Nirvana has sold more than 75 million albums, ushering alternative rock into the mainstream. Here are the stories behind four of their now-iconic album covers.
1. Bleach (1989)
Nirvana recorded Bleach in December 1988 and January 1989, during several sessions. Nirvana consisted of Kurt Cobain (guitar and vocals), Krist Novoselic (bass), and Chad Channing (drums). Although he never actually played on the album, Jason Everman, who had previously played guitar in another band with Channing, paid the $616 for recording costs. Everman later joined Nirvana in February 1989 for the band's west coast tour.
The photograph of Nirvana performing at the Reko/Muse art gallery in Olympia, WA on April 1st, 1989, was taken by Cobain's girlfriend, Tracy Marander. (L-R) Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, Chad Channing, and Jason Everman. A local music newspaper The Rocket's graphic designer, Lisa Orth, inverted the photo like a film negative. A font that was already installed in the newspaper’s typesetting machine, Onyx, was chosen by Grant Alden, a typesetter at The Rocket. It was a poorly-kerned font based on Bodoni Extra Bold Condensed, and this font became Nirvana’s iconic logo.
Everman was included on the Bleach album cover and credits when it was released in June 1989, in order to make him feel welcome, and because he paid for the recordings. However, this changed when the band became unhappy with Everman during the Bleach tour, and they ended the tour early, returning home to Washington.
2. Nevermind (1991)
One of the most recognized album covers in alt rock music, Nevermind features an underwater photo of a baby boy and a fishhook dangling a dollar bill. Inspired by a TV show they watched about water births, Kurt Cobain (along with new drummer Dave Grohl) came up with the concept. Available stock images of water births were too graphic, stock photos of swimming babies were expensive, so art director Robert Fisher hired photographer Kirk Weddle to do a photo shoot at a pool. The image of three-month-old Spencer Elden, the son of Weddle's friend, was selected by Nirvana. DGC Records art department later added the dollar bill and fishhook. The Onyx logo was reused, using a wave-like effect to accompany the water theme.
To avoid controversy, DGC Records wanted to cover up the image, but Cobain objected. The cover is often included on lists of "shocking" album artwork, and it was even banned by Facebook in 2011 (a decision they quickly reversed). The image has often been parodied, most notably by “Weird Al” Yankovic’s 1992 album, Off The Deep End.
3. Incesticide (1992)
Kurt Cobain agreed to officially release this material on a compilation, since Nirvana fans were now taping and trading low-quality recordings of live radio shows, demos, and b-sides. He insisted on retaining complete artistic control over the cover artwork. This oil-on-canvas painting made entirely by Cobain, was the result, including lettering which didn't have their usual logo. The poppy flower symbolized Cobain’s increasing use of heroin. The cover, while unusual, wasn't considered too controversial to be used.
4. In Utero (1993)
On the other hand, In Utero was anything but uncontroversial. Robert Fisher, the art director for DGC Records again designed the front cover, using ideas from Kurt Cobain. An anatomical teaching aid - a mannequin with transparent “skin” to display the organs inside - had angel wings added. The tour in support of the album used similar mannequins as props, which were then abused and destroyed on stage. The familiar Onyx logo was used, with a typewritten font for the album title.
Cobain created the back cover collage, photographed by Charles Peterson, who was familiar to the local music scene. Objects related to birth and death, including several plastic fetuses, were used. It was decided by Kmart and Wal-Mart that this artwork, as well as the accompanying text, wasn't suitable for store displays. DGC Records employed alternate images and text, along with strategically-placed stickers to sell the album at major retailers.