Nirvana’s ‘In Utero’: 20 Things You Didn’t Know
In February 1993, Nirvana made their way to the secluded Pachyderm Studios in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, to begin work on their third album. The last time they had stepped foot in a studio, they were a little known Seattle band that had just left Sub Pop for David Geffen’s DGC. Now, with a multiplatinum album that knocked Michael Jackson off the charts and turned them into one of the biggest rock bands on the planet, they were under immense pressure to follow it up. “If there was a Rock Star 101 course, I would have liked to take it,” Kurt Cobain told Rolling Stone’s David Fricke in 1993. “It might have helped me.”
Cobain had one goal in mind: to bring the band back to their punk-rock roots. Their millions of new fans may have revered Nevermind, but Cobain thought it sounded “candy-ass” and way too commercial. So he recruited esteemed engineer Steve Albini (who had recorded Pixies, the Breeders, the Jesus Lizard and other Cobain faves) and headed for the woods in rural Minnesota to create an album that had much more in common with their debut album Bleach.
The result was In Utero, 41 minutes of raw, uncompromising rock that was unlike anything else in the pop landscape. Cobain, disenchanted by his overwhelming fame and the widespread media coverage of his personal life, was ready to vent. From the opening lines of “Serve The Servants” (“Teenage angst has paid off well”) to the moving finale of “All Apologies” (“All in all is all we are”), Cobain’s bleak worldview was on full display. Many of the songs are best remembered for their gut-wrenching, stripped-back acoustic renditions on MTV Unplugged, but In Utero is treasured among hardcore fans as Nirvana in their purest form.
In honor of In Utero’s anniversary, here are 20 things you might not know about the album.
1. The original title was I Hate Myself and Want to Die.
“Nothing more than a joke,” Cobain told Rolling Stone. The line, which first appeared in Cobain’s journals in mid-1992, became the working title for the follow-up to Nevermind. “I’m thought of as this pissy, complaining, freaked-out schizophrenic who wants to kill himself all the time. And I thought it was a funny title. But I knew the majority of people wouldn’t understand it.”
Fearing the title would result in the same legal trouble Judas Priest faced three years prior when two fans shot themselves, Krist Novoselic urged Cobain to rethink it. The other working title was Verse, Chorus, Verse, but Cobain finally settled on In Utero, which he took from a poem of Courtney Love’s.
2. Cobain recruited Steve Albini to help him realize the Pixies record he always wanted to make.
Cobain cited Pixies’ 1988 masterpiece Surfer Rosa as a key influence while creating Nevermind, even admitting that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was written in a deliberate attempt to rip off the Boston alternative band. “When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily I should have been in that band — or at least in a Pixies cover band,” he told Rolling Stone. Now that Nirvana had an enormous audience and hits on the pop charts, they had creative freedom. “After Nevermind, we could do whatever we wanted,” recalled Novoselic. “Kurt wanted to make a Pixies record.”
3. Albini wasn’t a huge fan of Nirvana when he got the call.
“It wasn’t the sort of stuff that appealed to me,” Albini told Gillian G. Gaar. Albini, who fronted fringe rock groups like Big Black, was skeptical of any rock band as successful as Nirvana. He also had never seen them live, and largely knew of them from MTV. Rumors were circulating for months that Albini was going to record In Utero, so he sent a fax to the band (“If this is true, I don’t know about it”) and Nirvana officially asked him to take the gig.
4. But he agreed to work on the record for a flat rate of $100,000, declining a standard deal that also would have allowed him a piece of the substantial royalties.
In a detailed four-page proposal to the band, Albini laid down his ground rules, the most shocking being his refusal to accept royalties. “I think paying a royalty to a producer or engineer is ethically indefensible. I would like to be paid like a plumber: I do the job and you pay me what it’s worth,” he wrote. “There’s no way I would ever take that much money. I wouldn’t be able to sleep.” He suggested Pachyderm Studios for its isolation in the woods, claiming that recording in a city would cause distractions. He also banned visits from Geffen Records staff members, whom he called “front office bullet heads.”
5. Steve Albini made prank calls to Eddie Vedder during downtime in the studio.
Albini pretended to be David Bowie producer Tony Visconti, telling him that he would gladly work with him if he left Pearl Jam and went solo. Though the feud between Nirvana and Pearl Jam was almost entirely fueled by the media, Cobain wasn’t exactly neutral in interviews. “We’ve never had a fight,” he admitted to MTV in 1993. “I just have always hated their band.” The two even goofed around at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards. “We slow-danced underneath the stage when Eric Clapton was playing ‘Tears in Heaven,’” Vedder told Rolling Stone in 2006. “We were slow-dancing on a gym floor as though it was a seventh-grade dance.”
