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The Making of Nirvana’s “Smells of Youthful Spirit”

Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” has been scientifically described by researchers at the University of London as the “most iconic song of all time” and made its live debut on April 17, 1991 at the OK Hotel in Seattle. Less than five months later, on September 10th, it was released as a single.

Kurt Cobain, the band’s front man, was usually not very talkative when performing; He mainly left the funny joke between the songs to the bassist Krist Novoselic and the drummer Dave Grohl. That night, however, Cobain couldn’t help himself. The band were currently considering important label offers and were ultimately two weeks away from signing DGC, a Geffen record imprint. A shot at fame was imminent. “Hello. We̵

7;re big rock sell-outs by label companies,” the man, who would soon be a rock star, told the exuberant crowd.


Half a year earlier, Cobain was hidden in the woods of Olympia, Washington. Cobain and Kathleen Hanna, singer / songwriters for influential riot grrl feminist punk band Bikini Kill, shared a bottle of Canadian club whiskey and one goal that evening in October 1990: defacing a new teen pregnancy center that Hanna called “a On the right, they got teenage girls going in there and then told them they would go to Hell if they had abortions. “After some clarification, Cobain was the lookout while Hanna made her way to the building and “Fake Abortion Clinic, Everyone” graffiti. When it was Cobain’s turn he sprayed “God is Gay” in six foot red letters.

The two spent the rest of the evening celebrating their victory, ending up at Cobain’s, where Hanna “smashed some shit”, then got out a Sharpie and wrote “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on Cobain’s bedroom wall before she stopped by. Cobain loved the line so much that he decided to make it the title of one of his next songs.

“I took that as a compliment,” Cobain later said to Michael Azerrad in the authorized band biography come as you Are. “I thought this was a reaction to the conversation we had, but it really meant I smelled like deodorant. I didn’t know the deodorant spray existed until months after the single came out. I’ve never had cologne or Cologne worn armpit deodorant. “Bikini Kill drummer Tobi Vail knew what Teen Spirit was because she wore it. Vail was Cobain’s girlfriend at the time.

Long before Cobain actually got Hanna’s joke, he and Vail had split up. The relationship ended in early 1991 while Cobain’s band was writing new material that wouldn’t just appear on Never mind but also further In the uterus, Nirvana’s third (and final) studio album, which was only released in September 1993.

Grohl, a newcomer to the band, was living in Olympia with Cobain when he first moved to Washington. The two drove to Novoselics Forest Neck in Tacoma and practiced every evening. At least half of what would be Never mind– including “In Bloom”, “Breed”, “Lithium”, “Polly”, “Stay Away” (then “Pay to Play”) and “Something in the Way” – were performed late at an industry showcase gig November 1990. The other songs, including “Smells Teen Spirit”, took shape during these practice sessions.

Grohl described the band’s converted barn practice room as “strange” with its brown shaggy carpet, stage lights and a massive PA that nobody could use. There Cobain played the riff “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for Novoselic and Grohl for the first time. Cobain recounted in early 1994 roll stone When Cobain first played the now legendary guitar part, Krist looked at me and said, ‘This is so ridiculous.’ I let the band play for an hour and a half. “

According to Novoselic, he helped make it more of a real song. “We just played the chorus:” If the lights are out and it’s dangerous, here we are, “over and over again,” recalled Novoselic. “I said, ‘Wait a minute. Why don’t we slow this down a bit?’ So I started playing the verse part. And Dave started playing a drum beat. “

The pixies problem

There was only one problem: the song sounded a lot like something the Pixies – a band Cobain adored – could produce. “I really remember thinking, ‘This is such a pixies rip,'” Grohl said in a 2011 BBC documentary about the making of Never mind. “It was almost thrown away at one point because it looked too much like the pixies.”

“I was trying to write the ultimate pop song,” Cobain admitted. “I was basically trying to rip the Pixies off. I have to admit it. When I first heard the Pixies, I became so attached to this band that I should have been in the this band – or at least in a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamism, soft and quiet and then loud and hard. “

Essentially since the band’s formation, they had heard a “solid diet” of the Pixies – as well as Mudhoney, Tad, Coffin Break, and The Sugarcubes – on their long road trips. Nirvana’s debut album, 1989 bleachingI didn’t use the soft-leise-verse / loud-hard-chorus dynamic, but the 1990 single “Sliver”.

