BEFORE ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. Before Nevermind. Before Courtney Love, Hole, Butch Vig and the legacy of a musician taken from us at the height of his creative output, there was a small grunge band from Seattle, Washington. Back then, Nirvana was nearly the iconic band most people will know; Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic were there, but with Chad Channing on drums. Then there was occasionally second guitarist Jason Everman, who also funded the Bleach sessions and is credited on the album, despite not actually playing. There was also Dale Crover who overdubbed some of the drum parts.
To an extent, Nirvana still wasn’t the solid three piece people would come to know. Their music still wasn’t iconic anthems either; instead, we have Bleach. Bleach is dirty, noisy, gritty, heavy and arguably the most ‘Grunge’ thing Nirvana ever did. Drawing from the likes of Black Sabbath, The Smithereens and extreme metal band Celtic Frost, Bleach is at times a far cry the subdued likes of ‘All Apologies’ and ‘Something In The Way’.
Take ‘Negative Creep’, one of the more abrasive songs on the album. The heavy guitar and Cobain’s strained, shouted vocals are one step away from being heavy metal, but the unrestrained guitar sends it down another alleyway. It’s not clean enough; there’s something indescribably dirty about the song. Indeed, it feels like a running theme throughout this album. Butch Vig’s clean production on Nevermind feels like a world away, with Nirvana and producer Jack Endino really giving Bleach a big sound.
The result of this is massive, chunky bass lines and pounding drums. You’ll be hard pressed to find a better Krist Novoselic than what’s on Bleach. Even the material on later releases sees the bass player complimenting the guitar riffs, with the possible exception of ‘Lounge Act’. But the band’s debut really exhibits some bass lines that are passed over in Nirvana’s back catalogue. ‘Love Buzz’ (a cover of the Shocking Blue song) shows Novoselic at his finest, giving a catchy, memorable bass line with a stunning solo. Opener ‘Blew’ begins with a creeping, crawling line that snakes up into the song to be joined by the guitar and drums.
Drums are, of course, played Chad Channing, the underrated predecessor of Dave Grohl. Grohl made sure to mention Channing in his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame speech, with Channing being unfairly omitted from the listings. His playing is excellent throughout, with notable examples being ‘Scoff’, with that pounding pulsating rhythm and ‘School’, with some killer drum fills.
But in a way, it’s not hard to see why Bleach is so often overlooked. With Nevermind came a cleaner sound and more refined songs, bringing forward such hits as ‘Come As You Are’, ‘Breed’ and some other song about deodorant. Bleach sacrificed having a ‘hit’ for a pure, raw sound. As a result the album received more college radio airplay, although did garner enough of a fan base for the band to tour. One of the these concerts took place in Portland, Oregon, and is included in the deluxe edition of the album. If the energy in the album itself wasn’t enough to convince you, this live recording will prove how much power the band could really exhibit.
Cobain was as powerful and enthusiastic as he ever was. Whether it was screaming obscure lyrics on ‘Scoff’ or crooning his way through ‘About a Girl’, Bleach showed how much passion Cobain had from the very start. His guitar playing is distorted and passionate and gives off some huge riffs; for true Grunge power, see ‘Mr. Moustache’ and ‘Paper Cuts’.
But even with all its great qualities, Bleach seems to still be regarded at the ‘other’ Nirvana album. On MTV Unplugged in New York, Cobain introduces ‘About a Girl’ with: “This one’s from our first album; most people don’t own it.” That in itself shows how underappreciated this album is, despite it being one of Sub Pop’s biggest selling releases. But even beneath the oppressive stares of its sibling albums, Bleach spits on the floor and glares up to them. A punky, savage, raw, exciting wonder that sounds as fresh today as it did in 1989.
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