Nirvana and Kurt Cobain have been featured heavily in the news and media this year, climaxing with the HBO broadcast of Brett Morgen’s documentary Montage of Heck. Part of Nirvana’s appeal lies in their unique history, emerging out of a know-nothing town from the Northwest to top Michael Jackson in the charts, in a shift of power dynamics that was faster than most political revolutions. The band’s most stable and consistent members were Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl – but their history included a long list of drummers, and later many auxiliary members in the post-Nevermind era. This series of exclusive Alternative Nation articles will deal with the personal and career history of those members of Nirvana that were skewed away and footnoted by history. If you missed Part 1 from last month on Melora Creager, you can read it by clicking here.
Big John Duncan
Before there was “grunge”, there was punk. Punk, like grunge, can be a multi-faceted label. Punk grew out of the harder, weirder, faster rock (proto-punk) rarely tapped into the 1960’s, from groups like MC5 and even the Velvet Underground. Iggy Pop and the Stooges came next, with albums like Fun House and Raw Power often cited by punk and grunge cited both by punk and grunge artists as seminal inspiration. Groups like Television and the New York Dolls closely followed.
New York City’s Ramones arguably became the world’s first punk band, and this punk gospel spread, exploding in the United Kingdom where acts like the Sex Pistols and the Clash emerged as the first wave of British punk. Not trailing far behind was groups like the Germs and the Dickies from California, which advanced the rougher edges of punk with different lyrical content which would regard them as slightly different from groups like the Sex Pistols. “Punk”, as the groups from early to late 70’s knew it, died quickly and was swept away into two different movements: new wave/post-punk and hardcore punk, the former much more commercially successful but hardcore punk might have had a larger impact on youth culture as a whole. The beginnings of hardcore punk emerged out of Southern California and the opposite side of the world around the same, specifically in Edinburgh, Scotland. Indeed, hardcore punk could be described as “north of Punk”, as a colder and harsher form of music which became more abrasive than the original punk that came out of London and more straight forward than the post-punk scenes coming to life in Manchester.
The Exploited became the first archetypal hardcore punk band out of Scotland and out of the United Kingdom as well, maybe even all of Europe. Though the lineup has changed many times over the years, Wattie Buchan remains the frontman he always was. Their classic material from 1980-1983 featured none other than future Nirvana guitar tech and one-off guitarist, Big John Duncan. He helped construct the band’s sound as lead guitarist, laying down the blueprints for the dozens of contemporaries to follow. He played guitar on all their singles and EPs in the early 80’s, including the albums Punks Not Dead and Troops of Tomorrow. They managed to score considerable success as a punk band and even performed on Tops of the Pops. In 1983, however, for one reason or another Duncan either left or was fired. There are many conflicting reports on this, but one report suggests Duncan was kicked out of the band for being an openly gay man. Homosexuality had only been decriminalized in the United Kingdom in the late ’60s and the progress to openness hadn’t quite became instilled in most people.
Goodbye Mr. MacKenzie: Far left is Big John Duncan, far right is Shirley Manson
A few months Duncan later joined Goodbye Mr. MacKenzie (the Mackenzies), a more poppy and alternative band from Edinburgh which featured future Garbarge frontwoman Shirley Manson on keyboards and backing vocals. They enjoyed local success for a few years but poor record label dealings paralyzed their overall success. They are remembered for the airplay hit “The Rattler”, and broke up in 1996.
During a hiatus, Big John Duncan scored a gig as Nirvana’s guitar tech for shows between 1992 to 1993. All three members had listened to the Exploited in their youth as they explored hardcore punk. Cobain needed a second guitarist, as his health and energy due to drug addiction was declining, not remembering as much as he used to. With Duncan already their guitar tech, he seemed like the most practical choice because he was the first person after Cobain to know Nirvana’s guitars intimately. So, Nirvana gave Duncan a chance at guitar. July 23rd, 1993 at the Roseland Ballroom in New York, Duncan joined the band for performances of “Drain You”, “Tourette’s”, “Aneurysm” and “Very Ape”. After this, there are no recorded performances of Duncan playing with Nirvana, though certain reviews suggest he was at other shows. Dave Grohl said in an interview regarding Duncan, “This is just kind of an experiment. No strings attached, we’re just having our roadie play a couple of songs. I want to try it out. Kurt said he wanted to maybe take some songs and thicken them up, see how it words. Besides, John was in The Exploited! Brownie points for that!”
Either way, several months later Nirvana would hire Pat Smear from the Germs as a second guitarist for their last tour, and the legendary MTV Unplugged performance. Duncan would continue to play guitar during soundchecks though, famously on November 5th later that year with members of Japanese experimental rock band Boredoms. They jammed on “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” and the concert closed with members of Boredoms and the Meat Puppets jamming on “Smells like Teen Spirit”. Below is footage of the Boredoms-Duncan soundcheck from the Japanese documentary called “Music for Psychological Liberation” :
After Nirvana, Duncan recorded one more album with the Mackenzies, Five, and left sometime between 1994 to 1995. After his departure, he moved to Amsterdam, Netherlands to work alternatively as a bouncer and roadie for different musical groups and establishments. He still lives there with his partner to this day. Below are recordings with Duncan on guitar with Nirvana: