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Flashback: Nirvana Invade Mainstream With ‘SNL’ Performance

25 years ago, Kurt Cobain introduced America to grunge as band played burgeoning anthem "Smells Like Teen Spirit"


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Twenty-five years ago on January 11th, Nirvana, a then-up-and-coming grunge group from the outskirts of Seattle that were somehow nipping at the heels of Michael Jackson’s charts dominance, made their Saturday Night Live debut. It marked the first time a grunge act had infiltrated the mainstream television audience via the nationally broadcast sketch comedy show.

With Kurt Cobain sporting magenta hair (dyed using Strawberry Kool-Aid) and a homemade Flipper shirt, the band tore through a frenzied, accelerated take on “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” a performance that helped cement the burgeoning anthem’s place in music history.

The high-profile appearance had immediate reverberations: The same week Nirvana performed at SNL‘s Studio 8H, Nevermind dethroned Michael Jackson’s Dangerous from its Number One incumbency atop the Billboard 200. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” would peak a few weeks later at Number Six on the Hot 100 following the SNL visit, and Cobain would become a reluctant superstar.

For the second performance of the episode, hosted by Northern Exposure‘s Rob Morrow, Nirvana delivered a routine rendition of their Side B opener “Territorial Pissings,” which ended with the band’s trademark penchant for destroying all the instruments and gear onstage. SNL producers were wise to Nirvana’s destructive ways and, after “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” swapped out the amps with cheaper models, which Cobain maniacally punctured with the head of his guitar.

To conclude their explosive first visit to SNL, the members of the band made out with each other during the show’s weekly curtain call to, as the band once noted, “piss off the rednecks and homophobes.”

It wasn’t until the arrival of Charles Cross’ 2001 Cobain biography Heavier Than Heaven that the somber story of the immediate hours following the storied performance was revealed. According to the book’s prologue, after skipping SNL‘s notorious post-show cast party, Cobain overdosed on heroin in his New York City hotel room.

When Courtney Love found Cobain the next morning, she recalled she “threw cold water on her fiancé and punched him in the solar plexus so as to make his lungs begin to move air,” repeating these actions several times until Cobain was revived, Cross wrote.

Twenty-two months later, Nirvana were back at Saturday Night Live for their final two performances on the series: riveting performances of “Heart-Shaped Box” and “Rape Me.”

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