Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’: 10 things you never knew about the iconic music video

The band's take on teenage rebellion catapulted grunge straight into the mainstream

An earlier version of this piece was published in August 2015

Today marks the 30th anniversary of Nirvana‘s ‘Nevermind’ – a snarling slab of grunge that flung the band into superstardom. The album went on to influence all manner of artists into the present day – from St. Vincent and Lorde, to Yungblud and Sam Fender – and one track in particular became the unofficial anthem for disenfranchised kids everywhere in the early ’90s.

“Of course, no-one had any psychic foresight to imagine that the song would go on to do what it did,” Nirvana’s drummer and Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl told NME this year. “We just fuckin’ rocked it in a little rehearsal space that was like a barn. I didn’t know what the lyrics were; Kurt’s melody pattern changed every other time we played it and it wasn’t really until we got into the studio to record it that I realised the power of the song. And not just lyrically or musically, but the groove of the song – it was really powerful. I think everyone was more focused on songs like ‘In Bloom’ or ‘Lithium’ or ‘Breed’; nobody really paid too much attention to ‘Teen Spirit’ while we were recording it. We just thought it was another cool song for the record.”

The song’s music video, meanwhile, is commonly regarded as one of the greatest of all time, and sees Nirvana playing an initially head-nodding school concert that soon descends into chaos and anarchy. After it premiered on MTV’s Sunday night show ‘120 Minutes’ ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ quickly catapulted alternative rock straight into the mainstream.

As ‘Nevermind’ celebrates a gigantic milestone, here’s ten things you probably didn’t know about ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’s iconic visual.

1
MTV took a chance on Nirvana

Amy Finnerty, at the time a rookie who’d recently joined the music programming department of MTV, 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.

2
The video’s high school punks are real fans

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 announcement 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.”

3
The shoot was pretty tense

That flyer specifically stated that fans/extras should “be prepared to stay for several hours” but some must not have got the memo. In this fascinating making-of documentary, director Samuel Bayer reveals that many only wanted to stay for about 30 minutes and were frustrated to still be on set “12 hours” later.

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4
And so the chaos wasn’t staged 

At the end of the shoot, Cobain suggested letting the kids smash up the set. Bayer agreed and carnage ensued. It wasn’t planned but the made the video a must-see, as Bayer explains in the documentary: “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.”

5
Even Kurt didn’t want to be there

At least not as long as he was, though Bayer reckons this frustration made Cobain’s performance even stronger. After he performed the song for a third time and was asked to do so yet again, he really let rip and screamed the song into the camera. “He was really pissed off about being there,” said Bayer. “But what a great performance.”

6
Bayer hadn’t actually heard of Nirvana

He has since said he was “starving” and needed work, so jumped at the chance when  an employee at Geffen [Nirvana’s record label] offered him ‘Teen Spirit’, which she estimated “might sell a few hundred thousand” copies. In the event, it’s now shifted more than two million (according to figures compiled in February this year) and ushered alternative rock into the mainstream.

7
Cobain didn’t like the set

He had drawn sketches of his desired set 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.”

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8
He didn’t like the director’s cut, either

And 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 compare-and-contrast with the finished version and this early edit shows that a disgruntled principal-type character got the chop.

9
It references The Ramones and more

As well as The Ramones’ feature-length film Rock ‘n’ 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.

10
Dave Grohl says the video helped the song become a hit

In 2002 the Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters frontman 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 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.”

Words: Jordan Bassett and El Hunt

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