Former BBC Radio 1 producer and presenter Claire Sturgess has spoken about how she managed to persuade the BBC station to play Nirvana‘s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ for the first time.
The Absolute Radio presenter was speaking at a Q&A in front of an audience at an event celebrating the 30th anniversary of ‘Nevermind’ and the forthcoming reissue of the iconic album in London last night (November 1).
“I shared a flat with a guy who worked in the warehouse at [record label] Beggars Banquet,” she told BBC Radio 6 Music’s Matt Everitt. “He came home one day with this 12 inch white label and said, ‘You have to listen to this’. We put it on and within about 15 seconds of that opening I was thinking, ‘What on earth is this?'”
She continued: “I was working at Radio 1, at that time, I was a radio production assistant on the Simon Bates mid-morning show. The plugger for David Geffen’s company came in and said, ‘I’d like to give you something’ and I said, ‘I know about this [already]’. I took it down to Simon Bates and said, ‘We have to play this on the radio’. So he trusted me and and stuck it on the radio. He played ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and then Steve Wright played it in the afternoon. On the strength of that I was given a gold disc.”
The single, which was released to radio on August 27, 1991 and came out shortly after on September 10, was responsible for propelling the grunge legends’ second album ‘Nevermind’ to the top of the US billboard charts in January 1992 – famously knocking off Michael Jackson‘s album ‘Dangerous’.
“Nobody could have conceived of how big they actually became and also how quickly it happened because it was such a centrifugal force that whipped them,” said MOJO and former NME writer Keith Cameron, who was working at the now defunct Sounds magazine at the time.
“The guy [Kurt Cobain] didn’t have a house three months before ‘Nevermind’ came out. He was sleeping in a car and six months later his band knocked Michael Jackson off the top of the US billboard chart. When that sort of success happens to you at that speed you’re really gonna start scrambling to maintain any sense of control.”
Cameron went on: “One of the ways Kurt tried to own it was to use it as a platform for his political beliefs. So he became even more outspoken in terms of feminism, anti-homophobia. Ultimately it didn’t work for him but that was one of the ways he sought to try and make sense of all the stuff that was happening around him.”
Despite Cobain’s angry and chaotic performances onstage, Cameron said he was the complete opposite offstage.
“He was completely different from the person you saw onstage – this kind of brooding, angry, wound up guy. Offstage he was just like happy, smiling. Everything was sunshine in his world,” he explained.
He added: “From August to December 1991 they were absolutely having a ball. There was a famous BBC interview at the time where they were talking about snooker. They were just high on the fun of being a band on tour, doing silly things. ‘We love coming to Britain because we can watch the snooker,’ [they said].”
Phil Alexander, Global Creative Director at Kerrang, shared a similar view.
“I saw them at the Octagon Centre in Sheffield in November 1991 and they still weren’t affected by the success,” he explained. “My overriding memory of them was and still is the joy.
“I remember [bassist] Krist [Novoselic] grabbing a bottle of red wine and going, ‘Come on we’re gonna watch Shonen Knife’. And we walked into the middle of the audience clutching a bottle of red wine each and fucking watching Shonen Knife because it was possible back then, it was doable. That moment of joy, that period of joy, they were just untouchable at that point.”
Following that early period though, fame and success started to take its toll on the band within less than a year.
“I commissioned a tour diary for Krist when things were kicking off in ’92 in South America and he said, ‘We played with all the passion of a wet fish’,” said Alexander. “It really summed up where they felt they were. There was a period when the joy was palpable and then there was that period where it stopped.”
Cameron added: “I saw them in mid-92 and they were becoming estranged from each other and by that I mean Chris and Dave [Grohl] were becoming estranged from Kurt and Courtney [Love]. That was a bit painful to witness because it was relatively short space of time since they’d been this happy go lucky gang. It was painful subsequently to see that things didn’t necessarily get better for them.”
Last night’s event also saw clips from the band’s live show at the Club Paradiso in Amsterdam in November 1991 being played out. This included performances of ‘Polly’, ‘Breed’, ‘Territorial Pissings’ and a clip of Cobain deliberately singing ‘Come As You’ out of tune.
The live show will appear on the forthcoming super deluxe boxset of ‘Nevermind’, which also features over 70 previously unreleased audio and video tracks from that period. It will be released on November 12.