Given its legendary status today, it is surprising that Nirvana’s 1989 debut, Bleach, did not chart in the US upon its initial release by independent record label Sub Pop. But at the time of its release, the underground music scene of Seattle, of which Nirvana formed an instrumental part, was still very much underground. It had yet to break through into the mainstream.
It wasn’t until the release of Nirvana’s sophomore album, Nevermind, in 1991, that people really started to take notice. In the wake of Nevermind’s success, Bleach was re-released internationally by Geffen Records in 1992, this time peaking at number 89 and number 33 on the US and UK charts respectively. Having clearly secured its status as a classic, and been certified Platinum in the UK and the US, Bleach was re-released again by Sub Pop as a 20th anniversary edition in 2009. To this date, Bleach remains Sub Pop’s best-selling release of all time, and has sold over 1.7 million units in the US alone.
Bleach, however, is far from perfect. Recorded for just over $600, and cut in only 30 hours, the poor, rushed production shows, making for an album that sounds muddy and overly distorted. Chad Channing’s drumming too is a little haphazard – it was only upon Nevermind‘s release in 1991 that Dave Grohl would make his debut as Nirvana’s drummer.
But these imperfections made Bleach what it is, and what it’s become today. It’s frenetic, rough around the edges, unclean. It’s unrestrained and chaotic, with skittering riffs that might go anywhere, particularly on ‘Mr. Moustache’ and ‘Negative Creep’, with the latter seeing brilliantly gritty, out-of-control vocals from frontman Kurt Cobain, who flits quickly and unexpectedly between growling to singing to screaming throughout the album, never quite settling on one.
It’s this unpolished, grimy, unruly feel of Bleach which came to define Nirvana, and ultimately an entire music scene, of which Nirvana became the spearhead. You can’t mistake, for instance, that scuzzy, sinister opening bass riff of ‘Blew’, or the strangely entrancing melody of ‘About A Girl’, most definitely a highlight of the album, and a track which foreshadowed Nirvana’s breakthrough into mainstream success. And then there’s that frenzied closing duo of ‘Big Cheese’ and ‘Downer’ that just refuses to hold anything back, bringing the album to a furious conclusion.
Bleach wasn’t a stellar, polished debut, and it wasn’t an instant success. But it was exciting and impressive, because it showcased a band so full of potential that they could barely hold it in – and Nirvana certainly realised this potential in their later work. Bleach is a classic, not necessarily because it’s a musical masterpiece in itself, but because of what it started, because of what it became.
Bleach was released on 15th June 1989 on Sub Pop.