On this day in 1991, Nirvana played their hit song ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ for the Top of the Pops 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.
The performers never sang live and 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.
It was no different for the live performance from up and coming grunge act Nirvana. The production staff had ordered that only Cobain’s vocals were to be performed live meaning that the bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl had to mime along to a pre-recorded backing track.
In a big fuck you to the programme, one of which we personally enjoy, 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.
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. 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: