Nirvana Refuses to Fake It on Top of the Pops, Gives a Big “Middle Finger” to the Tradition of Bands Miming on TV (1991)

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Nir­vana Plays an Angry Set & Refus­es to Play ‘Smells Like Teen Spir­it’ After the Crowd Hurls Sex­ist Insults at the Open­ing Act (Buenos Aires, 1992)

Watch Nir­vana Per­form “Smells Like Teen Spir­it,” Just Two Days After the Release of Nev­er­mind (Sep­tem­ber 26, 1991)

The First Live Per­for­mance of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spir­it” (1991)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Fred says:

    I think it was Janis Joplin with Big Broth­er and the Hold­ing Com­pa­ny who insist­ed on play­ing live on Amer­i­can Band­stand.

  • JV says:

    I remem­ber this when it came out. I thought it was fun­ny, but hon­est­ly, if you decide to play the game, any­thing you do is per­for­mance. An actu­al mid­dle fin­ger would have been to just not go on the show.

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