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The story behind Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana

Nirvana in an alley
(Image credit: Chris Cuffaro)

Right from the opening stuttered refrain, Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit sounds like pure adrenalin, a revolution waiting to happen. Kurt Cobain’s brief guitar solo is a masterpiece of restraint, remaining note-faithful to the melody, driving it deeper into your brain. 

“I was trying to write the ultimate pop song,” he admitted to Rolling Stone journalist David Fricke in 1994. “I was trying to rip off the Pixies. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard. Teen Spirit is such a clichéd riff. When I first came up with it, Krist [Novoselic, bassist] looked at me and said: ‘That is so ridiculous.’” 

Smells Like Teen Spirit was released in the UK on September 9, 1991. Four days later, Nirvana got thrown out of their own album release party. The event took place at a packed Re-Bar in Seattle. Someone smuggled in a load of whisky. Washington State had the weirdest liquor laws in the country – and the Re-Bar, wasn’t allowed to sell what Americans call ‘hard liquor’ if they were serving food. Or something. “Kurt and I sat in the corner of the big main room and drank a fifth of Seagram’s – out of the bottle, very classy,” recalled friend Carrie Montgomery. The bouncers threw the miscreants onto the street . 

The inspiration behind the song came directly from Nirvana’s adopted home town of Olympia WA, the birthplace of Calvin Johnson’s K Records and Riot Grrrl. It was written after Dave Grohl joined the band and moved down to Olympia and slept on Kurt’s floor. It was one of the last songs written for Nevermind. Cobain sent album producer Butch Vig a cassette of the demo a week ahead of the recording sessions in LA. 

Grohl was like a husband to Cobain – tidying up after him, feeding him, filling the role that both Krist Novoselic and previous girlfriend Tracy Marander had taken on earlier. “Dave and Kurt started to have this real married-couple vibe to their relationship,” Cobain’s friend Nikki McClure says, laughing.

Grohl dated Bikini Kill singer Kathleen Hanna for a couple of weeks, and the Nirvana/Bikini Kill couples briefly socialised together, skateboarding and indulging in the occasional spot of vandalism. It was during one of these nights that Hanna spray-painted ‘Kurt smells like Teen Spirit’ on a wall, referring to the brand of deodorant his girlfriend, Bikini Kill drummer Tobi Vail, wore. 

Cobain and Vail split up shortly afterwards, him feeling excluded by her self-assurance and youth (she was 21, he was 23 but she made him feel older). He wanted something more. And as much as he felt energised by her creativity, Kurt was a solo creator. Self-hating and dissatisfied with life in Olympia but not wanting to admit it, and frustrated that his relationship with Vail wasn’t progressing as he wanted, Kurt split up with her. It was October 1990. 

“He was a wreck,” says Grohl. 

“Contrary to popular belief, he broke up with me,” Vail states firmly. “The idea that I broke his heart, and that he was helpless and fatally wounded by that, is just stupid romantic tripe. I am sick of being the girl who is blamed for his suffering. That idea doesn’t come from anything that really happened.” 

The famous ‘Over-bored and self-assured’ line in Teen Spirit is a reference to both Vail and Cobain’s personalities. “Boredom: the desire for desires,” as Russian philosopher Leo Tolstoy wrote. What was there to do in life, now that the adults had grabbed all the fun adolescent stuff for themselves? 

“The songs were confusing,” comments Vail. “Who really knows what they are about? They sound great and some of the imagery is strong, but as far as them being about any one person or thing or situation, it’s not clear, is it? They seem to be written in code. Smells Like Teen Spirit was supposed to be called Anthem, but Bikini Kill had a song called Anthem, and we got in a big argument, and I won so he had to change it."

The original draft of Teen Spirit included a line later picked up on by Kurt’s future wife Courtney Love: ‘Who will be the king and queen of the outcast teens?’ Clearly, it was intended for Vail. 

“It’s obvious that when Bleach [previous album, 1989] came out I was very set in one frame of mind, except for that one song About A Girl,” Kurt told Melody Maker. “I had a few more like that that I could’ve put on the album. And I wish I had, because then it would’ve sounded more like Nevermind and it wouldn’t have been such a drastic leap.” 

Kurt came up with the concept of the Teen Spirit video, broadly inspired by Ramones’ trashy 1979 film Rock’N’Roll High School, and also Jonathan Kaplan’s ’79 teenage delinquent punk film Over The Edge. The idea was for the cheerleaders to have anarchy symbols on their chests, kids emptying their wallets on to a bonfire of the vanities, the cheerleaders to be awkward-looking geeks. 

The video director, Sam Bayer, agreed with the concept, but not with anything else; the cheerleaders needed to be conventional ‘babes’, the mayhem had to be contained, and there was certainly no moshing to take place. 

Cobain and Bayer got into a yelling match, the singer afterwards telling everyone how the director was a “little Napoleon”. The idea was for the crowd to look bored, complacent. When that didn’t happen, Bayer grabbed a bullhorn and yelled at everyone to shut up. 

“It was just like we were in school,” Cobain sniggered, “and he was the mean teacher.” Still, the video did the trick. Within weeks of its release, Teen Spirit was placed on heavy rotation by MTV. Ultimately, MTV ‘broke’ Nirvana in a way that all the myriad live shows and rave reviews could never have done, reaching direct into the suburban heartland of America.

Everett True started life as The Legend!, publishing the fanzine of that name and contributing to NME. Subsequently he wrote for some years for Melody Maker, for whom he wrote seminal pieces about Nirvana and others. He was the co-founder with photographer Steve Gullick of Careless Talk Costs Lives, a deliberately short-lived publication designed to be the antidote to the established UK music magazines.