It’s hard to imagine a time when Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” didn’t belong to all of us. One day it didn’t exist. And then one day it did, and for so many of us who heard that churning opening chord, that was it. Maybe it took one listen, or five, but it was clear this song was going to mean something. And as the autumn of 1991 wore on, it would take on the weight of many things—expectations of a new generation, a new decade, the end of hair metal, the beginning of grunge, the return of rock, or just as correctly, rock’s last gasp.
The song was released to radio stations in August, issued as a single on September 10, 1991, and then officially released on September 24, 1991. But “Smells Like Teen Spirit” really broke a month later, when MTV premiered it on 120 Minutes. Then the band watched as it became a daytime MTV hit, then a hit on every rock radio playlist, from “modern rock” to “college rock” and all the marketing divisions in between.
The above video shows the band playing the song before any of this happened, just two days after the release of Nevermind. As Jason Kottke said on his site when he posted this, “There's a freight train bearing down on those boys and they don't even know it.”
The performance comes from a gig at The Moon in New Haven, Connecticut (see it all above), the band playing on a small stage, with such a low ceiling that bassist Krist Novoselic looks like he’s going to bang his head on the ceiling. The audience is one huge mosh pit, all male, it seems, and you can smell the sweat and stale beer through the screen. Did the crowd know they were seeing a band on the cusp? Is it too much to read into that yelp from the audience, during the second quiet passage, that they’re witnessing a finely constructed hit, the kind of loud-soft dynamic that would be copied and echoed through the nineties.
By April of the following year the song would be so popular Weird Al Yankovic would have made his parody version (one of his best). And soon Kurt Cobain would be swallowed by fame, seeing only a few ways out of his predicament. But here they are for a brief moment in time, perhaps thinking that there would be more clubs like The Moon, just a bit bigger, maybe just a bit smaller, on the horizon.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.