When Nirvana’s Bleach hit record stores on June 15th, 1989, not a single person in the industry saw it as the debut effort by a band that would change the world. The top album in the country that week was The Raw & The Cooked by Fine Young Cannibals, followed by the Beaches soundtrack at #2. “I’ll Be Loving You (Forever)” by New Kids On The Block was the top single, though Richard Marx was about to knock it out with “Satisfied.” Hair metal bands like Poison and Mötley Crüe were packing arenas, Tiffany and Debbie Gibson were ascendent and the last thing on anyone’s mind was a grunge trio from Seattle.
Bleach was recorded for a mere $606.17 at Reciprocal Recording in Seattle. Local guitarist Jason Everman cut the check for the sessions, so they listed him as a member of the group even though he didn’t actually play on the album. “We still owe him the $600,” Kurt Cobain told Rolling Stone in 1992. “Maybe I should send him off a check.” It was packed with songs they’d been playing live for months, including “Floyd The Barber” (essentially an ultra-violent piece of Andy Griffith fan fiction), “Love Buzz” (a Shocking Blue cover) and “About A Girl,” a poppy song that showed the group’s impressive range.
“Even to put ‘About a Girl’ on Bleach was a risk,” Cobain told Rolling Stone in October of 1993. “I was heavily into pop, I really liked R.E.M., and I was into all kinds of old ’60s stuff. But there was a lot of pressure within that social scene, the underground-like the kind of thing you get in high school. And to put a jangly R.E.M. type of pop song on a grunge record, in that scene, was risky.”
The album failed to dent the Billboard 200 when it came out, but it did impress many critics, earn public praise from Sonic Youth and eventually move 35,000 units despite very little mainstream press. It was enough to get the attention of David Geffen’s DGC, which bought the group out of their Sup Pop contract. Going onto a major was a controversial move for any band from the punk rock world, but Cobain rationalized it was the best way to expose the masses to their movement.
“That’s pretty much my excuse for not feeling guilty about why I’m on a major label,” Cobain told Rolling Stone in 1992. “I should feel really guilty about it; I should be living out the old punk-rock threat and denying everything commercial and sticking in my own little world and not really making an impact on anyone other than the people who are already aware of what I’m complaining about. It’s preaching to the converted.”
Bleach’s followup LP Nevermind would convert more people to Nirvana than he could have possibly imagined when he signed with DGC. Here’s a complete show they played at Chicago’s Cabaret Metro on September 30th, 1989 packed with Bleach tunes – back when they were just one of many grunge bands struggling to gain a profile away from the tiny Seattle rock scene.