On a Plain
|"On a Plain"|
|Promotional single by Nirvana|
|from the album Nevermind|
|Studio||Sound City, Los Angeles|
|Nirvana singles chronology|
|Nevermind track listing|
Origin and recording
Written in 1990, "On a Plain" was first recorded in the studio on January 1, 1991 at Music Source Studios in Seattle, Washington, by the band's audio engineer, Craig Montgomery. The private session, the band's first with drummer Dave Grohl, led to the versions of "Even in His Youth" and "Aneurysm" that were released as b-sides on the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" single in September 1991. However, the other five songs recorded during the session all featured unfinished lyrics and scratch vocals, such as "On a Plain," or were instrumental.
The song was re-recorded for the band's second album, Nevermind, by Butch Vig in May 1991 at Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, California. Vig later called it "a great pop song," remembering it as "a really new one" that "took a few takes" to complete. The final lyrics were written at Sound City shortly before the vocals were recorded, which led to the line, "What the hell am I trying to say?"
The recording features wordless backing vocals by Grohl. Vig had wanted to end the recording with Grohl's harmonies repeated four times a capella, and originally mixed the song that way, but upon hearing the mix, Cobain decided the song should end after only one pass of the harmonies. Cobain's lead vocals were done in one take.
"On a Plain" was debuted live on May 29, 1991 at Jabberjaw in Los Angeles, California, the show at which Nirvana also debuted the future Nevermind single, "Come As You Are," before "an astonished audience," according to author Charles R. Cross. The show was Nirvana's first since completing work on Nevermind.
Cobain ultimately expressed dissatisfaction with the Nevermind recording, telling Flipside, "That song came out way too clean. I'm not happy with the way that came out at all. It should have been a lot rawer; we play it a lot better live I think."
"On a Plain" was released as a promo single in the summer of 1992, and became a moderate hit.
The song was performed during Nirvana's MTV Unplugged appearance at Sony Music Studios in New York City on November 18, 1993. This version featured Pat Smear on second guitar and Lori Goldston on cello.
"On a Plain" was performed for the final time live at Nirvana's last concert, at Terminal Einz in Munich, Germany on March 1, 1994.
Composition and lyrics
"On a Plain" was recorded in the key of D Major, with Cobain's guitar tuned to drop D. The song starts with a noise intro played by Cobain, with an audible handclap. After a short pause the main riff comes in with the power chords D5-G5-F5-E5-F5-E5-D5 played twice then followed by the power chords D5-C5-B5-A5 followed by the first progression again. The chord progressions are played twice for all verses followed by the power chords D5-Gsus2-Bbsus2 for all choruses. After the second chorus a bridge is played with the power chords F5-E5-A5-G5. The song then goes onto the third verse followed by a final chorus which is treated as the outro with the words, "I'm on a plain/I can't complain" being repeated multiple times until all instruments and main vocals start fading out until the last thing that's heard is the repeating, wordless vocal harmony from the chorus.
In a 1993 interview with Jon Savage, Cobain said that the song was about "classic alienation, I guess," although he then noted he had to change his explanation every time he was asked about the meaning to his songs, saying that his lyrics were largely taken from "pieces of poetry thrown together," and that his poetry was "not usually thematic at all."
The lyric "Don't quote me on that" was a reference to a running joke at Sound City around the time it was written. As Grohl explained to biographer Michael Azerrad, "Someone would say something like, 'Where's the mayonnaise?' And someone else would answer, 'It's in the fridge, but don't quote me on that.'"
In his 1993 book Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana, Azerrad wrote that the lyric "My mother died every night" was a reference to an abusive relationship Cobain's mother was in while Cobain was a teenager. Azerrad also suggested that the "black sheep" in the song was a reference to Cobain himself.
The lyric "One more special message to go" referred to the fact that "On a Plain" was the last song on Nevermind that Cobain had to complete lyrics for.
In 2017, to mark what would have been Kurt Cobain's 50th birthday, the Phonographic Performance Limited released a list of the top 20 most played Nirvana songs on the TV and radio in the United Kingdom in which "On a Plain" was ranked at number 10.
|US Alternative Airplay (Billboard)||25|
Recording and release history
Demo and studio versions
|January 1, 1991||Studio A, the Music Source, Seattle, Washington||Craig Montgomery||Unreleased||
|Spring 1991||Converted barn, Tacoma, Washington||Nirvana||Live! Tonight! Sold Out!! (DVD) (2006)
With The Lights Out (2004)
|March 1991||Converted barn, Tacoma, Washington||Nirvana||Nevermind (deluxe) (2011)||
|May 2–28, 1991||Sound City Studios, Van Nuys, California||Butch Vig||Nevermind (1991)||
|October 31, 1991||Paramount Theatre, Seattle, Washington||Live at the Paramount (2011)||
|November 25, 1991||Paradiso, Amsterdam, Netherlands||Live! Tonight! Sold Out!! (DVD) (2006)||
|August 30, 1992||Reading Festival, Reading, England||Live at Reading (2009)||
|June 26, 1992||Roskilde Festival, Roskilde, Denmark||Live! Tonight! Sold Out!! (1994)||
|November 18, 1993||Sony Music Studios, New York City, New York||MTV Unplugged in New York (1994)|
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- Cross, Charles R (August 15, 2001). Heavier Than Heaven. United States: Hyperion. p. 178. ISBN 0-7868-6505-9.
- Luerssen, John D. (2014). Nirvana FAQ: All That's Left to Know About the Most Important Band of the 1990s. Hal Leonard Corporation. p. 343. ISBN 978-1-61713-588-0.
- "On a Plain Chords". e-chords.com. Retrieved April 18, 2020.
- "Nirvana – On A Plain chords ver. 2". guitaretab.com. Retrieved April 18, 2020.
- Azerrad, Michael (October 1993). Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana. U.S.: Doubleday. p. 176. ISBN 0-385-47199-8.
- Azerrad, Michael (October 1993). Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana. U.S.: Doubleday. p. 220. ISBN 0-385-47199-8.
- Barker, Emily (27 July 2018). "Nrvana - the story of every album track". NME. Retrieved 23 January 2019.
- Spencer, Lauren (December 1991). "Classic Reviews: Nirvana, Nevermind". Spin. Retrieved 23 January 2019.
- Powell, Mike (April 9, 2015). "No Apologies: All 102 Nirvana Songs Ranked". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 8 October 2018.
- "20 most-played Nirvana songs revealed to mark Kurt Cobain's 50th birthday". PlanetRock.com. February 20, 2017. Retrieved March 3, 2017.
- "Nirvana Chart History (Alternative Airplay)". Billboard. Retrieved November 27, 2016.
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