Why Nirvana Self-Sabotaged Their Performance on ‘Top of the Pops’

Rock stars, generally speaking, are not fans of rules. This goes double for Nirvana.

The grunge icons were famously anti-establishment, gleefully throwing up literal or metaphorical middle fingers towards anyone they deemed as corporate, mainstream or lame.

At the other end of the spectrum, Top of the Pops, the hugely popular U.K. television show that aired weekly on the BBC from 1964 to 2006. In addition to playing top-charting songs, the show featured artists performing their biggest hits. However, the show’s strict rules meant that most guests weren’t really “performing” at all.

In an effort to control every facet of the production, Top of the Pops routinely had its musical guests mime their way through songs. For stuffy network executives, the format made sense. Why risk curse words, miscues or unexpected acts of defiance when you can keep things completely predictable by having acts fake their way through a song? For a grunge band from Seattle, it did not.

Nirvana were set to play Top of the Pops on Nov. 25, 1991. When the band was presented with the show’s miming rules, they were stunned. Producers agreed to let Kurt Cobain sing over a backing track, meaning his voice would be live, but the instrumental part of the song would be a recording. This was not a new strategy, as Top of the Pops had done this from time to time in an effort to keep their guests happy. In this instance, however, it backfired.

When Nirvana stepped up to play their smash hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” viewers could immediately sense that things were off. None of the trio were playing their respective instruments correctly. Cobain wore a smirk across his face as he robotically strummed at his guitar, before moving his hands completely away from the instrument. Krist Novoselic threw his bass over his back and around his head, making it abundantly clear he wasn’t playing at all. Meanwhile, Dave Grohl smashed at his drums and cymbals purposely out of time with the song.

Still, the piece de resistance came when Cobain started to sing.

Rather than his customary tone, the frontman crooned in a low baritone. He’d later admit that he was trying to copy Morrissey, the mercurial Smiths singer. Amazingly, Cobain kept this up for the entirety of Nirvana’s Top of the Pops performance. At times, he added a croak to his voice, and at one point the frontman put the entire microphone in his mouth.

The performance indeed ended with the band throwing around their instruments as the backing track continued to play — the final punctuation from some of rock’s favorite rule-breakers.

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