The Making of "Smells Like Teen Spirit"

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Deemed the most "iconic song of all time," scientifically-speaking, by researchers at the University of London, Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" made its live debut on April 17, 1991, at Seattle's OK Hotel.

Kurt Cobain, the band's frontman, wasn't usually very talkative during gigs; he mostly left the witty banter between songs to bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl. On that night, however, Cobain couldn't help himself. The band was currently mulling over major label offers, and was ultimately two weeks away from signing with DGC, a Geffen record imprint. A shot at fame was imminent. "Hello. We're major label corporate rock sellouts," the man who would soon be a rock star told the boisterous crowd.

Six months earlier, Cobain was holed up in the woods of Olympia, Washington. Cobain and Kathleen Hanna, singer/songwriter of the influential feminist riot-grrl punk band Bikini Kill, shared a bottle of Canadian Club whiskey and a goal on that October 1990 night: to deface a new teen pregnancy center, which Hanna described as "a right-wing con where they got teenage girls to go in there and then told them they were gonna go to hell if they had abortions. After doing some recon, Cobain was the lookout while Hanna made her way to the building and graffitied "Fake Abortion Clinic, Everyone." When it was Cobain's turn, he spray-painted "God is Gay" in six-foot red letters.

The two spent the rest of the evening celebrating their victory and ended up at Cobain's place, where Hanna "smashed up a bunch of sh*t" then took out a Sharpie and wrote "Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit" on Cobain's bedroom wall before passing out. Cobain loved the line so much that he decided to make it the title of one of his next songs.

"I took that as a compliment," Cobain later told Michael Azerrad in the authorized band biography Come As You Are. "I thought that was a reaction to the conversation we were having but it really meant that I smelled like the deodorant. I didn't know that the deodorant spray existed until months after the single came out. I've never worn any cologne or underarm deodorant." Bikini Kill drummer Tobi Vail knew what Teen Spirit was, because she wore it. Vail was Cobain's girlfriend at the time.

Long before Cobain actually got Hanna's joke, he and Vail had broken up. The relationship ended in early 1991, while Cobain's band was writing new material that would not only appear on Nevermind but also on In Utero, Nirvana's third (and final) studio album, which wasn't released until September 1993.

Grohl, a newcomer to the group, lived with Cobain in Olympia when he first relocated to Washington. The two drove up to Novoselic's neck of the woods in Tacoma and practiced every night. At least half of what would become Nevermind—including "In Bloom," "Breed," "Lithium," "Polly", "Stay Away" (then "Pay to Play"), and "Something in the Way"—were already performed at an industry showcase gig in late November 1990. The other songs, including "Smells Teen Spirit," took shape during those practice sessions.

Grohl described the band's converted barn practice space as "weird," with its brown shag carpeting, stage lights, and a massive PA that no one knew how to use. It was there where Cobain first played the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" riff for Novoselic and Grohl. In early 1994, Cobain told Rolling Stone that when Cobain first played the now-legendary guitar part, "Krist looked at me and said, 'That is so ridiculous.' I made the band play it for an hour and a half."

According to Novoselic, he helped make it into more of an actual song. "We were just playing the chorus, 'When the light's out, and it's dangerous, here we are now,' over and over again," Novoselic remembered. "I said, 'Wait a minute. Why don't we just kind of slow this down a bit?' So I started playing the verse part. And Dave started playing a drum beat."

There was just one problem: the song sounded a lot like something the Pixies—a band Cobain adored—might produce. “I really remember thinking, ‘That is such a Pixies rip,’” Grohl said in 2011 in a BBC documentary about the making of Nevermind. “It was almost thrown away at one point because it just seemed too much like the Pixies.”

"I was trying to write the ultimate pop song," Cobain admitted. "I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it. When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily I should have been in that band—or at least in a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard."

Essentially since the band's founding, they had listened to a "steady diet" of the Pixies—as well as Mudhoney, Tad, Coffin Break, and The Sugarcubes—on their long road trips. Nirvana's debut album, 1989's Bleach, didn't use the soft-quiet verses/loud-hard chorus dynamic, but the 1990 single "Sliver" did. While on a European tour to promote "Sliver," Cobain met with Ken Goes, the Pixies' manager, under the pretense of Goes possibly managing Nirvana. Instead, Cobain spent most of the meeting asking questions about the Pixies. Goes described Cobain as more than a fan of the Pixies; he was a "student." When Charles Thompson, a.k.a. Black Francis of the Pixies, suddenly walked into the hotel, Cobain turned down Goes' offer to introduce him and ended the meeting entirely; apparently, Cobain didn't feel worthy of meeting such indie rock royalty.

