ARTS / Lives of the Great Songs: A case of rock and roll-on: Smells Like Teen Spirit: Not many anthems are named after a deodorant. In the third extract from our history of the hits, David Cavanagh looks at Nirvana's theme tune

IT WAS the end of 1991. Freddie Mercury had died on 24 November and the year was all set for solemn foreclosure. Nobody expected a rock phenomenon to squeeze in through the little aperture between St Andrew's Day and Christmas. But on 30 Nov-ember, the new singles chart had an extraordinary tale to tell: at No 9, straight in from nowhere, was 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' by Nirvana. A trio of miscreants from America's flaky underbelly had hit serious oil.

Not that it didn't make sense. Nirvana, who were touring Britain at the time, had proved themselves to be just about the most exciting live rock band of their generation. Their 1989 debut album, Bleach, was revered as an underground, hardcore classic. By combining heavy rock drums and guitars with often poignant melodies, they achieved the much-envied 'crossover', the commercial coup of appealing equally to two famously warring demographics: 'indie' fans and heavy-metal lovers. 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' genre-hopped in a way Nirvana's heroes the Pixies had failed to do.

The Pixies are important - when Kurt Cobain played 'Teen Spirit' to the other members of Nirvana, they heard a powerful Pixies' influence. It was a very Pixies notion to have quiet verses followed by screaming choruses. The singer of the Pixies, Black Francis, had also perfected the art of putting the most nerve-shredding screams on the most innocuous words in the song. The result, for the listener, was a kind of baffled exhilaration. So it was with 'Smells Like Teen Spirit', a scream song par excellence but with something extra, something magical: from its title inwards, you instinctively knew you were hearing a rock anthem.

The story behind the song is absurd and endearing. In 1989 Cobain was living in Olympia, a college town in Washington State. The apartment, he later told Nirvana's biographer, Michael

Azerrad, was 'a filthy pigsty'. One night, he and a friend, Kathleen Hanna, drunkenly decorated the walls of the apartment with graffiti. At one point, Hanna wrote the words: 'Kurt smells like Teen Spirit.' Teen Spirit happens to be a deodorant in America. Cobain, proud to be a deodorant-free zone, claimed not to know of its existence 'until months after the single came out'.

Azerrad's book, Come As You Are (Virgin, 1993), reprints a page from Cobain's notebook showing an early lyric for 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'. Only four lines make his final cut; the rest are either jarringly strange ('dyslexic idiot savant with bad hearing') or eerily prophetic ('who will be the king and queen of the outcasted teens?' - written at least two months before Cobain met his future wife, Courtney Love). Nirvana unleashed the song on tour in America in April 1991, and recorded it as the first track on their second album, Nevermind, released in September.

Privately, they were sceptical about its chances; when it wasn't sounding like a Pixies' song, it was sounding naggingly like Boston's 1977 hit 'More Than a Feeling'. However, Nirvana's producer, Butch Vig, who had fine-tuned their aggression on Nevermind, recognised 'Teen Spirit' as a classic, and their record company, Geffen, agreed. 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' was the first single from Nevermind.

It begins with a staccato guitar riff on four chords, played twice by Cobain. Just as he completes the second one, he is swamped by David Grohl's violent drums, Chris Novoselic's grinding bass and his own overdubbed, distorted guitar. The riff is repeated twice, with thrilling intensity. It then pulls back to make space for a chiming, vaguely ominous two-note guitar signature and, 33 seconds in, Cobain starts to sing. Slightly plaintive, slightly anguished, his voice delivers a childlike melody with a coded message that is now deeply poignant: 'Load up on guns, bring your friends, it's fun to lose and to pretend.' The sense of seditionary intent is blurred at once by a seemingly unrelated couplet about a girl who is 'overboard and self-assured', which leads into a sneering, taunting refrain of 'hello, hello, hello, hello'. It's a very strange song.

Equally suddenly, it jack-knifes back into rage. The chorus is a triumph of screaming and mystique. Those who had bought Nevermind could actually locate fragments of the song's chorus in Cobain's incomplete lyric sheet, which tantalisingly provided a mere six or so lines from each song. And here it was: 'With the lights out, it's less dangerous/Here we are now, entertain us/I feel stupid and contagious/ Here we are now, entertain us/A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido . . .'

An article on Nirvana in NME in September had shown Cobain still unclear about the message of the song. 'It's about - hey, brother, especially sister, throw away the fruit and eat all the rind,' he suggested unhelpfully, before adding, more politically, that any teenage revolution would have to start 'from the inside . . . with the custodians and the cheerleaders'.

Two years later he was denying any political intent, telling Azerrad: 'I just felt that my band was in a situation where it was expected to fight in a revolutionary sense toward the major corporate machine. I just thought, 'How dare you put that kind of f--ing pressure on me.' It's stupid. And I feel stupid and contagious.'

On 4 December Nirvana appeared on Top of the Pops, and gave a surreal performance that pushed the song up to its peak of No 7. Cobain, singing live, crooned it in a bizarre Gothic drawl an octave lower than on the record. The opening lines were amended to 'load up on drugs and kill your friends'. He had glimpsed the future - a wave of designer 'grunge' bands, the usurping of his vision by industry bigwigs - and he didn't fancy becoming a totem. From that day, Nirvana were prone to irreverence when they played 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'.

The first cover version came from an unexpected direction. Tori Amos, the American singer-songwriter, put 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' on a CD of her third single, 'Winter' (East West, March 1992). She turned it into a prissy piano ballad. Substituting tremulous longing for blind fury, she sounded woefully gauche on lines like 'I feel stoopid and contagious'.

