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“‘That Demo’: Spotlighting a Low-Profile But Intriguing Nirvana Recording”

Nirvana’s release catalog is interesting, because when you search for them on amazon, the first two selections that pop up are studio albums. This is refreshing and rare; with Pearl Jam, for instance, you immediately get a “greatest hits.” Nirvana was very into getting things done at once in the studio. They recorded Bleach on $606; the profit earned from that album for Sub Pop is the best return since the Elvis Sun Sessions. All of this knowledge, to which the ardent fan is privy, adds to the excitement of thinking of them bashing out a rock album spontaneously, off-the-cuff, with efficient confidence.
The ten songs done by Nirvana in January 1988 (“If You Must,” “Downer,” “Floyd the Barber,” “Paper Cuts,” “Spank Thru,” “Hairspray Queen,” Aero Zeppelin,” Beeswax,” “Mexican Seafood,” and “Pen Cap Chew”) were recorded in one day by Jack Endino of Sub Pop’s Reciprocal Recordings, on a budget of $150. Most of the songs resurface on Incesticide, and a few of them on Bleach (“Downer” is on both), but “Pen Cap Chew” and “If You Must” are good songs that didn’t make the cut for these albums. It’s true that these two songs appear on the boxed set, but they are out of context — not with their fellow Incesticide mates, but together with pointless Led Zeppelin covers, and other rehearsals.
Jack Endino tells the Hype! documentarist that the demo “Blew me away! I was like, ‘Guys, can I please keep a copy of this for myself?'” Listening to the unreleased tracks from this list, it’s easy to see why, and it’s apparent how hearing Nirvana could have been even more of a life-changing experience, under the circumstances. Endino was probably in a unique position to do this, doubtfully unrelated to his singular expression of unhappiness in Hype! when they’re later discussing Cobain’s suicide. The lo-fi aspects of the songs serve to magnify Cobain’s animal-like wails, and it certainly sounds like nothing that had ever been performed before.
In her Backlash article about Nirvana in 1988, Dawn Anderson complains, which is how I know it’s a true account, about the “noise addicts flapping their lips about.. the next great white hope of grunge.” This was a craze brought about by these very early Nirvana sessions. In a sense, these small-budget recordings had already made Nirvana a successful band, before Cobain felt the need to start doing heroin, and before they decided to take on the world with “Beatles pop songs.”
All of these demos should be available for public purchase, because they all represent a separate, unique, inimitable, and timeless Nirvana moment. “That demo was seventies riff rock with a slightly weird post-punk angularity,” producer Jack Endino told Everett True for Nirvana: The Biography, a book that contains more than enough quotes, along with those from Hype!, for some solid liner note scrapbooking.

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