Months after "Smells Like Teen Spirit" had been recorded, Cobain still seemed worried it sounded too much like a Pixies rip-off. As Nirvana soundman Craig Montgomery drove with the group down to Los Angeles to shoot the music video for "Teen Spirit", Cobain played him the song and asked, "Do you think it sounds too much like the Pixies?”

Cobain also, likely unintentionally, took inspiration for the main riff from Boston's "More Than a Feeling." "I take it as a major compliment," Boston songwriter Tom Scholz said, "even if it was completely accidental." Nirvana made light of the similarity during their 1992 Reading Festival appearance. Cobain also wrote in his journal, probably half-jokingly, that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and Blue Oyster Cult's "Godzilla" were also kind of similar.

But the song was too good to throw away. So it was on the set list on Wednesday, April 17, 1991, for Nirvana's headlining gig at the OK Hotel. It was a fundraising benefit event for Fitz of Depression singer Mike Dees, who was trying to avoid imprisonment due to massive traffic fines. At least, that's how the legend goes. Dees himself claimed it wasn't a benefit gig, but said that Cobain allocated $250 of Nirvana's earnings from the show to pay for a tour van for Fitz of Depression and to help Dees pay off some traffic tickets. The rest of Nirvana's earnings went to gas money for the band to drive down to Los Angeles to begin recording Nevermind.

The Seattle music scene was divided that night: Alice in Chains was nearby, at a warehouse on a pier masquerading as a music club, performing for Cameron Crowe's movie Singles (1992). Still, it was a packed house at OK Hotel—and they were about to witness music history.

Watch the performance above and you'll notice that the song's memorable lyrics, especially with the verses, appear nowhere near finished. "Here we are now, entertain us" was already established—Cobain claimed it was something he used to say as an icebreaker when he showed up to a party. As far as the other lyrics go, he took his time, and at one point showed them to Novoselic and asked what he thought of them. "And I checked them out and said, 'I think they're pretty cool,'" Novoselic recalled. "But then he seemed disappointed that I wasn't just raving about them. But the thing was that I just didn't get them the first time I read them. And then I started listening to it in the song format, and then I had an idea of what he was talking about. He was talking about kids, commercials, Generation X, the youth bandwagon, and how he's really disappointed in it, and how he doesn't want anything to do with it."

Novoselic wasn't alone in his interpretation of "Smells Like Teen Spirit." The song has been described as "an anthem for Generation X" so often that it may as well be an alternate title, but ultimately it's a song about Cobain and a moment in time.

For his 2001 Cobain biography Heavier Than Heaven, Charles R. Cross was given unprecedented access to Cobain's private journals. In the book, he writes:

Though Kurt never specifically addressed it, his most famous song, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," could not have been about anyone else, with the lyrics "she's over-bored and self-assured." Teen Spirit" was a song influenced by many things—his anger at his parents, his boredom, his eternal cynicism—yet several individual lines resonate with Tobi [Vail]'s presence. He wrote the song soon after their split, and the first draft included a line edited from the final version: "Who will be the king and queen of the outcast teens?" The answer, at one point in his imagination, had been Kurt Cobain and Tobi Vail.

Cobain did not ask who the king and queen of the outcast teens were, nor did he sing about a woman who was over-bored or self-assured, to the OK Hotel audience that night, which consisted of 500 fans, as well as the two bands that opened for Nirvana. One of those bands was Dees' Fitz of Depression, of course. The other was a band with a Teen Spirit-wearing drummer. Had her ex-boyfriend's lyrics about heartbreak been less oblique, her deodorant might have been given more of a test.

Hee-Haw: The Wild Ride of "Dominick the Donkey"—the Holiday Earworm You Love to Hate

Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images
Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone loves Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. He’s got the whole underdog thing going for him, and when the fog is thick on Christmas Eve, he’s definitely the creature you want guiding Santa’s sleigh. But what happens when Saint Nick reaches Italy, and he’s faced with steep hills that no reindeer—magical or otherwise—can climb?

That’s when Santa apparently calls upon Dominick the Donkey, the holiday hero immortalized in the 1960 song of the same name. Recorded by Lou Monte, “Dominick The Donkey” is a novelty song even by Christmas music standards. The opening line finds Monte—or someone else, or heck, maybe a real donkey—singing “hee-haw, hee-haw” as sleigh bells jingle in the background. A mere 12 seconds into the tune, it’s clear you’re in for a wild ride.

