Of Course the Paul McCartney-Nirvana Team-Up Wasn't Going to Be Terrible

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The "Sirvana" performance at the Hurricane Sandy benefit concert successfully trolled the internet—and then turned out to be a well-rehearsed show by seasoned performers.

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Reuters / Lucas Jackson

In the hours before Wednesday's "12-12-12" Sandy benefit concert, a disproportionate amount of the internet's workday was spent devising portmanteaus for the announced collaboration between Paul McCartney and two-thirds of the classic Nirvana lineup: drummer Dave Grohl and bassist Krist Novoselic. (Pat Smear, a onetime Germ—and sometime Nirvana and Foo Fighters touring guitarist—also rounded out the group.)

McVana. Sirvana. You get the idea.

Part of the web-froth was no doubt due to a background suspicion or hope that these boldface names would somehow botch the job of tending to their respective legacies. Self-appointed Nirvana priests rended garments; how dare the bandmembers sully their legacy by ... collaborating with a Beatle? There were some LOLs over a weird-sounding bit of McCartney's promotional patter that made it sound as if he didn't know anything about Nirvana—as though Macca had been old and out-of-it for decades—mostly seized on by people you'd have to expect missed out on Sir Paul's last several strong recordings. (One of those, Electric Arguments, by his side project The Firemen, rocked harder than most of 2008's critical darlings).

As it happened, the mates didn't just happen to get together "to jam." They had already produced a new song, "Cut Me Some Slack," which (carelessly cliché title and all) was closer to the living solo-McCartney blueprint than Nirvana's impossible-to-recapture one. Outside of its potential charity-donation impact, you'd be hard pressed to call the track life-changing. But it was more than acceptable. Like many of McCartney's recent good-but-not great projects, there were minor delights to be found in it.

McCartney brought you your blues courtesy of an electric slide-guitar part, while Grohl pushed the medium-tempo groove with unflagging energy (and a particularly strong finish). Novoselic's bass part featured a stray figure that periodically moved away from Macca's line in a way that recalled Nirvana's adventurism in the search of new riffs, but it wasn't as though you could close your eyes and trick yourself into thinking it was the old band up there. How could it be so? The musicians knew this, and played their way around it, even as they talked of a "Nirvana reunion."

The Internet probably should have expected this modicum of competence from these artists. In recent years, Sir Paul has specialized in well-considered collaborations with his juniors that might at first blush have seemed ill-advised. The Electric Arguments record was his third in collaboration with the musician Youth. And when McCartney announced, in 2005, that he had been working with Radiohead and Beck producer Nigel Godrich, you could almost hear people whispering "stunt" along the sidelines. But rather than delivering some trend-chasing flop, McCartney gave us the modest accomplishments of Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, an album that recalled of the small-scale charms of his first solo outing more than it did any of Godrich's other recording clients.

Likewise, from the erstwhile-Nirvana camp, a presumption of sagacity might have easily applied in this case. (Whatever else you think of Foo Fighters, it's clear Grohl has been one of rock's most reliable pros.) Despite McCartney's on-stage patter about his jam-mates not having played together in oh-so-many seasons—"And in the middle of [jamming] these guys kept sayin', you know, well, 'we haven't played together for years, you know?'"—this was actually the second time so far this decade that Novoselic and Grohl collaborated on a new song.

"Noted professionals to debut a well-workshopped number" would have been a more accurate preview for the web. But the web doesn't thrive on stories of basic competence.

All the way back in 2011, Novoselic appeared with Grohl's Foo Fighters on the song "I Should Have Known." The unveiling of his presence is (rightly) treated like a momentous occasion, appearing as it does after a couple verses and choruses of bland, modern-rock-radio moodiness. The moment of overdrive comes at the 2:53 mark, when Novoselic's part is highlighted with a dry layer of distortion that harkens back to the crisp aggression of '80s-era hardcore bands that Kurt Cobain and his bass player once bonded over. The song itself has proved less immediately memorable than their new McCartney-co-written number, but as far as shadows of the old Nirvana energy go, it's the more convincing ghost by far.

For all the "Nirvana reunion" buzz of the charity one-off promotion, the real story here might be how little this was about Nirvana. Afterward, Grohl confirmed that the WTF-generating quartet was not even a spontaneous, Sandy-reactive entity; they'd actually written and recorded this song in one studio rehearsal day about half a year ago, as part of a documentary Grohl has been working on.

That helped explain why the performance wasn't a disaster. While it would hardly have served the requirements of pre-game drama, it turns out "noted professionals to debut a well-workshopped number" would have been the more accurate news for the web to chew over during the day. But then, the web doesn't thrive on stories of basic workmanlike competence. The quality of a new song aside, it's better, if you can manage it, to stir up a culturally conservative backlash based on sacred-cow guarding and debates about the inviolability of the canon. That McCartney and the surviving members of Nirvana knew exactly how to do that just means that they've adapted to yet another era of pop.

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Seth Colter Walls is a critic and reporter who has written for Slate, The New Yorker's Culture Desk, and Vulture.

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