This Day in Music, May 23: Nirvana's Nevermind

By , Contributor

May 23, 1991

On this day in 1991, photographer Michael Lavine took what would be the publicity shots for the relatively unknown grunge group Nirvana's Nevermind album at Jay Aaron Studios in Los Angeles. The idea for the now iconic front cover shot of the baby swimming came after Kurt Cobain and drummer Dave Grohl saw a TV documentary on water babies. 

Cobain mentioned the idea to his record label Geffen's art director Robert Fisher, who found some stock footage of underwater births but they were too graphic for the record company (and the stock house that controlled the photo of a swimming baby wanted $7,500 a year for its use). So instead Fisher hired photographer Kirk Weddle to take some shots.  

Weddle's contacted his friends Renata and Rick Elden who agreed to allow their baby son Spencer to be photographed underwater for a flat fee of $200. The hook, line, and dollar images, which appear on what became one of most famous and recognizable album covers in rock history, were superimposed at a later point.

However, there was some concern because Elden's penis was visible in the image (Led Zeppelin were forced to cover exposed young girls' naked bottoms on their Houses Of The Holy album sleeve). Geffen prepared an alternate cover without the penis, as they were afraid that it would offend people, but relented when Cobain made it clear that the only compromise he would accept was a sticker covering the penis that would say, "If you're offended by this, you must be a closet pedophile." And I don't think that was ever going to happen. 

Now a young man, in interviews Elden has expressed embarrassment at his penis featuring so prominently on the famous album cover. "It's kind of creepy that so many people have seen me naked. I feel like I'm the world's biggest porn star."

The album (the first to feature drummer Dave Grohl) had the working title of Sheep, something Cobain came up with as an inside joke towards the people he expected to buy the record. As recording sessions for the album were completed, Cobain grew tired of the title and suggested that the new album be named Nevermind. Cobain liked the title because it was a metaphor for his attitude on life, and because it was grammatically incorrect. 

Despite low commercial expectations by the band and its record label, Nirvana's second album Nevermind became a surprise success in late 1991, largely due to its first single, and opening track on the album, "Smells Like Teen Spirit." The track became a huge hit on MTV and in 2000 the Guinness World Records named "Teen Spirit" the Most Played Video ever on MTV Europe. 

The album debuted on the Billboard 200 at number 144 (Geffen Records hoped that Nevermind would sell around 250,000 copies). By January 1992, it had replaced Michael Jackson's album Dangerous at the top of the charts, and by this time was selling approximately 300,000 copies a week.

As the album topped the charts, Geffen Records sent one-year-old Spencer Elden a platinum album along with a teddy bear as a thank you for his contribution to what had become a runaway success. (Elden now works as an artist, interning at Shepard Fairey's Obey Giant studio). 

Nevermind has now sold over 26 million copies worldwide and was responsible for bringing alternative rock and Nirvana to a world-wide audience, and critics subsequently regarded it as one of the best rock albums of all time. 

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A former musician, Neil was in the 80's group The Cheaters who were once signed to EMI's Parlophone label, and released three albums. He was also a radio presenter and is still a regular music pundit on various BBC stations. Neil is the founder of the award winning web site This Day in Music which is…

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