From August 17, 1991 – the day Nirvana filmed “Smells Like Teen Spirit’s” video – to September 29th – the day it aired on MTV – Nirvana morphed from an underground opening act to future icons of an era. Here’s how it happened, one day at a time:
August 17th – Nirvana filmed “Smells Like
Teen Spirit’s” music video in a full day shoot (twelve-plus hours) at Culver City, California’s GMT Studios. It was the directorial début of Samuel Bayer who went on to help define the look of music in the ’90s as one of the busiest video-men of the decade (and later assisted Green Day’s mid-00s career revival directing “American Idiot,” “Boulevard of Broken Dreams, ” “Holiday,” “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” “Jesus of Suburbia” and “Working Class Hero”, plus the entire Bullet in a Bible live DVD).
“Teen Spirit’s” plot was essentially a recast of the final scene in Rock N Roll High School – the 1979 movie starring The Ramones (whose next video, “Poison Heart” was also directed by Bayer). In that film, students revolt against the tyranny of teachers etc. They tear their school apart as the cheerleaders go wild – watch it here. But whereas The Ramones’ scene was goofy, “Teen Spirit” was dark – meant to convey not just an average kid’s riot fantasy to get out of homework, but an alienated kid’s angst and appetite for anarchy. For that, Bayer turned to another 1979 film, Jonathan Kaplan’s drama Over The Edge (in which bored teens – soundtracked by The Ramones’ ‘Teenage Lobotomy”, Van Halen’s take on Kinks klassic “You Really Got Me” and several tunes each by The Cars and Cheap Trick – channel their pent-up frustrations into crime and violence, eventually killing a cop). The treatment created by Bayer and Cobain – who personally oversaw the final edit – was simple: a pep rally from hell (including cheerleaders wearing Circle-A anarchist symbols) degrades into demolition.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” is estimated to have cost $30,000-$50,000 to create and used Nirvana’s real fans as the
high school audience. The below clip (via the menu screen of the ” With The Lights Out ” boxset) shows a few out-takes from the August 17th shoot.
The next day, August 18th, Nirvana flew from Los Angeles Airport to England’s Heathrow – where they met up with Sonic Youth on August 19th and traveled together to Ireland (first passing through Wales). Sonic Youth’s two-week European tour with Nirvana kicked-off on August 20th at Sir Henry’s Pub in Cork, Ireland. Although mostly modest – both bands stayed over-night at the inn attached to the Sir Henry’s Pub – the tour also included stops at England’s Reading Festival on August 23rd and Belgium’s Pukkelpop Festival on August 25th. Director Dave Markey followed the tour, filming both bands – as well as Dinosaur Jr, Babes in Toyland, Mudhoney, The Ramones and others – yielding the classic live rockumentary The Year Punk Broke.
Reading 1991 Line-Up
|Friday, August 23||Saturday, August 24||Sunday, August 25|
Pop Will Eat Itself
Babes in Toyland
De La Soul
The Fat Lady Sings
|Sisters of Mercy
Neds Atomic Dustbin
Kitchens of Distinction
The Family Cat
For some perspective, at top of the singles charts were Lenny Kravitz’s “It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over” and Bryan Adams’ “(Everything I Do), I Do It for You”. Ultimately the best-selling song of 1991, Adam’s massive international hit followed EMF’s “Unbelievable” as Billboard’s #1 on July 27th and stayed there for seven weeks (until being surpassed on September 7th by Paula Abdul’s 6th chart-topper, “Promise of a New Day” ). “I Do It For You” was #1 in 15 countries, including 12 weeks topping the British singles chart. On September 28th Adams was awarded the Order of Canada and the Order of British Columbia.
Dave Markey recently recalled filming The Year Punk Broke on that tour to Spin. Some excerpts: “I was friends with Sonic Youth for a few years before filming the movie. I met them in the Eighties and they did a cover of Alice Cooper’s “Hollowed Be My Name” for this movie of mine, Lovedolls Superstar. And they had asked me to do a few music videos for Goo in 1990. We had always talked about doing a longer project together and literally two weeks before their summer festival tour started in August of 1991, I got a call: “Do you want to come and shoot stuff?” So I grabbed my Super 8 and a passport and took off.
