'Here we are now, entertain us': the inside story of Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit video

(Image credit: Geffen Records)

On the morning of August 17, 1990, Kurt Cobain, Chris Novoselic and Dave Grohl congregated at GMT Studios in Culver City, California to shoot a video for Smells Like Teen Spirit, the song they’d earmarked to be the first single from their band Nirvana’s major label debut album Nevermind. Loosely inspired by two of Cobain's favourite films, the Ramones' Rock And Roll High School and cult teen rebellion flick Over The Edge, the concept of the video would see the Aberdeen, Washington trio lip-syncing in front of an anarchic 'pep rally from Hell'. Nirvana’s frontman had sketched out every single shot for the video in advance.

"I saw this movie Over The Edge," Cobain told Melody Maker in 1993. "I remember leaving that theatre and almost everyone who was in there came running out screaming their heads off and breaking windows and vandalising and wanting to get high. It totally affected them and influenced them. It may not have been the intention of the person who made the movie, and it is a great movie, but that's what happened."

With his meticulously plotted storyboard for the Smells Like Teen Spirit video, Cobain hoped to provoke the same level of mayhem in every city in America.

Extras for the shoot had been recruited two days earlier via flyers given out outside a Nirvana show at the Roxy in Los Angeles.

'Nirvana needs YOU to be appear in their upcoming music video, Smells Like Teen Spirit,' it read. 'You should be 18 to 25 years old and adapt a high school personna [sic], ie, preppy, punk, nerd, jock...Be prepared to stay for several hours! Come support Nirvana and have a great time!'

Geffen chose Samuel Bayer, a recent graduate from New York's School Of Visual Arts, to direct the shoot. It was his first gig in the music industry, a fact that soon became obvious to Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl, himself a video virgin.

"The director had a loud bullhorn thing," Grohl recalled to Newsweek in 1999, "and he was trying to explain the concept to the crowd, and saying, 'Okay now, in the first verse you're supposed to look bored and complacent and unhappy. Just sit in your seats and tap your foot and look, you know, distraught, whatever.' And then by the end of the song, they're supposed to be tearing the place to shreds. When they got to the first chorus, the crowd was completely out of control, and the director was screaming at the top of his lungs for everyone to fucking calm down and be cool, or they'll get kicked out. So it was pretty hilarious actually, seeing this man trying to control these children who just wanted to destroy."

As the shoot dragged on, tensions on the soundstage mounted. Kurt Cobain had made no secret of his desire to direct the video himself, and as he swallowed mouthfuls of Jim Beam whiskey between takes, his mood got uglier, his frustration more tangible. At the end of the evening, sensing that his mounting irritation was being mirrored among Nirvana fans watching the shoot, Cobain encouraged the extras to come down from the bleachers to thrash around his band as if they were at a real punk rock show.

"The band was egging them on because they didn't like making the video either," Bayer told Rolling Stone in 2010. "I was exhausted at the end of the day. I'm like, 'Okay, you guy want to destroy the set? Go, destroy the set.' And the kids come down off the bleachers, and it's under my lighting, and I'm like, Oh my God, this is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen! I was like, God is on my side. And that riot became the last minute of the video."

In the edit suite, Cobain reasserted his independence by changing the ending of Bayer's cut of the video. Against the director's wishes, he inserted a closing sequence of his own face leering into the camera in close-up. It was a masterstroke.

Throughout the video Cobain had come across as every inch the brooding, agitated misfit, his fine features masked by his lank blonde hair. But here, at the video's violent, riotous denouement, the mischievous expression on his handsome face offered an invitation to the dance, his eyes screaming 'JOIN US!'. On September 30, 1991, less than a week after the release of Nevermind, MTV introduced the Smells Like Teen Spirit video as a 'World Premiere' on its flagship 'alternative' show 120 Minutes. in the US Two weeks later, the video was moved into the channel's 'Buzz Bin' slot, intended to showcase new talent.

"My band Kyuss was on tour," recalled Queens Of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme, "and I remember seeing the video on MTV at 3am in a hotel room. I was saying 'Man, this is so good, everyone should be into this music but they’re not going to be, it’s not going to get played because it’s too good.' About a week later I realised how wrong I was..." 

"The video was probably the key element in that song becoming a hit," Dave Grohl remembered to this writer. "People heard the song on the radio and they thought 'This is great', but when kids saw the video on MTV they thought, 'This is cool. These guys are kinda ugly and they're tearing up their fucking high school'. And then with the video came more people and the clubs got bigger and bigger.

"The only indication that our world was turning upside down would be when you’d get to the venue. You’d show up to a 500 capacity gig and there were 500 extra people there. We were still in our little bubble and it didn’t seem like anything unusual was happening until we’d get to the gig, and it was fucking chaos. And we started to notice there were normal people here. We were like, 'What are they doing here? That guy looks like a jock, what the fuck is he doing here?' And it was like 'Oh, maybe that video thing is attracting some… riff-raff'."

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.