Nirvana performed “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for the first time on April 17, 1991 at a dark Seattle club in the shadow of a highway overpass.
The show was hastily organized, a last minute booking by a still-unknown and cash-strapped band.
“Nirvana needed gas money to drive down to L.A. to record Nevermind, so they played a last-minute show at the OK Hotel,” Steve Moriarty, drummer for Seattle punk band the Gits, recalled in the book Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge. “The band walked away with a few hundred bucks, drove down to L.A., and the rest is history.”
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” was still in its infancy when Nirvana debuted it on stage. They had little indication that this track would become such a force. In fact, after its success, frontman Kurt Cobain admitted he never thought too highly of the song.
“We were driving up to Tacoma every night for practice, trying to write songs,” Cobain said during a 1994 interview with Rolling Stone. “I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it. … We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.”
Cobain said the results also included “such a clichéd riff. It was so close to a Boston riff or ‘Louie, Louie.’ When I came up with the guitar part, [Nirvana bassist] Krist [Novocelic] looked at me and said, ‘That is so ridiculous.’ I made the band play it for an hour and a half.”
Watch Nirvana’s first performance of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’
Despite the group’s uneasiness with the song, people gravitated towards “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Decades later, Cobain’s mother told fans that the hairs on her arms stood up the first time she heard an early demo. At this point, however, only a rough version of the song ready to be performed.
“That show at the OK Hotel was legendary,” Seattle-area musician Kurt Bloch, who was in the crowd that night, said in Everybody Loves Our Town. “There were a few genre-defining shows, and that was certainly one of them. I remember standing next to [Sub Pop A&R representative] Nils Bernstein and then ‘Hey, here’s a new song, blah blah blah.’ They started playing ‘Teen Spirit’ and Nils and I looked at each other like, ‘Holy fuck! This song is unbelievable.’”
Across roughly five and a half minutes, Nirvana tore through a blistering rendition. Though many of the lyrics were different from the recorded version, this early take on “Smells Like Teen Spirit” still packed the angst, aggression and primal intensity that would helped it become iconic.
From Dave Grohl’s frenzied drums to Novocelic’s haunting bass line, the ingredients were all there. So too, of course, were Cobain’s powerful vocals, at times alternating from hushed croons to guttural growls.
Just a few weeks later, Nirvana gathered at Sound City Studios in Southern California to record Nevermind with producer Butch Vig. The LP was released that September, eventually becoming the defining rock album of its era.