Nirvana were rock stars. Let’s get that out of the way, okay? It’s a label that everyone in the band would have resisted, but it’s true. Nirvana has sold more than 75 million albums, a third of them in the United States. They simultaneously broke the back of hair metal and ushered alternative rock into the mainstream. Along the way, they made some fantastic records with now iconic cover art. These are the stories behind the artwork on four such albums.
1. Bleach (1989)
Bleach was recorded during several sessions in December 1988 and January 1989. At the time, Nirvana consisted of Kurt Cobain (guitar and vocals), Krist Novoselic (bass), and Chad Channing (drums). Jason Everman, who had previously played guitar in another band with Channing, paid the recording costs of $606.17 though he never actually played on the album. Everman then joined Nirvana in February 1989 for a tour of the west coast.
On April 1st, 1989, Nirvana played at the Reko/Muse art gallery in Olympia, WA. Tracy Marander, Cobain’s girlfriend, took the photograph of the band that night: (from left to right) Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, Chad Channing, and Jason Everman. Lisa Orth, a graphic designer at local music newspaper The Rocket, inverted the photo like a film negative. She paid Grant Alden, a typesetter at The Rocket, to use a font that was already installed in the newspaper’s typesetting machine. He chose Onyx—a poorly-kerned font based on Bodoni Extra Bold Condensed—which quite accidentally became Nirvana’s iconic logo.
Bleach was released in June 1989. Everman was included on the album cover and credits because the band wanted him to feel welcome, and also because he funded the recordings. Sadly, it wasn’t going to last: the rest of the band grew unhappy with Everman during the tour supporting Bleach, so they cut the tour short and returned home to Washington.
2. Nevermind (1991)
One of the most iconic album covers in rock music, Nevermind, is an odd one: it’s an underwater scene with a baby boy and a dollar bill on a fishhook. Kurt Cobain had watched a television show about water births (along with new drummer Dave Grohl) and came up with the concept. DGC Records found stock images of water births too graphic, and stock images of a swimming baby too expensive, so art director Robert Fisher commissioned photographer Kirk Weddle to take photos at a pool. Nirvana chose an image of three-month-old Spencer Elden, who also happened to be the son of Weddle’s friend. The bill and fishhook were added later by the DGC Records art department. The Onyx logo was reused and the title was given a wave-like effect to go with the water theme.
DGC Records initially tried to cover up the image to avoid controversy, but Cobain objected. The cover has proven to be controversial, however, and regularly appears on lists of “controversial” and “shocking” album artwork. In 2011, Facebook banned the photo from its network, but quickly reversed its decision. The cover has also been parodied, most notably by “Weird Al” Yankovic’s 1992 album, Off the Deep End.
3. Incesticide (1992)
By 1992, Nirvana fans were eagerly taping and trading low-quality versions of rare radio recordings, demos, and b-sides from singles. Kurt Cobain agreed to officially release this material on a compilation as long as he retained complete artistic control over the cover artwork. The result: an oil-on-canvas painting made entirely by Cobain, including lettering which lacked their usual logo. A poppy in the painting hinted at Cobain’s increasing use of heroin, but DGC Records had little to fear, as the cover was unusual but uncontroversial.
4. In Utero (1993)
In Utero, on the other hand, was anything but uncontroversial.
The front cover art was again designed by DGC Records art director Robert Fisher, based on ideas from Kurt Cobain. It shows an anatomical teaching aid—a mannequin with transparent “skin” to display the organs inside—with angel wings. (Similar mannequins were made as props for Nirvana’s tour in support of the album, where they were regularly abused and destroyed on stage.) The familiar Onyx logo returned, along with a typewritten font for the album title.
The back cover collage was created by Cobain and photographed by Charles Peterson, who was known for documenting the local music scene. The collage showed objects related to birth and death, including numerous plastic fetuses. This, along with the accompanying text, was deemed unfit for store shelves by Kmart and Wal-Mart. DGC Records used alternate images and text as well as strategically-placed stickers to sell the album at major retail locations.
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And thus concludes today’s lesson on iconic album covers. (Don’t worry, we’ll be back.) Did you learn anything new? Or are you a die-hard Nirvana fan, seething that we didn’t mention Dale Crover’s appearance on Bleach? Let us know in the comments! And consider picking up a new Nirvana shirt to replace the tattered one you bought from Kurt that time they played with Tad at Maxwell’s in 1989.