It was August 17, 1991, when Nirvana, an unknown band from a small town in Washington State, shot the first video for an album scheduled for release the following month. Although their Bleach album hadn’t sold well, it was good enough for the band to acquire something of a cult following. Some of those cultists would end up participating in one of the most iconic music videos of the 90s.
Two days earlier, the band had played a showcase set at the Roxy on Sunset Boulevard. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was the third song in their set. As Nirvana played, flyers were handed out to the crowd, asking for volunteers to appear in a video shoot at GMT Studios in Culver City that Saturday.
Kurt Cobain came up with the concept of a pep rally in a school gym gone wrong, drawing on his love for the Ramones movie, Rock’n’Roll High School and a 1979 movie called Over the Edge.
Samuel Bayer was hired to direct–allegedly his demo was so bad that Kurt believed he was the guy who could create a punky, low-budget sort of video–but he wasn’t getting along well with the band; something about a personality clash and a difference in vision. For example, Kurt wanted his cheerleaders to be “really ugly and overweight” as a way to pushing back on the cool attractive crowds dominating high school society. Instead, Bayer hired women from strip clubs.
The janitor? That’s actor and musician Tony De La Rosa. And if you know where to look, you might see Burton C. Bell, the guy who would later front the band Fear Factory.
After numerous takes, the audience grew restless and bored with Bayer’s direction. And after enduring a whole day sitting around and being yelled at by Bayer through his megaphone, the anger was genuine.
That’s when Kurt insisted that the kids be let loose and behave as if they were at a Nirvana concert. This was not in the original script.
Kurt got his way and the kids busted loose, attacking the stage, wrecking gear, and even stealing some of the band’s instruments. Kurt: “Once the kids came out dancing they just said ‘fuck you’, because they were so tired of his shit throughout the day.”
It was chaos. But it worked. And back in June, “Teen Spirit” passed the one billion views mark on YouTube.