Under the Influence

Nirvana's Nevermind cover almost looked completely different

Before coming up with the dangling dollar bill, the grunge band had a few other ideas.
(Kirk Weddle)
Listen to the full episode27:28

Before coming up with the dangling dollar bill, the grunge band had a few other ideas.

This week, it’s Part Two of our Album Covers As Marketing episode. In the 1980’s, album covers shrunk down for the first time to accommodate CDs. And in the 2000s, the advent of iPods shrunk them again to the size of a postage stamp. Forcing album artwork to become highly creative. Hope you'll join us. 0:57

The cover of Nirvana's Nevermind showed a naked baby swimming underwater in a pool, reaching for a dollar bill hanging from a sharp fishing hook.

The image was controversial.

It spoke to Kurt Cobain's fascination with embryos. Hence why Nirvana's second album was called In Utero.

Nirvana performing live. (YouTube)

Cobain's original idea for the Nevermind album art was a photo of an actual water birth. But it would be too graphic as a marketing vehicle.

The concept of the dollar bill wasn't part of his original vision either, but rather the product of free association. The band threw out many ideas for the object at the end of the fishing line — including a burrito, a raw steak and another CD — until they landed on the dangling dollar bill.

The cover of the seminal grunge rock record 'Nevermind'. (Nirvana)

To find the perfect photographer, the band looked through what was called "workbooks" at the time – essentially the photographer yellow pages. They found someone who actually specialized in "submerged humans." He got the job.

The name of the baby on the cover is Spencer Elden. He was four months old at the time. Today, he's in his late 20s. And, he has a Nevermind tattoo across his chest.

Elden's picture would make its way into 30 million homes. It would become one of the most-recognized album covers of all time, demonstrating yet again that cover art could still be iconic in a small format.

It's been recreated endlessly. Including by a 25-year-old Elden and the Nirvana members themselves.

Marc Jacobs’ Bootleg Grunge Tee, left, and the original Nirvana T-shirt, right. (Marc Jacobs, Getty Images/Melodie Jeng)

The album cover also created a merchandising bonanza. The swimming baby graced clothing and accessories all over the world and continues to do so to this day, proving that standout album art can generate revenue for years, sometimes even decades.

The album spent 335 weeks on the Billboard 200. And interestingly, it was recently named one of the most-streamed albums ever by Spotify with 122 million global streams.

That is the sweet smell of success.


For more stories about Album Covers As Marketing, click or tap the "Listen" button above to hear the full Under the Influence episode. You can also find us on the CBC Radio app or subscribe to our Podcast.


Under the Influence is recorded in the Terstream Mobile Recording studio, a 1969 Airstream trailer that's been restored and transformed into a studio on wheels, so host Terry O'Reilly can record the show wherever he goes.

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