Despite being one of the most influential and respected bands of the last 20 years, the music world wasn't really sure what to do with Nirvana when they first arrived on the scene. The Seattle band defied all expectations and predictions when their second album, Nevermind
, was an unmitigated success, becoming the catalyst that pulled grunge out of the underground and into the mainstream spotlight. The album arguably defined the 90s American rock sound for the rest of the decade, but that didn't make it any easier for old entertainment establishments to digest this new kind of rock star. These grimy, shit-grinning teenagers were the antithesis of the hair-metal rockers of the 1980s, but were also too nonchalant to be punk rockers and too sardonic to be long haired hippies. The mainstream music world was not ready for grunge, but whether they liked it or not, the movement was taking over in a very public way.
The friction between grunge and the mainstream was perhaps the most clear when Nirvana made their debut on the long-running UK music chart program, Top of the Pops
. On the air since 1964, TOTP
was a well-established facet of British culture, with millions gathering around their Tellies every week to watch music videos and performances by whichever artists were dominating the charts at the time. Then again, "performance" might be a stretch: For whatever reason, TOTP
had long been adamant about artists "miming" their songs versus actually playing them live. Though this policy was scrapped and re-adopted over the years, by 1991 the show enforced a strict policy that required all artists, including bands, to sing live to a pre-recorded backing track. While exceptions to the rule were made for the artists you'd be an idiot to not let them do it live - the Who, Elton, Bowie, etc. - most bands didn't have enough pull to get around the policy.
being just a day over two months old when they played TOTP
on November 25, 1991, Nirvana were still considered green horned newcomers that got incredibly lucky, not the revered trailblazers we see them as today. Like every other newbie, they were going to have to fake playing their instruments...but that didn't mean they were going to fake it well
. Throughout the show's history, and particularly in the 90s and 2000s, rock bands often pissed all over TOTP's
rigid performance requirements with hilarious results, from Liam and Noel Gallagher switching roles
to Travis starting a food fight
mid-song. But because TOTP
only adopted the live-vocal-only rule in 1991, Nirvana beat everyone else to the punch, which resulted in one of the trolliest performances ever caught on live television.
The performance initially seemed normal in the opening tracking shot- Krist Novoselic can be seen waving his bass in the air, but he was known for tossing it around (and dropping it
on his head)- but that illusion didn't last long. The close-up shot on Kurt Cobain's guitar was supposed to capture him passionately slamming the power chords to "Smells Like Teen Spirit," but instead, it showed him flat-handedly strumming the guitar up and down like a crappy Chuck E Cheese's robot. Novoselic was swinging his bass around much more than usual, enough to prove he definitely wasn't playing, and Dave Grohl was more flailing/dancing behind the drum kit than actually drumming. Though the band was trying their hardest to be the shittiest mimes in human history, one could argue that the less perceptive viewer might not have noticed anything out-of-the-ordinary. Thankfully, the trio wasn't satisfied with just dicking around on the instruments, because there was still one thing they had full and complete control over: The vocals.
"Load up on drugs, kill your friends," sang Cobain in a surreal, exaggerated baritone in an attempt to impersonate fellow musical agitator Morrissey (though this writer argues he got closer to Depeche Mode's Dave Gahan). If you're thinking God, I don't remember the first line of the song being so dark,
don't worry, because that isn't the actual opening lyric. Cobain made that line up to freak out the wholesome mainstream audience more than he probably already did, and he then proceeded to sing the rest of the song like a Big Mouth Billy Bass low on batteries. By the pre-chorus, Cobain was singing so below his register that he was barely audible, so he swallowed the mic and created a low growl of distorted vocals.
The song faded out by the solo thanks to crowd members rushing the stage (whether or not they were staged is up to you) and helping the band dismantle their instruments. The performance went as far from as planned as humanly possible, but if anything, Nirvana made their TOTP
spot infinitely more entertaining than it was ever going to be. If you know anything about the band and their sense of humor, it's hard not to see this moment as anything less of a success. Eventually, TOTP
dropped the vocals-only policy, and the show continued on the air until 2006. Nirvana's career wasn't marred by the mimed performance, far from it in fact, as messing around on live TV became an expected occurrence for the band. The music world still had a lot to learn about grunge in '91, but if the movement's champions were any indication, TOTP
viewers at least learned one cardinal truth about the grunge star: They sure as shit weren't fake.