The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain’s Headbanging Cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”

Smells Like Teen Spir­it is an unusu­al anthem because it refus­es the role of the anthem. It’s per­fect for the gen­er­a­tion it rep­re­sent­ed because this was a cohort that was so ambiva­lent about any tra­di­tion­al val­ues [or] con­ven­tion­al suc­cess. — music crit­ic Ann Pow­ers 

The scream­ing exis­ten­tial angst of “Smells Like Teen Spir­it” ensured that Nir­vana would define, tran­scend, and out­last the 90s grunge scene.

The song was an instant hit. Here’s a descrip­tion from some­one who was present at the small Seat­tle club O.K Hotel for its first live per­for­mance:

They start­ed play­ing the new song and peo­ple erupt­ed. We were being slimed on by shirt­less guys, just mosh­ing. My friend Susan start­ed hyper­ven­ti­lat­ing, she thought it was so good: ‘I can’t, gasp, believe what they just played!’ It was just instan­ta­neous; it was crazy.

“Smells Like Teen Spir­it” was unre­con­sti­tut­ed rock bliss to us…

…and per­haps not the most nat­ur­al fit for a ukulele cov­er?

On the oth­er hand, what bet­ter instru­ment for those “ambiva­lent about con­ven­tion­al suc­cess” than the ukulele?

The Ukelele Orches­tra of Great Britain’s cov­er is as inten­tion­al­ly sil­ly as the band itself, but also man­ages to con­vey some of the original’s DGAF atti­tude.

That’s quite an accom­plish­ment for a seat­ed row of for­mal­ly dressed, mid­dle aged musi­cians, strum­ming in uni­son on an instru­ment any­one can play… but few can play well.

The ukulele has become cool in cer­tain cir­cles, but remains inex­tri­ca­bly linked to Tiny Tim tip­toe­ing through the tulips, and a mil­lion fum­bling sum­mer camp recre­ations of Jake Shimabukuro’s gen­tle Hawai­ian “Some­where Over the Rain­bow.”

Orches­tra founder Peter Brooke Turn­er’s trib­ute to lead vocal­ist Kurt Cobain helps nudge the nee­dle  past pure nov­el­ty into the realm of cred­i­bil­i­ty, or at least a sophis­ti­cat­ed under­stand­ing of all the ways in which the orig­i­nal works.

Plus, his “yeah” at 1:52 tran­scends the era of flan­nels, harken­ing to a time when the uncon­flict­ed preen­ing rock god reigned supreme. (We should note that he serves plen­ty of ham along­side that sausage.)

Best of all is David Suich’s enthu­si­as­tic head­bang­ing. Clear­ly a fel­low who enjoys putting his long hair in ser­vice of his art! (We refer you to the Ukulele Orchestra’s inter­pre­ta­tion of AC/DC’s “High­way to Hell.” below…)

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

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

Seri­ous­ly Awe­some Ukulele Cov­ers of “Sul­tans of Swing,” “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” “Thun­der­struck,” and “Smells Like Teen Spir­it”

How Nirvana’s Icon­ic “Smells Like Teen Spir­it” Came to Be: An Ani­mat­ed Video Nar­rat­ed by T‑Bone Bur­nett Tells the True Sto­ry

1,000 Musi­cians Play Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spir­it” Live, at the Same Time

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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