December 15, 2015
Released on this day twenty three years ago, Incesticide was the first collection of Nirvana outtakes, demos, covers and radio recordings, capping a defining year for the band. Nick Soulsby remembers life before Nevermind and how the album pushed the band beyond a point of no return.
Words: Nick Soulsby
1992. The Geffen label are reeling at the surprise success of Nirvana’s Nevermind album. Initial plans to develop an underground band into a mid-sized major label act go out of the window. Small tour venues are cancelled, larger venues are booked. Mid-schedule festival bookings become headlining slots. The summer passes by shrouded in (soon confirmed) rumours of Kurt Cobain’s heroin addiction, of potential splits in the band. No one knows if this is a flash in the pan – in the immediate aftermath of such a meteoric and unexpected rise no one can be sure where it might end or what comes next.
In this air of uncertainty the label decides they can’t let this moment of peak interest pass. They ask Nirvana to provide a selection of archive material for a compilation. Cobain and the band, in turn, agree to monetize some of their leftovers and rarities. The result was Nirvana’s Incesticide compilation released in December 1992.
Let’s not get doe-eyed about it; this was commercial product capitalizing on Nirvana’s unpredictable fame and grabbing at a share of Christmas dollars. On the other hand, Nirvana, like any other band, walked the tightrope between wanting to be heard, wanting to achieve success, and wanting to do so without losing their souls. Incesticide kept that honourable pact intact by placing Cobain’s selection of the best of Nirvana’s archive recordings out into the world at a time when people genuinely wanted to hear them. The band had become increasingly ambivalent at seeing bootleg recordings, often with poor sound or other flaws, being sold for sky-high prices to young fans. Apocryphal tales suggested Sub Pop, Nirvana’s previous company, had been planning a B-Side release around the same time – so pre-empting, and retaining control of the release, made sense.
Nirvana were still discovering personal coping mechanisms to deal with the challenges of fame. One of the few things that seemed to bring them genuine pleasure was helping spread the word about other bands, sharing the spotlight with acts they felt deserved it. Incesticide offered an opportunity to foreground music by Devo and by the Vaselines thanks to the inclusion of a quirky BBC radio session from 1990. More than that, however, initial copies came with a long note from Cobain himself in which he described hunting London for music by the Raincoats – an act that led to the reissue of their albums – then went on to bring other favourites to the world’s eyes; Daniel Johnston, Greg Sage, Mazzy Star, L7, the Breeders, the T.V. Personalities, the Jesus Lizard, Poison Idea…
That happiness was tepid at best, however. This was a Christmas release but Cobain chose to name it Incesticide – a made up word potentially borrowed from a song by JG Thirlwell (Foetus). The front cover featured Cobain’s own artwork but he, again, undermined the festivities by using a piece showing a damaged baby doll figure clinging to a blank-eyed skeleton. The back cover, on the other hand, was of a rubber duck – a comfortable image of domesticity.
His liner note was similarly divided. His words initially celebrated the joy of record collecting, meeting heroes, his love for his wife and child. Yet the final few hundred words went on the offensive against “the white, corporate man” and “the threatened man (who, incidentally, owns an army of devoted traitor women)” then offered up some unique Christmas greetings in the form of “A big ‘fuck you’ to those of you who have the audacity to claim that I’m so naive and stupid that I would allow myself to be taken advantage of and manipulated.” He wrapped the package up by declaring punk rock dead; telling racists, homophobes and misogynists to not listen to Nirvana; then a quick mention of rape.
In such respects, the record was of its moment. An article by the magazine Vanity Fair had resulted in his new-born child being taken into care; he and his wife being monitored during contact; court hearings; public vilification. The note contained within the Incesticide compilation was the first time he had directly addressed an audience in writing. Feeling unable to trust the media, he seized his opportunity to use the new release on Geffen as a platform to communicate directly. In a similar reaction, having been pushed to cooperate with the business needs of the moment, he made the compilation deliberately unedifying in terms of presentation and liner note content.
More than anything else though, the music was the message. The only other songs the band made ready for release in 1992 were the harrowing violence of ‘Curmudgeon’, the lurching punk of ‘Oh the Guilt’ and a thrashing cover of the Wipers’ ‘Return of the Rat.’ Cobain also scrawled out a lengthy feedback jam to accompany a reading from William S. Burroughs – another personal hero. The world’s biggest pop rock band were suddenly allergic to crowd-pleasing. The smattering of summer festival shows that had interrupted a long absence from consistent live performance regularly featured a cover of Fang’s drily sarcastic ‘The Money Will Roll Right In’ while the Reading Festival set started with a snatch of ‘the Rose’, originally sung by Bette Midler as the theme music to a film about a music star’s degradation and disintegration under the impact of fame and substance abuse.
Nirvana were already exceptional, a genuine underground band gate-crashing the mainstream.
Having left an apartment in Hollywood sometime in the autumn, Cobain put together the track listing for Incesticide somewhere amid a ramble round various short hotel residencies, then a longer spell at the Four Seasons Olympic in Seattle where he would reside from November. Despite this transitory spell, and the deeply stressful backdrop, he constructed a very consistent framework for the compilation.
