As hard as it is to overstate the significance of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and their Nevermind album, it’s equally difficult to address the impact these releases had on music and culture, without rehashing what has been written before—and I ain’t gonna try! Instead, I’m offering a kind of mini history of “Teen Spirit” in a live setting, including video of two historic performances and one that came during Nirvana’s ascent, which I happened to be present for, with just a smidge of cultural commentary.
On April 17th, 1991, shortly before Nirvana entered the studio to record what would become Nevermind, they headlined a benefit concert. Organized by Kurt Cobain, the gig was held at the OK Hotel in Seattle. It was during this show, that Nirvana debuted “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Even in its formative stage, it’s obviously a powerful song. Just watch, as the audience collectively goes crazy, even though few—if any—had ever heard it before. The multi-camera clip embedded below was included on With the Lights Out. For a version with less distorted audio, though it’s from a single camera angle, is missing Kurt’s verbal intro, and lacks any crowd shots, click here.
Nirvana’s rise really begins on August 27th, 1991, when “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was released to radio. On September 10th, the single went on sale, with Nevermind coming out two weeks later. I was in the audience for Nirvana’s Detroit stop on the Nevermind outing, which took place on October 11th, 1991 at St. Andrew’s Hall. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was the song of the moment. As was often the case during this tour, the tune was played early on that night (it was song #6). Though it can’t be detected on the recording of the gig, as Kurt played the opening riff, a collective gasp filled the room.
A few days later, MTV started playing the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video more frequently (it had aired only sporadically since premiering on 120 Minutes); the album was nearly Gold by then. The single and the full-length just kept increasing in popularity, until Nevermind topped the Billboard chart on January 11th, 1992, with “Teen Spirit” peaking at #6 that same week. Also on the 11th, Nirvana performed the song on Saturday Night Live.
Around this time, Kurt reportedly soured on “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The band was still doing the song on the 1993-94 In Utero tour, but not every night. In a Rolling Stone piece published in January 1994, Kurt is interviewed after a disastrous Chicago show that went down the previous October. When asked about “Teen Spirit,” which wasn’t played that evening, he says that the huge amount of attention put on the number is “embarrassing,” but he still likes performing it live. Then, a moment later, he declares:
But I can barely, especially on a bad night like tonight, 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.
In February 1994, Nirvana was in the midst of a European tour, which included a handful of Italian dates, concluding with shows on the 24th and 25th at an indoor arena in Milan (there would be just two more Nirvana performances). During the gig on the 25th, they played “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for the final time. It’s also the last known Nirvana concert to have been captured on videotape in full. It’s cool to see the entire band—including Kurt—appearing to be enjoying themselves in the moment.
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
Audio surfaces from a Nirvana acoustic gig that took place in a bar during the ‘Nevermind’ tour
Watch Nirvana sabotage Buenos Aires stadium show, opening with (still) unreleased song, 1992