You kind of needed to be there to understand just how batshit crazy the world went when Nirvana first broke. It was late ’91 when the simple F/Ab/Bb/Db Teen Spirit chords gave license to a whole generation of weirdos like us to lose our shit. They were never a surf band, but it never mattered. Nirvana only toured Australia once with a handful of shows in early ’92. If you were there, you were there.
A guy who saw a whole bunch of those shows was legendary surf-punk artist, Ben Brown. At the time Benny was out front of his own band, The Hellmen and the Manly surfer remembers distinctly hearing Nirvana for the first time.
“We were on Waterfront Records at the time, and they released all the Sub Pop stuff out here [Nirvana’s original Seattle label]. But somehow even though Nevermind came out on Geffen they had advanced tapes of it that they sort of passed them around to a couple of us guys. We were like, holy shit. It was a quantum leap in sound and listening to it you just knew it was going to blow up.”
Their first gig was in Sydney. “They played at the Phoenician Club in Ultimo, and it was packed. The vibe was awesome, and they played a really fucking good show. I was like, wow, that’s pretty next level.” This was just a warm-up though. The following day was the first Big Day Out at the old Sydney Showgrounds. Nirvana was scheduled to play the Hordern Pavillion, which holds about 5000 people. Today, about 50,000 people reckon they were there.
“We played outside on the skate stage, next to the skate ramps,” recalls Ben. “We played about five o’clock or something and then I think Nirvana were on at about six. They weren’t the actual headliner, which was funny. The Violent Femmes were headlining. I did go in and have a quick look, but it was mental. It was so crowded and so psycho. Guys were just tearing each other apart and it was about a million degrees, so we bailed.”
By this stage though the buzz around Nirvana was all-consuming, so Ben bailed to Melbourne the next day. “A whole bunch of us went down to Melbourne to catch the next shows at The Palace. A whole bunch of girls from Triple J actually went with us. It was a top trip. We took this photo outside Pebble Court, the motel we were staying in in St Kilda, all six or seven of us who were down there. The funny thing was two or three years ago, we all found ourselves at Splendour in the Grass and we said, ‘Let’s retake the photo!’ We were a lot crustier and older.”
There was a sense even at the time however that this might be the first and last time you got to see Nirvana in Australia. “At the time lots of shows got changed around because Kurt was just falling apart mentally. He was addicted to heroin, and I think he had stomach ulcers. It was amazing the way they played though considering the state of Kurt.”
One of those cancelled shows Ben remembers well. Apart from playing with Nirvana at the Big Day Out, Ben also did the poster art for Nirvana’s tour. “I still have a giant two-sheet poster from the show they were supposed to play at the Jet Club in Dee Why. They were supposed to play with You Am I, but it got cancelled, which kind of makes the poster even weirder and more collectible.”
While Benny can say he was there for Nirvana’s only Australian tour, even did the tour art, there’s one thing he was missing. “I was spewing I never got one of the posters signed by the band. Some guy in America had one of the Australian posters on eBay recently, signed by all the band. It was going for 40 grand.”
– SEAN DOHERTY