The Origins Of "Smells Like Teen Spirit"

While the meaning of the lyrics of NIRVANA's breakthrough anthem "Smells Like Teen Spirit" has been widely pondered, and the song's cultural context debated, little of substance has been written about the origins of the music, beyond noting some other songs bear certain resemblances. New evidence, in the form of a previously unknown NIRVANA concert recording from 1990 sheds light on Cobain's creative process and is the earliest known instance of Cobain strumming the song's opening F chord with its distinctive rhythm.

"Smells Like Teen Spirit" was the first single and opening track from NIRVANA's multi-platinum album "Nevermind" released in 1991, and was the key force propelling Nevermind to the top of US's Billboard Charts in 1992. It continues to gather critical acclaim, including awarded #1 in Kerrang's "100 Greates Singles of All Time" and voted top in NME's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

The song begins with the instantly recognisable clean tone guitar riff implementing a rhythm which marks a distinct departure from Cobain's earlier compositions. While the four chord sequence and, in particular, the quiet-loud-quiet-loud dynamics were clearly influenced by The Pixies, there is no obvious point of reference for the rhythm. Other songs which bear some similarities, for example "More Than A Feeling" and "Louie Louie" have similar chord sequences but not the same rhythm.

The first known recording of the song is from the demo tape made by the band in March 1991 to send to Butch Vig in advance of their recording sessions for the album. The first known live performance of the song was at the OK Hotel in Seattle on April 17th 1991, both featuring a different arrangement to the version recorded for Nevermind. The lack of any other renditions or jams in any earlier concerts, and the fact that the song was not attempted on any of the studio sessions around this time (in particular, Craig Montgomery's session on New Year's Day in 1991) lead many to speculate that the song was written between January and March 1991. Indeed, it seems likely that the arrangement of the song recorded on the March 1991 demo was assembled around that time.

However, many NIRVANA songs had long gestation periods (for example, Polly, All Apologies) and it is very possible that parts of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" were written earlier than this, although until today there was no information to suggest this.

A newly unearthed recording of a jam during a tuning break of a NIRVANA concert in spring 1990 reveals Cobain repeatedly playing an F chord with the same rhythm as in his most famous song, one year before its public debut. Both the chord (requiring multiple fingers to play, as opposed to chords with open strings such as E chords which he generally favoured in such situations) and the rhythm were not played in any other known pre-1991 concert recordings, so to find both together is more than sheer coincidence: it provides insight into how Cobain's jamming metamorphosised into the song.

"Smells Like Teen Spirit" jam (live 1990) | all documents, unless otherwise noted, © 2013 | Contact webmaster