In the late 1980s, Nirvana established itself as part of the Seattle grunge scene, releasing its first album, Bleach, for the independent record label Sub Pop in 1989. They developed a sound that relied on dynamic contrasts, often between quiet verses and loud, heavy choruses. After signing to major label DGC Records, Nirvana found unexpected success with "Smells Like Teen Spirit", the first single from the band's second album Nevermind (1991). Nirvana's sudden success widely popularized alternative rock, and Cobain found himself referred to in the media as the "spokesman of a generation", with Nirvana considered the "flagship band" of Generation X. Nirvana's third studio album, In Utero (1993), released to critical acclaim, featured an abrasive, less mainstream sound and challenged the group's audience.
Nirvana's active career ended following the death of Cobain in 1994, but various posthumous releases have been issued since, overseen by Novoselic, Grohl, and Cobain's widow Courtney Love. Since its debut, the band has sold over 25 million records in the United States alone, and over 75 million records worldwide, making them one of the best-selling bands of all time. Nirvana was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014, in its first year of eligibility.
Cobain and Novoselic met while attending Aberdeen High, although they never connected, according to Cobain. The pair eventually became friends while frequenting the practice space of the Melvins. Cobain wanted to form a band with Novoselic, but Novoselic did not respond for a long period of time. In persuading Novoselic to form a band, Cobain gave him a demo tape of his project Fecal Matter. Three years after the two first met, Novoselic notified Cobain that he had finally listened to the Fecal Matter demo and suggested they start a group. The pair recruited Bob McFadden on drums, but after a month the project fell apart. In early 1987, Cobain and Novoselic recruited drummer Aaron Burckhard. The three practiced material from Cobain's Fecal Matter tape but started writing new material soon after forming.
During its initial months, the band went through a series of names, starting with Skid Row and including Fecal Matter and Ted Ed Fred. The group finally settled on Nirvana, which Cobain said was chosen because "I wanted a name that was kind of beautiful or nice and pretty instead of a mean, raunchy punk name like the Angry Samoans". With Novoselic and Cobain having moved to Tacoma and Olympia, Washington, respectively, the two temporarily lost contact with Burckhard. The pair instead practiced with Dale Crover of the Melvins, and Nirvana recorded its first demos in January 1988. In early 1988, Crover moved to San Francisco but recommended Dave Foster to the band as his replacement on drums. Foster's tenure with Nirvana lasted only a few months; during a stint in jail, he was replaced by a returning Burckhard, who himself didn't stay with the band after telling Cobain he was too hungover to practice one day. Cobain and Novoselic put an ad in Seattle music publication The Rocket seeking a replacement drummer, which only yielded unsatisfactory responses. Meanwhile, a mutual friend introduced them to Chad Channing, and the three musicians agreed to jam together. Channing continued to jam with Cobain and Novoselic, although the drummer noted, "They never actually said 'okay, you're in,'" and Channing played his first show with the group that May.
Nirvana released its first single, a cover of Shocking Blue's "Love Buzz", in November 1988 on the Seattle independent record label Sub Pop. They did their first ever interview with John Robb in Sounds who also made the release single of the week. The following month, the band began recording its debut album, Bleach, with local producer Jack Endino. Bleach was highly influenced by the heavy dirge-rock of the Melvins and Mudhoney, 1980s punk rock, and the 1970s heavy metal of Black Sabbath. Novoselic said in a 2001 interview with Rolling Stone that the band had played a tape in their van while on tour that had an album by The Smithereens on one side and an album by the extreme metal band Celtic Frost on the other, and noted that the combination probably played an influence as well. The money for the recording sessions for Bleach, listed as $606.17 on the album sleeve, was supplied by Jason Everman, who was subsequently brought into the band as the second guitarist. Though Everman did not actually play on the album, he received a credit on Bleach because, according to Novoselic, they "wanted to make him feel more at home in the band". Just prior to the album's release, Nirvana insisted on signing an extended contract with Sub Pop, making the band the first to do so with the label.