Nirvana at the QMU, 30 years on

Legendary, genre-pioneering, fleeting Washington band, Nirvana, came to the UK twice in its seven-year run, making waves with appearances on Top of the Pops and the Reading Festival in 1991. Upon arrival in the UK, Smells Like Teen Spirit was in the top 10 just a week after its release. On November 30th, 1991, Nirvana played University of Glasgow’s own Queen Margaret Union. Tickets cost around £6, and doors opened at 8 for the opening set at 9. The supporting groups were Japanese girl-punk group Shonen Knife and Glasgow’s own Captain America. And while this gig is a huge piece of Glasgow University’s history, it tends to be obscurely known. No pictures or videos have surfaced from that night, but there is an audio recording of Nirvana’s set available on YouTube. 

As a lifelong Nirvana fan attending Glasgow Uni, the odds of this milestone taking place during my time here is delightfully fortunate. The music of Nirvana served to be a sympathetic and accessible presence to me as a high schooler struggling with the pressures of school, family, and otherness despite living extremely contrasting lives. I grew up in Evanston, Illinois, a lovely city bordering Chicago, that couldn’t have been more different from Aberdeen, Washington. Nirvana had always been a part of my childhood repertoire, but in January 2015, HBO released Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck and I instantly became roped into the whirlwind, albeit 20 years late. With daughter Frances Bean as the executive producer, it was undoubtedly the most genuine and insightful posthumous portrayal of Kurt that didn’t feed into the usual stigmatizing narratives around suicide, bashing Courtney Love, or addiction demonizing. Soon I was finding Kurt’s anthology of journals, biographies of the band members, and all the rockumentaries under the sun. A notable piece I read during this time was Nirvana – A Tour Diary by Andy Bollen, whom I had the pleasure of interviewing for this upcoming anniversary. 

Hailing from Airdrie, Andy was Captain America’s drummer for the tour. Andy got involved with Captain America when he ran into Gordon Keen (BMX Bandits), who had been working with Eugene Kelly (the Vaselines), whose songs (Molly’s Lips, Son of a Gun, Jesus Wants Me For a Sunbeam) were widely popularized when covered by Nirvana. By then, the Vaselines had dissolved, and Kelly was working on a new project called Captain America, who needed a drummer after their temporary drummer Brendan O’Hare (Teenage Fanclub – dubbed “the best band in the world” by Cobain) left to pursue other projects. Soon, they were being asked to support Nirvana in their European leg of their Nevermind tour.

Andy and I shared some emails regarding his time on tour with Nirvana, and I was very deliberate to mention the influence small-town, underground band culture had on the mainstream, using Nirvana as the prime example, but also using his own experiences playing with Captain America. 

Ari: How do you view small-town band culture as having impacted upon the popular music scene of the 1990s?

Andy: It was just a case of being friends with like-minded people who shared your taste in music and getting on with it. I vividly remember askng [Gordon Kelly] how Teenage Fanclub were getting on. They’d been playing a gig at University of London Union. He said Teenage Fanclub are in New York at the New Music Seminar and have just played CBGB’s. These guys were from Bellshill and Motherwell! That blew my mind. There may have been a small-town band culture but there was a lot of big dreaming… they were making it happen. 

It was these very bands that went on to impact a young Kurt Cobain, who would listen to them on college radio in Washington. Nirvana’s credo included feminism, antiracism, opposing homophobia, questioning authority, and a commitment to uplifting underground bands trying to make it just as they once were. Nirvana’s sudden success is always the main topic of conversation when discussing them, but only because it always seemed unlikely.

Andy: It was far more difficult then and to get a deal you had to go to London. You had Thatcherism, the miners’ strike, mass unemployment, communities were ripped apart. Parents wanted you to be a civil servant, get a degree or an apprenticeship… Ambition was thwarted and battered out of you and so many of the musicians older than me had incredible talent.

And while Andy’s experience was in Glasgow and the small communities outside of it, Nirvana was operating from Aberdeen, Washington, a 17,000-person logging town whose nickname is thoughtfully coined “The Hellhole of the Pacific”. But even in these small towns, there was still a notable underground music scene that many were a part of. I wanted to know what music was like for these bands in Glasgow during the eighties and nineties:

Andy: Music felt more accessible then, you could jump on the 201 bus and go over to the Hattonrigg Hotel and see these bands play. You would switch on Radio Scotland, and they would be on, or pick up a music paper and read a review. 

What is now one of the highest-selling albums to date, Nevermind was actually very hard to acquire upon its release; only bootlegs and homemade tapes traceable to the original 40,000 copies produced in the UK were in circulation. I asked Andy if people had heard of the album and if he had listened to it prior to joining Nirvana on tour:

Andy: we had a copy of a copy of a copy of Nevermind on cassette. It sounded incredible, a different sounding album altogether from Bleach. We couldn’t get the album anywhere and were amazed at how good the first five songs were. You knew it was something special. It changed gear once Smells Like Teen Spirit charted and they were on Top of the Pops. We all knew by then, no matter how much Nirvana tried to play it down and were reluctant to accept it, they were going to become huge.

I, of course, had to ask if he still kept in touch with any of the legendary line-up:

Ari: Have you kept in touch with Krist Novoselic, Dave Grohl, Courtney Love, Eric Erlandson, or any of the other band members you toured with?

Andy: No, I haven’t. Nirvana just became so huge. I met Dave at T in the Park in 1996 backstage and hugged and had a cry. I was also due to interview him for a film project I put together called Searching for the Holy Grohl, in 2015. He had agreed to speak to me. I was meeting him in the Southern Bar in Edinburgh, but he broke his leg a few days before and it was postponed. 

On top of playing the QMU and many other venues around the country, Nirvana’s second trip to the UK included Kurt Cobain and Dave Grohl playing a charity event for Edinburgh Children’s Hospital’s charity, The Sick Kids, in Edinburgh’s Southern Bar (which can be watched on YouTube). Andy writes in his book that “The QM is a great venue and when it’s packed and bulging at the seams, there are few places that can beat it.” And while the QMU has seen many remarkable artists take its stage for the past 50 years– the Pixies, the Red-Hot Chili Peppers, Big Star, Queen– Nirvana’s St. Andrew’s Day gig will forever be a staple in Glasgow’s legendary musical history.

[Ari Badr – they/he]

[Illustration credit: Tony Rodriguez]

Ticket to Nirvana’s gig at the QMU, 30th November 1991
Kurt Cobain’s setlist

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