Today, Activision has confirmed that a Kurt Cobain character will be playable in Guitar Hero 5 (out September 1st), alongside Carlos Santana, Johnny Cash, Shirley Manson of Garbage and Matt Bellamy of Muse. Two Nirvana tracks, Nevermind's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and a live version of "Lithium," from their 1992 headlining slot at England's Reading festival, also join the game's set list, a first for the seminal band that defined the grunge era. "Kurt Cobain is one of the most recognizable frontmen in rock & roll history," reads a statement released this morning, "and it's an honor to have two of Nirvana's masterpieces included in Guitar Hero 5."
The licensing deal had been in the works for years, but Activision's Vice President of Music Affairs Tim Riley is still pinching himself. " 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' is a song that we've had at the top of our wish list ever since I came to Guitar Hero," he tells Rolling Stone from his office in Santa Monica. "So it's been a while."
Indeed, securing the proper approvals was no small feat. Not only did Cobain's widow Courtney Love have to sign off on behalf of the estate, so did former drummer Dave Grohl and Primary Wave Publishing, which administers the Nirvana catalog. "There's a lot of moving parts to something like this," Riley explains. "But it was about timing, not an issue of resistance. We almost did it for World Tour, but we couldn't get it together. Then after three years of working with the different parties, it was like the perfect storm."
Naturally, Love did have some concerns. Namely, Cobain's physique, Riley reveals. "Courtney supplied us with photos and videos and knew exactly what she wanted Kurt to look like," he says. "She picked the wardrobe and hair style, which turned out to be the 'Teen Spirit' look, then we went back and forth over changes — some subtle, some not so subtle." In column B? Love's reference to the Greek God Adonis, whose youthful good looks made the male deity an object of desire. "She certainly had a physical image in mind," says Riley. "She wanted him to have that sort of athletic definition but not overly so." And while Love has long had a reputation for being difficult, Riley's experience was anything but. "She was actually great to work with," he says. "She got back with comments pretty quickly." For more on the character on Cobain's avatar's shirt (Daniel Johnston's frog Jeremiah), click here.
Of course, authenticity is the name of the rhythm game, and in that sense, Guitar Hero's decision to include the Reading rendition of "Lithium" was an apt choice (original stems from the album version could not be found). Fans may recall that the 1992 show kicked off with Cobain being rolled out onstage in a wheelchair — a response to rumors of his ill health and the band's possible breakup — and has since been hailed as one of their best live performances.
Nirvana joins a reported 83 artists whose songs appear on GH5, including fellow '90s rockers Sublime, Blur, Sunny Day Real Estate and Sonic Youth. And with the release of The Beatles: Rock Band just around the corner, Activision is already looking ahead to its next product: Band Hero, a more family-friendly, pop version of the game that's rated E10-Plus and will feature characters of Taylor Swift and Maroon 5's Adam Levine. It's slated for release at the end of the fall. But for now, Riley is just taking in this latest achievement. "I'm still kind of freaked out to be playing a Nirvana song," he says. "I'm so excited just to be talking about it. We were able to pull it off and it's cool to acknowledge that finally."