June 15, 1989. Nirvana quietly released their debut album Bleach on Seattle independent label Sub Pop. Here in Boston, barely anyone knew, or cared. Yet.
Of course, we all know that it would be their sophomore effort Nevermind that would launch the band into the stratosphere and change rock music forever. But why is that? Bleach is a damn good album, and a pretty solid debut at that. The problem is, the groundwork hadn’t yet been laid for a band like Nirvana and an album like Bleach to achieve any major level of success.
In the summer of 1989, Boston radio–and radio, in general–was still dominated by well-established rock and alternative acts. Take a look at the list of artists that topped the Billboard Mainstream Rock and Billboard Alternative charts in 1989: Tom Petty, The Doobie Brothers, Stevie Nicks, Don Henley, XTC, The Cure, and Love and Rockets. Not much room for an up-and-coming band from Seattle to make any headway. At least not yet.
It’s also worth mentioning that Nirvana didn’t make it to the Boston area on their Bleach-supporting tour until close to a year after the release of the album, when they played ManRay in Cambridge on April 18, 1990. (EDIT: I was wrong! Boston-area photographer/director Ethan Long dug up this Nirvana set from Green Street Station in Jamaica Plain, July 15, 1989.
So if one of your music-savvy friends ever tries to play the “I was into Nirvana before Nevermind card,” it’s pretty safe to assume they’re full of it. In the summer of 1989, it was all about Guns N’ Roses, Aerosmith, and Def Leppard. It just wasn’t Nirvana’s time. Yet.