Ranking Every Nirvana Song – Part Six: “Pen Cap Chew” vs “Serve The Servants”

Last week’s difficult choice turned out to not be the big controversy that I was worried it would be. It seems that I managed to ensconce myself into a bubble of In Utero stans, and I’m fairly happy about it.

This week’s matchup is very similar to last week’s. A classic Nirvana “rarity” up against a totally killer track from In Utero. Kind of feels like a playoff matchup between the Toronto Maple Leafs and a much, much better team (which is all of them), but we’ll do it anyway.

I made a sports joke!

Pen Cap Chew

I remember reading about “Pen Cap Chew” in Michael Azzerad’s Nirvana biography, Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana (the best rock ‘n roll book of all time, maybe?). “Pen Cap Chew” was an early track that gets name dropped very frequently in the early parts of the book, and its title was even one of the early band names that the group tried on before settling on Nirvana.

It’s a really dumb name for a band. And it’s a dumb name for a song.

In the days before internet file trading, a friend of mine gave me a cassette tape dubbed with loads of Nirvana rarities, but the sleeve with the track listing on it wasn’t the most legible, so I never really knew which song was which. Years later, I would find files online and found out which one was “Pen Cap Chew” and which one was “Token Eastern Song” and whatnot.

This is a lot of preamble to explain that “Pen Cap Chew” isn’t a favourite of mine. It’s got some interesting things going on, but it definitely feels like Nirvana in its most embryonic form. I think the most interesting thing about the song is the vocal track in the verses. It gently seethes in a manner of singing that Kurt employed very rarely.

Kurt tried many different vocal affectations in the early days of the band (as we will see when we cover more songs from Incesticide), and many of them are more interesting from a historical perspective than actually being enjoyable. This one I actually really enjoy. The opening couple of lines have a creepy subtlety that really works for me.

This track is really just another riff factory, though. Lots of chugs in the central riff, and then a pretty standard (but cool) Bleach-ish riff in the song’s “chorus”. The riffs are pretty solid, with the band’s arrangement of the chugging central riff standing out as the more memorable of the two.

Legend has it that the tape ran out while they were recording this tune, resulting in just one chorus and a fade-out before the second verse. Happy accident, because had that not occurred, this tune would have been over five minutes long.

Serve The Servants

This drumstick four-count into full-band sour chord is one of my favourite album openings of all time. It segues into the terrific lackadaisical shuffle that defines the rest of the track, instantly setting itself apart from Nevermind‘s polished pop sheen.

While the vocal melody in the verses is terrifically melodic, it is also recorded in such an unlayered, unadorned way, much closer to the sound of a live band than the mega-processed vocal treatments on Nirvana’s previous hit record. I have to be honest, I wish there were footage from whatever meeting happened at Geffen records when the executives first heard this album. “Serve The Servants” must have really rattled some cages.

It’s got one of my favourite Nirvana verses, a great chorus hook, and one of the best guitar solos on all of In Utero. Listening to this version now, I’m realizing that it has a different guitar take for the solo?! What?!?! How did I not realize this? I think I like the original take that they used slightly more, but this one totally rocks as well. If nothing else, doing this series has been worthwhile to find this new guitar solo. Haha. Great times!

This song just rocks, what else am I going to say about it? Perfect album opener.

The Ranking

Okay, let’s get it out of the way that “Serve The Servants” is better than “Pen Cap Chew”. No brainer.

I think that I like “Oh, The Guilt” more than “Pen Cap Chew”, but “Pen Cap Chew” is more significant than “Ain’t It A Shame”. Also pretty easy.

I adore “Serve The Servants”, but I don’t think it’s going to bump “Scentless Apprentice”. Listening to both of these songs, though, I’m struck by how much they both still sound like something that I would listen to today if it came out from some unknown band. I’m not sure that I can say that about much of Nevermind.

It is trickier business to call “Serve The Servants” better than “Territorial Pissings” in a way that is purely cut and dried. “Territorial Pissings” really, really rips. I’ll be honest, I haven’t been able to make one of these tough calls without checking in with a few friends, and I won’t be able to do so here. I’m not going to name them here, but they know who they are.

I will name one of them, because one of them is Jay, but his opinion is the one that I ignore because he thinks that Alice In Chains were better than Nirvana, which is as close to a 2 + 2 = 5 opinion as I’ve ever heard.

After checking in with some people, I think that I am going to give “Territorial Pissings” the edge over “Serve The Servants”, but I’m really unsure about it. I think that “Serve The Servants” might be a better written song. But “Territorial Pissings” is a “bigger” song in terms of feel and influence.

For the first time, I’m opening up this ruling to a public opinion based reversal. If a lot of people give me shit about this, I may switch up my decision and reorder things next week. Nobody makes all of the right choices all on their own, and while I feel okay about this choice, I don’t feel great about it.

The updated ranking is:

  1. Scentless Apprentice
  2. Territorial Pissings
  3. Serve The Servants
  4. Love Buzz
  5. Sliver
  6. Lounge Act
  7. Been A Son
  8. Scoff
  9. Swap Meet
  10. Oh, The Guilt
  11. Pen Cap Chew
  12. Ain’t It A Shame

“Scentless Apprentice” is still the greatest Nirvana song of all time!

Live Clip of the Week!

Author: markmeeks

squid goals

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