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Revisiting Nirvana's riotous 'Saturday Night Live' appearance 30 years later

@SamWKemp

On January 11th, 1992, Nirvana appeared on Saturday Night Live for the very first time. Having made their name on underground grunge and no-wave scenes, such a rapid rise the surface would have put any other band out of joint, but not Nirvana. With their 1991 album, Nevermind, sitting at the very top of the charts, Cobain and the gang were competing with some of the biggest names in music. Not only did they steal the number one spot from Michael Jackson but they also succeeded in knocking hair metal from its lofty perch, solidifying their novel blend of angst-fueled guitar music as a worthy successor to punk. And like their punk predecessors, Nirvana both embraced and shunned popular culture; regarding it both as both ridiculous and worthy of utilisation.

Now, 30 years later, the band’s appearance on SNL is a near-perfect example of the group’s complex relationship with the music industry. But, more than anything, it demonstrates just how brilliant a live act Nirvana was. Indeed, even after all these years, it’s hard to think of a single performance that holds a candle to the epoch-defining magnitude of Nirvana’s 1992 rendition of ‘Territorial Pissings’ on SNL.

Nirvana’s appearance on SNL bought the TV show to its anarchic roots. The Lorne Michaels-produced live comedy show had become known not only as an incubator for fresh comedic talents but also as a space for viewers to discover bands that they wouldn’t have found anywhere else. However, by the 1990s, SNL’s reputation for putting on acts that no other network could stomach had started to fade. That is, however, until Nirvana took to the stage.

With an entire generation of disillusioned teenagers watching at home, Nirvana began their set with a studio-perfect version of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ Looking back, there’s a whiff of obligation about the neat rendition. While it’s quite incredible to see how easily Nirvana conjured up Bitch Vig’s studio wizardry, it’s also clear that Nirvana were already beginning to resent the 1991 hit. Sure, the track allowed them to bridge the gap between the underground and the mainstream charts, but it also – in Cobain’s eyes at least – symbolised a betrayal of the fanbase that had supported them from the get-go.

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Excellently played, but also mechanic and soulless, Nirvana’s rendition of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ served as something of an omen, foreshadowing Cobain’s eventual disdain for the track that made Nirvana famous, a disdain that saw him refuse to play it during live concerts. “Everyone has focused on that song so much,” Cobain said in a 1994 interview with Rolling Stone. “The reason it gets a big reaction is people have seen it on MTV a million times. It’s been pounded into their brains. But 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.’ That’s definitely as good as ‘Teen Spirit’. I love the lyrics, and I never get tired of playing it. Maybe if it was as big as ‘Teen Spirit’, I wouldn’t like it as much.”

At the time Nirvana recorded their 1992 SNL set, Cobain was in the throes of heroin addiction, along with his partner Courtney Love, who was then pregnant with their daughter Frances Bean. Just the day before they were due to appear on the show, Kurt had turned up to a photo session with Michael Lavin with a dose of heroin coursing through his veins. Then, at the SNL after-party the following evening, Cobain overdosed. The only way Courtney Love was able to revive him, Charles R. Cross writes, was with an illegal dose of medicine.

Nirvana’s second track, ‘Territorial Pissings’ was an unrestrained swirl of feedback, slapstick stage antics, and furious strumming. For those sitting at home, seeing Nirvana speed through the track at 200mph must have felt like jumping from the top floor of an apartment complex. It sounded the death knell of late ’80s pop apathy while reminding the world that the best rock music was motivated by a desire for catharsis. Once again, virtuosos became the subject of ridicule. As the track began to crumble beneath the weight of its own glorious fuzz, Nirvana went about destroying their instruments; smashing their guitars into their amps and dumping drums from the lip of the stage’s upper tier. The next time Nirvana appeared on SNL in 1993, the tech crew made sure not to let lightning strike twice and fitted the stage with the cheapest amps they could find.

In a way, Nirvana’s act of destruction was one of the last of its kind. From the mid-1990s onwards, such obvious affronts to the placidity of TV entertainment became less and less common. Whether it’s because this kind of deviance has come to feel a little cliched or because bands don’t want to take the risk of upsetting the viewing public, it’s hard to think of many group’s willing to trash the stage to the extent that Nirvana did in 1992.

So many years later, Nirvana’s whole attitude to that performance is one of the best examples of why they were the perfect band at the perfect time: they didn’t just shatter the mediocrity of popular culture, they also used shows like SNL to attack the conservative attitudes of middle America, as demonstrated with the kiss shared between Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and Dave Grohl. This kiss, they later said, was designed to “piss off the rednecks and homophobes”. And yet, the band’s legendary two-song set also seems to hint towards their fateful end; predicting how Nirvana would eventually be crushed by the reality of the success they had spent so long working towards.

See the performance, below.