‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ catapulted frontman Kurt Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl into the mainstream and marked a seismic shift in the popularity of alternative rock. But did you know these facts about the video itself?
Amy Finnerty, a rookie MTV staffer who’d only recently joined the music programming department, campaigned for the channel to premiere the video. “That was unprecedented,” she has said. “MTV, as far as I know, had never world-premiered a video for a band they had no history with.” You’ll probably agree that the gamble paid off.
Two days before the shoot, the band handed out flyers asking fans to appear in the video, while the LA radio station KXLU also made an on-air casting call-out for extras. The band’s flyer read: “Nirvana needs YOU… You should be 18 to 25 years old and adopt a high-school persona, ie preppy, punk, nerd, jock.”
That flyer specifically stated that fans/extras should “be prepared to stay for several hours” but not everyone had taken note. Director Samuel Bayer has revealed that many only wanted to hang around for about 30 minutes and were frustrated to still be on set “12 hours” later.
At the end of the shoot, Kurt Cobain suggested letting the kids smash up the set. Bayer agreed and carnage ensued. It wasn’t planned but that made the video a must-see, as the director has explained: “I looked through the eye-piece and I go, ‘That’s it! Lightbulb! That’s amazing… Those kids are not from central casting. The destruction and rebellion at the end of that video – it’s real.”
Like some of the extras, Cobain didn’t want to be there either. However Bayer reckons this frustration made the singer’s performance even stronger. After running through the song for a third time and being asked to do so yet again, he let rip and screamed the song into the camera. “He was really pissed off about being there,” Bayer said. “But what a great performance.”
Bayer hadn’t heard of Nirvana at the time but was “starving” and needed work. So he jumped at the chance when an employee at Nirvana’s record label, Geffen, offered him ‘…Teen Spirit’, which she estimated “might sell a few hundred thousand” copies. It’s now shifted over two million (according to figures compiled in February this year).
Cobain didn’t like the set. He had drawn sketches of his desired setting and given them to Bayer, but when he arrived it didn’t look the way he wanted. “You know those kind of commercials where people are sitting there trying to sell aspirin or something?” he said to MTV in 1993. “That’s what it looked like to me; it looked too contemporary.”
Kurt also didn’t like the director’s cut, so he personally oversaw the re-edit, which resulted in the final version we now know. He added in the final close-up shots of him looking like a demented scarecrow and a comparison of the finished version with this early edit shows that a disgruntled principal-type character got the chop.
As well as the Ramones’ feature-length film RockN’Roll High School (produced in 1979 by B-movie maestro Roger Corman), the video was inspired by Over The Edge, also from 1979. Starring a young Matt Dillon, with the tagline “A real story of teenage rebellion”, the film depicts teenage angst in a high school that students eventually smash up.
In 2002, Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl told Kerrang!: “People heard the song on the radio and thought, ‘This is great’, but then the kids saw the video on MTV and thought, ‘This is cool, these guys are kinda ugly and they’re tearing up a fucking high school.’ I think that has a lot to do with its success.”