23 October, 1989
To the music-happy youth of Britain, late 1989 was bowlcutted, wide of trouser, and looning out of the northwest of England with a penchant for ecstasy and house music. The following month, The Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays would ally these traits with guitars and dance beats and appear on a proclamatory ‘Madchester’ edition of Top Of The Pops. In the top ten was another Manchester club track, 808 State’s Pacific State.
But there were other sounds approaching from a northwestern Pacific state – namely, Oregon in the US. On this wet, dull October day, Nirvana prepared to play the Newcastle Riverside alongside Sub Pop labelmates Tad. It would be the first date of a five-week, rotating-headliner, 37-show Euro-jaunt dubbed Heavier Than Heaven. Nirvana’s debut Bleach had been released in Britain just two months earlier, and to those in the know, appetites were well and truly whetted. For Nirvana frontman Kurt, or ‘Kurdt’, Cobain - a devotee of British bands including The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and the Sex Pistols – this first UK tour had extra piquancy. “We’re looking forward to it,” he told Cincinnati radio journalist Mark Shafer on October 6, in between joking about Tad frontman Tad Doyle’s snoring and hash brownies in Amsterdam.
Yet the headliners, and the Seattle sound in general, was still a specialist taste. The Riverside was far from packed. After a supporting set from Edinburgh rockers The Cateran, Nirvana’s 14-song set drew mainly on Bleach: having recently lost their guitarist Jason Everman to Soundgarden, some observers considered they were playing erratically. “It was pretty chaotic. The music was loud and fast,” attendee Carl Taylor told the BBC in 2014. “I thought they sounded a little bit like Hüsker Dü, but their songs were not quite as structured.” During their version of Shocking Blue’s Love Buzz, a gig-goer hit bassist Krist Novoselic on the head with a bottle, after which he smashed his bass into his amps.
Kurt's job was to hold the sick bowl...
The touring experience, with both bands in one van staying in inexpensive bed and breakfasts, also had its challenges. Doyle suffered from gastrointestinal problems and had to vomit every morning before the bus could hit the motorway. Cobain’s job was to hold the sick bowl, a duty he undertook with seriousness and apparent pleasure. Doyle’s medication of choice, Imodium, would later inspire the Nirvana song Breed.
Even here, though, there was ambition. “(Kurt) was a conflicted individual,” Sub Pop co-founder Jonathan Poneman told Mojo’s Keith Cameron in 2002. “On one hand he wanted to be true to his friends and his culture. On the other he wanted to be fucking rich and famous. He knew how good he was.”
Playing to regional moshpits, communication difficulties may have been inevitable. Cobain lost his microphone after plunging into the crowd at the Manchester Poly Students Union on October 24, and had to ask for it back to continue the gig. On the 28th at Portsmouth Poly, his stage diving caused a guitar lead snarl-up and delays between songs. The following night at Edward’s No.8 in Birmingham, Novoselic was obliged to sing when Cobain’s guitar packed up and he threw it to the floor.
There was chaos alright, but would cash follow? With their super-heavy riffing, satires of American small towns and minds, and Doyle’s obese charisma, some commentators argued that Tad and their God’s Balls album were more likely to take the Seattle sound mainstream. Later European dates, remembered by Poneman in his photo-book Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge In Europe 1989, depicted a Cobain so frustrated he would smash his guitar nightly. In Italy in late November, he threatened to quit.
“We can do whatever the fuck we want!”
Yet Nirvana’s first UK trip did win new admirers. On October 26 the group stopped off at the BBC’s Studio 5 in Maida Vale to record a John Peel session, cutting Love Buzz, About A Girl, Polly and Spank Thru with Dale Griffin. Griffin later told Nirvana archivist Andy Roberts the session was “very relaxed… Kurt played and sang live. He looked young and fresh-faced (and) the band was well-rehearsed.”
Cobain’s hard work and talent would pay off when 1991’s Nevermind sold in the millions, and his rock star fantasies of wealth and fame became unbearable reality. For now, they rolled on through Europe, ending the tour at the Lame Fest show with Mudhoney and Tad at the London Astoria on December 3. At the former gig, a snapped guitar string meant Novoselic and drummer Chad Channing had to fill in with an ad hoc version of The Stooges’ I Wanna Be Your Dog as the stage divers flew. “We can do whatever the fuck we want!” shouted the bassist. Nirvana could, in those simpler days.