Nineteen years ago today, Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was released as the first single from "Nevermind" with little fanfare. The track -- which Kurt Cobain has famously called his attempt to write "the ultimate pop song" and emulate one of his favorite bands, Pixies -- didn't immediately catch fire, but when its uncoiled thrash was paired with images of anarchist cheerleaders and teens moshing in the gym bleachers, something in the culture simply clicked. The song that Cobain had most likely written about his then girlfriend, the musician Tobi Vail of riot grrrl pioneers Bikini Kill (and inadvertently named after her preferred deodorant), was adopted as the uneasy anthem of a generation of pissed-off misfits, and its video became one of the most powerful documents of the early '90s rock revolution.
In honor of the song's anniversary, and Sunday night's VMAs, here's a look back at what went into pairing one of the greatest songs of all time with its iconic video:
• Nirvana themselves recruited the kids who starred in the video, passing out flyers at an L.A. show the night before the shoot that read, "Nirvana needs YOU to appear in their upcoming music video, Smells Like Teen Spirit. You should be 18 to 25 years old and adapt a high-school persona, i.e., preppy, punk, nerd, jock ..."
• Director Samuel Bayer has said he scored the job by calling the record company and saying, "I'm starving and I need a gig." He's also admitted that Cobain plucked his reel out of the pile of demos because it was the worst: "I think that Kurt Cobain decided that it was a very punk thing to do to pick the nonconformist to do his video." The budget for the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video is estimated to have been between $30,000 and $50,000.
• The band wanted to reference "Over the Edge," Matt Dillon's 1979 feature film debut, in which a group of bored kids rebel and demolish a school. Bayer says Nirvana was also inspired by the The Ramones' "Rock 'n' Roll High School," which was also released in '79.
• After a full, exhausting day of shooting, during which both the band and the extras became antsy and irritated -- "He hated everything I did, and we fought like tooth and nail," Bayer has said of his clashes with Cobain -- the director granted Cobain's request to let the kids destroy the soundstage. "It's all real," Bayer said of the mayhem in the final cut. "The last 30 seconds of that video is those kids destroying the set and I just happened to have a roll of film in the camera."
• The janitor wringing out his mop and bopping along to "Teen Spirit" also appeared in "Weird Al" Yankovic's parody video of the song, "Smells Like Nirvana." His name is Rudy Larosa, and he was actually employed as the janitor at Bayer's apartment building. "He had an asthma attack from all the smoke on the stage," Bayer told Slashfilm.
• Cobain wasn't enthusiastic about playing "Smells Like Teen Spirit" over and over during the shoot, but he had a big hand in the final edit of the video. After Bayer revealed his director's cut (watch Bayer's version below), Cobain stepped in and asked him to remove some extra characters, like the school principal. "Looking back, it wasn't that good," Bayer has admitted. Cobain flew down from Seattle to sit down with Bayer and lock in changes. It was ultimately the rocker's decision to unconventionally stitch together the guitar solo so his hands were on the wrong place on the guitar.
The clip went on to win two MTV Video Music Awards on September 9, 1992, where Nirvana performed "Lithium" in what would become one of the most memorable VMAs moments of all time:Cobain started by jokingly playing a few bars of "Rape Me" (whichthey'd been specifically asked not to perform), Krist Novoselic hurledhis bass in the air and was nearly knocked unconscious when it landedon his head, and Dave Grohl ran up to the microphone and yelled, "Hi,Axl!" repeatedly in an attempt to rile Guns N' Roses leader Axl Rose,who'd scuffled with the band backstage.
[Video: More music from Nirvana]
Photo: Cobain at the 1993 MTV VMAs, Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic.com