Nirvana debuts brand-new grunge-rock anthem "Smells Like Teen Spirit" at Seattle's OK Hotel all-ages club on April 17, 1991.

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 12/31/2014
  • Essay 11002
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On the evening of Wednesday, April 17, 1991, members of the grunge-rock group Nirvana -- in the relative calm just prior to the frenzy that will begin to engulf them six months later -- perform a set of songs during what would normally be a rather undistinguished last-minute midweek gig at the OK Hotel, an all-ages rock club located in Seattle's Pioneer Square at 212 Alaskan Way S. But a film crew (whose footage will later appear a grunge-scene documentary) is present, and among the fresh tunes the filmmakers capture is the very song that will soon cast the band into the eye of an approaching global media hurricane and into the history books as well: "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

A Spirited Scene 

Nirvana was a rock 'n' roll band from Aberdeen, Grays Harbor County, that formed in the late 1980s. As the band-members developed their unique sound -- and moved around to Olympia, Tacoma, and eventually Seattle -- they built an enthusiastic following on the Northwest's simmering scene that already boasted popular young groups such as the U-Men, Wipers, Alice in Chains, Screaming Trees, Melvins, Soundgarden, Malfunkshun, Green River, and Mother Love Bone. In time, and largely due to the September 1991 album Nevermind -- and its hit single "Smells Like Teen Spirit" -- Nirvana would become the most celebrated group to emerge from the globally recognized "grunge-rock" art movement.

The group was formed by guitarist/vocalist Kurt Cobain (1967-1994) and bassist Krist Novoselic (b. 1965), who played with a succession of about six drummers. Their final, and most talented, one was Dave Grohl (b. 1969), the former tub-thumper for the Washington, D.C., punk band Scream, who auditioned, by invitation, with Cobain and Novoselic on September 25, 1990, and made his debut with Nirvana at Olympia's North Shore Surf Club (115 E 5th Avenue) three weeks later on October 11, 1990.

In early November Nirvana signed a management contract with a major Los Angeles-based firm, Gold Mountain, and -- even though the band members, like so many in the punk-rock subculture, had a healthy disdain for careerists who obsess about achieving mainstream success -- scoring a major-label recording deal would become their next goal.

Nirvana continued rehearsing and playing scattered gigs in Washington, including one on November 25 at Seattle's Off Ramp Cafe at 109 Eastlake Avenue E where A&R scouts -- among them Susie Tennant, the Seattle-based promotional rep for David Geffen's DGC label -- from at least six big-time record labels came to watch what would later be widely described as an incredible performance. In the end, DGC would step up with the winning offer and sign the band on April 30, 1991. But it was two weeks earlier that Nirvana raised the stakes by unveiling a game-changing new song at a grubby nightspot in the oldest section of downtown Seattle.

A Site Near Skid Road 

The OK Hotel was built in 1914 on Railroad Avenue S (later renamed Alaskan Way S) in a sketchy part of Seattle's Pioneer Square neighborhood. Facing west to the rough-and-tumble Elliott Bay waterfront, the flophouse was geared toward salty sailors, muscle-bound dockworkers, and lubricated lumberjacks all raring to blow their dough in the bars and brothels along Skid Road (Yesler Way). Then in 1953 Seattle's new route for Highway 99 -- an immense overhead concrete bridge called the Alaskan Way Viaduct -- was erected, creating even more soot, noise, and grim darkness for the OK's unlucky residents, who were already dealing with the frequent trains that clanged along in a rail tunnel below.

Decades of obscurity flew by until 1988, when Tia and Steve Freeborn figured the grungy spot was ideal for loud rock 'n' roll shows and leased the building. Kicking off with a show by Mother Love Bone, the all-ages club's thousands of subsequent shows would feature additional top local bands like Soundgarden, Mudhoney, the Gits, Mookie Blaylock (the name used by Pearl Jam in its first months of gigging), and many others.

Perhaps most famously, on Wednesday, April 17, 1991, Nirvana headlined a three-band lineup there that also featured Olympia's riot grrrl band Bikini Kill and Tumwater punks Fits of Depression. According to some accounts, the show was organized as a fund-raising benefit event to help Fits of Depression singer Mike Dees avoid jail by paying off his traffic fines.

A Sold-Out Show 

But the OK Hotel's weeknight show would become legendary, in part because Nirvana had only done one Seattle show (that Off Ramp Cafe gig) since Grohl joined -- although the band had already played numerous dates from Olympia to Portland, and even a tour through England and Scotland. Adding to the excitement was the presence of of a 3-camera film crew, led by John Kessler, some of whose footage of the band and the riotous mosh-pit action later ended up in Doug Pray's Hype! documentary film. Even more significantly, on this night Nirvana chose to debut a few new songs, including the future hit "Smells Like Teen Spirit." The set-list included 17 songs, and then the band kicked in four additional tunes as encores.

