The better-safe-than-sorry approach to musicians pretending to play on TV while viewers hear a pre-recorded track seems like the antithesis of rock and roll. Yet since the earliest days of The Ed Sullivan Show, audiences have accepted the convention without complaint. When the fakery unintentionally fails, reactions tend toward mockery, not outrage. Critics rail, the UK’s Musician’s Union has often balked, but bands and fans play along, everyone operating under the presumption that the banal charade is harmless.
Leave it to those spoilsports Nirvana to refuse this pleasant fiction on their Top of the Pops appearance in 1991.
Like American counterparts from American Bandstand to Soul Train, Britain’s Top of the Pops had a long tradition: “For over 40 years,” writes Rolling Stone, “everyone from the Rolling Stones to Madonna to Beyoncé stopped by… to perform their latest single as either a lip-sync or sing along with a prerecorded backing track.” All musicians were expected to mime playing their instruments, a comical sight, for instance, in appearances by The Smiths, in which viewers hear Johnny Marr’s multiple overdubbed guitars but see him playing unaccompanied.
The Smiths approached their Top of the Pops appearances with tongue-in-cheek irreverence. At their 1983 debut performance, Morrissey mimed “This Charming Man” using a fern as a microphone. Still, the band gamely pretended to play, like everyone else did. But when Nirvana hit the TOTP stage, with Cobain singing to a backing track of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” they wouldn’t observe any of the niceties. YouTube channel That Time Punk Rocked writes:
Cobain opts for slow, exaggerated strums during the few times he touches his guitar, sings an octave lower (he later confirmed he was imitating Morrisey from The Smiths), and attempts to eat his microphone at one point. He also changes some of the lyrics, exchanging the opening line “load up on guns, bring your friends,” for “load up on drugs, kill your friends.” Dave Grohl hits cymbals and skins at random, doing more dancing than drumming. Krist Novoselic even swings his bass above his head. And despite these ridiculous antics, the crowd goes absolutely insane.
Maybe the crowd went wild because of those ridiculous antics, or maybe no one even noticed, as when a crowd of thousands in Argentina hardly seemed to notice when Nirvana openly mocked them after the audience abused their opening act. This may be one burden of stardom Cobain came to know too well—protests register as performance and sticking it the man onstage just makes the man more money. But the video remains “one of the greatest middle fingers” to musical miming captured on camera—recommended viewing for every salty young band preparing for their first TV gig.