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.