I found the recent controversy over Kurt Cobain's avatar in Guitar Hero 5 incredibly uncanny. Why? For the past week, I had been listening to Bleach, Nirvana's debut album, in preparation for the forthcoming legacy reissue on Sub Pop. The sudden appearance of a pixelated Cobain singing Bon Jovi or Public Enemy tracks is certainly an unreal and psychedelic transition from their early days.
For myself, and many other Nirvana fans, Bleach is the key to getting the whole Nirvana experience. Recording began on Christmas Eve, 1988, with a budget of just over $600 (£370), which makes the album a triumph of rock'n'roll over economics. With limited time in the studio, what producer Jack Endino achieved – distilling Nirvana's live act on to record – is nothing short of fantastic.
It's been widely documented that Cobain improvised the Bleach lyrics on his way to the studio, and the words lack the lyrical complexities explored on further Nirvana releases. However, the impromptu nature of the lyrics caught the nihilism of Cobain's life in Aberdeen, Washington. Bleach's spontaneity captures the boredom of life as a beautiful loser in a small town.
Bleach could be the best Nirvana album. While Nevermind was built on huge, powerful riffs and big pop songs (an agenda Cobain was keen on), Bleach is a slow, stoned groove, reminiscent of Black Flag's My War. The guitar dirges almost threatened to overcome the record, yet within the punk rock and grunge howls, are the embryonic stages of stadium-sized Nirvana.
The budget production of Bleach set a template for Nirvana and, after the release of the highly-produced Nevermind, Cobain often referenced Bleach's back-to-basics approach (an approach that informed their post-Nevermind record, In Utero.) If Cobain had survived fame, I think he would have gone on to make stripped-down records similar to Johnny Cash's American series.
I'd hesitate to say Bleach was "of its time", because no matter what year Nirvana released it, they would have made a relatively big pop culture impact. People will always get, recognise and love Cobain's songwriting. And, strangely enough, the DIY economies and heavy grunge of Bleach would fit in perfectly with similar contemporary bands around now such as Meth Teeth, Wavves, Pens, Mazes and Male Bonding.
Put simply, the songwriting craft of Bleach has not dated. Not all is grunge: Bleach contains traces of the Sturm und Drang sludge of Sabbath, the cinematic swipes of the Wipers, the epic rock of Aerosmith and the melodies of the Beatles.
Though finished in late '88, it took Sub Pop over a year to find the financing to release Bleach. And now, 20 years later, they are releasing it again. It's a classic record. And after all the fuss over Guitar Hero, I can't wait for something that will shine a light on a much cooler entry in the Nirvana musical canon.
© Words – Alan McGee (Original article appeared in The Guardian – Used by Kind permission)