Dave Grohl Thought Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ Was Just ‘Another Cool Song for the Record’
This Friday (Sept. 24) marks the 30th anniversary of Nirvana's Nevermind album, largely considered to be the album that launched the grunge era. The record was of course bolstered by "Smells Like Teen Spirit," a song that seemingly turned the music world as most knew it at the time on its ear. But even though it turned out to be a massive hit, Dave Grohl says he didn't see it coming.
Grohl spoke with NME for a 30th anniversary retrospective on the album, and he admits his expectations were way lower than what eventually happened once the song was released.
“I remember writing ‘Teen Spirit’ in our rehearsal space, and I liked the riff that Kurt [Cobain] came up with because it’s percussive," he recalled. “Those muted, stabbing strums in between the chords really leant to the pattern of the drum riff.”
Grohl recalls listening to "a lot of Pixies" at the time, pointing to their Bossa Nova album, and just having fun in the studio and writing new songs daily. “Of course, no one had any psychic foresight to imagine that [Teen Spirit] would go on to do what it did. We just fuckin’ rocked it in a little rehearsal space that was like a barn.”
The drummer says he wasn't quite sure what to make of the lyrics, but he "realized the power of the song" once they hit the studio. “And not just lyrically or musically, but the groove of the song – it was really powerful,” Grohl explained.
Still, it was not a slam dunk for the lead single. "I think everyone was more focused on songs like 'In Bloom' or 'Lithium' or 'Breed,'" recalled Grohl. "Nobody really paid too much attention to ‘Teen Spirit’ while we were recording it. We just thought it was another cool song for the record.”
But the song was the first single, hitting No. 7 on the Mainstream Rock chart, topping the Alternative Airplay chart and crossing over to hit No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100. The Samuel Bayer-directed video also became an MTV staple, winning two MTV Video Music Awards the following year. And the success of the track took the relatively unknown Seattle band's Nevermind album from a modest debut all the way to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 Album Chart by January of 1992.
"Lithium" and "In Bloom" did eventually get their day, being the third and fourth singles from the album, but "Smells Like Teen Spirit" did the heavy lifting exposing the band to new audiences and helping breaking up the monotony of rock radio at the time. It eventually helped earn the Nevermind album diamond certification status (over 10 million sold) in the U.S.