Nirvana sabotaged their own performance to make a big deal out of the playback on television

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It’s already legend. It has gone down in history as one of the memorable performances of Nirvana. Funny, irreverent… a joke. Your protest to the established rules. On November 28, 1991, the kings of grunge were invited to the BBC’s flagship program ‘Top of the Pops’. According to the rules of the show, they had to do ‘playback’ about the pre-recorded music of ‘Smells like teen spirit’. Cobain did sing live… imitating Morrissey or eating the microphone. The rest of the band He clearly visualized that everything was a farce.

In 1991, Nirvana became one of the greatest bands on the planet. Grunge conquered the world. The unexpected commercial and critical success of ‘Nevermind’their second album, revealed the imminent trio legend status from Seattle. The unstoppable sales of the first single, ‘Smells like teen spirit’, they had planted the ‘Nirvanamania’ throughout the United States. The song was hailed as an anthem by an entire generation, His video was broadcast over and over again. They were the cultural phenomenon of the 1990s.

In November 1991, Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl crossed the pond to embark on a European tour. To the grunge icons, who had earned a reputation as unruly rebels, They were invited on all the televisions so they could play their emblematic song. They could not be missing Top of the Pops, a quintessential British musical institution. They passed by there the biggest international stars. They considered it an honor to attend the weekly show and They strictly obeyed the strict rules that the BBC imposed at that time: the performances were not live. The artists had to limit themselves to moving their lips or making them play their instruments. Nirvana refused that pantomime.

On November 28, 1991, when the group arrived at Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire, they received instructions: His performance would be in ‘playback’. After his protest, they reached an agreement. The production team relented a little on its standards and allowed Cobain to sing live over the pre-recorded musical base. That meant that bassist, Krist Novoselic, and drummer, Dave Grohl, would have to continue the charade.

Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic in a recording studio

Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic in a recording studio / Michel Linssen

Indeed. Kurt Cobain sang live. But not exactly as expected. Supposedly, his mockery of the BBC show resulted in slow and exaggerated guitar strums with your hands completely away from the instrument, a robotic voice, deliberately grave, Gothic style, which he purposely slowed down by making it an octave lower. As he later confirmed, He tried to imitate the leader of The Smiths, Morrissey. Furthermore, she put the microphone in her mouth and even changed the iconic beginning: “load up on guns, bring your friends” for “load up on drugs, kill your friends.”

The rest of the band visualized ostensible who wasn’t playing his instruments. Novoselic raised his bass above his head and Grohl he hit the cymbals and drums in any way and threw comical glances at the camera… He spent most of his time dancing. And, despite these ridiculous eccentricities, The audience was absolutely crazy.. At the control table they asked themselves, “My God, what is this? How do we let this happen?”

There is another version of what happened that November 1991. According to HertsLive, during the group’s tour of the United Kingdom, Cobain caught a bad cold that affected his voice and prevented him from reaching the proper tone of the song. That’s why he chose to use a lower tone. However, in a biography about Kurt Cobain titled ‘Heavier Than Heaven’, journalist Charles Cross confirmed the ploy: “Kurt hatched a plan with Novoselic and Grohl to do a parody of his performance. While the music played, Kurt sang in ‘slow motion’, he did almost a ‘lounge’ version…”

The boys of Nirvana at the 10th edition of the MTV VMAs

The boys of Nirvana at the 10th edition of the MTV VMAs / KMazur

That musicians simulate playing live on television, while viewers listen to a pre-recorded song, seems like the antithesis of rock and roll. But everyone accepted it; he was a “harmless farce.” Top of the Pops had a long tradition. “For more than 40 years,” writes Rolling Stone, “everyone from the Rolling Stones to Madonna to Beyoncé stopped by to perform their latest single, either playing back or singing with the pre-recorded musical base in the background.” Nirvana broke the mold. His performance Today she is a legend and has gone down in history as “one of the greatest combs” to music in ‘playback’ on television.


Written by

Christopher Johnson

Christopher Johnson is a dedicated writer and key contributor to the WECB website, Emerson College's student-run radio station. Passionate about music, radio communication, and journalism, Christopher pursues his craft with a blend of meticulous research and creative flair. His writings on the site cover an array of subjects, from music reviews and artist interviews to event updates and industry news. As an active member of the Emerson College community, Christopher is not only a writer but also an advocate for student involvement, using his work to foster increased engagement and enthusiasm within the school's radio and broadcasting culture. Through his consistent and high-quality outputs, Christopher Johnson helps shape the voice and identity of WECB, truly embodying its motto of being an inclusive, diverse, and enthusiastic music community.