On September 24, 1991, Geffen released Nevermind, the second album by Aberdeen, Washington grunge trio Nirvana. The group, fronted by charismatic vocalist Kurt Cobain and featuring bassist Chris Novoselic and freshly-recruited drummer Dave Grohl, had been steadily building a word-of-mouth buzz on the ‘alternative’ rock circuit, and music industry insiders considered that if Geffen handled its promotion carefully, Nevermind might end up doubling the 40,000 sales racked up by the band’s debut album Bleach. The label pressed up 46,251 copies of the album and hoped for the best.
The success of Nevermind’s lead single, Smells Like Teen Spirit, destroyed Geffen’s best laid plans. A song Kurt Cobain had written in anger after being dumped by his girlfriend Tobi Vail, from the band Bikini Kill, its title came from graffiti sprayed by Bikini Kill singer Kathleen Hanna on the wall of Cobain’s Olympia apartment, teasingly observing that Nirvana’s smitten front man was now marked with the scent of Vail’s favourite deodorant. To accompany the song, Nirvana shot a video in Los Angeles, with the video’s concept based upon their frontman’s idea of cheerleaders and punk rock kids wreaking havoc in a high school gymnasium, a symbol of the macho, ‘jock’ world Cobain had despised since his earliest years in Aberdeen. When MTV started broadcasting the Smells Like Teen Spirit video, Nevermind began ascending the Billboard 200 in leaps and bounds.
“I thought …Teen Spirit was just another album cut, but the video made a big difference,” recalled Dave Grohl. “That’s when you’d turn up to a 500-capacity gig and there’d be 500 extra people there. We were still in our little bubble – we were in our van, the three of us, Krist’s wife Shelli, our monitor guy [Craig Montgomery], and Monty Lee Wilkes our tour manager – and it didn’t seem like anything unusual was happening until you’d get to the gig and it was chaos. And we started to notice there were normal people and jocks at the shows and it was like, ‘Oh, maybe that video thing is attracting some… riff-raff.’”
By the time Nirvana returned home for a headlining show at Seattle’s Paramount theatre on October 31, 1991, Nevermind had passed the 500,000 sales mark. As their US tour ended on January 2, 1992 sales were soaring past two million, and the following week, on January 11, the album knocked Michael Jackson’s Dangerous from the top of the Billboard 200 album chart. Safe to say, this was never the plan.
Smells like Teen Spirit was played for the very first time on April 17, 1991, at a hastily-arranged show at Seattle’s OK Hotel staged purely to raise petrol money for Nirvana’s drive to Los Angeles to record Nevermind. The version aired that evening was ragged and raw, not least because Kurt Cobain hadn’t finishing writing its lyrics, but even in its unfinished and unstructured form, you can hear the elemental power of a song which totally rearranged the rock landscape in the 1990s and beyond.