No matter which city in the world you are in, one of the most noticeable pieces of street clothing you are likely to see is a Nirvana T-shirt. Usually flaunted by the demographic cohort that goes by “Gen Y” or “millennials”, it could simply be one with the crinkly-faced smiley graphic, the iconic In Utero cover, a face of the late Kurt Cobain, or one that just says “Nevermind”. Those T-shirts are so ubiquitous among a certain age group that branded apparel makers have appropriated the designs to mass-produce what is in essence a band’s merchandise.
The funny thing, however, is that often those who wear these T-shirts may not even have heard the music of the iconic Seattle band that is often recognised as one of the pioneers of grunge rock. It is even less likely that they would know that Nirvana might never have been born had it not been for a band called the Melvins and its frontman, singer and guitarist, Buzz Osborne.
Yes, the Melvins, who came out with their latest album just late last year. It is quite likely that even if you do have a T-shirt and have heard of Nirvana,you may not have heard of the Melvins or of Osborne, the band’s portly frontman, with his trademark shock of unruly hair. That is because the Melvins have never received the accolades that they deserved even though their influence on rock music since the early 1980s has been massive.
But first, a little story of how Nirvana came to be. A couple of years ago, in an interview to The Waster (www.thewaster.com), an online music magazine, Osborne said he first met Cobain when the latter was around 11 and not yet into music (Osborne, 58 now, couldn’t have been much more than 15 then). He added that when Cobain wanted to form a band, he had introduced him to Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl, who would later become the bassist and drummer, respectively, of Nirvana.
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In the interview with The Waster, true to character, Osborne (who is a teetotaller and doesn’t do drugs) underplays his role in the eventual formation of Nirvana, which ended tragically with Cobain’s suicide in 1994. “You have to understand something; the Nirvana story is a tragic one,” he says. “There is nothing good about any of it. That guy is dead. He met me, he got interested in music and now he is dead. What is the good part about that? I don’t have a lot of good feelings along those lines. I have had people from MTV contact me to talk about the ‘happy’ side of Kurt Cobain. To be honest, I don’t have a happy side. It is tragic, it’s horrific, and it’s nightmarish.”
Instead, it is Osborne and his band’s music that provides much to talk about, although they have sadly remained underappreciated in the fickle world of the music industry and popular media. In the post-punk era of the early 1980s, the Melvins were one of the foremost bands to incorporate heavy metal’s sludgy, deeply bassy sounds into their music, creating a sort of link between punk’s stripped-down oeuvre and the thick loudness of metal. The Melvins, who released their first eponymous album in 1986, became one of the most influential bands of that time, inspiring Nirvana, of course, but also Soundgarden, fronted by the late Chris Cornell. In later years, genres such as sludge and stoner rock emerged as a result of what the Melvins began in the early 1980s. One band, the Japanese psychedelic metal rockers Boris, even named themselves after a Melvins song.
The Melvins have been prolific. Since the 1980s, they have released more than 25 full-length albums, several more EPs, live recordings and compilations. Yet, they remain almost unknown, with what you can only call a cult following. Partly, that is because their music is an acquired taste. Take, for instance, their latest album, Bad Mood Rising, which came out late last year. The opening track, Mr Dog Is Totally Right, is more than 14 minutes long—not exactly suited for radio play. But if you start listening to the drum solo that opens the song, you quickly get drawn in by the drone-like guitars, tuned down heavy metal style, and spare vocals.
The rest of the album continues in the same mould, with songs such as My Discomfort Is Radiant, redolent of a classic post-punk style, ruminating on life: Eight conversations at once/And it never is over. There are mellower songs as well (well, as mellow as a hard rocking band with punk street cred can get) such as It Won’t Or It Might.
The Melvins have a heavy distorted sound that many can find difficult to get used to but for fans of heavy metal or grunge, they represent a seminal band that continues to influence dozens of other musicians and, yet, remains underrated. And, uncompromising. In the same interview with The Waster, Osborne (whom fans endearingly call King Buzzo) says: “You have to go with your instincts. The problem with musicians is most of them are scared. They are terrified. The more peculiar you can be, the better off you are…. You have to make records that you like. Trust your judgments.”
For those who are into grunge and metal, the Melvins are an essential band to discover the confluence of those two genres.
The Lounge List
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.
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