Smells Like Culver City? Iconic Nirvana Video Has CC Back Story

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Nirvana’s best-known single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” was shared with the world on September 10, 1991. It did not debut on the Billboard charts. Paula Abdul topped the Hot 100 that week, followed by Color Me Badd, Bryan Adams, Boyz II Men, C+C Music Factory, Marky Mark, and a procession of other glossy pop and R&B acts. REM’s aptly named “Shiny Happy People” represented indie rock at #16, while Metallica, Firehouse, Guns n Roses, and The Scorpions carried the flag for heavy guitars in lower positions. Expectations were low for the edgy Seattle trio’s first major label release. 

Everything changed a month later, when MTV began playing the song’s video, first on their “alternative” program 120 Minutes, then in regular rotation as demand increased. Video play drove the song up the charts, where it peaked at #6 the second week of January 1992, sandwiched between two MC Hammer songs behind Michael Jackson, Color Me Badd, Mariah Carey, and Boyz II Men.

For many Generation X rock fans, the success of Nirvana validated the postpunk underground of indie labels, DIY shows, zines, and college radio, but it would not have happened without MTV, a medium held in such contempt by underground bands that, when contractually obligated to make a video, indie rock heroes The Replacements turned in a clip focused almost entirely on a stereo playing their album. Nirvana were slightly more willing to obey their corporate masters. That’s where Culver City comes in.

Back on August 15 Nirvana played a short set at the Roxy on the Sunset Strip as an industry showcase and a warmup for their upcoming European tour opening for Sonic Youth (captured in the documentary 1991: The Year Punk Broke). Staff from their label passed out flyers inviting fans to a video shoot at a Fox Hills soundstage on the 17th. Kurt Cobain announced the casting call between songs. On the 16th disc jockeys on KXLU, Loyola Marymount University’s radio station and a big part of the LA underground rock scene, also broadcast the call.

So many fans arrived for the 11:30AM call at GMT Studios, soundstage 6, on Buckingham Parkway off of Slauson that hundreds had to be turned away. The chosen few spent hours slouching through a mock pep rally, featuring the now iconic anarchy cheerleaders, watching the band mime to their single. For the last take, Cobain encouraged them to mosh for real and to demolish the set and the band’s gear, which yielded the shots that best captured the excitement of a real punk show.

The director, Samuel Bayer, later said he thought the band had chosen him because his demo reel was terrible, hoping he would produce something raw and authentically punk. Cobain had created the video’s scenario, pitched it to the label, storyboarded it, expanded it by instigating the demolition, and then re-edited the video Bayer turned in. Cobain surprisingly added a full-face closeup of himself near the end of the video, after performing the entire song behind his hair. Bayer did capture memorable imagery and energy, and this video immediately launched the first-time director’s ongoing career, which has included projects for David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, Ozzy Osbourne, Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake, Marilyn Manson, Green Day, and many others.

GMT Studios also continues to work at the highest levels of show business, rented for film and TV projects ranging from Kill Bill to Seinfeld and for tour rehearsals for artists including Janet Jackson, Beyoncé, Katy Perry, and The Rolling Stones. 

Sources
Goldberg, Danny. Serving the Servant: Remembering Kurt Cobain. New York: Ecco, 2019.

“Live Nirvana Concert Chronology.” https://www.livenirvana.com/concerts/91/91-08-15.php

Raul. “Nirvana ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ Video Shoot Details.” http://www.feelnumb.com/2009/10/29/nirvana-smells-like-teen-spirit-video-shoot-story/

“Setlist History: On This Day in 1991 Nirvana Played the Roxy.” https://www.setlist.fm/news/08-17/setlist-history-on-this-day-in-1991-nirvana-played-the-roxy-bd6bd1a

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