Earlier this year, Nirvana's 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' topped our list of the 500 greatest songs of all time. Here's NME's Al Horner on the track's legacy and the enduring mystery of Kurt Cobain - a man who wrote the defining teenage anthem but whose own teenage years few know the dark story of...
‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ defined a generation and made an icon out of one Seattle slacker, Kurt Cobain. But things could have ended in a very different kind of infamy for the Nirvana frontman, whose own teenage years were marred by intense fantasies of violence. "I was so withdrawn, so antisocial that I was almost insane. I always felt they [my classmates] would vote me most likely to kill everyone at a high school dance,” he told writer Jon Savage in 1993. “I fantasised about it, but I would always opted to killing myself first." Growing up in sleepy Washington suburb Aberdeen, performing Beatles songs solo at the town’s taverns and whorehouses as refuge from the unrelenting rain, Cobain’s teenage years saw him develop an emptiness he’d never shake, one that would shape the savage sonic nihilism of his sharpest, most volatile moment of songwriting – four minutes and thirty eight seconds of razorblade vocals, thundering drums, mangled grunge guitars and lyrics that puzzled like a Rubix’s cube. Now, 22 years on, no other song electrifies quite like it.
Its release in September 1991 sparked a revolution. After all the ugly optimism of President Ronald Reagan’s 1980s America, with the era’s booming free markets and “greed is good” mantra, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ gave a voice to a new class of young people overcome by apathy. Generation X, the newspapers called them, as if apathy was something new. The truth was, that feeling had simply never been given a voice, never made socially acceptable, never been made tangible. Nirvana, with this snarling anthem, their messy misfit thrift store clothes and smirking sense of abandon, wisecracking through interviews and shrugging off the media outlets fawning over them, made it real. If the murky brown colours of the ‘Teen Spirit’ music video, set in a high school auditorium complete with slow motion ironic cheerleaders, reminds you of the filthy brine at the bottom of a blocked drain, that’s because that’s how Cobain saw himself and his generation.
One of the last tracks written for ‘Nevermind’, the trio’s second album, ‘Teen Spirit’ began as a taunt scrawled on Cobain’s bedroom wall apartment by Bikini Kill riot grrl Kathleen Hanna in August 1990. The pair had spent an afternoon drinking, leaving his rented apartment to drunkenly picket a right-wing pregnancy centre, on which Kurt sprayed “GOD IS GAY” in six-feet letters. Returning to Cobain’s apartment, they “got a little more drunk, and I threw up on someone’s leg,” recalls Hanna. “I passed out with a marker pen in my hand and I woke up with one of those hangovers where you think if you go into the next room there could be a dead body in there… Six months later, Kurt called me to say, ‘there’s this thing you wrote on my wall and it’s kind of cool. I want to use it as a lyric in one of my songs.’”
Taking a combustive four-chord riff to rehearsal in early 1991, drummer Dave Grohl instantly loved its energy but had “no idea” it would spawn the monstrous hit it did. A pop song wrapped in punk aggression (“Boston’s ’More Than A Feeling’ with the lyrics changed,” as former NME journalist and close friend to Cobain Everett True called it in 2008), it had a simple verse-chorus structure inspired by the Pixies and was the only cut on ‘Nevermind’ on which all three band members received a songwriting credit. And rightly so – what would ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ be without that drum fill that jolts the song into action like a chainsaw revving into life, or Krist Novoselic’s bass slurs, slinking seductively around Kurt’s verse vocals?
The song’s impact was swift and violent, crashing a demolition ball through pop culture. Danny Goldberg of management firm Gold Mountain admitted that no one at Sub Pop or in Nirvana’s management heard it as having the potential to be a mainstream smash – the hope was to “sell roughly half what Sonic Youth sold on their last album, if we’re lucky “ with ‘Come As You Are’ seen in the Sub Pop camp as the best chance of a crossover hit. However, US college radio latched onto the song and crowds of hundreds were soon gathering outside sold-out Nirvana shows without tickets, in the vain hope of crashing the party.
Everywhere it reached, it inspired vicious anarchy. Nirvana gigs became mauling grounds the moment Kurt strummed the track’s first Fender Jaguar jangle. A teenager in a US mall was reportedly seriously injured in a fall from a shopping centre balcony when the track came on the mall Tannoy, sending him into a moshing fit. Even the filming of a music video for the track caused chaos. “We took kids from a Nirvana show to be in the video. The first take sparked a near riot,” remembered director Samuel Bayer in 2008. “I was there with a mega phone screaming ‘STOP! STOP!’ thinking oh my God, we’re going to have get the police. People were going that crazy for the song.”
As the months rolled on, its popularity refused to diminish, with record sales for ‘Nevermind’ continuing to skyrocket on the back of the song, pushing Michael Jackson from the top of the US Billboard chart. In fact, the only person who grew tired of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was Cobain himself. “I can see it’s a good record from a commercial point of view, but it’s too slick for my tastes,” he told a TV crew in 1993. He began refusing to play it live and often toyed with its tempo, purposefully performing it sloppily, just to mess with the audiences he cynically saw as flocking to Nirvana shows just to hear that song while it was flavour of the month. He wouldn’t make that mistake again – writing the next album, he concentrated on sounds too scuzzy for a mainstream audience, because as former NME journalist Keith Cameron saw it, he was selling records to the exact type of person who left him feeling so alienated and alone in his own teenage years: “Kurt didn’t want to sell records to cunts.”
Almost 20 years on from Cobain’s suicide, a single shot gun blast to the head in the green house of his Seattle home ending one of music’s brightest-burning careers, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ continues to entertain us, relevant as it ever was. Everyone from Miley Cyrus to Kelis have covered the track, with Jay Z paying homage to it only last year on his ‘Magna Carter Holy Grail’ album. It’s referenced constantly in film and TV, and is so ingrained in the fabric of modern pop culture you probably know its warped, fuzz-flecked guitar solo better than you know most of your closest friends and family. It encapsulated not just a generation, but a feeling that had never been captured so truly in song before – a malaise for the establishment, a nothingness at an increasingly corporate world. Which is why it remains so powerful, and why, here we are now, still celebrating it today.
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