Nirvana’s Nevermind Launched 20 Years Ago

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Kevin Estrada documents "greatest show ever."

Thanks to Kevin Estrada for use of this picture! Note black and yellow DGC promo shirt at right

Twenty years ago this week, Nirvana was in the midst of making history even while preparing to unleash their single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and the album Nevermind on the world.  As college and metal radio promotion person for DGC Records, I had spent the week like any other: adds and rotations on Monday and Tuesday, followed by a marketing meeting and conference call with the field staff.  Wednesday through Friday of this week would be spent with Nirvana in town to launch the promotion campaign around their DGC debut.

While the band and album had our total confidence internally, we didn’t anticipate the commercial success, and as the campaign commenced, we saw IMMEDIATE reaction and results.   On Wednesday, August 12, we visited KXLU, where “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was debuted by dj Daniel Makagon off a 12″ test pressing.  While on air, the band announced they would be shooting a video and recruited listeners to attend the taping on Friday.  Back at the office, I assembled a Federal Express mailing for the single, along with the black and yellow (to distinguish it from previous white print) promo t shirt that said “Baby Kissing-Kitty Petting-Panty Sniffing-Corporate Rock Whores” (I hope I remembered that correctly!) addressed to the “R&R” panel.

The college radio mailing included a full advance cassette with the famous letter now enshrined at EMP where Mark Kates and I used a quote from Geffen president Eddie Rosenblatt.  It famously (or fatuously) predicted that “we fully expect Nirvana to become one of the top bands of the 90s.”  That week, besides shooting a video and visiting Los Angeles radio stations, they also played an earth-shattering showcase at the Roxy for the industry and Geffen’s somewhat skeptical sales team, led by Eddie Gilreath.

You couldn’t see that show and not feel the power of the band.  It was really an incredible night.  Mark Kates was shocked to see agent Neil Jacobson stage diving – typical even though it was really just the beginning.  The show was on a Thursday night as I recall, and that Friday, all DGC decamped for a trip to Houston to execute an elaborate and ostentatious launch party for “alternative metal” artists The Galactic Cowboys.  Despite costumes, unlimited Four Seasons charges, a great showcase and constant BBQ, it was the Nirvana cassette that made the biggest impact on attendees like FMQB’s Ray Koob and rock radio consultants Schuster and Snead. The band and their music would prove to be mostly irresistible.

Nirvana had just begun a mostly perfect ride to the top.  KXLU helped assemble an enthusiastic group of fans, including rock photographer Kevin Estrada, to play the crowd at a “punk rock pep rally” in the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” filmed that Friday as we left for Houston.  Today is sort of the anniversary of that event, and I think it was also when the single was played on KROQ for the first time, where it became most requested based ON A SINGLE PLAY. Soon it was everywhere, KMEL, a hit music dance station, WOZQ’s reggae show, Springsteen in the parking lot of Chalet Gourmet, everywhere.

By the way, a quick search shows the exact date as August 15, 1991.  Kerrang! called it the greatest show of all time.  The key part of the story is how Nirvana transformed music institutions like that, which had previously ignored indie music or punk-influenced bands to being their biggest advocates.  And they fell quickly for the most part over the next few months, until the King of Pop himself, Michael Jackson, capitulated Billboard’s #1 slot during Christmas week.

In the coming weeks, I will try to remember more of these stories!  Working with Nirvana is one of the defining moments of my life (so far) and there will certainly be good cause to blog about the music, my friends in and around the band, and the effect their success had on all of us.

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