We’re taking a trip back to this day in 1991 to revisit a special moment. The moment Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl—Nirvana—performed their iconic song ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ live for the very first time.
Some songs are so ubiquitous to their scene or the artist who made them that they can now fall a bit flat. Ask any diehard Nirvana fan what their favourite song is from the grunge icons and we’d bet that 95% of them would avoid picking ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. To pick the Nevermind track would be fandom suicide.
The song has become an anthem for the disenfranchised but the anti-establishment track was so quickly picked up by the establishment as their mood board touchpoint for selling junk to Generation X, that over time the song lost a little of it’s intended edge.
“Everyone has focused on that song so much,” Cobain later said of the track. “I think there are so many other songs that I’ve written that are as good, if not better, than that song, like ‘Drain You.’ On a bad night, I can barely get through ‘Teen Spirit.’ I literally want to throw my guitar down and walk away. I can’t pretend to have a good time playing it.”
That wasn’t the case on April 17th 1991 when Nirvana took to the stage at the OK Hotel in Seattle and debuted the now-cherished track. The group were just a few weeks from starting sessions for Nevermind and they had been honing up on their new music. One such track was the rough and ready, and not yet finished, ‘Teen Spirit’.
“This song is called ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’,” says Cobain moments before launching into the now-iconic riff. It was a riff that found its roots in the work of others, as Cobain told Rolling Stone in 1993, “I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.”
It’s a motion of music that’s repeated in this furious video of the track’s first outing. Cobain and the group rattle through the song with a ferocious energy that gives further weight to their claim to the underground throne of Seattle. Still, the group weren’t sure on the song’s success, “It was such a cliched riff,” said Cobain.
“It was so close to a Boston riff or ‘Louie, Louie.’ When I came up with the guitar part, Krist [Novoselic] looked at me and said, ‘That is so ridiculous.’ I made the band play it for an hour and a half.” Nirvana would pay tribute to the “Boston riff” from ‘More Than Feeling’ at their landmark Reading Festival set in 1992.
The song would be heavily played by MTV during its own ascendancy and was quickly picked up for major radio play too. It launched Nirvana, kicking and screaming, into the mainstream. It turned the group into mega-stars and confirmed their legend status almost instantly. It climbed the pop charts.
Back in 1991, back at the OK Hotel, and the song couldn’t sound further from the Boston band or it’s chart-topping success. It’s raw and razor-edged, charged with fire and fury, with slightly different lyrics and arrangement it’s still a behemoth. The audience may not have known it then but they were witnessing history.
Watch Nirvana’s first live performance of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ below.