6. To celebrate finishing the record, the band lit their pants on fire.
While listening to the final mixes, the group excitedly poured solvent onto their pant legs, making sure to extinguish the flames with beer once it got out of hand. Shenanigans like this were common in the studio. According to Dave Grohl, he also lit his hat on fire and woke up Albini in the middle of the night. “He and I got along really well, because we’re both kind of goofs,” he told NPR.
7. The entire album was recorded live in 14 days, significantly less time than it took to record Nevermind.
Albini believed in working fast without over-thinking, so the band cut the album in just two weeks. “If a record takes more than a week to make, somebody’s fucking up,” he wrote in the proposal. The speed at which they recorded, combined with the raw, visceral sound and minimal production, differed greatly from Nevermind, an album that was incredibly clean and streamlined. “The major label people and a lot of fans were going to want to hear Nevermind Version 2,” producer Jack Endino told Goldmine. “And Steve, of course, would have no interest in making Nevermind Version 2.”
8. Fearing the album was too raw for a mass audience, the group ultimately allowed R.E.M. producer Scott Litt to sweeten some of the singles so they’d be more radio friendly.
Torn between his punk rock impulses and a desire to maintain the millions of fans they gained from Nevermind, Cobain compromised by keeping the Albini’s work on most of the songs and allowing Litt to remix the singles for radio consumption. It was a controversial decision that caused backlash from some fans and even Albini himself. “It was totally devastating to me from a business standpoint,” he told Gaar. “Because it was officially regarded as inappropriate for bands to record with me on a mainstream level.”
9. The winged angel on the cover was a plastic model of the human anatomy used in classrooms. Cobain added the wings.
Cobain became obsessed with anatomy when he got the Visible Man model toy as a child. “I guess I secretly want to be a doctor or something,” he told MuchMusic in 1993. While recording In Utero in Minneapolis, he often drove to a medical supply store inside the Mall of America to scour for models and charts. Winged mannequins served as stage props on the tour.
10. The back cover collage was assembled by Cobain in his dining room.
Cobain spent days meticulously arranging plastic fetuses, intestines and a turtle shell — surrounded by carnations and lilies — on his dining room floor. This was the quintessential Cobain aesthetic: grotesque imagery meshed with beauty. He rushed photographer Charles Peterson over to capture it before the flowers began to wilt. Cobain played a mix of In Utero on a boom box while Peterson photographed. “It was difficult because I had to hover over it, and it’s not my forte to [do] a still-life shot,” he told Nirvana biographer Everett True.
11. Wal-Mart and Kmart refused to carry In Utero because of “Rape Me” and the graphic imagery on the back cover.
Cobain agreed to change the title of “Rape Me” to “Waif Me,” while the back cover was softened to comply with the demands. “When I was a kid, I could only go to Wal-Mart,” he told his manager Danny Goldberg. “I want the kids to be able to get this record.”
Understandably, “Rape Me” caused other issues for the band, most notably at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards when network executives told the band that if they played the song they’d immediately cut to commercial. Feeling challenged, Cobain played a bit of the song when they walked out and then went directly into a blazing rendition of “Lithium.”
12. “Heart-Shaped Box” was written in a closet after Courtney asked him to create a riff for one of her own songs.
Cobain was playing guitar inside a walk-in closet when Love asked him to write a riff. “He did that in five minutes,” she told Rolling Stone. “Knock, knock, knock. ‘What?’ ‘Do you need that riff?’ ‘Fuck you!’ Slam.” Though Cobain kept this riff for himself, the lyrics are an ode to Love. The chorus comes from a line he once wrote to her in a note. “I am eternally grateful for your priceless opinions and advice. I am not worthy [enough] to be in the presence of you.”
13. The original song title was “Heart-Shaped Coffin.”
The original lyric read “I am buried in a heart-shaped coffin for weeks” instead of “I’ve been locked inside your heart-shaped box for weeks.” Much like “I Hate Myself and Want to Die,” Cobain was warned this was too dark. The fears were justified, at least on a commercial level. Even though the video got a lot of play on MTV and the song was all over alternative radio, it never even entered the Hot 100 despite being the leadoff single from one of the most anticipated albums of the decade. It turns out not every suburban teenager wanted to sing along to lines like “I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black” on the radio.
14. Love first gave Cobain a heart-shaped box to court him in 1990. By 1994, they had an entire collection in their home.
