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Pop Archaeology: The First Time Nirvana Played ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a landmark song on the landscape of ‘90s pop music. It’s the most famous, and most popular song on Nevermind, the most popular album of the age of Grunge. It propelled Nirvana to astronomical mainstream success – with the Nevermind album they knocked the King of Pop himself, Michael Jackson, off the top of the charts – and remains an American radio staple. If you grew up in the '90s, or if you just happen to have a retroactive fondness for the era, you very likely know every note of the song, but you’ve probably never heard what it sounded like the first time it was played live.

On April 17th, 1991, shortly before Nirvana began its final recording sessions for what would become Nevermind, the band played a small Seattle club gig, and frontman Kurt Cobain announced “this song is called 'Smells Like Teen Spirit’.” Musically, it’s almost all there, from the opening riff to the solo, though the chiming guitar in the middle of the verses is a little different. Lyrically, there’s quite a bit that didn’t make the final song. It’s hard to make out everything in this video, but Cobain was clearly experimenting with different verses and rhyme schemes at this point. The haunting pre-chorus of “Hello, hello, hello, How Low?” is already there, though, and works just as well.

Listen to the song in the video above, then listen to it again. It might not be the hit you remember, but the power’s already there, waiting to be unleashed on the world.


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