While we know and love the grunge band Nirvana for their original sound, they were no stranger to performing cover songs. They typically included a cover in almost every set that they played, before and even after they skyrocketed to the highest stratosphere of stardom. From Bowie and The Vaselines to Lead Belly, here are the best Nirvana covers ever.
1) Love Buzz – Shocking Blue
This is the song that started all. In 1988, a relatively-unknown underground punk trio was looking to solidify their place in the saturated market of Seattle’s local music scene. Nirvana was just a young budding band when they released their debut single, a fuzzed-up version of Shocking Blue’s Love Buzz. This song made its appearance on the Nirvana’s first album Bleach. Krist Novoselic has explained in documentaries how he found Shocking Blue’s album At Home, which featured the song, in a sale bin at a Seattle record store and famously giving it to Kurt. Kurt must have found some inspiration from the song since he chose the song over an original to release as his band’s debut. Krist has also gone on record stating how much of an influence Shocking Blue has had on himself and Nirvana as a whole.
2) Man Who Sold The World – David Bowie
This David Bowie cover famously brought Nirvana to new audiences when they performed it at MTV Unplugged in 1993, although they worked the song into their set more and more often towards the end of their career.Kurt thought highly of the album The Man Who Sold The World, ranking it number 45 in his top 50 favorite albums. Bowie said of Nirvana’s cover: “I was simply blown away when I found that Kurt Cobain liked my work, and have always wanted to talk to him about his reasons for covering ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ and that “it was a good straight forward rendition and sounded somehow very honest. It would have been nice to have worked with him, but just talking with him would have been real cool.”
3) Where Did You Sleep Last Night? – Lead Belly
Where Did You Sleep Last Night, or The Pines is a traditional folk song, dating back to the 19th century. While the original artist is unknown, blues godfather Lead Belly helped to popularize the song in the ’40s and many artists have taken on the song over the past 150 years. Including Kurt. Fellow Seattle scenester Mark Lanegan from Screaming Trees introduced Kurt to the song in the early ’90s, leading to a captivating and critically-acclaimed solo performance by the frontman at MTV Unplugged. Neil Young described Cobain’s vocals during the final screamed verse as “Unearthly, like a werewolf, unbelievable.” (interesting side note: Kurt famously quoted Neil Young in the final portion of his suicide note, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.”) The song was set to be a b-side to the band’s single Penny Royal Tea but was cancelled after Cobain’s death.
4) Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For A Sunbeam – The Vaselines
Another classic from the MTV Unplugged collection, Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam was a raw and revealing performance by Kurt. The original version, recorded by the Scottish alternative band The Vaselines is a parody on the Christian children’s hymn, I’ll Be a Sunbeam. Kurt famously said on MTV Unplugged, “It’s a rendition of an old Christian song, but we do it the Vaseline’s way.” Although the unplugged version is the most famous, Nirvana had been including it in their live set for a number of years prior to the MTV performance.
5) Here She Comes Now – The Velvet Underground
The fourth track off of The Velvet Underground’s second album, White Light/White Heat, the song is experimental and avant-garde: perfect elements for a successful Cobain-style twist. Nirvana’s version of the song is a hazy jaunt through a mixture of ’60s fuzz and ’90s grunge. It appeared as a split single alongside The Melvins’ version of Venus in Furs, another song by The Velvets. Kurt must have thought highly of the band, having also sampled their song New Age in his Montage of Heck demo.
6) Turnaround – Devo
Turnaround appeared on Nevermind‘s followup Incesticide as a grunge-laced cover of the Devo classic. The orginal electro-pop version from Devo, the same band that brought us the hit Whip It, desperately needed a redo and Nirvana answered with their heavy cover version.
7) Do You Love Me? – KISS
While not necessarily a fan favorite, this cover of Kiss’ Do You Love Me? is awesome because it’s one of the only songs that features both Kurt and Krist on lead and back-up vocals, respectively. This one of two songs that original Nirvana guitarist Jason Everman is featured on.
8) Return of the Rat – The Wipers
Return of the rate is US punk band The Wipers’ first track on their 1980 debut, Is This Real? The original song is structured as a catchy, circular, drum-driven grunge chugger with heavily distorted guitars. After Nirvana recorded this cover for the 1992 Wipers tribute album, Eight Songs for Greg Sage and The Wipers, it grew in popularity, and is also featured on the 2004 Nirvana box set With the Lights Out. While Nirvana originally wanted to feature their cover of D-7, Geffen wouldn’t allow it. So, Nirvana recorded this fuzz-ed out version of Return of the Rat instead.
9) This Is The End – The Doors
While this is more of a drunken interlude/parody during a show, it’s nevertheless a great insight into the live performances of Nirvana cover songs. Krist is in full comedic mode, hilariously rambling over Kurt’s sullen vocals. Kurt sings normally, with improvised lyrics while Novoselic improvises a spoken word rant depicting a killer awaking in Belgium and craving waffles. Take a listen above.
10) Plateau – Meat Puppets
It’s well-known that Kurt loved songs written by the alternative rock band the Meat Puppets. Plateau was no exception. Appearing on their 1984 album, Meat Puppets II, the song grew in fame when Nirvana performed the song during their famous 1993 MTV Unplugged performance. The Meat Puppets guys, enjoying the ride from Nirvana’s bump, joined Kurt, Krist and Dave on-stage for Unplugged: Live in New York, as they played Plateau, along with other Meat Puppets’ favorites; Lake of Fire and Oh Me.
11) Molly’s Lips – The Vaselines
A grunged-out version of the sunny pop-laced original, Molly’s Lips appeared on Nirvana’s Incesticide. Nirvana isn’t shy about lambasting the track’s lo-fi qualities, and cover a song that’s incredibly in-sync with its scuffling nature.
12) D-7 – The Wipers
Nirvana covered, yet again, another Wipers song, this time taking on the ripper D-7. Another track off the 1980 album, Is This Real?, it first appeared in the Nirvana catalogue in 1992 on the EP Hormoaning. The Wipers were influential for the grunge music scene in general, and while Nirvana covered them, they were also cited by The Melvins, Mudhoney and Dinosaur Jr. as huge influencers.
13) Immigrant Song – Led Zeppelin
One of the earliest Nirvana covers ever recorded, this classic song was played in the tiny rehearsal room at Krist Novoselic’s Mom’s Aberdeen house in 1987. Kurt’s iconic screams can be heard over the noisy mix, although he is singing into the wall. A great look into Nirvana’s beginning days, featuring Chad Channing on drums, you can even see the very first Nirvana fans lounging merely inches away from the soon-to-be grunge stars.
14) The Money Will Roll Right In – Fang
While Fang never topped the charts, they’ve been covered by many high profile bands, such as Mudhoney, the Butthole Surfers, Metallica and Nirvana. Seen on Kurt’s 50 Top Albums, The Money Will Roll Right In off of Fang’s Landshark album, Nirvana covered this live at the famous Reading Festival performance in 1992. After the skyrocketing success of Nevermind, Nirvana stopped playing covers in the same way that kids sweating it out in their mom’s house do; fun, carefree (minus Kurt facing the wall). As their fame grew, Nirvana’s cover songs were increasingly sarcastic, sideswipes that jab at the band’s success. The Money Will Roll Right in is a prime example. Nirvana’s blistering performance of this at Reading shows Nirvana at their peak, and they can’t help but be a little facetious.