Nirvana: The Story Behind Come As You Are
Though its nagging hookline – ‘And I swear that I don’t have a gun’ – would take on a grim and perhaps unintended meaning in the years following Kurt Cobain’s suicide, the lyrics to Nirvana’s Come As You Are further demonstrate Kurt’s penchant for oblique but compelling wordplay. “We wanted them to be almost like children’s songs; we would tell people they were intended to be as simple as possible,” Dave Grohl told VH1’s Classic Albums, explaining the elliptical lyrics. “Kurt’s focus was the melody – he used to say that the music comes first and the lyrics come second.”
The music for Come As You Are did indeed come first, and it has long been argued that the circuitous guitar riff that snakes throughout the track was inspired by Eighties, a 1984 single by black-hearted post-punk legends Killing Joke. The similarity between the tunes made Kurt anxious over plans to release Come As You Are as Nevermind’s second single, arguing they should opt for In Bloom instead.
“Kurt was nervous about Come As You Are, because it was too similar to a Killing Joke song,” Nirvana manager Danny Goldberg told author Carrie Borzillo, “but we all thought it was the better song to go with.” In fact, as the campaign for Nevermind began, the group’s management imagined Come As You Are had the most potential to cross over to mainstream audiences, not expecting that Smells Like Teen Spirit – planned as the first single, to awaken the interest of the faithful and the underground kids – would break through as it did.
Danny wryly admitted that Kurt “was right – Killing Joke later did complain about it”, though whether the group ever filed a plagiarism lawsuit remains a murky issue. But Killing Joke guitarist Geordie Walker was still fuming in 1994, telling Guitarist magazine that the group was “very pissed off about that”. He said, “It’s obvious to everyone. Our publisher sent their publisher a letter saying it was, and they went, ‘Boo, never heard of ya!’ But the hysterical thing about Nirvana saying they’d never heard of us was that they’d already sent us a Christmas card!”
Nirvana were indeed fans of Killing Joke, and rapprochement came some years later, after Dave Grohl met Killing Joke bassist Paul Raven backstage at a Pantera show. Killing Joke frontman Jaz Coleman later sang their song Requiem with Foo Fighters at a gig in New Zealand, and Dave laid down drum tracks for the group’s self-titled comeback album in 2003.
Come As You Are’s single release was accompanied by a promo video – shot two days before the group left for an Australian tour, while Kurt was attempting to kick heroin – that avoided showing his face. Dave Grohl later remembered the singer “looked bad, grey. He just looked sad, because he wasn’t using.”
In the new issue of Kerrang!, we tell the story of every single Nirvana song ever. It’s in stores on Wednesday and you can order your copy now.
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