As usual he fashioned the record to consist of a Side A and a Side B – just like the vinyl LPs he’d grown up on and just like he’d originally planned for Nevermind for which he’d initially sketched a ‘girl side’ and a ‘boy side’. Side A of Incesticide contained the power pop sound Nirvana had toyed with from late 1989 as well as 1991 reheats of two earlier songs (‘Been a Son’ and ‘Polly’.) Side B dug back into the darker sounds of Nirvana’s first demo, the only major Bleach leftover and one newer tune (‘Aneurysm.’)
Instead of just lumping the songs onto the compilation in the order in which they’d been recorded, a degree of positioning took place to create a flow. The order of songs from 1990’s ‘Sliver’/’Dive’ single was reversed thus making the first album chorus “dive in me”, while the decision to make ‘Aneurysm’ the last song on the album meant the final chorus cried out “beat me out of me” – an entry and an exit respectively. Next, (New Wave) Polly was positioned at the end of Side A where ‘Polly’ had been on Nevermind and where ‘Dumb’ (a song with a musical structure Cobain later pointed out had been directly derived from ‘Polly’) would be on In Utero. Even the order of the BBC session was reversed, ironically placing a song called ‘Turnaround’ as the first rather than the last of the songs from that occasion.
And the music itself? The far higher tolerance of noise within modern pop music (re: dubstep, trap, etc.) can disguise how beyond the pale some of Nirvana’s work was to listeners in 1992. Nirvana were already exceptional, a genuine underground band gate-crashing the mainstream, yet Incesticide introduced listeners to sounds that were commonplace in the underground yet had barely been seen by mass audiences.
The critical reaction wavered between those critics who were already big fans of weirder music, those outlets who were unwilling to be caught out again having failed to notice Nevermind or having scored it only ‘average’, and magazines like NME which gave Side A a far higher rating than Side B. It’s understandable, Side B was dark, dystopian and twisted compared to the fuzzed up, muscular pop music of Side A.
Incesticide, quietly, revealed so much about Cobain and Nirvana. The band’s duality – fun and charming versus moody and uncomfortable – coursed through the release. Cobain’s desire to control the band’s presentation came through in his determination to manage the artwork, the main statement about the release (the liner note itself) and the song selection – everything bar the business of releasing it basically. It showed his care and concern for creating a cohesive artistic statement rather than just a random lumping together of audio material. And it demonstrated a desire to maintain a particular bar on quality by refusing to use raw live concert tapes, or home recordings, or rehearsal tapes, or any songs they deemed unfinished.
The compilation serves as a superb overview of Nirvana’s evolution, a brilliant starting point for any fan wanting to understand where the band had originally come from and all they had done to that point in ’92. It contained material from every year in which the band had been active in recording studios from their first session in 1988, through the sessions for their first album, an EP session in 1989, the initial sessions in the spring of 1990 for what would have been their second Sub Pop album, their last studio recording for Sub Pop from that summer, then radio sessions in late 1990 and late 1991. One song, ‘Downer’ had even originally been written prior to Cobain’s first ever band demo – ‘Fecal Matter’ – from 1986 and re-recorded in 1988. In under fifty minutes, on a single disc, the record summed up Nirvana’s entire pathway to the stars.
Listening to it now, it’s hard not to admire Cobain’s ability to ‘magpie’ the guitar styles of the underground and combine them into his own unique idiom. Nirvana’s first session ran the gamut from mimicry of U.S. Hardcore through awkward new wave tunes and noisy tributes to acts like Scratch Acid. ‘Big Long Now’, from the ‘Bleach’ sessions combined grunge with roaring drones and a superb vocal turn. The later songs showed attempts to move toward lighter, pop-tones before ‘Sliver’ showed them hitting the quiet-loud sound that caught the world’s eye on Nevermind.
The record summed up Nirvana’s entire pathway to the stars.
Ending the record with ‘Aneurysm’ made absolute sense – a way of serving notice that the band was still changing, finding ways to grow beyond their existing strictures. The song was a tour de force in which the advancement in musical form was matched by lyrics in which stereotypical rock n’ roll lines (“come on over and do the twist”) and love lyrics were married to subversive touches celebrating the impact of his new favourite drug. Nirvana knew full well they were an update on rock templates – but that didn’t mean they weren’t a fresh, original one at the same time.
Here in 2015, having long since discovered how sparse Nirvana’s archive is in terms of pop-chart-ready studio material, it’s easier than ever to see precisely how well Cobain had ransacked Nirvana’s vaults in ’92 when making Incesticide. “Kurdt (the blonde one)”, as he called himself in the liner notes, had engineered something new from the bric-a-brac of Nirvana’s past, something greater than the sum of its parts. The compilation serves as both a time capsule of the band’s history and, simultaneously, a declaration of war on the band’s status in ’92 – musical graffiti declaring “no turning back”.