It's been 25 years since Nirvana changed the landscape of rock music with the release of Nevermind.

Before that seminal album blared the now iconic angst-ridden anthems for a generation, they played the Town Pump in Vancouver.

Pounding drums. Grimy guitars blaring at full-tilt. Kurt Cobain's unmistakable vocal snarl. A crowd of music fans not quite sure what to make of it all. That was the scene in Gastown on Monday, March 12, 1990.

Kirk Weddle Nirvana

(Kirk Weddle)

Not long after that Nevermind was released — with an image of a naked infant floating with a US dollar bill.

That record went on to sell at least 16 million copies (sales reports vary) and is one of the 30 best-selling in music history.

More importantly, it influenced a generation of young musicians to grow their hair long, pull on a plaid shirt, plug an electric guitar into a distortion pedal and let rip. 

But a little more than a year before Nevermind's release, exactly none of that was apparent to Vancouver music fans at the Town Pump. 

'Double Bill of Grunge Rock'

At the time of the Town Pump show, Nirvana was less than a year removed from releasing its debut studio album Bleach, but still a solid 18 months from releasing Nevermind, a record that would catapult the band to worldwide fame.

Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic were on stage, but Dave Grohl had yet to join the band. His predecessor Chad Channing was on the skins that night. 

The set lasted 43 minutes, 13 songs' worth, with most of the tunes coming from Bleach. But the crowd did get one hint at the power of Nevermind with a sneak peak of song called Breed

The simple black and white poster for the show, presented by CiTR radio, touted "A Double Bill of Grunge Rock", with Nirvana sharing the headlining spot with Seattle contemporary, Tad.

Nirvana live at the Town Pump

Nirvana played its first Vancouver show at the Town Pump on Monday, March 12, 1990. (livevan.com)

Also on the bill was a Vancouver female punk band called The Bombshells.

Siobhan DuVall was the group's guitarist and had no idea she would become a part of Vancouver music lore and rock history. 

"I actually knew nothing about Nirvana at the time, absolutely nothing, and I knew nothing about the Seattle scene," DuVall said. 

bombshells01002

The Bombshells perform at their first show on New Year's Eve. From left to right, lead guitarist Siobhan DuVall, singer Ingrid Hansen and Carol Waldmann, rhythm guitar. (Submitted by Carol Waldmann)

Despite the standoffish reputation that the band would eventually earn, DuVall says the members of Nirvana were friendly and hung out for most of the night. 

"Tad and Nirvana had the big dressing room and we had the little dressing room which was actually the photocopier room in the basement," she said. 

"We were like, all friendly and Canadian....five 21-year-old blonde, little, hyper things. So we go to give a big friendly Canadian hello to our new friends from America, and the guys from Nirvana actually spent the entire night in our little photocopier room, not their big dressing room."

Cobain's performance was 'haunting, in a good way'

Vancouver rocker Ziggy Sigmund was also at the show.

The Econoline Crush guitarist remembers the way Kurt Cobain owned the stage.

"Everyone was just like staring at this guy, Kurt Cobain, because he was kind of vibrating with a certain intensity. To me, he was like Hendrix or something, the way he commanded his guitar," said Sigmund. 

"When he walked on stage, nobody noticed him, as soon as he started singing, the voice and the guitar blended together and ... it sort of haunted you, in a good way."

Siobhan DuVall

Siobhan DuVall's punk band, The Bombshells, opened up for Nirvana at the Town Pump in March of 1990. Kurt Cobain called her sound "power pop". (Jeremy Allingham)

If you listen back to the archival tape of the show the response from the Vancouver crowd was lukewarm at best. Vancouver crowds have a certain reputation for that.

But those kinds of tepid receptions weren't long for the Nirvana world.

A little more than a year later, they would be in Los Angeles' Sound City Studios with producer Butch Vig.

Nirvana's sound was a mass success and their triumph shifted the music industry, paving the way for a generation of grunge bands.

'Nevermind' creates grunge as a popular force

For the first time, bands from the heavy underground scenes were given a glimmer of hope that they too could have their music reach critical mass. 

"It was shocking and it was fantastic, and it was really touching too because they were the first one of us...we just had no sense that that could happen...that there was real music...people across the world were listening to real music," said DuVall of The Bombshells. 

​"All of a sudden, real bands who were making real music just for themselves and their friends...were suddenly commercially viable."

Looking back on that moment on stage with Nirvana, now 26 years later, DuVall is thankful for the opportunity to play a role in an unique moment in Vancouver music history. 

"I'm honoured I got the opportunity to hang out with [Kurt Cobain] who unfortunately became the Jimi Hendrix of our generation. It was art for art's sake," she said. 

With Nevermind, Nirvana made a juggernaut record with a genre of music that had been previously foreign to the broader popular culture.

Cobain's super-charged guitar playing, uncanny knack for memorable hooks and his cryptic but powerful lyrics forever created a mark on the worldwide musical mosaic, leaving in the dust the contrived and synthesized 1980's music scene in the process. 

Back at the Town Pump in 1990, the fans in attendance could sense something was afoot, but they couldn't put their finger on it.

How could they have possibly known that they were witnessing the formative stages of a rock revolution, right here in Vancouver.
 

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story said Siobhan DuVal was the lead singer for the Bombshells. In fact, she was the group's guitarist.
    Oct 20, 2017 1:55 PM PT