“There is nothing in the world I like more than pure underground music.”
At the start of any band or artist’s career, covering songs is part and parcel on the road to fame. Often the repertoire they touch upon gives an insight into their tastes, influences and even the direction they will go in. The Rolling Stones first single was a cover of Chuck Berry’s ‘Come On’ and their second was a song written by The Beatles with ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’.
After a while though, the covers are understandably replaced by original songs as their original discography becomes popular and even better. Rarely do bands continue with cover versions as their career takes off, although that wasn’t necessarily true in the case of Nirvana.
There is no denying the songwriting prowess of the late Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. From the anthemic ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ to ‘Come As You Are’ and the ethereal ‘Heart Shaped Box’, these songs (along with their three studio albums) put the band on the map with legendary status. However, Kurt Cobain never forgot or stopped paying dues to the impact other acts had on him.
In truth, Cobain always wore his influence on his sleeve (or a t-shirt). Yes, 1994’s posthumous MTV Unplugged In New York album contained many of these tracks, but for a greater perspective collecting them together gives a clearer insight. In the below playlist we’re highlighting the artists and bands that formed a bigger picture on the sound of Nirvana.
‘Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam’ – The Vaselines
Scotland is a mecca for the best of Indie bands, and The Vaselines are one of their most extraordinary exports. Heavily influential on Cobain and Nirvana, the band changed the title for the MTV Unplugged project as ‘Jesus Don’t Want Me For A Sunbeam’.
The beauty of this original still shines.
‘Love Buzz’ – Shocking Blue
Better known for their chart hit ‘Venus’, Dutch band Shocking Blue released this on 1969’s Home. In 1988, Nirvana covered this song as their first single, and later a different version appeared on their debut Bleach.
‘White Lace And Strange’ – Thunder And Roses
Another unusual and obscure sixties cover.
The Philadelphia trio of Thunder And Roses were short lived, but at some point their one and only album King Of The Black Sunrise (1969) found its way into Kurt Cobain’s collection.
‘D-7’ – Wipers
Leaving the sixties behind, we move into the punk genre.
Formed in Portland, Oregon, Wipers were and remain highly influential to Nirvana and rock music in general so this song is an unsurprising addition. Taken from their 1980 debut Is This Real?, fans of Nirvana really need to discover this outfit.
‘Plateau’ – Meat Puppets
Meat Puppets actually appear on the MTV Unplugged album to perform a couple of songs, and the exposure they received from that appearance led to their 1994 album Too High To Die becoming their most successful. A little bit of the band’s influence on the grunge genre returned with this exposure.
‘The Money Will Roll Right In’ – Fang
Hailing from California, Fang which will be an act new to a lot of people, although in the past have been covered by the likes of Metallica and Mudhoney.
Listening now, you can hear how Nirvana found an influence in the guitar sound.
‘The Man Who Sold The World’ – David Bowie
Surprisingly to some, this 1970 Bowie classic appeared on Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged album.
To be fair, The Man Who Sold The World is a proto-punk classic, and Cobain made this song his own – even a standout – that night in New York.
‘Molly’s Lips’ – The Vaselines
Proving again how influential The Vaselines were on the trio, Nirvana covered ‘Molly’s Lips’ early on in their career and it appeared as a split single with The Fluids.
Nirvana performed this live with the song’s author Eugene Kelly of The Vaselines at Reading Festival in 1991.
‘Here She Comes Now’ – The Velvet Underground
From The Velvet Underground’s 1968 mammoth and incendiary album White Light/White Heat, ‘Here She Comes Now’ is a chaotic slice of feedback soaked bliss, hand built for Nirvana and unsurprisingly a song the band drew from.
‘Turn Around’ – Devo
This is an unusual entry, and displays how far Cobain’s musical taste spread.
Devo were a groundbreaking new wave and electronic rock outfit out of Ohio. Not a band that you would immediately associate with grunge, although granted Pearl Jam themselves also covered Devo with their biggest hit ‘Whip It’ which had ‘Turn Around’ as its B side.
‘Lake Of Fire’ – Meat Puppets
The second Meat Puppets number taken from MTV Unplugged, and third overall as the song ‘Oh Me’ is also a Meat Puppets track covered during the acoustic set.
It’s worth noting that both those tracks and ‘Plateau’ appear on Meat Puppets’ 1984 release Meat Puppets II. If ever an album shaped grunge, that was one of the biggest.
‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’ – Lead Belly
This is a song that stretches back almost one hundred years and though the song’s author is unknown, it is this version that Nirvana based their interpretation on.
Lead Belly (Huddie William Ledbetter) sadly left this planet eighteen years before Kurt Cobain was born, but his influence, like that of Cobain, will survive time itself.
The Full Playlist – including the originals and Nirvana’s versions: