17 facts about Smells Like Teen Spirit

Smells Like Teen Spirit was released on September 10 1991, turning Nirvana into superstars and changing the musical landscape in the process. We're guessing you've already heard it seven thousand times, but here's a bluffer's guide to the song. 

1) Kurt Cobain admitted that he was trying to rip off the Pixies when writing Smells Like Teen Spirit.

2) It was one of the last songs written for the Nevermind album.

4) The basic track on the finished version was the second of three takes the band recorded for the song.

5) The title was inspired by Bikini Kill vocalist Kathleen Hanna. A friend of Cobain, she sprayed the phrase ‘Kurt smells like teen spirit’ on his wall. She was referring to the deodorant Teen Spirit. However. Cobain didn’t know about this brand and thought it was a great anti-establishment rally cry.

6) The song has often been compared to Boston’s More Than A Feeling, and Cobain himself later conceded that the riff was very similar. He also called it a clichéd riff.

7) The lyric ‘Here we are now, entertain us’ was actually something Cobain regularly said when he went to parties.

8) It was Butch Vig who suggested this should be the opening track on Nevermind. He later said of the song: “To me, Smells Like Teen Spirit reminds me a little bit of how Bob Dylan’s songs affected people in the 60s. In a way, I feel the song affected a generation of kids in the 90s. They could relate to it.”

9) The video was shot at Culver City Studios in California on August 17, 1991. The fans in the video were all from a gig the band had done two days previously at The Roxy in West Hollywood. They gave out flyers there, inviting everyone to come along.

10) The climactic destruction at the video finale wasn’t choreographed. The fans were angry and fed up at the end of the shoot, which took over 12 hours, and they were allowed to go mental and destroy the set. It'd go on to become one of the biggest rock music videos ever.

11) The video was inspired in part by the 1979 movie Over The Edge, a favourite of Cobain’s.

12) The cheerleaders in the video were hired from a local strip club.

13) For a long time, Nirvana would either refuse to play the song or deliberately do it very badly, because they hated the fact it attracted a new audience.

14) Among those who’ve covered Smells Like Teen Spirit are Miley Cyrus, Patti Smith, Paul Anka and Tori Amos. Weird Al Yankovic did a version he titled Smells Like Nirvana. And queercore band Pansy Division recorded Smells Like Queer Spirit.

15) The single was No.1 in Belgium, France, New Zealand and Spain.

16) Nirvana played the song live on Top Of The Pops on November 25, 1991. Cobain changed some of the lyrics to the song, Most notably ‘Load up on guns, bring your friends’ became ‘Load up on drugs, kill your friends’.

17) Smells Like Teen Spirit was nominated two Grammys in 1993, but lost out on both. In the Best Rock Song category, they were pipped by Eric Clapton’s unplugged version of Layla (regarded as one of the biggest upsets in Grammy history), and the Best Hard Rock Performance gong went to the Red Hot Chili Peppers with Give It Away.

Fraser Lewry

Online Editor at Louder/Classic Rock magazine since 2014. 38 years in music industry, online for 25. Also bylines for: Metal Hammer, Prog Magazine, The Word Magazine, The Guardian, The New Statesman, Saga, Music365. Former Head of Music at Xfm Radio, A&R at Fiction Records, early blogger, ex-roadie, published author. Once appeared in a Cure video dressed as a cowboy, and thinks any situation can be improved by the introduction of cats. Favourite Serbian trumpeter: Dejan Petrović.