While on a European tour promoting “Sliver”, Cobain met with Ken Goes, the Pixies’ manager, on the pretext that Goes may be managing Nirvana. Instead, Cobain spent most of the meeting asking questions about the Pixies. Goes described Cobain as more than a fan of the Pixies; He was a “student”. When Charles Thompson, also known as Black Francis of the Pixies, suddenly walked into the hotel, Cobain declined Goes’ offer to introduce him and ended the meeting entirely. Apparently, Cobain didn’t feel worthy of meeting indie rock kings like that.

Months after “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was recorded, Cobain still seemed concerned that it sounded too much like a Pixies rip-off. When Nirvana soundman Craig Montgomery drove the group to Los Angeles to shoot the music video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Cobain played him the song and asked, “Do you think it sounds too much like the Pixies?”

A trace of inspiration

Cobain also took inspiration, probably inadvertently, for the main riff from Boston’s “More Than a Feeling”. “I take it as a big compliment,” said Boston songwriter Tom Scholz, “even if it was completely coincidental.” Nirvana made the similarity clear during her performance at the 1992 Reading Festival. Cobain also wrote in his diary, probably half-jokingly, that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Godzilla” by Blue Oyster Cult were also similar.

But the song was too good to be thrown away. It was on the set list for Nirvana’s headlining appearance at the OK Hotel on Wednesday, April 17, 1991. It was a fundraiser for Fitz of Depression singer Mike Dees trying to avoid incarceration due to massive traffic fines. At least that’s how the legend goes. Dees himself claimed it wasn’t a charity performance, but said Cobain provided $ 250 of Nirvana’s revenue from the show to pay for a tour van for Fitz of Depression and to help Dees pay out some traffic tickets. The rest of Nirvana’s earnings went to gasoline money so the band could go to Los Angeles and begin recording Never mind.

The Seattle music scene was split that evening: Alice in Chains was nearby, in a warehouse on a pier disguised as a music club, performing for Cameron Crowe’s film singles (1992). Even so, the OK Hotel was full – and the crowd wanted to witness the history of music.

If you watch the above performance, you’ll find that the song’s memorable lyrics, especially the verses, are far from finished. “Here we are, have a chat” was already established – Cobain claimed it was something he said as an icebreaker when he showed up to a party.

A Gen X anthem is born

As for the other lyrics, Cobain took his time and showed them to Novoselic and asked what he thought. “I checked them out and said, ‘I think they’re pretty cool,'” recalled Novoselic. “But then he seemed disappointed that I wasn’t just raving about them. But the thing was, I just couldn’t get them the first time I read them. And then I started hearing them in song format, and then I had an idea of ​​what he was talking about. He talked about children, advertising, Generation X, the youth car, and how he’s really disappointed and how he doesn’t want to have anything to do with it. “

Novoselic wasn’t alone in his rendition of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. The song has been described as the “Anthem for Generation X” so many times that it can be an alternate title, but ultimately it’s a song about Cobain and a moment in time.

For his 2001 Cobain biography Heavier than the skyCharles R. Cross gained unprecedented access to Cobain’s private journals. In the book he writes:

“Though Kurt never specifically addressed it, his most famous song, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ couldn’t be ‘she’s bored and confident’ about the lyrics to anyone else. ‘Teen Spirit’ was a song that was influenced by many things – his anger at his parents, his boredom, his eternal cynicism – but several individual lines resonate with Tobi [Vail]Presence. He wrote the song shortly after they split up, and the first draft contained a line from the final version: “Who will be the king and queen of the teenage outcasts?” The answer at one point in time had been Kurt Cobain and Tobi Vail. “

Cobain did not ask who the king and queen of the teenage outcasts were, nor did he sing that evening in front of the OK Hotel audience, which consisted of approximately 500 fans, about a woman who was bored or self-conscious of the two bands who played for Nirvana were opened. One of those bands, of course, was Dees’ Fitz of Depression. The other was a band with a drummer who wore Teen Spirit. Had her ex-boyfriend’s lyrics about heartbreak been less crooked, her deodorant might have been more likely to have gotten a test.

This story has been updated for 2020.

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