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TV’s Most Surreal Music Performances: Nirvana

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When Nirvana were booked to appear on the Nov. 28, 1991, broadcast of ‘Top of the Pops,’ they were informed that they wouldn’t be allowed to actually perform live on the British music show — their rendition of then-current hit single ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ would have to feature Kurt Cobain singing along to an instrumental tracking of the song, with bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl expected to mime to the music. Not surprisingly, Nirvana weren’t game for playing along.

As the opening strains of ‘Teen Spirit’ ring out and the camera zooms in on Cobain’s guitar, it quickly becomes apparent they aren’t playing their instruments at all. With his fingers laying out flat and inches away from his strings, Cobain robotically strums his ax as Novoselic bounces and flails spastically, his bass swinging around his head. Grohl dutifully starts off the song pounding out that familiar bass-snare-hi-hat pattern, but it’s not long before he gives in too, pumping his arms in the air in time to the music — eventually, he’s off his throne and dancing

Things really take a turn for the weird when the lyrics kick in. “Load up on drugs, kill your friends,” Cobain sings out, changing the first lines of the opening verse (it’s supposed to be “Load up on guns, bring your friends“) and delivering the line in a deep, bass-baritone voice that would give Ian Curtis a run for his money. (Cobain later said he was doing his best Morrissey impersonation.) As they reach the chorus, his vocals soar to the heights of an opera singer’s.

The crowd reaction is just as priceless. Some people are totally into it, moshing and headbanging along to the music like teens did back then; others stare blankly at what is unfolding before their eyes, completely dumbfounded and confused. Before long, most of the audience is clapping along to the tune, and by the time Cobain tears into his solo, people start jumping onstage and trashing the place in homage to the anarcho spirit of the ‘Teen Spirit’ video — you can actually hear the crashes as tom-toms go tumbling. The ‘Top of the Pops’ producers must have been none too happy about the scene unfolding; they cut to a commercial before the third verse.

Nirvana must have rocked out ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ hundreds of times throughout their tragically shortened and ill-fated career, but it was their ‘Top of the Pops’ psuedo-performance that best captured the band’s punk-rock heart. It’s fun to pretend, indeed.

Next Surreal TV: Beck, Thurston Moore and Mike D

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