In April of 1991, Nirvana debuted an in-progress song called “Smells Like Teen Spirit” at the OK Hotel in Seattle. The group was weeks away from beginning work on Nevermind at Sound City Studios, and they had been hard at work writing new songs for months. “I was trying to write the ultimate pop song,” Kurt Cobain told Rolling Stone 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.”
The band didn’t initially feel the song was anything special. “It was such a cliched riff,” said Cobain. “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.”
Many others also compared the riff to”More Than a Feeling,” and Cobain even sang a few lines from Boston’s 1976 classic during the beginning of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” at the Reading Festival in 1992.
The song broke them through to a mainstream audience in a way nobody could have expected. MTV played the video endlessly, and the attention helped them knock Michael Jackson off the top of the charts. Still, the group had a complex relationship with their most beloved song. “Everyone has focused on that song so much,” Cobain said. “I think there are so many other songs that I’ve written that are as good, if not better, than that song, like ‘Drain You.’ 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.”
That internal blowback was years away on April 17th 1991 at that tiny club in Seattle. Notice that some fan yells for “Free Bird” seconds before the song begins. There’s one guy at every show making that tired joke, even at a hugely historical moment like that.