Relive Nirvana’s iconic headline performance at Reading Festival 1992
On August 30th 1992 there was one band on the line-up of the famous Reading Festival main stage which had everyone talking and when we say talking we mean adoring. A young band from the West Coast of America that had the bit between their teeth and the world at their feet. Nirvana were set to become the biggest band in the world and Reading was about to get the first proper taste.
The band were in the midst of becoming one of the biggest main stage acts in the world, reluctantly, it must be said, when the bigwigs at Reading Festival decided that Nirvana must headline the ’92 edition alongside The Wonderstuff and Public Enemy. It was one of the most eagerly anticipated sets of the year and tragically it would be their last on British soil.
Kurt Cobain and co. had already tested the waters at the festival though. The year before their headline set Nirvana played a Friday afternoon slot as the legendary Iggy Pop headlined the show. This was just a few short weeks before their seminal album Nevermind would land at the feet of a disenfranchised generation and be duly picked up with apathetic glee.
With the help of MTV and an album stacked with the musings of a brand new sound, the record and the band flew off into the rock stratosphere. While sadly no footage of the ’91 performance exists as a whole there is a rather well cobbled-together series of clips, which you can find below.
When the band were offered the coveted headline set at the 1992 edition Nevermind was a mainstay on the alternative scene and the album’s lead single ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ had broken the UK’s Top 10. But while chart success and wide critical acclaim were plentiful around the good ship Nirvana, the band weren’t quite pros.
Drummer Dave Grohl later commented: “We rehearsed once, the night before, and it wasn’t good…I really thought, ‘This will be a disaster, this will be the end of our career for sure’ “. It wasn’t.
Professionals, in the true sense of the word, they may not have been. But Nirvana still knew how to turn out a gig and their headline slot at Reading ’92, is still largely seen as the band at their live performance peak, capturing the fury and fervour that went into their work.
Cobain, at his antagonistic best, was brought on stage in a wig and a wheelchair by means of a retort to the press pressure on his relationship with Courtney Love. When the first notes of their Nevermind track ‘Bleed’ reached the waiting crowd there was no doubt that this was going to be something special. Kurt kept the wig on for much of the performance.
The band would play the majority of their new LP Nevermind as well as adding a splash of old favourites as Dave Grohl, Kut Cobain and Krist Novoselic (and Dancing Tony, a regular sight at their UK shows) gave one hell of a performance.
One notable moment was becoming a regular sight. Cobain gave a nod to the band Boston just before the band played their now mega-hit-single ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. The nod of the head was meant as a smirking reference to those comparing the two bands’ use of a similar chord pattern.
This was to become a familiar feature of Cobain’s sentiment towards his growing stardom. This wasn’t about become a popstar this was about expressing themselves as a band.
Grohl would later tell Kerrang! all about the epic gig. “I remember showing up to Reading ’92 and there being so many rumours that we weren’t going to play, that we had cancelled,” Grohl explained. “I walked backstage and some of my best friends in bands that were opening would see me and say, ‘What are you doing here?’ And I’d go, ‘We’re fucking headlining!’ And they’d be like, ‘You’re actually going to play?!’ I didn’t realise there was any question that we were going to play.”
“I knew within myself I was questioning if we could play, but I knew we were going to try.”
“The show was a really reassuring, genuinely magical moment of everything coming together at the right time,” he continued. “I think we had practised once, the day before, and I just didn’t know if we could pull it off. That happened a bunch of times in Nirvana, where you’d think, ‘God, this is going to be a fucking disaster,’ and then it would turn out to be something beautiful.”
Dave Grohl would naturally take to the Reading stage again as part of his band, Foo Fighters’ headline slot across another three editions. But this performance, alongside so many others in rock and roll history, would go on to define not only Nirvana and Kurt Cobain but a generation of kids across the world. Nirvana would become so much to so many, and for their generation and generations to be, this performance would be the archetypal middle finger to the mainstream.
Watch the full performance below as Nirvana headline Reading Festival 1992.