When Nirvana truly burst onto the scene in September 1991 with ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit‘, the world would never be the same again. Their smash-hit single would go on to be the definitive song of the ’90s and have a critical hand in cementing the Seattle trio’s place as pop culture icons ad infinitum.
The song unleashed a wave of alternative rock acts that would also do their bit to define the ’90s as the decade where alternative culture was in its supremacy and where guitar bands ruled, markedly different to today’s musical landscape. ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was such a resounding success that retrospectively, even Oasis’ Noel Gallagher has claimed to have been somewhat of a Nirvana fan.
The lead single and opening track off the band’s iconic second album, Nevermind, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, was akin to the moment in music that blew the “bloody doors off”. It galvanised a whole generation, and for a time, made Seattle, Washington, the centre of the musical universe.
These days it is regarded as the exact moment grunge broke into the mainstream, and its overnight success helped to expose the band and their hometown peers to wider audiences, culminating in an almost mythic status.
Like anything that’s good and organic, as the decade wore on, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and Nirvana helped to spawn many terrible and thankfully forgotten bands who offered a hollow imitation of the ‘Seattle Sound’. A side effect of the tsunami that the song signalled was the monstrosity of post-grunge. Without it, the world would have been saved from perennial cringe-lords such as Nickleback, Bush and Creed.
One of the main reasons for the song’s widespread acclaim was that it found a home in the hearts and minds of ‘Generation X’. It became their number one anthem. Who are ‘Generation X’, you may ask? They were the precursors to Gen Y and the Millenials. At the time, they were the heavily politicised demographic of young adults, whose socio-economic situation was often related to ‘Reaganomics’. This generational motley crew, dubbed the “MTV generation”, were characterised as cynical and disaffected, a stark contrast to their baby boomer parents. Showing the gulf in ideals between parents and kids, one news outlet went as far as to call the song an “anthem for apathetic kids”.
Of the track’s game-changing dynamics and composition, in 1994, frontman Kurt Cobain said: “I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it. When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily that I should have been in that band—or at least a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.”
It took Pixies’ blueprint, repackaged it and set it into the mainstream. This sonic mode is still ubiquitous among guitar bands today. This speaks volumes of the legacy of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’.
It became an uncomfortable point of contention for the band and certainly added to Cobain’s disillusion with fame, earning the band a broader fan base which they were ideologically opposed to. However, 30 years on, its legacy cannot be stated enough. Rightfully, it remains a staple of the airwaves worldwide.
As soon as Cobain’s classic clean guitar hits your ears at the introduction, you know what anthemic treat is on the way. Although on the surface it is an angry manifestation of Gen X’s woes, it is a brilliantly written, catchy tune that appeals to every walk of life.
It is in this train of thought that we get our story today. Having such a significant crossover appeal has led to an innumerable amount of cover versions. Whilst the majority have been terrible, there have also been some good ones. Join us then, as we list in no particular order, the five best covers of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’.
The five best covers of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’:
Where else to start than with Seattle peers and Nirvana’s good friends, Melvins? Taken from their 2000 album The Crybaby, musically, it is pretty close to the original.
Featuring a quicker pace, a heavy bass tone, chorus drenched guitars and guest vocals from Leif Garrett, this is one of the best covers of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ out there. Buzz Osborne’s guitar solo is a carbon copy of the original, is expertly executed and does its bit in holding this effort up as a success.
Taken from industrial group Xorcist’s 1993 album, Bitches, this is one of the most out-there takes on the original. Unhinged from the get-go, it’s an oppressive, sinister-sounding redux.
Featuring a weird, modulated vocal, analogue synths and heavy drums, this could quite easily have been on the Matrix soundtrack or would save from the vocals, fit in any dark Berlin club. It contains flashes of Camden’s Cyberdog. Either way, it is an imaginative take that makes you want to move.
Taken from Patti Smith‘s 2007 covers album Twelve, this is the most refined cover of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ in existence. Featuring a banjo, acoustic guitar and moody strings, it has an enchanting country feel but also has a psychedelic element central to it. Smith’s version could quite easily have fit on Kaleidoscope era Siouxsie and the Banshees or the Cure’s dark late ’80s period.
Smith also jumps into some of her classic spoken word poetry at the end, taking the song on a completely different path to the original. It builds up to a glorious crescendo, that plays on the darkness Cobain first teased in the lyrics back in 1991.
Who’d have thought that in 2005, when this entry was released, that Canadian crooner, and heartthrob to grandma’s worldwide, Paul Anka, would be the one to deliver us a genius rendition of the original. Taken from his cover album, Rock Swings, this is a glorious big band take.
Featuring a rocking brass section, a walking double bass line, and a plinky, off-beat jazz piano, Anka’s version transports you from 1991 Seattle to a smoky jazz club in 1940’s New York. You can imagine Sinatra and Co. bopping their heads along in acceptance.
Included in the deluxe edition of American singer-songwriter Tori Amos’ debut album, Little Earthquakes, this is one of the more depressing takes on the original. Featuring her haunting falsetto, and ice-cold piano line, in terms of composition, it is an atmospheric redress.
Amos takes the anthemic core of the original and flips it on its head. Instead of being about Generation X’s plight or any of the other themes that are commonly acknowledged, she places emphasis on the line “a denial”, and sounds like a lover scorned. Have the tissues ready.