When Nirvana made their explosive SNL debut with ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and a kiss
We’re digging into the Far Out Magazine vault to bring you one of the most golden moments of Nirvana’s television history as the trio of Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl exploded across America’s TVs with their Saturday Night Live debut. A marked occasion for any band, Nirvana would make sure theirs was extra special with a rendition of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and a sneaky kiss that would send the producers wild.
At the time of recording on January 11th, 1992, Nirvana started to rise up the charts with an alarming rate. Taking on the big boys was one thing but, considering their heavily-underground Seattle rock beginnings Nirvana were a brand new entity. Clipping the wings of Michael Jackson’s recent release, Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was finding its feet as the anthem for Generation X. Inviting the grunge act on to SNL was a no-brainer for the show’s producers. Still, it would cause them some headaches eventually.
There are few shows around that have such an illustrious history with music, and perhaps most notably, with rock music, than Saturday Night Live. The show made a name for itself by being the punk rock TV show for the masses and it gathered incredible artists because of it — the kind of artists who were turned down straight off the bat by other networks. In the early-90s, that draw and mystique had begun to die off until a relatively small band called Nirvana got their opportunity to shine on a national stage.
His hair a luminous pink after being allegedly dyed with strawberry flavoured Kool-Aid, Kurt Cobain fronts the band with Novoselic and Grohl raring behind him with an unhinged fury. The performance saw Nirvana rip through their seminal track ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and capture the hearts and minds of swathes of a disenfranchised generation watching at home. Performing with a ferocity and power that would only accelerate their growing mystique, Nirvana’s performance of the seminal song wouldn’t be the only talking point of the night and was largely overshadowed by one event.
The band would take to the stage for the second time at Studio 8H, as is customary with the late-night weekend show, and delivered a rousing rendition of their Nevermind track ‘Territorial Pissings’. It was a performance that ended with the grunge band’s destruction of their guitars, drums and any surrounding equipment, as was becoming customary with Nirvana. It was a show of real rock and roll rebellion that had been once such a contributing factor to SNL’s success but now was beginning to die off.
Though the production crew were smart enough to switch out the amplifiers from the first performance for cheaper models to avoid too much cash loss in the stunt, the image of Cobain puncturing the equipment with his guitar is one that burned across America that night, leaving it permanently changed forever.
It clearly sparked a fire within the millions of disaffected youths sitting at home and, that same week, Nevermind somehow managed to usurp the King of Pop at the top of the album charts, moving Michael Jackson’s Dangerous to the number two spot and cementing Cobain and co. as worldwide stars.
If that wasn’t enough to portray Nirvana as the rock saviours they were (beyond the guff and pomp of hair metal, without the bronzed cheekbones of glam, but buoyed by intensity and authenticity of punk rock) they would leave the show with one final statement and a political one at that.
As the curtain came down on the evening’s proceedings, Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl decided they would all kiss each other to “piss off the rednecks and homophobes,” during the show’s finale. It was only until nearly a decade later, following Charles Cross’ 2001 Kurt Cobain biography Heavier Than Heaven, that the saddening story that followed the famed show would come out.
In the book, Cross says that Cobain skipped the infamous SNL after-show party and went to his NYC hotel where he overdosed on heroin. His girlfriend Courtney Love found him the next morning in terrible shape. She remembers that she “threw cold water on her fiancé and punched him in the solar plexus so as to make his lungs begin to move air,” she managed to revive Cobain after repeating the process. It was a sobering moment for the entire group.
It concluded an evening of unstoppable highs and unfathomable lows for Cobain and would light the fuse to the Nirvana nuclear bomb, exploding across the airwaves and cementing their legend.
Watch below Nirvana’s incredible debut on Saturday Night Live as they perform ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ in 1992.