Nirvana found Amos's version hilarious. When they played some dates in Ireland in June 1992, they used it as their intro tape, bounding on stage and pirouetting like ballerinas. In the press, David Grohl hailed it enthusiastically as 'an abomination'.

By then, they had heard, and approved, a clever pastiche of 'Teen Spirit' by America's foremost rock'n'roll spoofer, Weird Al Yankovic. Yankovic's reputation in Britain at that time rested on his 1984 hit 'Eat It', a

parody of Michael Jackson's 'Beat It'. On his droll 'Smells Like Nirvana' (Scotti Bros Records), a minor hit in July 1992, he showed impressive research. His rhythm section's re-creation of Grohl and Novoselic's chaos was spot-on, as was his send-up of the chorus: 'Here we are now, we're Nirvana/ Sing distinctly, we don't wanna.' In the gaps, he replaced Cobain's 'yay' with sheep noises.

It wasn't that Nirvana's balloon needed to be pricked. It was simply that 'Teen Spirit' was now fair game. The Reading Festival in August witnessed a superb take-off by Australian Abba-clones Bjorn Again, but the most sacrilegious spoof-mongering came from Nirvana themselves, appearing the same day. Striking up the famous riff to tumultuous cheers, Cobain launched into 'More Than a Feeling'.

In 1993, Nirvana publicly dismissed Nevermind as too clean-sounding and released a nightmarish follow-up, In Utero (Geffen). On an album loaded with cryptic self-references, they teased the 'Teen Spirit' generation one last time. 'Rape Me', a song that saw Cobain skirting controversy with mind-boggling recklessness, was clearly inspired by a fraught year in which he admitted an addiction to heroin and almost lost custody of his daughter to the Los Angeles County Department of Children's Services. The first four bars of 'Rape Me' are intended to startle; on slightly different chords, it's the introduction to 'Teen Spirit'.

In May 1993, the four 'Teen Spirit' bars were sampled by British rappers Credit to the Nation for the intro to 'Call It What You Want'. It was a well-known device: Soho had done likewise with the Smiths' 'How Soon Is Now?' on their 1990 single 'Hippy Chick'. It transpired that Credit to the Nation had got copyright clearance from Cobain only two days before the single's release.

'Call It What You Want' became a crossover hit in student discos and clubs. It left 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' shrouded in delicious irony. For all its notoriety, for all its units sold and feathers ruffled, for all that it arguably defined the early Nineties, for all the awful events of April '94, no one can be sure, when those four chords start jangling, whether they are about to hear Nirvana or Credit to the Nation.

8 Extracted from 'Lives of the Great Songs' (Pavilion, hardback), edited by Tim de Lisle. The book comprises all 22 articles that have appeared in our series, plus 14 new ones. It is in the shops now, price pounds 14.99, but readers of the 'IoS' can order it by post at no extra cost. Just ring 0235 831700 (9am-5pm Mon-Fri) with a credit card to hand. If you prefer to pay by cheque, write to Bookpoint Ltd (Mail Order Dept), 39 Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4TD, making the cheque out to Bookpoint. Please allow 14 days for delivery.

8To hear 'Smells Like Teen Spirit', tune in to Gary Davies' Classic Tracks on Virgin 1215 at 9-9.30am today. Virgin is between 1197 and 1260 kHz MW, depending on where you are, and in stereo on satellite and cable TV.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge
books
Arts and Entertainment
Don’t send in the clowns: masks and make-up conceal true facial expressions, thwarting our instinct to read people’s minds through their faces, as seen in ‘It’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Go figure: Matt Parker, wearing the binary code scarf knitted by his mother
comedy Mathematician is using comedy nights to teach and preach sums
Arts and Entertainment
Ryan Gosling in 'Drive'
filmReview: Ryan Gosling is still there, but it's a very different film
Arts and Entertainment
Urban explorer: Rose Rouse has documented her walks around Harlesden, and the people that she’s encountered along the way
books Rouse's new book discusses her four-year tour of Harlesden
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter
film
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Franco Zeffirelli's production of 'Aida' at Milan's famed La Scala opera house
operaLegendary opera director in battle with theatre over sale of one of his 'greatest' productions
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Juergen Wolf won the Young Masters Art Prize 2014 with his mixed media painting on wood, 'Untitled'
art
Arts and Entertainment
Iron Man and Captain America in a scene from
filmThe upcoming 'Black Panther' film will feature a solo black male lead, while a female superhero will take centre stage in 'Captain Marvel'
Arts and Entertainment
The Imperial War Museum, pictured, has campaigned to display copyrighted works during the First World War centenary
art
Arts and Entertainment
American Horror Story veteran Sarah Paulson plays conjoined twins Dot and Bette Tattler
tvReview: Yes, it’s depraved for the most part but strangely enough it has heart to it
Arts and Entertainment
The mind behind Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin
books

Will explain back story to fictional kingdom Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Dorothy in Return to Oz

film Unintentionally terrifying children's movies to get you howling (in fear, tears or laughter)
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robert James-Collier as under-butler Thomas

TVLady Edith and Thomas show sad signs of the time
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Dad's Army cast hit the big screen

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge

books
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning?
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Bryan Adams' heartstopping images of wounded British soldiers to go on show at Somerset House

    Bryan Adams' images of wounded soldiers

    Taken over the course of four years, Adams' portraits are an astonishing document of the aftermath of war
    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
    The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

    Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

    Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
    Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

    What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

    Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
    A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

    Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

    Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
    Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

    'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

    A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

    Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

    The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
    Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

    Paul Scholes column

    Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
    Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

    Frank Warren column

    Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
    Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

    Adrian Heath's American dream...

    Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
    Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities