At the start of the nineties, amid the polished perfection of pop and the glamour of hair metal, one band broke through and revolutionized the entire music landscape. With their 1991 hit, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Nirvana took the raw, authenticity of their Seattle grunge peers, and merged it with phenomenal melodic writing and performance. In doing so, the band changed the course of rock and roll history.
Nirvana founding members Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic had met while attending Aberdeen High School in Washington state together. Their first band was a Creedence Clearwater Revival tribute band called the Sellouts, but by early 1987 they had launched a new band playing original music with dummer Aaron Burkhard. This was the first lineup of Nirvana. In January of 1988, Nirvana recorded a 10-song demo with Seattle producer Jack Endino who then sent the demo to the indie record label, Sub Pop. Impressed, Sub Pop co-founder Jonathan Ponemen signed the group. Later that year Nirvana recorded their first album Bleach which was released in June of 1989. Bleach became a favorite in the college radio circuit, steadily selling over a long period of time, despite very little promotion on the part of the label.
The band also went through several drummers in these early years, before finding Dave Grohl in 1990. In a 1991 interview with Studio Brussel, Cobain explained: “Krist and I have been playing together for about four-and-a-half years now….with a few different drummers. And Dave has been in the band for a year. This is the first time we’ve felt like a very definite unit…the band is finally complete.”
The band began work on their second album before Gohl joined the band, even recording some early tracks in producer Butch Vig’s Smart Studios in Madison Wisconsin. Vig (who had just finished working on the Killdozer’s album, Twelve Point Buck) had been suggested to the band by Poneman. Vig recalled: “Jonathan called up because he said he loved the sound of this Killdozer record, and he said, ‘I want you to get that sound for Nirvana.’ …I wanted to work with Sub Pop because I knew they were a cool label.”
In these short sessions. The band recorded “Pay to Play,” “Dive,” “Sappy”, “Here She Comes Now” and three tracks which would later appear on Nevermind: “In Bloom”, “Lithium” and “Polly. The Smart Studio recordings became like a demo for DGC records to hear the band’s developing sound. In early 1991, Nirvana signed with DGC Records, who would release their second album Nevermind later that year.
In the time between Smart Studio sessions and the actual recording of Nevermind in May and June of 1991, the band further refined their performances. By the time they got into the studio, they were ready to create one of rock history’s revolutionary albums. Nevermind – as an album – turned the whole rock world on its head, but one song in particular stands out for the way it brings together the band’s punk attitude, and distorted sonic world, alongside hauntingly beautiful melodies…. “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” is an interesting song in many ways. Cobain credits the song’s dynamic changes and sound to an attempt to imitate the Pixies. He was attempting to write the “ultimate pop song.” With the newly recruited Grohl on drums, the band quickly found their groove writing and rehearsing the song together. They made a rough recording which they sent to Vig, who was continuing as their producer even through the label change. Vig recalls hearing that first recording of the song, which also was the first time he heard Grohl play with the band on drums
“Kurt introduced it by saying, ‘Hey Butch, we got some new songs for you, and we also got Dave Grohl – he’s the best drummer in the world!’ “Then they clicked into `Teen Spirit,’ with the scratchy guitar at the start. It was so fucking distorted, I could barely hear anything. …But underneath the fuzz, I could hear ‘Hello, Hello’, melodies and chord structures. And even though the recording was terrible, I was super excited.”
The guitar sound is definitely striking in its distortion and edginess. From the minute the guitar introduces the song, audiences realized this was a band that sounded completely different from the world around them. The way Cobain slides from chord to chord sounds raw and unrehearsed and yet it’s so perfectly executed.Novoselic’s bass provides the song’s underlying pulse – but there’s actually more to it than you might think when you hear it underneath the rest of the mix. Isolated, you can hear his slides across the bass which definitely create that longing and pull that gives that song that contradictory sense of being pulled back simultaneously as it pushes forward. And of course when Grohl’s drums come in, it’s clear that Nirvana had found that harder sound they were looking for all along.
