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Secret Pop Culture History: The Demo Tape Kurt Cobain Made Before Nirvana

Before he was Kurt Cobain – the frontman of Nirvana, the Martyr of Grunge and the Patron Saint of Teen Angst – Kurt Cobain was a kid from Washington jumping from failed band to failed band. Most of his early groups fizzled quickly, but one has risen to legendary status among Nirvana superfans: Fecal Matter, a band Cobain formed with Melvins drummer Dale Crover. The band is legendary not for its live performances (in fact, it’s unclear whether they actually ever performed live), but for the existence of a demo tape first brought to public light by Cobain biographer Michael Azerrad in 1993. For a long time, the demo tape was a Lost Ark of Grunge history, something you heard about but never actually heard. It was so longed for among fans that some people started churning out fake versions of the purported songs. In the mid-2000s, actual tracks from the tape, titled “Illiteracy Will Prevail” started to surface, and now you can actually hear the whole thing online.

The tape — recorded in late 1985 or early 1986, according to conflicting accounts, with Cobain on guitar and vocals and Crover on drums and bass — is very rough, and sounds very much like the work of a creative young man who knows he’s an outsider, but isn’t quite sure yet what kind of outsider he is. It certainly doesn’t sound like Nirvana most of the time, and tracks range from hardcore punk frenzy to post-punk flights of fancy, but it does sound like Cobain growing into the artist he would become.


He dabbles in various vocal tones – sometimes howling, sometimes taking on a Joey Ramone-esque character, sometimes slipping into the gravel-fueled rasp we all grew to love. He also dabbles in subjects, writing about everything from the popular kids in high school to how to become a punk to a lesbian who is “cured” by sex with a man (easily the most controversial part of the tape). The Kurt Cobain is in there, though, unmistakably. The ambition is there, and the rage, and the vulnerability. He just hadn’t quite channeled it all yet.

Nevertheless, the Fecal Matter demo was a point of pride for Cobain. He hand-drew cassette tape covers for the demo and passed copies out to friends. Eventually, one of them found its way into the hands of Krist Novoselic, who saw something in Cobain and decided to work with him. Thus, the road to Nirvana was paved.

For a more complete history of Fecal Matter, and the recording of this demo, go read this excellent piece at NME.

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