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Mass Nirvana: a review of ‘Taking Punk To The Masses: From Nowhere To Nevermind’ by Jacob McMurray

'Taking Punk To The Masses' traces the history of Nirvana, grunge, and the underground punk scene.

It seems that you can’t set foot anywhere in Seattle right now without a Nirvana poster jumping out at you. You’d be forgiven for thinking that you’d somehow been sent hurtling back in time to the early Nineties, but in reality this resurgence of interest in Seattle’s greatest export has been rustled up by the Experience Music Project’s new exhibit, Nirvana: Taking Punk To The Masses – the world’s first large-scale, dedicated Nirvana exhibition.

Taking Punk To The Masses: From Nowhere To Nevermind is the official tie-in book that accompanies the exhibition, and editor and curator Jacob McMurray has done more than simply compile his greatest hits from the new collection. Taking Punk To The Masses acts as an in-depth companion to the EMP’s exhibition, and even if you haven’t had the chance to check out the exhibit it’s an intriguing and detailed examination of the American underground scene, told through 100 key artifacts from the museum’s archive, plus the oral contributions of Krist Novoselic, Steve Fisk, Chad Channing, and many, many more.

Clearly Taking Punk To The Masses will appeal first and foremost to fans of Kurt Cobain, Nevermind, and everything Nirvana – but by placing this groundbreaking band within a cultural and historical context it becomes more than just another Nirvana book. In fact, you’ll be surprised at how much more there is between its covers, and the Nirvana artifacts are kept to a minimum. Instead, it tells the tale of underground American punk, the Seattle scene, and the grunge phenomenon.

Of course, you can’t tell that story without a significant chapter on Nirvana – but even the briefest glance at the cover will tell you that there’s more to this tale than just Kurt, Krist and Dave. Showing a photo of a concert by The Replacements in 1983, by scene photographer Charles Peterson, the cover alone benefits a closer look. The more observant among you will spot Mark Arm and Steve Turner of Mudhoney, Alex Shumway of Green River, Heather Lewis of Beat Happening, Ed Fotheringham of the Thrown-Ups… the list could go on. It’s the story of this scene – and the alternative scene that both preceded and followed it – that makes Taking Punk To The Masses more than simply a record of an exhibition. It’s a record of an entire era.

Those of you who want a take-home memento of your EMP visit won’t be disappointed either, as it includes photos of major items from the exhibit, including Kurt Cobain’s handwritten lyrics, his smashed guitars, and that first demo recording by Jack Endino – plus a DVD of some of the oral history interviews recorded to accompany the museum’s collection. Even if you haven’t had the chance to check out the EMP’s exhibit, however, Taking Punk To The Masses provides an intriguing visual and oral history of the generation that changed music – and the Northwest – for good.

Taking Punk To The Masses: From Nowhere To Nevermind is available now from bookstores, the EMP store, and online at Fantagraphics Books, priced $29.99.