Behind The Song: “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana

Kurt Cobain’s most famous song was released on this day, 29 years ago, September 10, 1991

On this day, September 10th of 1991, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was released. It’s the song that brought Nirvana to the world. It also brought their Seattle grunge sound (recorded in Los Angeles) to the pop charts. The song went to number one in America, as it did all over much of the world. It was an international hit right from the start.

Its title came from graffiti by his friend Kathleen Hanna. She was the singer of the band Bikini Kill, which included Kurt’s girlfriend Tobi Vail on drums.

Kathleen felt empowered, and also drunk on Canadian whiskey, after she and Kurt and friends took part in some serious civil disobedience at a bogus “pregnancy center” there in Olympia. It was actually a front for a right-wing group persuading girls not to get abortions.

They spray-painted “FAKE ABORTION CLINIC, EVERYONE” all over the outside walls.

Kurt worked on one message only (typical songwriter) but made sure it had an impact. In bright-red six feet letters he wrote: “GOD IS GAY.”

Afterwards they went back to Kurt’s motel room, where they drank more whiskey, and Kathleen smelled a familiar smell. It was the deodorant his girlfriend Tobi always wore, called Teen Spirit. Kurt didn’t use it himself. He just got that smell from being with Tobi.

When he fell asleep, she grabbed a black Sharpie and wrote on his wall:

“Kurt smells like teen spirit.”

Kurt thought it was a cool phrase, not knowing it was about Tobi’s scent on him. About six months later he called Kathleen and asked for permission to use it.

Kurt said he was intentionally imitating The Pixies, a Boston band led by Black Francis, AKA Frank Black, when writing the song (which he credited to all three members of the band.) Many times he said the loud-soft dynamics of the song – which became somewhat of a Nirvana signature – came directly from The Pixies.

“I was trying to write the ultimate pop song,” Kurt said.

He taught the song to his band, which sounded better than ever because they got a great new drummer by the name of Dave Grohl. Kurt and Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic saw Grohl with his band Scream, and were “blown away,” as Kurt said. “Krist and I agreed we’d ask him to join Nirvana if we ever had the chance.” They did, and he said yes.

The three musicians rehearsed the song in Olympia with other songs intended for their new album,  and recorded a rough cassette of it to Butch Vig, their producer, in advance of going to L.A. to record the new album.

Nirvana: Dave Grohl, Kurt Cobain & Krist Novoselic

Vig remembered listening to this tape, as he recalled to Kerrang: “It was a boombox recording of a rehearsal,” said Vig in an interview with Kerrang. “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,’” said Vig, “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.”

He was even more excited when he heard them play the song live.

“It blew me away,” Vig said. “It was the first time I heard Dave Grohl play live, and it sounded so amazing. I was floored when I heard it. I remember pacing around thinking, ‘Oh my God, this sounds crazy intense!’”

When it came time to record, Kurt was extremely resistant to even the slightest alteration to their pure sound. Vig wanted to double his voice and guitar, a common practice to bolster the sound. Kurt refused, as Vig remembered:

“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.”

The album, called Nevermind, was released on September 24, 1991. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was released first, on September 10, 1991, which was 29 years ago today. Kurt killed himself only three years after its release, on April 5, 1994.  

“Smells Like Teen Spirit”

By Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic & David Grohl

Load up on guns, bring your friends
It’s fun to lose and to pretend
She’s over-bored and self-assured
Oh no, I know a dirty word

Hello, hello, hello, how low
Hello, hello, hello, how low
Hello, hello, hello, how low
Hello, hello, hello

With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us

A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido
Yeah, hey
I’m worse at what I do best
And for this gift I feel blessed
Our little group has always been
And always will until the end

Hello, hello, hello, how low
Hello, hello, hello, how low
Hello, hello, hello, how low
With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us
A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido

Yeah, hey
And I forget just why I taste
Oh yeah, I guess it makes me smile
I found it hard, it’s hard to find
Oh well, whatever, never mind

Hello, hello, hello, how low
Hello, hello, hello, how low
Hello, hello, hello, how low
Hello, hello, hello

With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us
A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido
A denial, a denial, a denial, a denial, a denial
A denial, a denial, a denial, a denial

© BMG Rights Management, Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd.

Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” live.

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