Riff University: Breed by Nirvana

All aboaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaardahahaha! Welcome to Riff University, where each week, Dr* Oliver Butler (@notoliverbutler), with his PhD in Riffology** will walk you through some of the biggest, baddest and boldest riffs of all time, right from the genesis of rock and roll, to some of our future classics. By the end of this intensive course, you will be able to recognise a classic riff from the first note, make pub conversations awkwardly unbearable, and alienate Tinder matches from the word go.

*Abbreviation of “Dad Rock”
**Not a real PhD

Up This Week: Breed by Nirvana

Read Last Week’s Lecture on Moaning Lisa Smile by Wolf Alice here.

It’s quite easy to fantasise over Nirvana; arguably stopped in their heyday after the death of Kurt Cobain, they were immortalised as the leaders of the grunge movement, and one of the best bands the world has ever seen. Would we still look at them the same if they were still around today? Or would Nirvana have become the band that used to be really good, being wheeled out to headline the occasional Reading & Leeds, living off past glories? However, in the universe in which we lived, Nirvana delivered tangible magic with their three studio albums, showing that a star that burns half as long, burns twice as bright.

Arguably, the high watermark for Nirvana was Nevermind, largely driven by the popularity of Smells Like Teen Spirit, and brought grunge to the mainstream. It was a huge success, selling over thirty million copies worldwide. However, as you’re well aware by now, we like to go off the beaten path in Riff University, so this week’s lecture is on probably one of the biggest & baddest Nirvana riffs (of which there are many, but oh, we’ll get to them!). The album? Nevermind. The song? Breed.

Well, let’s just jump straight into the riff, shall we? Just listen to it! From the feedback intro straight into that meaty, overdriven to fuck riff with young David Grohl rattling his toms like his life depends on it and Krist Novoselic joining in with the fun with some sludgy bass guitar. It’s a hugely simple riff, three notes, with the final note with a slight bend on it, but it’s just the way it explodes that makes it so good. It feels more like a riff that should have been on Bleach rather than Nevermind with its gritty composition & powerful delivery. However, whichever album Breed ended up on, it would still be one of the standout tracks, and you could go as far as saying that it’s the best riff that fell out of Mr. Cobain’s Wonder Riffporium.

Developed in 1989, Breed is about the fear of being stuck in middle-class America, and in Cobain’s words, “Getting into Middle America. Marrying at age 18, getting pregnant, stuck with a baby — and not wanting it.”, which is evident in the lyrics. Breed is a pretty big giveaway, because you know, when you do the sex, you also breed! Right fellas? Sex? Right? Sex? Lyrically though, it does appear that Cobain, or the protagonist of this song is afraid of settling down and starting a family. Some have said this is potentially a song about his breakup with Tobi Vail.

“Even if you have, even if you need // I don’t mean to stare, we don’t have to breed // We could plant a house, we could build a tree // I don’t even care, we could have all three”

Swapping planting a tree and building a house seems quite sarcastic from Cobain’s point of view, showing apathy towards settling down and starting a family, especially with “I don’t even care, we could have all three”.

The verse structure is pretty punk too, with the repeated shouts of “I don’t care // I don’t mind // Get away // I’m afraid”, further displaying Cobain’s apathy and fear towards settling down in middle America and starting a family. The verse structure is pretty simple, with Novoselic carrying on with the main riff, Cobain rattling his guitar high up the neck and Grohl doing Grohl things.

However, that simplicity translated into widespread hypnotism when it came to live performances. In an interview, Sub Pop founder Bruce Pavitt said “…audiences would become ecstatic. They were experiencing Nirvana. And when you’re experiencing really good, primal rock n roll, you break into a trance”. Right you are, Bruce. Undoubtedly, hearing the live, raw sound of Breed live would be enough to put anyone into a trance.

It’s actually hard to think of a Nirvana riff better than Breed. Sure, School & Negative Creep are strong riffs, but do they have the same hypnotic appeal as Breed? Whilst your opinion will differ on the subject, it’s also fair to say that Breed is easily one of Nirvana’s best songs, being the standout song from a standout album.

Whilst yes, we can fantasise about what might have been with Nirvana, it’s much easier to sit back and appreciate what we had, and with an absolute gem like Breed, appreciate one of the best riffs of all time.

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Oliver Butler

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