Over the next few days, MTV’s Newsroom will be featuring items from the upcoming Experience Music Project special exhibit, “Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses,” which opens at the Seattle museum on Saturday (April 16). Today’s artifacts include the story behind the band’s legendary first contract with Sub Pop records and the tale of in-studio thrashing of a guitar by Kurt Cobain during the sessions for the group’s breakthrough Nevermind album. The commentary on these objects are provided by exhibit curator Jacob McMurray.
First Nirvana Contract
“This unassuming object is the first contract that Sub Pop and Nirvana ever actually signed. Nirvana at the time was not feeling like Sub Pop was giving them the love, Sub Pop was going through some financial difficulties, so they both agreed on signing a contract. This was actually signed a week before the Bleach album was released.
“Legacy-wise what’s kind of amazing about it is that when Nirvana signed to DGC [a Geffen Records imprint], DGC had to buy Nirvana out of this contract and so Sub Pop received a lump sum of $75,000 in cash, but more importantly, two percentage points on the next two Nirvana albums, which were of course Nevermind and Incesticide. The contract is actually backdated to January 1, but because it was signed on June 3 it says on here ‘for the initial one-year term the label agrees to provide the artist with a $600 advance for the first record,’ the second record is $12,000 and the third record is $24,000. The $600 purposely picked because Bleach cost $600 and change to make.”
Up until that point, like a lot of independent labels, Sub Pop had operated strictly on a handshake agreement basis between friends. Without the DGC buyout deal and the cash-infusion from the multiplatinum Nevermind, Sub Pop might likely have closed up shop in the early 1990s.
According to McMurray, who also wrote the Fantagraphics book “Taking Punk to the Masses: From Nowhere to Nevermind,” the contract came about after a tipsy Krist Novoselic came to the house of Sub Pop co-founder Bruce Pavitt one night and demanded a signed deal from the label. With no funds to hire an attorney to draft the document, Pavitt said co-founder Jonathan Poneman went to the library the next day and literally photocopied a generic contract, “customized it, a little white-out … and they signed the contract. And that was a blessing, let me tell you.”
Smashed Nevermind Guitar
“This black Fender Stratocaster fragment was smashed by Kurt Cobain during the recording of Nevermind. When the band was recording or rehearsing, if they were getting a little frustrated, they would go into this noise jam called ‘Endless, Nameless,’ and they were trying to record ‘Lithium’ and it just wasn’t working out. They went into a kind of cool-down mode playing ‘Endless, Nameless’ for a while and then sometime during that recording Kurt just smashes the guitar on the studio floor. [Producer] Butch Vig in his eternal foresight just kept the tape rolling, so that kind of feedback-laden song ended up being the secret track on Nevermind.”
Cobain’s first black Strat was also a favorite and among the ones he used the most over the years, requiring it to be re-built over and over again. For guitar geeks, longtime Nirvana/ Foo Fighters guitar tech Earnie Bailey reveals in the Fantagraphics book that the black Strat was “modified at some point to have a Gibson type tail piece and bridge on it, which is very unusual for a Strat. … The reason why you don’t see a lot of these smashed guitars complete is because we would recycle almost everything on them to use later on down the road.”