In August of 1991, David Markey set out to film his friends Sonic Youth on their two-week European tour. He had known the band for a while, having already directed two music videos for the Goo album and a few short films featuring Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon. He packed a camera and a suitcase full of Super-8 film and headed for the airport.
David’s first contact with Nirvana was on that flight to England. Little did he know he was about to capture the relatively unknown band at their most candid, on the brink of success, the last few weeks before Smells Like Teen Spirit, before Kurt-and-Courtney, before immense, all consuming fame.
Sonic Youth were good subjects for a tour film. They were leaders, trailblazers, and had a good ten years of experience behind them. Already in their 30s, they seemed like cool parents to the younger, greener bands.
David Markey initially wasn’t too familiar with Nirvana’s music, but he ended up spending time with them, listening to a advance Nevermind cassette he had picked up. He liked the album and liked the band as people. Like everyone else, he can have had no idea that in just 2 and a half years they will have hit extreme heights of fame, sold millions of records, filled thousand of pages of music magazines and tabloids, and imploded in a violent spiral of drugs and bullet fragments.
In fact, there is no hint of the band’s eventual tragic end in the fun and light-hearted footage of them hanging out backstage, enjoying their new recognition, letting Kim put makeup on them, their shows getting more wild and violent as the tour goes on. Only Kurt flinging himself into Dave Grohl’s drum kit and hurting his shoulder, and later getting in a fight with bouncers, gives a vague inkling to the self-destructive shadows beneath. Or maybe he just was getting caught up in the moment. Who knows? They were just a band with a fresh, new sound, finding their way and their identity amongst their peers.
This is a refreshingly honest documentary about life on the road, the muddy festivals, the boredom, the bad food, the strange foreign theme parks. Unlike other docs of this type, the subjects seem to get along and actually like each others’ company without any trace of pretension. In fact, Madonna’s highly pretentious Truth or Dare documentary that came out that year is a running joke throughout, and one of the videos watched on the tour bus was the spoof doc This Is Spinal Tap.
There are lots of familiar faces in the background, a veritable Who’s Who of the alternative 90s music scene – Courtney Love, Joe Cole, Mudhoney, Dinosaur Jr, plus Babes In Toyland, themselves only a year away from their most MTV friendly videos, delivering an electric performance of Dust Cake Boy.
The film is about Sonic Youth, and it is their music that shines through. But it has also become about Kurt and Nirvana, and how we would have had so much less of them without it.
Thurston is undoubtedly the leading man of the film. He has a hypnotic, reassuring quality, both in height and voice.
Once he begins talking, he rarely stops, rambling into the microphones of baffled foreign journalists, interviewing people on the street about current musical tastes and local cuisine, and generally entertaining everyone. Thurston is the cool big brother who makes friends with everyone in the room so you don’t have to.
Kim, on the other hand, is the grounding force, the one who seems to pull everyone together. She is the tomboy big sister who doesn’t take any crap from anyone.
She may have been a Girl In A Band, as she named her memoir, but she holds her own with the boys.
For much of the tour, she wears a blue and white striped dress, which is similar to, if not the same as, the one she wore 23 years later when she sang with the then Kurt-less Nirvana for their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction in 2014.
It is hard to believe it is only 1991 in this film, at just the very beginning of a fabulous musical decade. The 80s seem like a distant memory, blown away by the cynical energy of the Generation Xers. The music stands the test of time, and indeed seems fresher and more vibrant than a lot of stuff that is being played today.
Kurt later said of the tour, and especially the 1991 Reading Festival, ’It was almost a revolution, in a way. There was a feeling in the air, this new thing happening, and no-one could quite pinpoint it, but we knew that we were a part of it.’
Nirvana would return to Reading just 12 months later as headliners.
It was pure fate that put David Markey in Nirvana’s path in 1991, to document them on their physical journey through the summer of their sudden success. As the tour buses travelled through the countries of Europe, Smells Like Teen Spirit was making its own journey round the alternative radio stations of America and into the homes of disenchanted teens everywhere.
By the time the tour played their last night in Holland, something magical was happening in the alternative music scene, and by the time our cast of characters were back on US soil, something had changed forever.
Although Sonic Youth are no more, Thurston and Kim have survived – albeit no longer together – and are still creating and encouraging other bands and artists just as they have always done.
They were the spark that ignited the 1990s grunge sound, and 25 years is too long to have waited for the next punk rock revolution, wherever it may be.
1991: The Year Punk Broke is available on DVD.
Read David Markey’s full 1991 tour diary at www.wegotpowerfilms.com