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Classic Reading: Nirvana ’92

Where were you on the 30th August 1992? It may well be that you might not have even been born. But if you were one of the lucky thousands at Reading Festival, you were watching history in the making.

Nirvana, currently in the midst of a somewhat reluctant path to world domination, were booked as first-time headliners alongside The Wonderstuff and Public Enemy. In a world without smartphones and with their every movement amplified and vilified by the press, this rare festival appearance became one of the most hotly anticipated slots in Reading history. Tragically, it was also to be their last performance in the UK.

This was not Nirvana’s first visit to the festival, though. A year previously, just weeks before the release of ‘Nevermind’, the album which would launch them into future headliners, the band played a Friday afternoon spot as part of a line up topped by Iggy Pop. No official footage of this gig exists, but some resourceful souls have scoured the world for video clips of the show, patching them together into a cohesive order. It’s amazing to see select cuts from the as-yet unreleased album being played, getting some of their first ever airings on British soil, the crowd as yet unaware of the year this band was about to have.

1992 Poster

Nirvana, nestled in between Chapterhouse and Silverfish, on the 1991 Reading Festival poster

By the time the ‘92 festival had rolled around, Nevermind had thrashed their way in the nation’s conscience, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ had hit the Top 10 and the band were ready for their first UK headline slot… or not. Drummer Dave Grohl later commented: “We rehearsed once, the night before, and it wasn’t good…I really thought, ‘This will be a disaster, this will be the end of our career for sure’ “.

Luckily, on the night, they absolutely ruled it. The gig became the stuff of legend and is regularly cited as Nirvana  at their live best. Playing up to the controversy, Kurt was brought out in a wheelchair and wig – a dig at the press reports swirling around him and Courtney Love. It didn’t take them long to blast into the first of their Nevermind tracks ‘Bleed’, with nearly the whole album getting played. Kurt kept the wig on for a good chunk of the set

Along with Krist and Dave (and Dancing Tony – a regular sight at their UK shows), the group played a mix of material – old, new and covered. There was even a nod to Boston just before launching into Smells Like Teen Spirit – a sly reference to people’s perception of their similarities.

It’s times like this that are peppered throughout the set and remind you of the band’s – and especially Kurt’s – resistance at having such a huge following. Despite the huge crowd in front of them they were playing for themselves. It’s just lucky the throng enjoyed being brought along for the ride.

You’ll never know at the time just how much impact a single performance like this might have, but like The Beatles on the roof of Apple, or Oasis at Knebworth, this gig will forever be known in the lore of rock. So much so in fact, that recently released Nirvana documentary ‘Montage Of Heck’ opens with it, showing backstage footage from the band.

The recording of the show, passed around by fans in bootleg form for years, became a hit for future generations with the release of a live CD and DVD in 2009.

While Dave Grohl would go on to headline the festival another three times as the lead of Foo Fighters, there will never be a headliner quite like Nirvana. You can see their influence on so many bands on the 2015 Reading and Leeds line up, and you can be sure many of them will have idolised this show.

Were you at the show 23 years ago? Let us know by tweeting @OfficialRandL with your memories.