Before Bleach, and Nevermind, and the grunge explosion and Courtney Love and Frances Bean and the shotgun and the tributes, there was just Kurt Cobain with a tape recorder and a bunch of weird sounds, song excerpts and beats he collected in this newly re-found 1988 cassette-tape mix, "Montage of Heck."
Kurt assembled "Montage of Heck" around 1988 using a 4-track cassette recorder. It features sounds from Kurt's wide-ranging collection of LPs, manipulated recordings of the radio, elements of Nirvana demos, and sounds created or recorded by Cobain. The list of artists that Kurt appropriated for "Montage of Heck," reproduced at the end of this post, is fairly mind-blowing for a 21-year-old punker with (remember) no access to Napster, Spotify, Discogs, or Allmusic.com.
That's a bit generous; mixtape construction was how many of us in the '80s and early '90s spent the bulk of our non-family and non-school time, and the ardors of the analog art may be a bit overstated there. (Also, "4-track cassette recorder"? It's unclear whether that means Cobain was really using an arcane '50s-era cassette setup, or a 4-channel reel-to-reel recorder, which we know he had, or just a fancy recorder for a good ol'-fashioned cassette tape. If it's the latter, then Christ, guys, it's just an "audiotape"; Nobody's gonna mix it up with an 8-track.)
But the 36-minute long cut of Cobain's ambient mix, which you can listen to above, is certainly a fun hodge-podge of classics of both desired varieties: good and bad-good.
Where you stand on "Montage of Heck" will be determined largely by where you stand on Cobain and Nirvana and their little corner of early '90s music and culture: Was it all a noxious, horrid clang of angst ? Or was it the deeply resonant nightingale's song for a reactionary subculture that persists, through market vicissitudes and crap-rock co-optations? Maybe both. Anyway, that's a decent paradoxical set of standards by which to judge "alternative" music.
- "The Men In My Little Girl's Life" by Mike Douglas
- "The Sounds of Silence" by Simon & Garfunkel
- "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" by The Beatles
- "A Day In The Life" by The Beatles
- "Eruption" by Van Halen
- "Hot Pants" by James Brown
- "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves" by Cher
- "Go Away Little Girl" by Donny Osmond
- "Rocky Mountain High" by John Denver
- "Everybody Loves Somebody" by Dean Martin
- "The Candy Man" by Sammy Davis, Jr.
- "In A Gadda Da Vida" by Iron Butterfly
- "Wild Thing" by William Shatner
- "Taxman" by The Beatles
- "I Think I Love You" by The Partridge Family
- "Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl?" by The Barbarians
- "Queen Of The Reich" by Queensryche
- "Last Caress/Green Hell" covered by Metallica
- "Whole Lotta Love" by Led Zeppelin
- "Get Down, Make Love" by Queen
- "ABC" by The Jackson Five
- "I Want Your Sex" by George Michael
- "Run to the Hills" by Iron Maiden
- "Eye Of The Chicken" by Butthole Surfers
- "Dance of the Cobra" by Butthole Surfers
- "The Shah Sleeps in Lee Harvey's Grave" by Butthole Surfers
- "New Age" by The Velvet Underground
- "Love Buzz" by Shocking Blue
- Orchestral music from 200 Motels by Frank Zappa
- "Help I'm A Rock" / "It Can't Happen Here" by Frank Zappa
- "Call Any Vegetable" by Frank Zappa
- "The Day We Fall In Love" by The Monkees
- "Sweet Leaf" by Black Sabbath (intro)
- Theme from The Andy Griffith Show
- Mike Love (of The Beach Boys) talking about "Transcendental Meditation"
- Excerpts of Jimi Hendrix speaking at the Monterey Pop Festival
- Excerpts of Paul Stanley from KISS' Alive!
- Excerpts of Daniel Johnston screaming about Satan
- Excerpts from sound effects records
- Various children's records (Curious George, Sesame Street, The Flintstones, Star Wars)
Update: The Guardian caught up with an ex-girlfriend of Cobain's who adds some backstory and fact-checking to the recent furor over "Montage of Heck," which has kind of been a big deal among Nirvana purists for awhile:
If Tracy Marander remembers rightly, it was actually 1987 and Kurt used a two-track recorder. "I don't think he had a four—track until 1988 or so," she told Guardian Music via a private Facebook conversation.
"I love Montage of Heck," she says. "He made it using records, some TV, and random sounds he recorded. It was all made in Aberdeen, I believe. It took him quite a while. He used to like to make TV montage VHS tapes too. The TV ones are a mix of 60s to 80s TV shows, old movies, bad movies, bits of commercials and late night infomercials."
Marander, notable as a primary source who actually knew Kurt at the time (she was living in Olympia, he was still in Aberdeen, but would shortly move there to be with her), continues: "There are a lot of copies of copies out there. I'm not even sure where mine is. He may have been stoned during part of it, but he didn't smoke every day, at least not at that point – too broke. He made a few others, but mostly just complete songs with a few oddities thrown in."