I had seen Nirvana a few times before when they played West Coast dates with Sonic Youth. But my real hang time with them was on that flight from Los Angeles to meet up with Sonic Youth in London… Dave [Grohl] was their new drummer. They had just shot the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video the day before and they were kept until the wee hours of the morning… When Nirvana would play “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on those festival shows, it was just another one of the songs they played. They did really well at some of the bigger festivals, particularly at Reading. They clearly connected with the crowd that was there, who, at that point in time, really were bigger fans of Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth. Maybe some fans had bought Bleach, but they weren’t really the draw. I mean, some of these festivals, like Pukkelpop, Nirvana played at 11:30 in the morning! The moment that stands out for me is that Reading performance. Nirvana played at 2:00 in the afternoon and they ended the set with “Endless, Nameless” in its entirety. And that’s when Kurt [Cobain] jumped into the pit, and Thurston [Moore] came out and grabbed him… Thurston getting Kurt out of the pit was kind of perfect. He and Kim [Gordon] were like parental figures for Kurt in a way… I remember at one festival, Nirvana were delayed getting into Germany, at the border. They missed their time slot. But Thurston took it upon himself to ask all the bands to remove 5 or 10 minutes from their set so they could get Nirvana to play…
When I was filming Sonic Youth or Nirvana or Dinosaur or whoever, they weren’t censoring themselves. People were just enjoying this brief two-week tour. There was a lot of drinking going on. A lot of hash smoking. Everyone was having fun… Madonna’s Truth or Dare was in theaters — this big cultural moment. So we decided to reenact scenes and we had the idea where Kurt, pretending to be Kevin Costner, meets Madonna backstage and he says, “You guys were really neat.” But he had this champagne bottle and decided to fling it around the room… It wasn’t rehearsed. He didn’t break it but everyone thought he was going to smash it through a window… Kurt wasn’t with Courtney [Love] at the time but she showed up at Rotterdam. I think she hitched a ride with the Smashing Pumpkins… You look at the 1991: The Year Punk Broke, and Kurt is just smiling through the whole thing. Those are some of the last smiles you’d see from him before Nirvana became this huge success…
Nowadays, everything is documented. Everything’s done from an iPhone. On the web instantly. A million views. Nothing is special any more.”
Sonic Youth’s “Year Punk Broke” European Tour with Nirvana:
08/20/91 Sir Henry’s, Cork, Ireland
08/21/91 The Top Hat, Dun Laoghaire, Ireland
08/23/91 Richfield Avenue (Reading Festival), Reading, England
08/24/91 Tanzbrunnen, Monster Of Spex Festival, Köln, Germany
08/25/91 Domein Kiewit (Pukkelpop), Hasselt, Belgium
08/27/91 Aladin Music Hall (Überschall 91), Bremen, Germany
08/28/91 Easy Shorre, Halle, Germany
08/29/91 Longhorn Country & Western Saloon, Stuttgart, Germany
08/30/91 Serenadenhof, Nürnberg, Germany
09/01/91 Doelen (Ein Abend In Wien Festival), Rotterdam, Holland
As the tour wound down, Nevermind was aired by Boston’s WFNX on August 29th – start to finish – its world première. Two days after the tour ended, on September 3rd, Nirvana recorded ‘Dumb’, ‘Drain You’ and ‘Endless Nameless’ for the BBC Radio 1 John Peel show.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” was released as a US single on September 10th. To celebrate, three days later, Geffen Records threw Nirvana a launch party…
…Nirvana in turn threw food….
…Security then threw the band out of their own party.
50,000 copies of Nevermind shipped on its release day – September 24, 1991 – a figure their label (Geffen, based on sales of Sonic Youth’s major début for the same company in 1990. Five days later “Teen Spirit” aired on MTV, and it quickly became apparent more copies would have to be shipped. Two months later – the day before Thanksgiving 1991 in fact – it was certified platinum. By the new year it was double platinum, by February ’92 triple…
To date Nevermind is certified diamond in the U.S. (ten million shipped), with an additional 20 million copies sold worldwide.
Although initially banned by MTV, the “Teen Spirit” video debuted on the network on September 29th and became one of the most pivotal in the channel’s history. Is “Teen Spirit” Bayer’s best work? Maybe, but you also have to consider Blind Melon’s “No Rain”, Hole’s “Doll Parts” and The Smashing Pumpkins “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” – among a long list of others (The Jesus and Mary Chain, Melissa Etheridge, Fishbone, The Cranberries, David Bowie, Sheryl Crow, Garbage, Metallica, The Rolling Stones, Marilyn Manson)…