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The band Nirvana rocketed to fame in the early ’90s, becoming a global phenomenon. They elevated grunge to the forefront of the mainstream music scene. Kurt Cobain, the lead singer and guitarist, had a vibe that came straight out of the garages of Seattle.

He collided metal with punk rock to create a sound like no other. He was one of the most influential artists in alternative music. Nirvana became the voice of Generation X.

Cobain could fill a listener’s soul with angst with his deep-felt lyrics and iconic wails. He lived, and died, on his own terms and no one was going to tell him what to do. He was determined to “put the balls back into rock’n’roll.” That became evident when Nirvana botched a live performance ON PURPOSE. There really was quite a hilarious reason behind it all.

Who was Nirvana?

Kurt Cobain performs on MTV Unplugged
Kurt Cobain | Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

Kurt Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic, and drummer Aaron Burckhard formed the band Nirvana in 1987. David Grohl replaced Burckhard in 1990.

The band experienced a short-lived career and broke up in 1994 as a result of Cobain’s tragic suicide. Nirvana only released three studio albums – Bleach, Nevermind, and In Utero. Despite their short time on the music scene, Nirvana has a devoted fan base that continues to grow to this day.

Their breakthrough album, Nevermind, sold 30 million copies worldwide. It became one of the best-selling albums of all time. In 2014, Nirvana was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

“Here we are now, entertain us…”

It’s been more than 25 years since “Smells Like Teen Spirit” hit the radio airwaves. The music video, featuring moshing teens and edgy cheerleaders, epitomized the ’90s grunge era generation.

The song became Nirvana’s greatest hit, topping Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart. According to Rolling Stone Magazine, the top favorite Nirvana songs of all time include:  

  1. “Lithium”
  2. “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
  3. “Heart-Shaped Box”
  4. “Come as You Are”
  5. “Drain You”

Why did Nirvana intentionally botch a live performance?

Before the days of MTV, there was Top of the Pops. It was a long-running British television program that featured music videos and live performances from chart-topping artists. In 1991, they invited Nirvana to do a live performance of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

The only stipulation was that they had to agree to mime their song to a pre-recorded backing track. The band was not happy with this policy, so decided to have some fun with it and the audience went wild.

The performance began with Cobain singing baritone, an octave lower than normal. He changed the opening lyrics from “load up on guns, bring your friends,” to “load up on drugs, kill your friends.” He imitated an animatronic as he strummed his guitar with a flat hand.

Meanwhile, Grohl spent more time dancing and hitting cymbals then drumming. Novoselic thrashed around the stage, throwing his guitar through the air, obviously not playing the bass. Cobain continued to sing incoherent lyrics while attempting to swallow the microphone.

This television appearance went down as one of the funniest moments in Nirvana’s history.

Bands inspired by Nirvana’s appearance on ‘Top of the Pops’

Nirvana’s insane performance inspired other artists to do the same. In 1995, the band Oasis performed their hit “Roll With It” on the Top of the Pops stage.

Brothers Liam and Noel Gallagher decided it would be funny to switch roles. Noel, who usually plays guitar, shook a tambourine while lip-syncing to the backing track. Frontman, Liam, pretended to play guitar.

It appears Top of the Pops wasn’t the only show that experienced these types of performances. In 2009, the band Muse appeared on an Italian television show and “pulled a Nirvana.”

They refused to use a backing track for their live performance of “Uprising.” The lead vocalist, Matthew Bellamy, faked his way through the drum set while the other band members switched roles. Ironically, the show producers never even noticed.

Did Nirvana invent the fake performance?

The world will never know if Kurt Cobain came up with the idea for his botched live performance on Top of the Pops. It’s possible, he saw Iron Maiden do the same thing in 1986 on a German television show. Band members also switched instruments. Air guitar, group drum playing, lip-syncing, and all-out craziness ensued.

Whether Cobain came up with the idea or was mimicking the performance he saw from Iron Maiden, one thing is clear. Nirvana was true to their fans and only wanted to perform live music.