In 1991, Nirvana had hit the big time. ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ had galvanised the youth, and globally, they had united behind their spiritual leader Kurt Cobain. The album the single came off, Nirvana’s second outing Nevermind, was the biggest album of the year and the decade, and for 30 years has endured as one of the most important musical releases ever.
Normally, an album needs some time for its cultural effect to permeate, but that was not the case for Nevermind, it was an explosion, of a kind that the world had never seen before. Through blending a punk rock ethos and sound with pop sensibilities, it effectively wrote the handbook for alt-rock, and everything that followed, even Oasis and Suede, can be traced back to the momentous groundswell that Nevermind inspired.
Nirvana fused their inspirations, The Beatles, Husker Dü, Melvins and Pixies, to name but a few, and created a grunge behemoth that established rock as the cultural signifier for Generation X. It is a tale as old as time, how the level of fame the band found themselves with after the release of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ caused great discomfort, and in many ways, can be taken as the first point in Kurt Cobain’s mental and physical decline.
Punks at heart, Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl found it jarring to be hailed as what was effectively popstars. They came from a hardcore punk background, something utterly antithetical to the personal and economic juncture that the band found themselves at after the release of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. Nevermind‘s gargantuan first single was hailed as a Generation X anthem by critics and the media, even if the surreal lyrics only really made sense to Kurt Cobain.
They became media darlings, and being the punks and pranksters that they were, they decided to have fun with it. The most notorious instance of Nirvana raging against the musical machine came in late 1991 when the band performed on the British institution Top of the Pops.
Traditionally, bands would mime along to a backing track when performing on the show, and this was something the band protested against until the production team decided to relent on the age-old custom. This left Novoselic and Grohl to mime playing their instruments whilst Cobain sang. Even for 30 years ago, the tradition of miming on Top of the Pops was a confounding one.
Perennial tricksters, the band decided between themselves to mock the spectacle. In front of an adoring live audience, and broadcast to millions, this was a genius way to display what Nirvana was truly about, and to rebel against the consumerist MTV age. Wearing sunglasses and a somewhat sinister smirk, Cobain’s vocal performance was somewhere between a lounge act (pardon the pun) and Morrissey on quaaludes.
As Novoselic threw his bass around like a shotput without attempting to feign playing it, and Grohl danced in the freakiest of ways behind his drum kit, it was clear from the outset that Nirvana were pulling the BBC’s leg. Famously, Cobain changed the opening line from “load up on guns, bring your friends”, to “load up on drugs, kill your friends.” The most iconic part of the performance is when Cobain eats the microphone, ramming it in his mouth like a hungry child eating profiteroles.
The most significant part of the whole affair, however, was the audience’s reaction. They loved it. The image of the three shaggy-haired boys at the front headbanging says it all. At this point in time, Nirvana could do no wrong, and whatever they did do, their audience supported it. This was the extent of their fame.
Disobedient to the core, this was one of Nirvana’s finest moments. 30 years on, the spirit of Kurt Cobain lives through moments such as these.
Watch the performance below.