Perhaps the most striking part of the song, however, is Cobain’s haunting vocals which carry such amazing melodic content amid such a hard, aggressive sound. This is a huge element of what makes this song – and Nirvana – so amazing. The band takes the hard-rocking grunge sound, coming out of the Washington scene, and use it in conjunction with phenomenally captivating melodies. Cobain’s vocal melodies throughout the song are so different and creative against the straightforward chord progression.
The double tracking of the vocals creates both power and mystery in the track. Despite it being a common practice in recording by this time, Cobain was actually hesitant to double track his vocals. Vig recalled: “I said, ‘Kurt, I want you to double-track the guitars and vocals, to really make this jump out of the speakers.’ He thought it was cheating, especially with his vocals. So I had him do multiple vocal takes, and he sang them so consistently I could run them at the same time as a double track, and it really made the song sound powerful.” It took Vig reminding Kurt that John Lennon had done it in his recordings to truly convince him to try the practice. But when we hear Cobain’s thick vocal sound on the chorus, it’s clear that Vig was making the right choice.
For Cobain, double tracking and professional polish challenged the band’s grunge aesthetic. When we hear the song today we have no problem reconciling the amazing craftsmanship of Cobain’s writing alongside the band’s grunge sound and DIY aesthetic. But in 1991, Cobain struggled with these contradictory elements. Vig explained… “I know that he felt conscious coming from a punk background and having these kind of gorgeously crafted rock songs. Even though his songs might have been kind of noisy, they still had really beautiful melodies and melodic structures.”
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” draws its title from a piece of graffiti written on the wall of Cobain’s motel room by Bikini Kill lead singer, Kathleen Hannah. Hannah recalled that she and her bandmate Tobi Vail (who was dating Cobain at the time) were drunk, messing around in a grocery store in Olympia Washington when they came across a rack of Teen Spirit deodorant:
“…me and Tobi were like ‘Ewww, look at this, it’s so crazy! It’s called Teen Spirit!’. “We were laughing, saying ‘Your arm smells like Teen Spirit’ or whatever. We were both joking around because the name looked so funny. I mean, who names a deodorant Teen Spirit? What does teen spirit smell like? Like a locker room? Like pot mixed with sweat? Like the smell when you throw up in your hair at a party?”
With the phrase still stuck in her head, Hannah spent that evening hanging out with Cobain and Grohl. Later that night, she drunkenly wrote with Sharpie on the wall of Cobain’s motel room: “Kurt smells like Teen Spirit.” Cobain thought the phrase sounded cool and called Hannah up to ask if he could use it for a song:
“I was like ‘Sure. I don’t know why you’d want to call a song that. But fine.’ I just thought it was weird…He didn’t know it was a deodorant. I felt like a bit of an asshole that I didn’t tell him, but I kinda thought it was funny. He just liked the ring of it. Smells Like Teen Spirit. But he also just had a good knack for picking out interesting phrases.”
The song’s cynical lyrics are epitomized in the chorus which begins…“Here we are now, entertain us.” According to Cobain: “That came from something I used to say every time I used to walk into a party to break the ice. A lot of times, when you’re standing around with people in a room, it’s really boring and uncomfortable. So it was “Well, here we are, entertain us. You invited us here.”
The song’s music video also captures the angst and teen-inspired focus of the song. The video – directed by Samuel Bayer – features the band performing in a high school gym to anarchy-touting cheerleaders and apathetic teenage listeners. As the performance continues, the teens erupt into a scene of chaos. The music video was the perfect complement to Nirvana’s take-over of the popular music landscape. It visually declared grunge’s dominance and highlighted the changing aesthetic of the new generation.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” and the rest of the Nevermind album was recorded at Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, CA. Vig, who had produced their first intended tracks for the second album in their Sub Pop days, continued with them after their contract was bought out by DGC Records.