 

Over the next two minutes and 30 seconds, Monte shares some fun facts about Dominick: He’s a nice donkey who never kicks but loves to dance. When ol’ Dom starts shaking his tail, the old folks—cummares and cumpares, or godmothers and godfathers—join the fun and "dance a tarentell," an abbreviation of la tarantella, a traditional Italian folk dance. Most importantly, Dominick negotiates Italy’s hills on Christmas Eve, helping Santa distribute presents to boys and girls across the country.

And not just any presents: Dominick delivers shoes and dresses “made in Brook-a-lyn,” which Monte somehow rhymes with “Josephine.” Oh yeah, and while the donkey’s doing all this, he’s wearing the mayor’s derby hat, because you’ve got to look sharp. It’s a silly story made even sillier by that incessant “hee-haw, hee-haw,” which cuts in every 30 seconds like a squeaky door hinge.

There may have actually been some historical basis for “Dominick.”

“Travelling by donkey was universal in southern Italy, as it was in Greece,” Dominic DiFrisco, president emeritus of the joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, said in a 2012 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “[Monte’s] playing easy with history, but it’s a cute song, and Monte was at that time one of the hottest singers in America.”

Rumored to have been financed by the Gambino crime family, “Dominick the Donkey” somehow failed to make the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960. But it’s become a cult classic in the nearly 70 years since, especially in Italian American households. In 2014, the song reached #69 on Billboard’s Holiday 100 and #23 on the Holiday Digital Song Sales chart. In 2018, “Dominick” hit #1 on the Comedy Digital Track Sales tally. As of December 2019, the Christmas curio had surpassed 21 million Spotify streams.

“Dominick the Donkey” made international headlines in 2011, when popular BBC DJ Chris Moyles launched a campaign to push the song onto the UK singles chart. “If we leave Britain one thing, it would be that each Christmas kids would listen to 'Dominick the Donkey,’” Moyles said. While his noble efforts didn’t yield a coveted Christmas #1, “Dominick” peaked at a very respectable #3.

 

As with a lot of Christmas songs, there’s a certain kitschy, ironic appeal to “Dominick the Donkey.” Many listeners enjoy the song because, on some level, they’re amazed it exists. But there’s a deeper meaning that becomes apparent the more you know about Lou Monte.

Born Luigi Scaglione in New York City, Monte began his career as a singer and comedian shortly before he served in World War II. Based in New Jersey, Monte subsequently became known as “The Godfather of Italian Humor” and “The King of Italian-American Music.” His specialty was Italian-themed novelty songs like “Pepino the Italian Mouse,” his first and only Top 10 hit. “Pepino” reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963, the year before The Beatles broke America.

“Pepino” was penned by Ray Allen and Wandra Merrell, the duo that teamed up with Sam Saltzberg to write “Dominick the Donkey.” That same trio of songwriters was also responsible for “What Did Washington Say (When He Crossed the Delaware),” the B-side of “Pepino.” In that song, George Washington declares, “Fa un’fridd,” or ‘It’s cold!” while making his famous 1776 boat ride.

With his mix of English and Italian dialect, Monte made inside jokes for Italian Americans while sharing their culture with the rest of the country. His riffs on American history (“What Did Washington Say,” “Paul Revere’s Horse (Ba-cha-ca-loop),” “Please, Mr. Columbus”) gave the nation’s foundational stories a dash of Italian flavor. This was important at a time when Italians were still considered outsiders.

According to the 1993 book Italian Americans and Their Public and Private Life, Monte’s songs appealed to “a broad spectrum ranging from working class to professional middle-class Italian Americans.” Monte sold millions of records, played nightclubs across America, and appeared on TV programs like The Perry Como Show and The Ernie Kovacs Show. He died in Pompano Beach, Florida, in 1989. He was 72.

Monte lives on thanks to Dominick—a character too iconic to die. In 2016, author Shirley Alarie released A New Home for Dominick and A New Family for Dominick, a two-part children’s book series about the beloved jackass. In 2018, Jersey native Joe Baccan dropped “Dominooch,” a sequel to “Dominick.” The song tells the tale of how Dominick’s son takes over for his aging padre. Fittingly, “Dominooch” was written by composer Nancy Triggiani, who worked with Monte’s son, Ray, at her recording studio.

Speaking with NorthJersey.com in 2016, Ray Monte had a simple explanation for why Dominick’s hee-haw has echoed through the generations. “It was a funny novelty song,” he said, noting that his father “had a niche for novelty.”

The 10 Most Annoying Holiday Songs Ever

Alvin, Simon, and Theodore in Alvin and the Chipmunks (2007).
Alvin, Simon, and Theodore in Alvin and the Chipmunks (2007).
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Christmas is a time for joy, thankfulness, love … and, when it comes to Christmas carols, the occasional bout of cringe. There are songs that are perfect, classic, and timeless—like Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" or Mariah Carey's “All I Want for Christmas Is You”—and then there are these 10 holiday horrors.

