When Nirvana Came to Britain on BBC2 delves into happier times across the pond
Sign up for myFT Daily Digest to be the first to hear about TV news.
A haze of hairspray and machismo loomed over rock music in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as bands like Aerosmith and Guns N ‘Roses dominated the scene. That is, until an unknown and somewhat wacky Seattle group turns everything upside down. Unknown in their own country, they were young and punk, their grunge look resembling “a nasty accident in an Oxfam store”, according to TV presenter Magenta Devine. After Nirvana arrived in the UK, nothing was the same musically anymore.
This is the premise of this documentary very focused on the happy and formative period of the group in Great Britain. “You were the first,” growls drummer Dave Grohl, now Foo Fighters coxswain and still a pure rock’n’roll beast. The happily clumsy bassist Krist Novoselic looks like a bank manager. You’ll be on the edge of your seat, waiting to see if there’s anything going to come out that isn’t a cliché. “We just went upstairs and did our thing,” he remarks of the first shows. Leader Kurt Cobain “could be so intense”. What a surprise.
Simon Neil, singer and guitarist of Biffy Clyro, liked the way that “they were just dressed like normal people”. Fan and merchandise seller Alan Guthrie forever regrets ditching a £ 5 tour t-shirt, now worth £ 450. The group chose another fan, Tony, who brightened up their shows with his wacky interpretive dance. “A little fun,” says Novoselic. Outside the Shepherd’s Bush Hotel, the Dalmacia, a photographer captured Kurt’s intense gaze for an image, which for once deserves the hackneyed term “iconic” (music journal NME used the photo for its cover obituary). In memory of Dalmatia, Novoselic comes to life briefly, because the owner, like his parents, was Croatian.
Cobain loved The Beatles and Led Zeppelin, but also had a few more esoteric music favorites, such as all-female post-punk band The Raincoats and Scottish band The Vaselines. Lead singer Eugene Kelly was allowed to briefly share the stage with Nirvana at the 1991 Reading Festival: “an incredible thrill”. DJ-presenter Jo Whiley and Raincoats member Ana da Silva are minority interviewees in a largely male-dominated program. Da Silva cherishes a fan letter from Cobain, explaining how their music helped him when he was “miserable, lonely and bored”. “We had facial hair and dirty clothes, but a very feminine sensibility,” says Novoselic, unexpectedly.
In 1992, Nirvana was headlining in Reading, and cracks were appearing. “[Kurt’s] to live [of fame] was a bit more complicated than Krist and I’s, ”says Grohl. “Unfortunately this is the last time he’s played in the UK.”
“When I think of this period [1991-94], I feel like it was 10 years, ”says Novoselic. “I’m still dealing with Kurt’s death,” Grohl adds. Tony cried for three days.
On BBC2 from September 18 at 9:30 p.m.
To follow @ftweekend on Twitter to discover our latest stories first