Back in 1991, Nirvana were shooting across the globe becoming one of the biggest bands on the planet. Their anthemic lead single from their new album Nevermind the huge, a generation-defining song ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ hinting at their impending legendary status. It meant they were being invited everywhere to perform the track, including on Top of the Pops. Kurt Cobain and the grunge kings, with an unruly reputation, were only allowed to perform under strict BBC rules.
What transpired will go down in musical history and is yet another reminder of Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and Dave Grohl’s humour and refusal to compromise. Top of the Pops was a British institution at the time. The show had decades and decades of episodes in their back catalogue and had always survived by bringing the adulterated, sanitised version of music’s best acts to the nation’s televisions.
One thing to note about Top of the Pops, however, was that the performers never sang live. While there’s a sense of disappointment knowing that the acts on each episode would be miming their performance, the show was easier to manage because of it. Let’s face it, giving a group of young rock stars a live audience of millions is likely asking for trouble, especially considering the band’s image as Gen-X punks.
It was no different for the live performance for Nirvana and the trio were instructed to mime when they arrived on British mainstream television. The production staff had relented somewhat on their strict regulations and allowed Cobain’s vocals to be performed live meaning that the bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl had to mime along to a pre-recorded backing track. Awkward at the best of times, let alone with these three at the mics.
In a big fuck you to the programme, Novoselic threw his bass behind his head in the same fashion as a kid giddy on pop, Grohl hit the cymbals out of time with a comedic glance at every camera with unstoppable intensity. Grohl would spend most of the time dancing and Cobain, emboldened by the opportunity, would even exchange the iconic opening line of the song from “load up on guns, bring your friends”, to “load up on drugs, kill your friends.”
Cobain continues the mockery of the BBC stalwart show when he then attempts to eat his microphone in an act of disobedience. Add to that his exaggerated guitar playing (when he actually touched the instrument) before eventually slowing down the vocals, taking them to an octave lower, in a bid, it was later confirmed, to imitate The Smiths frontman, and perennial big mouth, Morrissey.
In a biography about Kurt Cobain written by Charles Cross, titled Heavier Than Heaven, the journalist confirmed Cobain’s ploy: “Kurt hatched a plan with Novoselic and Grohl to make a mockery of their performance. As the backing track played, Kurt sang the vocals in a slowed-down, almost Vegas-like lounge version; he was attempting, he later claimed, to sound like Morrissey.”
To be fair, he nailed the impression: