30 Years Ago: Nirvana Perform on ‘SNL’ as ‘Nevermind’ Hits No. 1
On Jan. 11, 1992, Nirvana achieved the unthinkable, when their album Nevermind knocked Michael Jackson out of No. 1 on the Billboard chart. The accomplishment just happened to coincide with the band’s first performance on Saturday Night Live.
Reaching No. 1 had seemed an impossibility. Jackson was then the world’s biggest star, the unquestioned “King of Pop” and a massive sales force. His previous two albums - Thriller and Bad - had combined to sell more than 40 million copies in the U.S. Dangerous, which arrived at the end of November 1991, seemed poised to continue the trend. The album debuted at No. 1 and had already sold more than 4 million copies by January 1992.
At the other end of the spectrum, Nirvana’s Nevermind wasn’t expected to be a hit. The band’s previous LP, Bleach, had garnered attention from underground music fans and college kids. With the grunge music scene bubbling up out of Seattle, the group’s label hoped Nevermind might catch a little fire and possibly sell upward around 200,000 copies. Amazingly, they’d pass that goal in less than a month.
After initially debuting at No. 144 on the chart, Nevermind began to climb. When MTV added the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” into heavy rotation, things took off even faster. By November 1991, it had surpassed 500,000 in sales. As the new year arrived, it cleared 2 million.
While the album was making its ascent, Nirvana were overseas doing a European tour.
“We just got reports every once in a while: ‘Hey, you guys are on the Top 40,’’’ Kurt Cobain recalled in 1993. “We didn’t even believe people for a long time. We thought everyone was pulling our legs. We just came home, and it was like the Beatles. It’s like Nirvana-mania.”
Nevermind hit No. 1 on Jan. 11, 1992. By this point, it was selling an estimated 300,000 copies per week.
“It came on MTV News that Nevermind had knocked out Michael Jackson, and we just like looked at each other in amazement,” Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron later recalled to VH1. “I mean, our friends, these guys that we know, knocked off the King of Pop. It was great.”
The icing on the cake would be Nirvana’s SNL appearance, the first grunge act to grace the famous Studio 8H stage. For their first song, Nirvana went with a slightly faster version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Watch Nirvana Perform 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' on 'Saturday Night Live'
“I had been waiting for this moment my entire life, to actually play on Saturday Night Live,” drummer Dave Grohl admitted decades later. “And sometimes when you’re scared and your adrenaline’s pumping, you just start beating the shit out of your instrument. We started into ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ and my left stick broke. I broke my stick on my snare drum.”
Most viewers likely missed Grohl’s mishap, as Nirvana still powered through their frenzied rendition. They’d later return for a performance of “Territorial Pissings,” but this time the destruction would be on purpose. At the end of the song, the trio smashed its instruments, with Cobain impaling an amp with his guitar.
Still, the smash job wasn’t Nirvana’s final act of defiance. During the customary goodbyes - when musical guests normally smile and wave to the camera - the members of Nirvana began theatrically French kissing in an attempt to “piss off the rednecks and homophobes.”
SNL proceeded to edit out the kissing for reruns of the show, but the point was made. Even though the late-night performance and No. 1 album had placed the band firmly in the mainstream, Nirvana had no intention to rein in their rebellious ways.