Nirvana’s 10 Most Rock ’n’ Roll Live Moments

From smashing up equipment, to strumming out acoustic numbers, Nirvana were always seen as merchants of the spectacular. Here, we take a look at some of their greatest live moments during their monumental, albeit brief existence.

10. 17 Nussbaum Road house party – Nirvana’s first gig (1987)

Every story has a start, and here Nirvana’s live genesis took place at 17 Nussbaum Road, Raymond, Washington. Playing at a house party, the band’s set was a scrappy precursor to the groups first record, ‘Bleach’ in 1989. Before leading into ‘Hairspray Queen’, late singer Kurt Cobain sang the first few opening lines of Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘The Sound of Silence’. As it stands, the fiery performance at Nussbaum road ignited the fuse that eventually exploded into Nirvana’s incredible story.

9. ‘Territorial Pissings’ on Tonight with Jonathan Ross (1991) 

As Nirvana created momentum leading up to the release of 1991’s ‘Nevermind’, a performance on Tonight with Jonathan Ross was a logical option to increase publicity and widen the bands fanbase. Initially scheduled to play ‘Lithium’, the band had a sudden change of heart, and crunched into a deafening version of ‘Territorial Pissings’, before wrecking their equipment and storming off backstage. A highly charged and surreal performance that bled pure rock ’n’ roll, and stand outs as an audiovisual definer of what the three-piece were all about: Anarchy, rebellion and noise.

8. Top of the Pops (1991)

At the height of their success, the band were making all sorts of headlines. Their first and only appearance on the BBC’s Top of the Pops had the band perform chart-topper ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. When the band were told they weren’t allowed to play their instruments, the band took matters into their own hands. Pretending to play badly, singing in rough baritone and making a shambles of miming culture, Nirvana held two satirical fingers up to the producers, and delivered an hilarious rendition of the number one hit.

7. Dallas, Texas: fighting with bouncers (1991)

One of the more controversial moments from the band now. Whilst performing at The Trees in Dallas, the over-crowded show boiled over into meltdown. Frustrated by audience members piling onto the stage, Cobain responded by breaking a monitor and diving into the crowd. As bouncer Turner Van Blarcum attempted to pull Cobain back on stage, he received a heavy blow to the head from Cobain’s guitar. Famously, Van Blarcum retaliated by putting Cobain firmly on his arse with a single punch. The bands talent for pissing people off seemed to wear to thin for one bouncer, here.

6. ‘Live! Tonight! Sold Out!’ film (1994)

More of a compilation of live shows, ‘Live! Tonight! Sold Out!’ dismantled and examined Nirvana’s charismatic core. Behind the greasy hair, ripped jeans and thumping guitar hooks lay a reluctance to be famous, especially from Cobain. Cobain’s own journals stood as a rough guideline for the creation of the film, which showed interviews and live performances of such tracks like ‘Polly’, ‘Drain You’ and ‘Negative Creep’. The trashy style of the film perfectly captured the havoc and gelidity of the bands live ethos.

5. VMAs (1992)

Nirvana’s feud with Guns ’n’ Roses, and in particular Axl Rose, is infamous. Behind the scenes of the 1992 VMAs, Cobain and his wife Courtney Love came into a dispute with Rose. Touted as  one of rocks biggest doucebags, Nirvana used a combination of ridicule and destruction in their VMA performance of ‘Lithium’ by destroying their set, and repeatedly saying “Hey Axl”. I doubt that Mr Rose was impressed… In front of 300 million people, Nirvana further established their dominance of the has-beens that were Guns ’n’ Roses, despite Krist Novoselic’s botched bass toss, which his him square in the face. Swings and roundabouts, I suppose.

4. Peel sessions (1989, 1990, 1991)

The hand of God came down, and gave Nirvana his mark of a seal of approval: The John Peel was almost like a right of passage for Nirvana in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. Broadcasting royalty hailed Nirvana after Cobain’s death in 1994, and continued to revisit the sessions through the remainder of hi career. Speaking 1999, Peel recalls his influence on Nirvana: “I got to hear Nirvana before most other people in this country; their first LP, it only cost something like 600 dollars to make and it was just a storming record”. The Peel sessions cemented Nirvana’s palpable sound and personality into the dynamic, cult spaces that only John Peel could create.

3. Performance on The Word (1991)

It’s seems like a slightly awkward juxtaposition: The Mancunian garble of Tony Christian on The Word introducing one of the US’s biggest cultural importations for their international television debut. Nirvana’s performance on The Word was a chronic and narcissistic blend of fraudulent feedback and penetrating distortion. The Word introduced Nirvana to the world and raised the curtain on what was to be one of the biggest movers and shakers in musical history.

2. Reading Festival (1992)

In one of the most ferocious and satirical sets to ever grace the Reading Festival crowd, Nirvana’s final performance in Britain was a blistering one. Amid rumours that the band were to split due to Cobain’s health and drug abuse, Cobain arrived in stage in a wheelchair in an attempt to mock his critics. Even with the bands troubles, Nirvana’s headline performance epitomised the groups character: Raw, aggressive, light-hearted and catastrophically loud. It still stands out as one of the most critically acclaimed festival performances of all time.

1. MTV Unplugged in New York (1993)

It was the farewell to eclipse all farewells. Shifting from feedback to finger-picking, Nirvana’s unplugged performance for MTV proved the bands versatile credentials. In a good humoured performance, Nirvana showcased a range of their own material, as well as covers like ‘Lake of Fire’ by the Meat Puppets, and David Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Sold The World’. Melodically sublime, Rhythmically delicate, and vocally haunting, the merger of Nirvana’s aggression transcended into a beautiful coalesce of subtlety and effortlessness. Six months following the performance, Kurt Cobain would take his own life.

Destroyed by the pressures of the limelight and his own genius, Cobain’s legacy lives on through the impression he and Nirvana had on people with their dynamic live performances. From the controversial to the universal, Nirvana stand as the bridge between cult heroes and mainstream success. Twenty years after the death of Kurt Cobain, Nirvana have become a martyr for the radical, the repressed, and the angry youth.

Keep an eye on Fortitude Magazine everyday this week for more on Kurt Cobain and Nirvana.

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