Nirvana – On This Day…in 1991


Nirvana released their breakthrough single ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’.

Despite eventually launching ‘Nevermind’ to world-wide success, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was written just a couple of weeks before the band entered the studio in May 1991 to record what would be the follow-up to debut ‘Bleach‘.

Lead singer Kurt Cobain later told Rolling Stone magazine of his intentions when he was writing the song: “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.”

When Cobain first presented the track to his bandmates, bass player Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl, it was met with a lukewarm response. Krist Novoselic is said to have called the original version “ridiculous” and as a result Cobain made the trio play the track continually for an hour and a half. Speaking to Guitar World in 2001, Novoselic explained how his idea to slow the now famous riff down helped to spark the track to life: “‘Wait a minute. Why don’t we just kind of slow this down a bit?’,” I thought. “So I started playing the verse part, and Dave playing a drum beat.”

The track was one of a clutch of new songs Cobain had written since the band’s first sessions for a new album with producer Butch Vig in 1990. The band had sent Vig a rough demo tape not long before they began recording ‘Nevermind‘. The tape contained, amongst others, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ but the poor quality of the audio recording made it almost impossible for Vig to recognise the potential of the song. “I could sort of hear the ‘Hello, hello’ part and the chords,” he recalled later. “But it was so indecipherable that I had no idea what to expect.”

The track was recorded in California’s Sound City studios in May 1991. It was laid down very quickly, and after three takes of the song, along with some arrangement changes from Vig, the band were happy and the song was finished. The second take of the track was the version included on ‘Nevermind’.

Cobain is said to have come up with the title after Riot Grrrl lead singer Kathleen Hanna sprayed ‘Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit’ on a wall when Cobain visited her. She was referring to the deodrant ‘Teen Spirit’ which she thought Cobain was wearing. However, he felt the slogan had a deeper meaning, and said subsequently that he was unaware of the brand until months after the song was released.

‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was chosen to be Nevermind’s lead single. It was the band’s first release on their new label Geffen Records, after debut album ‘Bleach’ had been released to limited success on Sub-Pop Records. It wasn’t long before radio stations began playing the song continuously, and it quickly became apparent that the track was headed for mainstream success, much to the surprise of the band’s management. “None of us heard it as a crossover song, but the public heard it and it was instantaneous,” they said. “They heard it on alternative radio, and then they rushed out like lemmings to buy it.”

Shortly after it’s first airing on MTV’s 120 Minutes programme, the video for the song began to recieve plays during the daytime, which, along with the heavy rotation on radio, helped to push the popularity of the song on still further. With interest in the band growing by the day, ‘Nevermind’ eventually knocked Michael Jackson’s ‘Dangerous’ album off the top spot in the US in January 1992, nearly four months after it’s original release.

The song went on to be recognised as one of the most important tracks in decades, and almost overnight shifted the public’s interest from the excesses of late-80s stadium rock acts such as Guns n Roses, to the more stripped-back approach championed by Nirvana which would soon become known as ‘grunge’. It’s mainstream cross-over status was confirmed when the track was nominated for a Grammy for ‘Best Rock Track’. Eric Clapton’s track ‘Layla‘ would win the award. As well as shifting over a million copies in the US, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ launched Nirvana into worldwide stardom and peaked at number 7 on the UK Singles chart, and remained in the charts there for an incredible 184 weeks.

It wasn’t long before the press had labelled Cobain as the voice of ‘Generation X’, a title coined by Douglas Coupland’s 1991 book. His style of dress began to be copied by many of his contemporaries and the sub-culture of areas such as Nirvana’s hometown Seattle had exploded into mainstream business; it was a position which Kurt Cobain would become increasingly uneasy with during the last few years of his life. The lyrics of the song were widely interpreted as a call to arms for Cobain’s generation, and he revealed in the biography ‘Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana’, that ‘he felt a duty “to describe what I felt about my surroundings and my generation and people my age.”

As is often the case when a new genre enters into the mainstream, the music industry began to look for other ‘grunge’ bands in an attempt to emulate Nirvana’s achievements, and it wasn’t long before already established bands such as Pearl Jam and Sonic Youth were enjoying a boost in interest and sales on the back of the runaway success of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and ‘Nevermind’.

The unexpected success of the song never sat well with the band, and soon after they had begun excluding it from their live sets. In 1993, as Nirvana prepared to release the follow-up to ‘Nevermind’ – ‘In Utero’ – Cobain said: “I still like playing Teen Spirit, but it’s almost an embarrassment to play it, everyone has focused on that song so much,” while Krist Novoselic defiantly remarked: “There are no Teen Spirits on In Utero.”

The track now regularly appears in many publication’s Best Of Lists. In a 2001 ‘Songs Of The Century’ poll, The Recording Industry Of America placed it at number 80, and the NME named it as it’s second best single of all time. VH1 voted it number one in it’s ‘Greatest Songs Of The Past 25 Years’, while a joint MTV/Rolling Stone poll in 2000 placed it at number three in their ‘100 Best Pop Songs’ poll.

‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ Tracklistings (UK):


1. Smells Like Teen Spirit
2. Drain You


1. Smells Like Teen Spirit
2. Drain You
3. Even in His Youth


1. Smells Like Teen Spirit
2. Drain You
3. Even in His Youth
4. Aneurysm

Arguably MTV’s most famous unplugged session ever:

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