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30 years later, in search of the real impact of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Mikael Wood, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

Eric Martin insists he didn't hate Nirvana — even though he knew at the time he was supposed to.

As frontman of the Los Angeles hair-metal band Mr. Big, Martin had been fed a story that Nirvana's overnight success in the early 1990s came at the expense of the peacocking leather-and-denim types who'd dominated rock just a few years before.

"Everybody said they were taking food out of our mouths," Martin recalls of the scowling Seattle trio that crashed MTV and the Hot 100 with 1991's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." "We'd all been touring, having a great time, and then the grunge thing came in and pulled the rug right out from under everybody. Lot of guys went back to painting houses.

"But I thought 'Teen Spirit' kicked ass," Martin adds. "I didn't have a f— clue what Kurt Cobain was talking about. But I liked the attitude. It still rocked."

Martin's generosity may have been due to the fact that Mr. Big wasn't among grunge's casualties (at least not yet): Five months after Nirvana upended the rock world with its album "Nevermind" — released 30 years ago this Friday, on Sept. 24, 1991 — Martin and his bandmates scored a No. 1 hit with "To Be With You," an old-fashioned hair-metal ballad in the flowery tradition of Extreme's "More Than Words," Mötley Crüe's "Home Sweet Home" and Poison's "Every Rose Has Its Thorn."

Pretty, polished and loaded with "baby's" and "little girl's," "To Be With You" was precisely the type of tune that Nirvana was assumed to have killed with Cobain's disaffected songs about feeling "stupid and contagious." Instead, it spent three weeks atop the singles chart and drove Mr. Big's "Lean Into It" LP to platinum sales.

 

Says Martin with a laugh: "It's why my 16-year-old boys have four years of college paid for."

Decades later, the well-received power ballad demonstrates that the conventional wisdom about "Nevermind" — that it was "a death knell," per REO Speedwagon's Kevin Cronin, for bands that burned through Aqua Net by the case — isn't entirely accurate.

"Grunge wasn't a mass extinction event for that earlier hard rock," says Tony Berg, the veteran producer and A&R executive who signed Beck to Nirvana's label, Geffen, in the wake of "Nevermind"'s explosion. "But there was the almost instantaneous perception that it was so not cool. While there may still have been an audience for it, especially in mainstream America, the cognoscenti certainly was not wondering what the next Warrant record was gonna sound like."

And not just Warrant: Any number of hair bands that had been riding high in the mid to late '80s — from Whitesnake to Slaughter to Winger, whose frontman Kip Winger has described the grunge era as "the Dark Ages" — suddenly found themselves crowded out from the table by the brooding likes of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, all of which put out seminal albums within weeks of one another in the fall of 1991.

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