There’s quite a lot of excellent footage of Nirvana playing live before they exploded floating around on the internet. Some of our favourites include a video of Dave Grohl playing with the band for the first time in 1990. Or some rare footage of Kurt filming their very first video in a Radioshack in 1988.
But if you want to really sneak a glimpse of the band on the brink of greatness, early 1991 is where you need to look. The period right before the release of Nevermind.
Watch this incredible footage of Nirvana playing Smells Like Teen Sprit live for the first time, right before they recorded Nevermind.
On the 17th of April 1991, right before they went to L.A to record Nevermind, Nirvana held a benefit concert at a small club in Seattle called OK Hotel.
Some say it was to raise funds to get to California. Others say it was to help a friend pay some bills. Whatever the reason, it was a monumental show for the band, even if they didn’t know it at the time. It was the first time they played Smells Like Teen Spirit live.
Although still a work-in-progress, the song obviously has enormous potential. In fact, it was probably one of the more powerful performances of the song ever recorded, perhaps because it was yet to be encumbered by the acclaim that the band later spurned so much.
“I was trying to write the ultimate pop song,” Cobain said of the song in 1993. “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.”
As the story goes, the rest of the band were initially unimpressed by what Cobain had written.
“It was such a cliched riff,” Cobain remembered. “It was so close to a Boston riff or ‘Louie, Louie.’ When I came up with the guitar part, Krist [Novoselic] looked at me and said, ‘That is so ridiculous.’ I made the band play it for an hour and a half.”
Novoselic later recalled that after playing the riff over and over, he thought, “‘Wait a minute. Why don’t we just kind of slow this down a bit?’ So I started playing the verse part. And Dave [started] playing a drum beat.”
After being issued to radio on August 27th, Smells Like Teen Spirit was officially released on September 10th, 1991. Nevermind was released two weeks later, and Nirvana exploded in a way that nobody could have predicted.
Not long after, the band began to loathe the song and what it had become, and eventually made a point of leaving it out of sets.
“I think there are so many other songs that I’ve written that are as good, if not better, than that song,” Cobain told Rolling Stone in 1994. “On a bad night, I can barely get through ‘Teen Spirit.’ I literally want to throw my guitar down and walk away. I can’t pretend to have a good time playing it.”
But on that night in Seattle in 1991, he most definitely enjoy himself. Watch below (the song starts at 2:20).