Nirvana was the most important band in the world in 1992. Their headlining performance at that year’s Reading Festival aimed to prove it, blood-spattered guitar and all.
The newly released Live at Reading DVD/CD set catches the grunge giants at the height of their popularity, fresh off the overnight success of Nevermind and playing Europe’s largest music happening. But with fame comes controversy—and by August 1992, Nirvana had plenty of both. Frontman Kurt Cobain was fighting heroin addiction, newfound celebrity and allegations that drug abuse imperiled him, his wife and his newborn daughter. To hear the British tabloids tell it, Nirvana had all but broken up and Cobain was near death.
So the singer heightened the drama that night, appearing in a wheelchair, hospital gown and white wig. He rose slowly, gripped the mic and lifted himself to sing a line before collapsing. Spoof over, Cobain returned to his feet, guitar in hand, ready to deliver Nirvana’s finest electric show—and one of the greatest live gigs in rock ’n’ roll history. It’s a freight-train performance, unparalleled in intensity as the band torches through its catalog, debuting material that would end up on In Utero a year later, including a blistering “Tourettes” and a touching “All Apologies,” which Cobain dedicates to 12-day-old Frances Bean.
Cobain smirks as he teases “Smells Like Teen Spirit” with Boston’s “More Than a Feeling.” Covers of Fang’s “The Money Will Right In” and Wipers’ “D7” scorch the paint off the walls.
- Live at Reading
Sadly, Universal has done little to improve on one of the most bootlegged shows ever. To be sure, the remastered sound is remarkable, but diehards will be disappointed by the overall presentation. No liner notes. No interviews. No DVD extras. Just the show. Nevertheless, it’s an awe-inspiring 90 minutes that should be part of every DVD collection. The real insult is the CD treatment. The project’s producers scrap the opening drama, band banter, even an entire song (“Love Buzz”) to fit the show on one disc. Hardly the “definitive” treatment for the band’s pinnacle moment.
Sub Pop, on the other hand, sets the standard with its reissue of Bleach, Nirvana’s first record. Producers remastered the album from the original tapes, not that the sound was really a problem. Bleach was famously recorded for $600 in a matter of days, and Jack Endino’s muddy production was always part of its charm. The real treat here is a live show from 1990, recorded about eight months after Bleach’s release. It’s a portrait of a band finding its way, from sludge metal to punk-pop. You can hear sparks of Reading in “Molly’s Lips” and “About a Girl.” The 50-page book is a real bonus, featuring photos that go back to Nirvana’s first gigs and a copy of the band’s Sub Pop recording contract.
Both releases capture perfectly what made Nirvana so great: They were a bunch of goofballs from rural Washington who changed the world, if only for a while.