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'Smells Like Teen Spirit' at 30: Dave Grohl recalls 'bananas' first time Nirvana played it live

Patrick Ryan, USA TODAY
·5 min read
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Many iconic albums are celebrating milestone anniversaries this year, from Adele's "21," released a decade ago last month, to Carole King's "Tapestry," which turns 50 on Wednesday.

Perhaps of biggest interest to rock fans is Nirvana's seminal second album "Nevermind," released nearly 30 years ago on Sept. 24, 1991. The album arrived with minimal fanfare: It debuted at No. 144 on the Billboard 200 chart but quickly became a word-of-mouth sensation, selling more than 10 million copies in its first eight years, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.

"Nevermind" was preceded by lead single "Smells Like Teen Spirit," which peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100. The snarling grunge anthem was co-written by singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain, drummer Dave Grohl and bassist Krist Novoselic as a nod to the Pixies. They demoed the album in rural Tacoma, Washington, before recording at the legendary Sound City Studios in Los Angeles in May 1991.

"We were kids. I think I was 21 when we were writing that song," Grohl tells USA TODAY. "It was in a rehearsal space that was a converted barn, and we just wanted to go in and work. This was our life at the time: We were just eating and sleeping so we could go back to the rehearsal space and write more songs."

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Grohl is now the frontman of his own band, Foo Fighters, which released its 10th album "Medicine at Midnight" last week. But he vividly remembers the first time Nirvana played "Smells Like Teen Spirit" live for an audience, at Seattle's OK Hotel music venue on April 17, 1991.

"Usually when you play a song that's not a part of your celebrated repertoire, people stand and listen," Grohl says. "The first time we played 'Smells Like Teen Spirit,' the place went (expletive) bananas and that hadn't necessarily happened before, so I didn't know what it would mean. I just knew sonically, this is going to make people move. And it did."

Beyond that, Grohl says he can't articulate why "Teen Spirit" in particular has continued to resonate 30 years later. It ranks No. 9 on Rolling Stone's list of the "500 Greatest Songs of All Time," and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2017.

"My connection with those songs is a bit deeper than just musical," Grohl says. "So when I hear those songs come on the radio, it's almost like going back to your mother's house and flipping through the same photo albums she's had since you were a kid. You've looked at the picture 1,000 times, it's fading, but it brings you back to that moment. So when I hear those songs, it brings me back to recording. I can remember the shirt I wore. I can remember how cold it was. I can remember the drum set. So that's my connection to it. I have my theories on why so many people connected to it and why Nirvana became a popular band, but mine is just a little more distorted than an actual music critic."

Along with "Teen Spirit," "Nevermind" sparked other massive hits for Nirvana, which disbanded in 1994 following Cobain's death. "Come As You Are," "Lithium" and "In Bloom" were all released as singles from the album – the last of which recently enjoyed a viral moment.

'You're an incredible drummer': Dave Grohl has virtual drum battle with 10-year-old

In late 2019, then-9-year-old drummer Nandi Bushell recorded a video of herself delightedly playing along to Nirvana's "In Bloom." The clip eventually caught the attention of Grohl, who agreed to a virtual "drum battle" with the young British prodigy during the height of COVID-19 lockdown last year.

"Butch Vig, Nirvana's producer, sent me the video of her playing 'In Bloom' and she was nailing the parts," Grohl says. "But she played with this intensity that was inspiring. When she does drumrolls, she screams. And that doesn't come from a sheet of music – that comes from your heart. So I thought, 'Oh, wow, this kid is really good for her age.' I had no idea until she called me out like a (expletive) playground bully and challenged me to a drum battle that I was walking into something I could not walk out of gracefully."

Grohl's drum-off with Bushell became "the deciding factor" in releasing "Medicine at Midnight" now, the rocker says. Foo Fighters recorded the album in fall 2019, but they were unsure whether to put it out in a pandemic.

"I realized, here's two people (who have) never met, thousands of miles apart, connecting virtually," Grohl says. "There's no trophy at the end of this drum battle. Bragging rights, maybe, but ultimately its sole purpose was to bring joy at a time where everyone was in desperate need of that. I realized, what are we waiting for? Why are we sitting on this album? We write these songs to be heard, whether it's in a stadium or your living room.

"I hope our record can make people feel the same way as my drum battle with Nandi," he adds. "It was a huge moment for me and ultimately very humbling, because she kicked my (expletive)."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Dave Grohl talks 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' at 30, viral drum battle