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Newly Unearthed Nirvana VHS Tape Shows How They Got Creative When They Were Broke

A twenty-year-old Kurt Cobain and bandmates take to a RadioShack to make a music video a year before the band’s first album.

Newly Unearthed Nirvana VHS Tape Shows How They Got Creative When They Were Broke

Creative life has always been tough for an ambitious young band without much money, but it’s definitely gotten easier in recent years.

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These days, if you’re a group of musicians just out of your teens determined to shoot a music video and show the world what you’re capable of, you’re in pretty good shape—every member of your band probably has a fairly sophisticated video camera and editing suite in their pocket. If it’s 1988 and you’re Kurt Cobain, a month shy of your 21st birthday, and you’ve just recorded your very first demo with your bandmates Krist Novoselic and Dale Crover (Dave Grohl wouldn’t enter the picture for another two years), you maybe had to go to a RadioShack to get access to the equipment (and enough visually interesting background scenery) to film anything.

https://youtu.be/rAaqWMsuu2I

We know this because earlier this week archivist Mike Ziegler uploaded never-before-seen footage of the band shooting their music video in an Aberdeen, Washington RadioShack. The band charmingly practice their stage moves in the footage—Cobain repeatedly dives into the frame from the right-hand side of the screen, the lanky 6’7″ Novoselic towers over his bandmates with his bass slung low, and Cobain’s vocals bleed into the microphone from behind a wall of hair—all while footage of the band’s gig at the Community World Theater in Tacoma the previous night (also shared to YouTube by Ziegler) plays on the televisions in the background.

The video isn’t really a look at Nirvana as musicians. The music playing isn’t live, it’s taken from the demo. But as a chance to see the band’s creative processes, and a behind-the-scenes look at how they wanted to introduce themselves to the world years before anyone would have any inkling that they were about to change the music industry forever, it’s a fascinating document of Nirvana as a baby band using whatever resources they had available to them to make their statement to the world. A year later, the band’s debut album Bleach would be released, and two years after that, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Nevermind would ensure that nothing would ever be the same for any of them (even after Crover left the band, his next project, The Melvins, would ride the alt-rock wave that Nirvana set in motion). Just six years and three months would pass between the time when the 20-year-old Cobain went into a RadioShack after-hours to shoot a video and when he left a note to the world explaining that “it’s better to burn out than to fade away”—and seeing footage like this helps put the sudden, overwhelming rush of those years into a fascinating perspective.

About the author

Dan Solomon lives in Austin with his wife and his dog. He's written about music for MTV and Spin, sports for Sports Illustrated, and pop culture for Vulture and the AV Club.

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