Despite the raw, unpolished sound that was championed by Grunge bands like Nirvana in the early 90s, the group was actually very well rehearsed and prepared before they even entered the studio. “They were psyched…As I started talking to them, they told me they were ready. They had been rehearsing every day for three months. There was definitely not a slacker ethic in that band. I mean, they wanted to make a great record. And Kurt [Cobain] was very ambitious, you know. When they walked into the studio, they were ready to go.”
In recording “Smells Like Teen Spirit” Vig began with the bass and the drums, using ten of the 24 tracks. Tracks 11 and 12 were used to record the band playing together live. The guitar was recorded in only two takes with the first take being the primary performance we hear on the release. He used an Electro-Harmonix Small Clone effect on the pre-chorus of the guitar which gives it that awesome chime-y sound. The three vocal takes of “Teen Spirit” were combined and placed on track 15. Vig also asked Cobain to isolate his vocals just on the “hello, hello, hello, how low” pre-chorus to create tracks 21 and 22. This step also allowed Cobain to move in closer to the mic and get that amazing performance.
Vig and Cobain began mixing the song and the rest of the Nevermind album immediately after recording, but no one was satisfied. Andy Wallace (who had recently completed Slayer’s Reign in Blood album) was then brought in as fresh ears to mix Nevermind. Novoselic recalls the experience positively, encouraged by the raw, aggressive sound they heard on the Slayer album. Wallace likewise says that the band responded well to his addition. Their main request was a big, thick sound: “By the time we got started, they knew I was not going to bathe them in reverb and polish everything…They were mainly concerned with making sure there was plenty of bass. I was told to make the sound more thick and beefy, yet discernible.” Vig and Wallace then moved over to Scream Studios in Studio City to finish the mixes. The result is the now iconic balance of raw power, alongside a clear, commercial appeal.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” was released on September 10, 1991, as the lead single from the band’s second album, Nevermind. The album followed two weeks later. One week before the album was even released, Nirvana was scheduled to play a performance at the Beehive Record Store in Seattle. They arrived to an overflowing, sold out crowd that swarmed them, forcing them to escape to the tavern across the street while teenage fans (who weren’t allowed into the over-21 tavern) snapped pictures of them through the window. When they finally made it to the store to begin their performance, it was clear that everyone already knew the song and were fully aware that they were witnessing rock history in the making.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” was an instant success on the college radio circuit, but it also became the unexpected crossover hit that took Grunge mainstream. A couple months after its release, on November 22, the song hit number 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart – the same week that the Nevermind album hit number 1. It also hit number 7 in the UK, staying in the charts for 184 weeks!
It was the year of Nirvana – topping both the Village Voice and Melody Maker’s year end polls and hitting number 2 on the best singles of year list by Rolling Stone. It was nominated for two grammy awards – Best Hard Rock Performance with Vocal and Best Rock Song. The song catapulted Nirvana into mainstream success, forcing the reluctant Cobain into the undesired role as the spokesperson for Generation X. Cobain’s tragic suicide in 1994 caused fans to dig even deeper into the song which reveals some of rock’s most poignant emotions of youth.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” has remained an iconic track in the history of rock, even inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s list of “Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll” in 1997 – only 6 years after its release! MTV and Rolling Stone listed it number 3 on their list of the 100 Greatest Pop Songs, and NME named in number 2 on their 100 Greatest Singles of All Time. Rolling Stone’s 2004 list of the 500 Greatest Rock Songs of All Time named “Smells Like Teen Spirit” number 9.
It has been credited with transforming the 90s rock landscape, which had previously been dominated by hair bands and polished pop. It ushered in a new sound for rock and roll. A sound which was both revolutionary, and yet somehow still apathetic – paralleling the band’s signature contradictory sensibilities in their sound and songwriting.
Written by: Caitlin Vaughn Carlos
Watch the video below to learn more about Nirvana and Smells Like Teen Spirit!