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.
Nirvana’s Last Concert: Audio/ Video Recorded on March 1, 1994
Kurt Cobain’s Home Demos: Early Versions of Nirvana Hits, and Never-Released Songs
Nirvana Plays in a Radio Shack, the Day After Recording its First Demo Tape (1988)
The 120 Minutes Archive Compiles Clips & Playlists from 956 Episodes of MTV’s Alternative Music Show (1986-2013)
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.
i saw Nirvana in LA probably not too long after they broke they were opening for Lenny Kravits and Red Hot Chili Peppers at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena but didn’t really have the right equipment to play that big of a venue. I couldn’t find my concert listed on the venue list…
list of concerts…
Reminds me of a club in the UK, where I spent a speed fueled misspent youth in the late 70s watching Joy Division, The Damned, and just about everyone else. Made me cry watching this. Going to score.. Nothing changes..
I was at this show. Nirvana were always a big underground band, so they were already popular and we were fans. But no one at this show really knew they would become huge and the place wasn’t even close to full. In fact we all thought they weren’t as good as the band that opened called Hed. The loud soft thing got old after about 20 minutes.
Also, I personally know about 8 women all within the camera view, so not all male at all.
NB: The place is so small the camera operator has his back against the back wall of the performance space.