Nirvana's second album shot up from the Northwest underground – the nascent grunge scene in Seattle – to blow hair metal off the map, kick Michael Jackson off the top of the Billboard album chart and turn the band into overnight stars. Though Nevermind's success would take a toll on Nirvana's tortured leader, Kurt Cobain, no album in recent history had such an overpowering impact on a generation – a nation of teens suddenly turned punk. Cobain's slashing riffs, corrosive singing and deviously oblique writing, rammed home by the Pixies-via-Zeppelin might of bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl, put the warrior purity back in rock & roll.
But as the sessions were about to get under way, neither the band nor producer Butch Vig knew just what they had on their hands. "The week before I flew to L.A. [to produce Nevermind], Kurt sent a cassette, which was done on a boombox," said Vig. "It was really terrible sounding. You could barely make out anything. But I could hear the start to 'Smells Like Teen Spirit,' and I knew it was amazing."
Vig, along with mixer Andy Wallace, made sure that Nevermind's brilliant songs didn't get lost in the same cheap production as on the band's first album, Bleach. Vig spent a little more than a month recording and mixing the album with Cobain, Novoselic and Grohl at Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, California.
"They were living in this apartment complex, and it was chaos," Vig remembers. There'd be graffiti on the walls, and the couches were upside down. They'd stay up every night and go down to Venice Beach until six in the morning. I'd go into the studio at noon and they'd wander in around four."
Rowdy lifestyles aside, Vig says the recording went smoothly, except when it came time for the restrained "Something in the Way."
"No matter how subtly they'd try to play," Vig says, it was too aggressive. "Kurt walked into the control room and said it just had to sound like this – he was barely whispering, and playing the guitar so quietly you could barely hear it. It was mesmerizing. I pulled a couple of mikes in, and we built the whole song around it."
Mixing the record, the band and producer hit another snag. "Kurt kept trying to bury his voice," says Vig. "I kept arguing, 'You can't do that. Your vocal performance is as intense as the drums and the bass and the guitar.'"
Vig eventually won the argument, but his mixes didn't make it onto the album. The band decided to hire an outside engineer. Andy Wallace, who'd worked with Slayer, gave Nevermind its incredible sonic sheen – something Cobain never admitted to being comfortable with. Talking about "Teen Spirit," he told Nirvana biographer Michael Azerrad, "It's such a perfect mixture of cleanliness and nice, candy-ass production. . . It may be extreme to some people who aren't used to it, but I think it's kind of lame, myself."
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