You Call This Nirvana?

Alternative rock and big business are strange bedfellows, and it seems they've finally woken up and stared each other in the face. Late last month the Chicago Tribune reported on rumors that the world's pre-eminent post-punk band, Nirvana, had returned from the studio with an abrasive uncompromising album-an album that Geffen Records found "unreleasable." Both the label and Nirvana's management company, Gold Mountain, insist that the Geffen staff hasn't even heard the album. But sources confirm the Tribune's story. And Nirvana has now agreed to commission a hit-making engineer named Andy Wallace to tinker with the band's tapes and give them a more commercial sheen. Geffen Records faces a possible lawsuit from the record's producer, Steve Albini. Nirvana, whose success inspired a generation of alternative bands to migrate to major labels, faces a chorus of "Say it ain't so."

Nirvana's 1991 album "Nevermind" was full of fury, but it had the heart of a pop record: the vocals took center stage and the crashing guitar never got in the way of a good hook. Even before the album sold 4 million copies and the accompanying single, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," launched the behemoth known as grunge, the band members talked about making a punk record. Dissatisfaction with their hothouse celebrity seemed to strengthen their resolve. In March the band went into the studio with Albini, a highly principled iconoclast whose contempt for major labels is well documented. (The producer sends recordcompany presidents faxes like, "D, Baby: Can't adequately express how horrible the J tape is!")

By choosing Albini as their producer, Nirvana made it clear that they intended to shake fainthearted fans out of the tree--just as PJ Harvey did when it chose her to record the follow-up to her too hip debut album, "Dry." One music-industry insider who has heard the resulting Nirvana effort cites songs like "Rape Me," "Heart-Shaped Box" and "Moist Vagina," and says, "Frankly, this is a great record, but it is actively and stridently anticommercial. It's a pointed reaction to the gloss and approachability of 'Nevermind'." Albini told the Tribune that the band members were "ecstatic" with the album when they left the studio. And why not? Nirvana's record would send a message to alternative bands: don't check your credibility at the door.

The official Gold Mountain press release on the episode reads in part: "The band are considering doing some additional recording and it [sic] is not yet decided on the final composition of the album." Some, however, believe that statement was meant to hold off the press while both Gold Mountain and Geffen tried to prevent Nirvana from committing what they believe to be commercial suicide. "From what I understand," says a source close to the band, "everybody at the record label and everybody at the management company thinks that the record blows and gave it the big thumbs-down." David Yow, whose band, the Jesus Lizard, is said to have influenced Nirvana's new album, says, "They shouldn't compromise. As far as I can tell, they're happy with the record, and they should make the record company release it as it is."

Even among major labels, Geffen Records has a checkered history in artist relations. In 1983 the company sued Neil Young for making "unrepresentative" albums. (David Geffen expressed regret over the suit in one of his recent meet-the-press outings.) Just last year it rejected Aerosmith's first stab at "Get a Grip." And now Nirvana has hit a snag. Wallace, who's remixing the album, also buffed up "Nevermind." Front man Kurt Cobain recently criticized that record in the Los Angeles Times: "We really didn't follow through on the mixing. It ended up too commercial and slick." The band may have agreed to Wallace's repeat performance to avoid a second trip to the studio. Or they may have conceded because, as the source puts it, "Kurt's incredibly fickle. He likes being your defiant, punk-rock, angry young man, but he also enjoys making millions and millions of dollars."

There's one hitch in the remix plan: producer Albini has a clause in his contract that states that no one can tamper with his tapes. Albini will not answer questions about the Nirvana fracas. Still, he speaks bluntly about the wave of young groups that have gone to the majors. "The gullibility of these bands will never cease to amaze me," he says. "Every one of them thinks that the record company is on their side. The labels have been hiring hip, young people to lull the bands into being comfortable with the big, faceless record company. That way, the band doesn't think, 'Hey, Geffen-this is the company that sued Neil Young! This is the company that gave us Nelson!' These guys are like hawkers on the street at a peep show. They promise people the many glorious things that are inside the door, but when you go in, you find out it's $15 for a beer."

Jonathan Poneman-cofounder of Sub Pop, the independent label where Nirvana got its start-does not believe that major labels are necessarily seats of evil. But of one thing he is sure: "Nirvana ushered in a cultural revolution and made the Geffen company millions. If they want to make an album of hand claps, they have earned the right ... What the Geffen company is ultimately guilty of is a complete lack of faith and respect for Kurt, Dave [Grohl], and Chris [Novoselic] as artists."

Both Gold Mountain and Geffen Records deny that any pressure has been brought to bear on Nirvana. Janet Billig, of Gold Mountain, intones, "You can't mess with an artist's creative process. You have to let them make the record they're going to make." Gary Gersh, who signed the band to Geffen, insists, "Nirvana has complete control over what they want to do with their record." Sounds like fair play. Smells like corporate spirit.

The mating dance continues. An alternative-rock band named Bettie Serveert is thinking of following Nirvana into the shadowy world of high finance and the major labels aren't too proud to beg. The Amsterdam-based group recently made their U.S. debut with a strangely wistful disc called "Palomine." The album, on the independent label Matador, is marked by Carol van Dijk's husky vocals and Peter Visser's distorted, Neil Youngstyle guitar inventions. Van Dijk was born in Canada and, luckily for Americans, does not sing in Dutch. Her vocals can be urgent or wonderfully drowsy. Her hair is almost always in her eyes. Matador discovered Bettie Serveert in Holland; the major labels discovered them in Hollywood. Billboard says the band's show at the Whisky A Go Go was attended by the presidents of Warner Brothers and Virgin, as well as by David Geffen. Let the games begin.