14 Wildly Different Nirvana ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ Covers
Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was a cultural turning point, but at its heart in a song rooted in traditional pop structure. As such, it's open to a variety of interpretations. To prove our point, we've embedded numerous cover versions below.
You'll hear renditions performed by some of their friends and contemporaries in alternative rock, and while some of them are somewhat faithful to the original there will also be arrangements that surprise you. We've found a capella, industrial, jazz (big band, trio and modern), analog keyboards, novelty, classical crossover, a Japanese beat-boxer and a punk legend giving a take that borders on bluegrass.
We guarantee you won't like every one, but they all show the sturdiness of the song, and illustrate just how far you can take four simple chords. Take a listen...
Possibly the first non-parody cover (see below) of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" to get mainstream attention came from Tori Amos. She included it on an EP for her single "Crucify," which also included takes on the Rolling Stones' "Angie" and Led Zeppelin's "Thank You."
Just as Pat Boone released an ironic collection of big band takes on heavy metal songs, In a Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy, another relic of the post-Elvis Presley, pre-Beatles era, Paul Anka, did the same. Rock Swings saw Anka put swing arrangements on tracks as diverse as Van Halen's "Jump," Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun" and Michael Jackson's "The Way You Make Me Feel," in addition to "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
Known for mixing in covers of rock songs with their own compositions, Minneapolis jazz trio the Bad Plus put their take on "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on their major label debut, 2003's These Are the Vistas.
How classic a pop song was "Smells Like Teen Spirit?" While performing in the band's hometown of Seattle in 2007, crooner Michael Buble used the chorus as the intro to "Fever," the Little Willie John song that Peggy Lee turned into a standard. You can take issue with Buble's interpretation, but you can't deny that it doesn't seamlessly fit.
A Japanese beat-boxer, Dokaka layered his voice many times to mimic instruments on this non-lyrical take. You can download it at the Free Music Archive.
The Flying Pickets, a British a capella group that has been around since 1982, recorded Nirvana's classic in 1994, along with songs as diverse as "Under the Bridge" by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, "When Doves Cry" by Prince and "Wonderful World" by Sam Cooke.
German classical crossover violinist David Garrett recorded "Teen Spirit" and many other rock songs on 2010's Rock Symphonies. The live version found below comes from a performance in Berlin that aired on PBS.
Pianist Robert Glasper mixed jazz, R&B and hip-hop to critical acclaim on his 2012 Grammy-winning Black Radio. The album closed with a seven-minute version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" with samples, electronic beats and digitally treated vocals.
The Melvins were good friends with Nirvana -- drummer Dale Crover was briefly a member -- and they paid tribute to them in 2000 by recording a take on "Teen Spirit" that was faithful to the original. But there was a catch: the vocals were done by Leif Garrett, an acting/singing teen idol from the mid-'70s whose career more or less ended after a drunk-driving accident in 1979 that left his friend, Roland Winkler, paralyzed.
Roger Joseph Manning, Jr., the keyboardist for the great power pop band Jellyfish, and Brian Kehew formed the Moog Cookbook in 1996 to perform covers on vintage analog synthesizers.
The Muppets rebooted their franchise with a 2011 movie. One of the scenes saw Sam the Eagle, Rowlf the Dog, Link Hogthrob, and Beaker torturing Jack Black with a barbershop quartet arrangement of Nirvana's hit as they shaved him. Courtney Love was reportedly not amused.
Punk icon Patti Smith gave an acoustic rendition of "Teen Spirit," complete with banjo, on 2007's covers-filled Twelve. Midway through the song, Smith added a verse of her own poetry.
Industrial act Xorcist didn't waste much time in getting a cover of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" out. It was released on an EP in 1993.
Kurt Cobain said he knew he had made it when "Weird Al" Yankovic wanted to parody one of his songs. "Smells Like Nirvana" made fun of Cobain's occasionally indecipherable singing style. "Now I'm mumblin' and I'm screamin' / And I don't know what I'm singin' / Crank the volume, ears are bleedin' / I still don't know what I'm singin'," Yankovic sang in the first chorus.