The band climbed the stage, and Cobain played an opening song solo. After the second song, he greeted the jam-packed and joyous crowd with an in-joke referencing his band's recent interactions with Gold Mountain and DGC: "Hello. We're major-label corporate-rock sell-outs" (Borzillo, 68). From there, the rowdy, sweaty, crowd-surfing melee really got underway. The entire performance sequence was as follows:

  • "Pennyroyal Tea"
  • "Polly"
  • "Big Cheese"
  • "Turnaround" [DEVO cover]
  • "Love Buzz" [Shocking Blue cover]
  • "D-7" [Wipers cover]
  • "Blew"
  • "Been a Son"
  • "Stain"
  • "Negative Creep"
  • "Libido" [Naked Raygun cover]
  • "Wild Thing" [Troggs/Jimi Hendrix cover]
  • "About a Girl"
  • "Breed"
  • "Floyd the Barber"
  • "Verse Chorus Verse"
  • "Smells Like Teen Spirit"
  • "School" [encore]
  • "Dive" [encore]
  • "Territorial Pissings" [encore]
  • "Sliver" [encore]

Grunge Goes Global 

The backstory of how and why Nirvana did the show is that, reportedly, the band "needed gas money to drive down to L.A. to record [their next album], so they played a last-minute show at the OK Hotel ... [and the] band walked away with a few hundred bucks, drove down to L.A., and the rest is history" (Yarm). Indeed, two weeks later on April 30 Nirvana consummated its relationship with DGC by signing a formal recording contract. May and June were devoted to recording -- at studios in Van Nuys and Burbank, California -- what would become the breakthrough Nevermind album. Then, the action accelerated dramatically.

While Nirvana was on a tour in Europe, DGC released "Smells Like Teen Spirit" to the radio industry on August 27th and it was an instant hit. On September 9 the single was released in the UK, and the following day in the U.S. On the 21st the single entered Billboard magazine's Modern Rock Tracks chart at the No. 27 slot, and on the 24th the album was released. On the 28th the single moved up to No. 17, and by October 5 it was sitting at No. 11. On the 14th MTV added the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video to its high-rotation Buzz Bin category. On November 9 "Smells Like Teen Spirit" hit Billboard's Mainstream Rock Tracks' No. 27 slot, and on the 16th Nevermind hit Billboard's No. 9 slot. On December 7, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" hit Billboard's Hot 100 at No. 40, and its Hot 100 Singles Chart at No. 19, while Nevermind climbed to No. 4. On January 11, 1992, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" ascended to No. 6 on Billboard's Hot 100, while Nevermind scored the No. 1 spot. On the 22nd "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was certified as a Gold Record for having sold 500,000 copies, and on January 25, 1992, the single attained the coveted No. 1 slot on Billboard's Hot 100 Singles chart.

From there Nevermind and "Smells Like Teen Spirit" were phenomenal global hits and Nirvana arguably became the biggest rock stars of their generation. Nevermind is acknowledged as one of the finest rock albums of all time. And, in hindsight, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" -- which even Cobain once admitted, to Rolling Stone magazine, bore a certain likeness to the Northwest's longtime signature song "Louie, Louie" -- was one of the most undeniably electrifying singles to ever conquer the airwaves and win the hearts of millions of rock 'n' roll fans worldwide.

Singles and Studios 

That debut performance of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was among the portions of Nirvana's OK Hotel show captured by Kessler's multi-camera shoot that were used in Hype!, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January 1996. Footage from the show was also part of DGC's With the Lights Out Nirvana box-set DVD from November 2004. But those releases didn't preclude media pirates around the world from bootlegging the same footage on numerous DVDs.

Meanwhile, the OK Hotel served as a filming location -- recast as the "Java Stop" coffee house -- in Singles, Cameron Crowe's 1992 hit film about the Seattle scene, and it subsequently became a must-visit spot for grunge-history tourists. In the fall of 1994 management opted to change the business model by offering liquor, ending the club's all-ages era. The venue did, however, continue booking hundreds of bands, including the Queens of the Stone Age (who made their official debut there on November 20, 1997), but all this glorious fun finally ended on February 28, 2001, when the Nisqually earthquake rocked the building and the club soon vacated. The building was refurbished and developed into the OK Hotel Apartments, offering 42 residential and art-studio spaces, with the developers hoping that the planned replacement of the viaduct with a tunnel and related improvements along Seattle's central waterfront would put the fabled old building on the frontlines of a major new attraction along Elliott Bay.


Jim Berkenstadt and Charles Cross, Nevermind: Nirvana (New York: Schirmer Books, 1998), 51-52; Gillian G. Gaar, The Rough Guide to Nirvana (London: Rough Guides Ltd, 2009), 62; Gaar, Smells Like Teen Spirit: The Alterna-Teen Anthem of the ‘90s (McLean, Virgina: Miniver Press, 2014), 3; Mark Yarm, Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2012), 278; Carrie Borzillo, Nirvana: The Day by Day Eyewitness Chronicle (New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 2000), 63, 68, 70, 77-78, 80, 84, 87, 90, 94, 101; Clark Humphrey, Loser: The Real Seattle Music Story (Portland, OR: Feral House, 1995), 120, 193; author's archives and recollections.

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