Does Nirvana owe a debt to Celtic Frost?

If you’ve ever studied the cover of Tom G. Warrior’s autobiography ‘Are You Morbid’, you may have noticed the hype quote is attributed to Kurt Cobain. For those who don’t have the book within arms reach, the citation reads, “A big influence.” – Kurt Cobain, Nirvana.

Celtic Frost, a big influence on Nirvana? Just because I can’t see it, doesn’t make it so.

Thomas Gabriel Fischer, better known by his nomme de guerre, Tom G. Warrior, was the founder of the extreme metal undergrounds two most influential, and enduring acts – Hellhammer and Celtic Frost. Warrior’s autobiography is at times an ominous read, and was penned at a time when Celtic Frost were inactive, Hellhammer was an embarrassment to the guitarist, and his primary creative focus was on the avant garde/experimental act, Apollyon Sun. The band’s one and only full length release from 2000 contained an almost blasphemous interpretation of Hellhammer’s ‘Messiah’, but otherwise framed the most abstracted collection of material Fischer had put his hand to.

The more spirited sections of the book focus on his relationships, the band’s dysfunctional and destructive relationship with Noise Records, and their departure from the Crypts of Rays, where through a misguided belief, they strategized a path that saw them breaking into the greater consciousness of the American market as a glam metal band. Fischer and co would soon abandon that Cherry Orchard, arguably wiser, but in no enviable position – their creativity and potency as a band, both strained.

But before this turns into a Wikipedia submission, let’s focus on the premise of this article; did Nirvana owe a debt to Celtic Frost? And other than the aforementioned quote on the cover of Warrior’s book, is there any evidence to support this notion? It’s worth noting that I am not asserting this reference to be false; but knowing Nirvana’s debut as well as I do, I struggle to find much crossover between ‘Bleach’ and any of the mighty Frost’s material – be it their primitive, ambitious or glamorous currents.

Nirvana’s first long player is heavy, riff laden, and primal in execution, striking one parallel between the Swiss and American bands, but there’s no question that the intent and resulting output are discernibly different. Was Cobain was a Heavy Metal Maniac prior to the band’s conception in 1987? According to an article on NPR, which compiles a selection of artists that Cobain referenced during interviews, the Frost wasn’t among those bands cited, nor were his musical interests even remotely aligned. If he were a fan of the Frost, they’d’ve been an outlier.

Nirvana fans will be well aware of the fourth figure on the cover of the band’s debut, one Jason Everman. The legend is that Everman bankrolled the band’s Sub Pop long player, but didn’t actually perform on it, having joined the band a scant four months before ‘Bleach’ was released, and a month after it was recorded. Everman mentioned Celtic Frost during an interview in April 1989, but it’s hardly a charitable comment, and is devoid of reverie. While it’s possible he may have resented their reimagining from avant-garde metal progenitors, to acid-wash denim, glam metal wannabees, there’s no indication that the Swiss quartet were feted by him in any way. And even if that were the case, he had no influence on Nirvana’s direction where ‘Bleach’ was concerned.

Dave Grohl is the likeliest of the band’s luminaries to have jammed the Frost on the tour bus tape deck, but again, he didn’t join Nirvana until 1990 – in fact, he wasn’t even acquainted with Cobain and Novoselic until that very year, when he was introduced to the pair by Buzz Osbourne. Though quoted as saying,

Kurt and Kris loved Celtic Frost as well as me. It’s weird because people only really know Nirvana from 1991 onwards. Nobody realises that the people who made ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ were totally into Flipper and the Butthole Surfers. That was the music we grew up with and it didn’t necessarily surface in Nirvana’s music but the spirit of it was there. We all grew up listening to the same music. It was one of the first conversations that I had with Kurt and from Celtic Frost to Neil Young to Public Enemy, we all loved the same music.

Like Everman, Grohl also had no influence over ‘Bleach’, and the only logical explanation at this point is that it may have been ‘Nevermind’ that bore the mark of the Swiss demoniacs.

Upon further reading of this interview with The Quietus, he’s also talking about Sepultura’s ‘Roots’, released in 1996. This appears as the first probable reference of Celtic Frost as an influence over Nirvana. If attributed to Grohl, the reality then aligns with this impression having embedded itself on Nirvana’s second studio album/world destroyer. From my perspective, ‘Nevermind’ is as influenced by Celtic Frost as it was by ‘Roots’ – in other words, not at all.

Bass player, Krist Novoselic spoke to Rolling Stone for the tenth anniversary of ‘Nevermind’. He mentions the Frost, but it’s almost in passing. Interestingly, it’s the most compelling link between the band he found fame in and vintage Celtic Frost. His comment is what I’d describe as shy of convincing however;

We were listening to things like the Smithereens then, and the Beatles. We had onetape we listened to in the van — this was before we recorded ‘Bleach’. On one side was the Smithereens. And on the other side was this heavy-metal band, Celtic Frost. That tape was always getting played, turned over and over again. I think back now and go, ‘Yeah, maybe that was an influence.’

And then, there’s a final question that pertains to what the singer/guitarist and one of the most renowned members of the 27 club was interested in, in the years that led to him forming his own band, creating a sound that became synonymous with the so called ‘grunge’ blueprint. According to an interview with Melvins mainman, King Buzzo, Cobain’s first exposure to punk rock – at least in a live setting – was seeing Black Flag in 1986.

You know, I remember when I took him to his first punk-rock concert, which was Black Flag. It really put him over the edge. I mean, once you see something like that, an extraordinarily good show… I just remember him saying, ‘That’s exactly what I want to do. That’s it. This is me.’

And Cobain wouldn’t have been the first to make the pilgrimage from Heavy Metal Maniac to Hardcore devotee, but if that NPR piece referenced earlier is any indication, King Buzzo’s introduction to the Flag was a significant turning point for Cobain – his version of seeing the Ramones, and that subsequent awakening to the idea that punk rock is something that anyone can participate in. Could he have got that same message from Heavy Metal? History wouldn’t suggest as much.

From my observations, the idea that Celtic Frost influenced ‘Bleach’ is highly unlikely, though if you compare Nirvana’s first and second studio albums, this would be the more probable of the two to bear that mark. I have seen highly speculative suggestion that Cobain’s specific interest was in the Frost’s 1987 opus ‘Into The Pandemonium’, though this suggestion wasn’t supported by any evidence. If the detail above points to any influence of the Swiss progenitor’s impression on Nirvana, the timing would suggest that it was during the  ‘Nevermind’ composition phase was where this inspiration took hold.

And while inspiration has no standard with regard to how evident or obvious it is, if you compare the output of Japanese Black Metal cum avant-garde unconventionalists, Sigh, who were definitely impacted by ‘Into The Pandemonium’, it’s hard to imagine the that two artists, drinking from the same well, to surface more divergent results. In an unpublished interview from December 2009, Sigh mainman, and visionary, Mirai Kawashima wrote:

The influence from Celtic Frost, especially from this album, on Sigh is huge. We learned a musical freedom and an attitude as an artist from them. Also their obscure poetic and artistic lyrics influenced me a lot.

Celtic Frost’s embryonic recordings are for me, their most revered, and of Nirvana’s output, it only is ‘Bleach’ that gets any airtime. It is with this in mind, that where I ponder the prospect of the Frost having any bearing on Nirvana’s musical expressions, that this is the comparison I immediately lean toward. It’s also worth noting that it is rare for an artist to draw inspiration from one single source, so in the spirit of steering this into the chasm of ambiguity, I’d argue that any connection is fleeting at best, and most likely, tenuous, giving me pause to wonder how isolated that comment on the cover of Fischer’s autobiography truly is.

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