addition to his phenomenal drumming. When he came out with his band Foo Fighters (one of my current and all-time faves), I wondered how come he sounded so accomplished already. Well, it comes to light that he was the other powerhouse within Nirvana.
So, if this is the kind of stuff that flips your skirt, do check out the Classic Album series. If you belong to Netflix, they have them all, and they're a nice change of pace to have ready and waiting on the shelf. Along with Nirvana, check out the ones on:
- Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life
- Paul Simons's Graceland
- Fleetwood Mac's Rumours
- Steely Dan's Aja
- U2's The Joshua Tree
- Phil Collins' Face Value
- The Who's Who's Next
You get to find out all sorts of neato factoids, such as: Fleetwood Mac wore out the master tape during the recording Rumours and had to start over (start over!!); Nevermind was recorded at Sound City, Van Nuys, where both Rumours and Tom Petty's Damn the Torpedoes were recorded, leaving one to wonder if that studio is somehow blessed; Stevie Wonder even plays the drums on most of Songs; and that the bass break at the end of Paul Simon's "You Can Call Me Al" was cut in half, reversed, and pasted together in the middle to create the sound they wanted - go listen, you can hear it once you know that's what they did. Nifty, huh?