Due to the very essence of Top of the Pops, it seemed fated that Nirvana would try and destroy it. TOTP was a British version of American Bandstand and America’s Top 40 rolled into one. The TV show had performances of some of the week’s best-selling pop records and ran down that week’s singles chart. In 1991, they invited America’s grunge band du jour to perform on the show.
Aside from it’s inherent packaged-for-the-TV-masses mentality that a band like Nirvana would most likely find annoying anyway, Top of the Pops had another quirk that grated on performers desire for authenticity: TOTP‘s rule that bands HAD to use a backing track to sing over. There was no playing “live.” (This rule used to be even more restrictive. Pre-1991, vocalists had to lip-sync to their songs. Everything was recorded.)
Many artists found this to be ridiculous. In 1990, Faith No More‘s Mike Patton seemed to be playing along, lip-synching along to the first single from The Real Thing, “From Out of Nowhere.” Then Patton started sticking his tongue in and out and flippity-flopping his fingers near his mouth, making it obvious he wasn’t actually singing. He fell back in line for a minute, then went totally juvenile: poking his tongue into his cheek for that classic teenager faux fellatio mime.
Faith No More’s Mike Patton Mocks Top of the Pops
Patton’s mockery was nothing compared to what Nirvana did a year later. Asked to come on and perform Smells Like Teen Spirit, after the single was selling like crazy in the UK and climbed to number 9 on the charts there, Nirvana methodically butchered their show.
The performance starts as the backing track begins and Kurt is strumming his guitar like Munch from the Chuck E. Cheese band. Bassist Krist Novoselic is swinging his axe over his head. Dave Grohl is putting the most reasonable act forward by at least sitting at his kit and pretending to play the drums.
When it comes time for Cobain to sing, he changes the opening lines then proceeds to do the rest of the song in a Morrisey (from The Smiths) impression. They are, as the Brits say, taking the piss outta the show. It mercifully ends as some audience members get up on stage and dance lamely while Kurt takes off his guitar altogether. Brilliant.
Watch the video below.