DAVID GREENE, host: Twenty years ago, it was hard to imagine a punk, grunge album unseating Michael Jackson for the number one position at the top of the Billboard charts. But that's exactly what happened when Nirvana's "Nevermind" came out in September 1991.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN BLOOM")
KURT COBAIN: (Singing) He's the one, he likes all our pretty songs...
GREENE: It was the band's sophomore album and also their debut on a major label. Since then, that album has sold more than 30 million copies, which is certainly not what the album's co-producer Butch Vig was expecting. He tells us about the day Kurt Cobain and the rest of the band showed up in the LA studio.
BUTCH VIG: What I remember when they came in that first day to start recording "Nevermind" is - they were psyched. And there was a sort of a sense of urgency. They'd been rehearsing every day for three months and there was definitely not a slacker ethic in that band. I mean Kurt was very ambitious, you know. When they walked into the studio, they were ready to go.
GREENE: In 1990, not a single rock album had hit number one that year, prompting some people in the industry to basically say this was going to be the end of rock. And then '91 comes, that starts to change, but this album, "Nevermind," it overtakes Michael Jackson and it just tops the sale charts.
I mean, did you - did you feel that was coming when these guys showed up at your doorstep and you were seeing this kind of change in Kurt Cobain's writing?
VIG: I think in hindsight, the only way we could sort of tell was that when the record was finished, there was this sort of buzz and electricity in the air. Everybody who heard it started calling me, going, Oh, my God, we heard the Nirvana album. It's incredible. And I remember taking a copy back to my home in Madison playing it for some friends who had a barbecue on the Fourth of July.
And I put it on my boom box, everybody stopped talking and crowded around the picnic table and listened to it all the way through. And when it was done, there was silence for about 20 seconds. And somebody said, Oh my God, play that again. And I just played it again and I sort of stepped back, and the look on their faces was like something they'd never heard before.
GREENE: Let's hear a little "Smells Like Teen Spirit," which really is the anthem of that album.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT")
GREENE: Tell us a bit about your thoughts of this song, as the person who put this album together.
VIG: I remember the first time I actually heard it, was a boom box recording they did in rehearsals. And it was so distorted I couldn't really make out anything, except I could tell the intro guitar riff. And then when they kicked in, it was complete distortion. However, when it opened up in the verse I could hear Kurt doing the hello, hello, how low part.
And when I went to Los Angeles, and the first day in a rehearsal studio in North Hollywood, as soon as they kicked into that song, it was so intense and so powerful. I remember getting up and pacing around the rehearsal room and just - when it was finished, I was like OK, play it again. Play it again.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT")
COBAIN: (Singing) With the lights out, it's less dangerous. Here we are now, entertain us. I feel stupid and contagious. Here we are now, entertain us...
VIG: I knew that had to be the leadoff on the record, in that it was making a statement. And even though we're not really sure exactly what Kurt is singing about, there's something in there that you understand - a sense of frustration and alienation. And to me, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" reminds a little bit of how Bob Dylan's songs affected people in the '60s. In a way, I think, that was a song that affected a generation of kids in the '90s. They could relate to it.
GREENE: As I was looking back at some of the sounds and interviews from this time, one moment that struck me was Kurt Cobain on MTV in 1991, and I want to hear a bit of that.
(SOUNDBITE OF MTV INTERVIEW)
COBAIN: I wanted to have the adoration of John Lennon, but have the anonymity of Ringo Starr, you know. I didn't want to be a front-man. I just wanted to be back there but, you know, be a rock 'n roll star at the same time.
GREENE: Wasn't Kurt Cobain asking for the impossible?
VIG: I think Kurt was asking for the impossible. I think if you want to grab that star, you know, if you want to achieve that kind of fame, there's a certain price I think you have to pay. And ultimately, I think, that's one of the things that Kurt had a really hard time dealing with, you know, the kind of massive success an album like that has. I think that really did screw with his head.
But make no mistake, I mean Kurt really wanted - he wanted that golden ring. I mean if you look back on all this journals and notes, he always drew up plans for success and what kind of deal he wanted to sign, and what kind of stages he wanted to play. And as that success actually happened, an ambivalence starting to come in to realize that maybe it wasn't it's all cracked up to be.
GREENE: Let's bring in some of the song "Lithium" from the album "Nevermind."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITHIUM")
COBAIN: (Singing) I'm so happy 'cause today I found my friends. They're in my head. I'm so ugly, that's OK, 'cause so are you...
GREENE: Cobain said of the song, that it was about a man who, after the death of his girlfriend, turns to religion as a last resort to keep himself alive, to keep him from suicide.
VIG: Yeah, I mean pretty powerful stuff. And the interesting thing is like a lot of fans who sing along with those songs, like "Lithium" and "In Bloom," I mean they're so hooky and I don't know that they necessarily even understand or get what Kurt is singing about.
GREENE: Another chilling part of the album, the song "Come As You Are," the lyric: I swear I don't have a gun and Kurt Cobain commits suicide with a gun in 1994. Tell us about this song, "Come As You Are" that we could hear a little bit of here.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME AS YOU ARE)
COBAIN: (Singing) Come as you are, as you were, as I want you to be...
VIG: Well, "Come As You Are" is actually one of my favorite songs on their record, it starts with that really simple riff. Kurt had this little pedal that we also used on "Teen Spirit," that gave this kind of trippy, psychedelic, watery effect. You know, I think that song is about acceptance and about misfits, you know, just - you're cool no matter how screwed up you are. And I think he kind of felt like a misfit and an underdog.
And I think - so that, you know, "Come As You Are" is definitely an ode to accepting someone for who they are.
GREENE: That's record producer Butch Vig, who co-produced Nirvana's album, "Nevermind" two decades ago.
Butch, thanks so much for talking to us.
VIG: Right on, thank David.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME AS YOU ARE)
COBAIN: (Singing) No, I don't have a gun. No, I don't have a gun...
GREENE: You can hear a mix of artists who inspired Kurt Cobain at NPRMusic.org.
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.
STEVE INSKEEP, host: And I'm Steve Inskeep.
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