1. "Dominick the Donkey" // Lou Monte

Reindeer aren't the only animals on Santa's payroll. "When Santa visits his paisans," Italian-American songster Lou Monte tells us, he takes his donkey Dominick along, "because the reindeer cannot climb the hills of Italy." The song was considered a novelty track when it was released in 1960, but the Italian communities of New Jersey (where Monte grew up) loved it. The constant braying throughout the song is grating, though we're sure children find it hilarious.

2. "The Christmas Shoes" // NewSong

"The Christmas Shoes" is more depressing than annoying, which is in itself obnoxious when you're trying to get into the joyfulness and cheer of the holiday season. A mawkish Christmas song about a poor boy who wants to buy a pair of shoes for his sick mother so she'll "look beautiful if [she] meets Jesus tonight"? No thanks. And then there was a made-for-TV movie based on said song? We'd prefer coal in our stockings.

3. "All I Want for Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth)" // Spike Jones & His City Slickers

Its insta-earworm hook is enough to make this 1940s song a base level of annoying, but its cloying, cutesy lyrics and the lisp that's often incorporated into recordings take "All I Want For Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth)" to the next level. Your baby teeth will be replaced! That's what teeth do! Ask Santa for a PlayStation!

4. "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)" // The Chipmunks

"Christmas Don't Be Late" needs no additional explanation as to why it's annoying other than "the Chipmunks sang it." Ross Bagdasarian Sr. wrote the song, which was released in 1958, and it was enormously successful—reaching the top of the Billboard Hot 100 Pop Singles chart and netting three wins at the first annual Grammy Awards. For those keeping score, that's three more Grammys than Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" received.

5. "Wiggly Wiggly Christmas" // The Wiggles

It feels weird to pick on The Wiggles, an Aussie children's group who are supposed to be high-energy and wacky. But if the repeated refrain of "wiggly wiggly Christmas" doesn't make you want to tell your kids that Santa has the flu and cancel the holiday altogether, we're not sure what will.

6. "Do They Know It's Christmas" // Band-Aid

"Do They Know It's Christmas" was written as a response to the Ethiopian famine of the mid-1980s. Singer Bob Geldof, determined to funnel money to a higher cause by way of a charity song, enlisted Bono, Boy George, George Michael, Phil Collins, Sting, and many others to form a supergroup known as Band Aid that would record the vocal track for the song in one marathon 24-hour session. The song was out days later, and—heavily publicized—proceeded to raise tens of millions of dollars for Ethiopian famine relief. Which is all very noble and great. But the song itself is condescending, patronizing, and imperialistic, on top just plain being awful. Geldof himself admitted that he was "responsible for two of the worst songs in history. One is 'Do They Know It's Christmas?' and the other one is 'We Are the World.'"

7. "Gott nytt jul" // Sean Banan

Even if you don't speak Swedish, the obnoxiousness of 2013 Eurovision contestant Sean Banan's "Gott nytt jul" comes through at the seven-second mark with its fart sound effect. If you do speak Swedish, you get the added benefit of Sean telling Santa to "come and bring your ho ho hoes." As for the music video … well, a man in a Santa fat suit twerking is the universal language.

8. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" // William Hung

Failed American Idol wannabe William Hung, who quickly became famous for his tone-deaf rendition of Ricky Martin's "She Bangs," managed to put out a holiday album. It was called Hung for the Holidays. Even in 2004, the world was a cruel and unusual place.

9. "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas" // Gayla Peevey

Long before the Cincinnati Zoo's Fiona the hippo became an internet celebrity, 10-year-old Gayla Peevey sang a novelty song about wanting a hippopotamus for Christmas. It was an instant hit in 1953, and Peevey even performed it on The Ed Sullivan Show. A promoter decided to do a fundraiser to buy Peevey a hippo (which was promptly donated to her hometown's Oklahoma City Zoo), and Matilda the hippo became a popular OKC resident until she died in 1998. But the song? It's not even accurate. To dissuade her delusional daughter, Peevey sings that her mom said a hippo would eat her up, but then "teacher says the hippo is a vegetarian." Hippos are generally omnivorous, but they do have carnivorous tendencies. We can abide the fantasy of a pet hippo, but not disinformation! 

10. "Shake Up Christmas" // Train

The "Drops of Jupiter" rockers tried to get into the holiday spirit in 2010, but with lyrics that rhyme "smile" with, er, "smile," and "Before I get too old and don't remember it, so let's December it and reassemble it," we want to hide behind the Christmas tree, not rock around it.

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