Watch Nirvana Perform “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Just Days After the Release of Nevermind (1991)

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.

via Kot­tke

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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 and/or watch his films here.

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Comments (3)
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  • adam says:

    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…

  • says:

    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..

  • John Howard says:

    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.

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