When A Small Seattle Label Convinced Kurt Cobain To Play On

Dec 4, 2013

In June 1989, Sub Pop Records rented out the Moore Theatre in Seattle to showcase three of its up-and-coming bands: Mudhoney, Tad and Nirvana. The manager sent security home early because he didn’t think anyone would show up.

The manager was wrong: It was the first sold-out show by a local group. The lack of control and the chaos from a crazy crowd resulted in Sub Pop being blacklisted from the Moore for the next 10 years.

I celebrate the freaks, the outsiders - I raise my glass to all you freaks out there.

But it was just the inspiration that Sub Pop founders Bruce Pavitt and Johnathan Poneman needed to go forward with a career and genre-making decision. They knew they had to get the three bands to Europe.

Six months later, Lame Fest UK took the stage in London to rousing success both with the crowds and the press, a far-cry from the unenthusiastic review from The Seattle Times at the Moore. “From that point, I believe that the Seattle scene legitimately started to become an international phenomenon,” said Pavitt, speaking with The Record’s Ross Reynolds.

Around 2,000 people packed in to see the physically expressive groups that contrasted sharply with the popular performing style of the time, which Pavitt described as “shoe-gazing bands.”

“To be honest, I don’t think anybody had any idea that Seattle was going to blow up quite as big as it did,” Pavitt said. “But my partner Jonathan Poneman and I had a very deep belief that these were some of the greatest rock and roll bands in the world. And if only other people had the chance to witness this, they would be as swept up as we were.”

The partners’ plan was to drum up attention from the foreign media, because the mainstream American outlets weren’t interested in indie bands.

Kurt Cobain at the Coliseum in Rome in November 1989.
Kurt Cobain at the Coliseum in Rome in November 1989.
Credit Courtesy of Bazillion Points Books/Bruce Pavitt

The European tour had its rocky moments. Just to get to the stage in London, Pavitt had to talk Nirvana’s lead singer Kurt Cobain out of dissolving the group after an earlier show in Rome.

Pavitt said that when he and Poneman arrived in Rome, they had already heard that Cobain was suffering from nervous exhaustion. At the show, the frontman smashed his last guitar and climbed up on a tall PA system threatening to jump. After he was talked down by security, Cobain declared the band “over.”

The next day, Pavitt and Poneman took the singer out for a rest day in the city to convince him to keep the group together. “When you experience something like that – I wasn’t seeing it through the eyes of a businessperson,” Pavitt said. “I was viewing the situation from the perspective of a friend who was just really worried about my friend’s mental state.”

It worked – Nirvana opened Lame Fest UK and was the surprise breakout after six months of honing their live performance.

Mudhoney, pictured here in Portsmouth, Dec. 1989, had enough of a following for their own European tour while Tad and Nirvana traveled together. When the bands met for Lame Fest UK, Mudhoney was the headliner but Nirvana was the breakout.
Mudhoney, pictured here in Portsmouth, Dec. 1989, had enough of a following for their own European tour while Tad and Nirvana traveled together. When the bands met for Lame Fest UK, Mudhoney was the headliner but Nirvana was the breakout.
Credit Credit Courtesy of Bazillion Points Books/Bruce Pavitt

“Our primary consideration at Sub Pop in signing any band at that time was, ‘Do they have a spectacular live show?’ Because they weren’t going to get played on the radio, they weren’t going to get written about in Rolling Stone,” Pavitt said. “How are we going to sell these bands? Well, they have to deliver live.”

The strategy was a success. Momentum started to build. Nirvana became the face of grunge and grunge the face of the Seattle music scene.

Eventually, the band released two more albums with major label DGC. But, even though Sub Pop was a struggling indie label with few resources, Pavitt knew they had something in their favor: good hype and a good eye for live bands.

“Ultimately, it’s really about spirit and creativity. The acts that generally tried to release their own material on their own record labels, or that worked together in concert with other local bands on a local label, I would have to say those personalities tended to be by nature non-conformists. OK, pioneers. Critical thinkers,” Pavitt said.

“I think when you look at a social group, you kind of see the guys who are working the fringes and those that are going towards the center, and that will always be the case,” he said. “So I celebrate the freaks, the outsiders – I raise my glass to all you freaks out there.”

Pavitt is the author of of "Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe, 1989."

Produced for the Web by Kara McDermott.