It’s one of the most iconic videos in music history, up there with Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” or Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” But to hear late Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain tell it, he wasn’t that happy with how the final version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” turned out, which is why he went in at the last minute and tweaked it himself.
“Although it worked … I like the video overall, but it wasn’t what I pictured in my mind,” Cobain said in a December 13, 1993, interview with MTV News about the clip that helped launch a rock revolution and turned his band into unwitting grunge poster children. “When I come up with an idea for a video, I want it to be translated exactly how I see it in my mind … and it just wasn’t that way.”Nirvana’s rise to fame, in their own words.
Cobain — who was notoriously hands-on with all the imagery associated with the band, including creating the artwork for their album covers — said Nirvana just didn’t take enough time to prep themselves for the shoot.
“We didn’t prepare ourselves enough to have as much control as we wanted to,” he explained, perhaps alluding to the fact that the clip was the first one the band filmed after making the huge leap from cash-strapped Seattle indie label Sub Pop to major label Geffen/DGC as a still mostly unknown new act.
Cobain described walking in on the first day of shooting of the video — for the first single from what would become their smash breakthrough, 1991’s Nevermind — with director Sam Bayer (Green Day, Justin Timberlake, The Strokes) and realizing that the set did not look as he had imagined or drawn in his storyboarding for the clip. “I told him what I wanted, I drew pictures of it, and I walked in and it wasn’t what I wanted,” Cobain said. “It looked like a Time-Life commercial to me, with that backdrop, it just looked like such a contemporary … you know those kind of commercials where people are sitting there trying to sell aspirin or something? Or an AT&T commercial? That’s what it looked like to me; it looked too contemporary.”
Even though he was disappointed with the look of the set, Cobain had high praise for the super-jacked real fans who were trucked in to fill out the bleachers in the studio for the exhausting 12-hour shoot. “Still, the kids made the video,” he said. “Even after Sam had edited it … he edited it and sent it to me and I didn’t like it, and I flew down at the last minute to L.A. and edited it myself. I threw in a few extra things which pretty much saved it.”
Reluctant to toot his own horn (while, you know, totally tooting his own horn), Cobain added that there was “a lot of really good” footage that Bayer had shot that wasn’t used. “If a lot of that hadn’t been used, it would have been a really bad video,” he laughed, alluding to the shots of the (over) excited kids trashing the set. “There wasn’t really a lot of that, and most of the stuff that was used looked really contrived. There was no spontaneity in it. So I just threw all the spontaneous parts in.”
Stick with MTV News all week as we reveal the Nevermind You Never Knew, celebrating the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s definitive album with classic footage, new interviews and much more.