After Cobain met Love in 1990, Love gave Dave Grohl a heart-shaped box to give to Cobain. She filled it with items that matched Cobain’s taste — a porcelain doll, dried roses and other tokens — and sprayed some of her perfume on it. As Cobain and Love’s romance blossomed, the item became a symbol of their love. It was also the one item in their home they had in common. “You had this Laura Ashley, girlie stuff Courtney liked, and next to it there would be a Colonel Sanders figurine that Kurt had collected,” Hole drummer Patty Schemel told Charles R. Cross. “A lot of this stuff had a kitschy feel, with a strong sense of humor to them.”
15. All three members received credit on “Scentless Apprentice,” an extreme rarity for the group since Cobain normally wrote the songs himself.
The raging “Scentless Apprentice,” inspired by Patrick Süskind’s 1985 novel Perfume, is the only track on the studio album co-written by Cobain, Novoselic and Grohl. (On Nevermind, they shared credit on “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and its B side “Aneurysm.”) “Scentless Apprentice” was recorded in just one take. “Nobody said, ‘We should do it again,’” Grohl told Rolling Stone. “Because that was the fucking take.”
In the early days, Cobain split the publishing evenly with his bandmates despite doing the vast majority of the songwriting. But once real money began pouring in, he insisted on a 75/25 split. He also demanded 100 percent of the credit for the lyrics. It drove a wedge between Cobain and the other two, but Cobain was unwilling to negotiate.
16. Cobain originally wanted writer William S. Burroughs to star in the video for “Heart-Shaped Box.”
Cobain and Burroughs had collaborated on a spoken-word record together in 1992 titled The Priest They Called Him, but they had not yet met in person. In his journal, Cobain wrote out a detailed vision for the “Heart-Shaped Box” video with Burroughs as the star. “William and I sitting across from one another at a table (black and white),” he wrote. “Lots of blinding sun from the windows behind us holding hands staring into each other’s eyes.”
By the time he approached Burroughs, he had decided to cast him as an elderly Jesus, even offering to conceal his identity. “I realize that stories in the press regarding my drug use may make you think that this request comes from a desire to parallel our lives,” he wrote in a letter. “Let me assure you that this is not the case.” Though Burroughs declined the offer, Cobain finally got to meet his beat hero at his home in Kansas that fall. “There’s something wrong with that boy,” Burroughs told his assistant. “He frowns for no good reason.”
17. The man who got the Jesus role collapsed on set due to complications from bowel cancer.
According to director Anton Corbijn, the man fell down while walking on set. No one knew he was suffering from cancer. “Something broke open. There was blood everywhere,” recalled Corbijn. An ambulance abruptly arrived on set, halting the shoot. The incident was extremely upsetting to the crew, In part because of the video’s imagery of birth, death and disease. “We didn’t work, because it was not only very sad for this man who we were so happy to work with, but also very close to some elements of the song,” said Corbijn.
18. Cobain wrote “Pennyroyal Tea” in late 1990, but he didn’t think it was strong enough for Nevermind.
“Pennyroyal Tea” was one of Nirvana’s first songs to showcase the soft-loud-soft formula they became famous for. It was first written and recorded on a four-track with Dave Grohl in Cobain’s house in Olympia, Washington. It went through several permutations before its release on In Utero, including instrumental takes recorded by Jack Endino in 1992. “Pennyroyal Tea” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” were debuted live the same night, at the O.K. Hotel in Seattle in 1991.
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Though pennyroyal tea is an herbal abortifacient (“It doesn’t work, you hippie,” he wrote in his journal) Cobain claimed the song was about severe depression and sickness. He listened to Leonard Cohen as therapy, explaining the nod to the artist in the song (“Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld”), while the lyrics “I’m on warm milk and laxatives/cherry-flavored antacids” allude to his chronic stomach pain that he self-medicated with heroin.
19. “Pennyroyal Tea” was slated to be the third single for In Utero, but was canceled after Cobain’s suicide in 1994.
After Cobain’s death, the label decided to recall copies of the single, which had a B side of “I Hate Myself and Want to Die,” and destroy them. But copies had already been sent overseas and somewhere between 200 and 400 of them reached the fan community. Today they sell for hundreds of dollars on eBay, though there are numerous fakes out there. The “Pennyroyal Tea” single was re-released in 2014 for Record Store Day.
20. Cobain hoped the record would challenge the misogyny of rock & roll.
Cobain wrote “Rape Me” to dramatically condemn rape and emphasize his support for women, but the song sparked immediate controversy. “Over the last few years, people have had such a hard time understanding what our message is, what we’re trying to convey, that I just decided to be as bold as possible,” he told Rolling Stone. A huge supporter of the riot grrrl movement and a fan of bands with female members like the Breeders and the Raincoats, Cobain wanted In Utero to pave the way for more female artists. “Maybe it will inspire women to pick up guitars and start bands,” Cobain told Spin in 1993. “Because it’s the only future in rock ‘n’ roll.”
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