The Song That Kurt Cobain Stole Smells Like Teen Spirit’s Main Riff From
Nirvana has contributed immensely to the culture and history of rock and is often credited as the band that popularized grunge. Although the band achieved fame in just a couple of years, their career was short-lived as the band members decided to disband following frontman Kurt Cobain’s death.
It is widely known that Cobain had chronic health issues such as depression which led to substance abuse and addiction. In April 1994, the talented musician bid farewell to the world upon overdosing. However, his legacy is still alive and there are millions who still honor his memory through his music.
One of the songs that will remain unforgettable is without a doubt ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ The single was released in September 1991 and achieved widespread critical acclaim. However, there has been an ongoing rumor about Cobain stealing the riff of Nirvana’s biggest hit from another band.
Who Wrote Smells Like Teen Spirit?
As mentioned above, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was released in 1991 and was the lead single of Nirvana’s second album ‘Nevermind,’ which was also their breakthrough. The lead single was written by Kurt Cobain and the inspiration came from a deodorant brand, a drunken night, and a break-up.
Back then, Kurt was dating Bikini Kill’s, Tobi Vail. One day Vail was roaming the supermarket aisles with her bandmate Kathleen Hanna when they stumbled upon a deodorant named ‘Teen Spirit‘ which made no sense to them and became an inside joke. The two women later joined Kurt in his apartment and got drunk together.
While trashing Kurt’s apartment, Hanna found a sharpie and wrote ‘Kurt smells like Teen Spirit‘ on the wall which made no sense to Kurt who had no idea about the inside joke. After their breakup with Tobi, Cobain found the inspiration for a new song on his wall. Although right now it’s considered to be one of the most groundbreaking songs, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was initially booed by Nirvana members.
His bandmates told Kurt that the song sounded derivative and clichéd. In fact, Krist Novoselic made fun of the lyrics and called them ‘ridiculous.’ As for the sound, Kurt himself confessed that all he was trying to do was ‘rip off the Pixies‘ by creating ‘the ultimate pop song.’ As it turns out, they had created the ultimate grunge song and would reach international fame.
Kurt Cobain shared the backstory of the iconic track during an interview with Rolling Stone in 1993:
“I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.”
Did Kurt Cobain Steal Smells Like Teen Spirit’s Riff From Boston’s More Than A Feeling?
Above, I explained the story of how Kurt found the inspiration for the songwriting and composition of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ However, there are some rumors considering the riff of the hit song. While some claim that it’s an original, others argue that Kurt Cobain ripped it off Boston’s ‘More Than A Feeling.’
Interestingly, Kurt spoke about this and admitted that the riff of their most famous song has its roots in other bands. During an interview, Kurt said that they decided to go with a ‘cliched riff‘ for their song and that it sounds very similar to Boston’s ‘More Than a Feeling‘ or The Kingsmen’s ‘Louie Louie.’
In the 1993 Rolling Stone Kurt Cobain also said the following:
“It was such a cliched riff. It was so close to a Boston riff or ‘Louie Louie.’ When I came up with the guitar part, Krist Novoselic looked at me and said, ‘That is so ridiculous.'”
‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ definitely carries the qualities of both songs and it does seem to have been a cliched riff. However, the fact that Kurt Cobain and the other Nirvana members were very clear and honest about this shows that they respected other musicians’ work and never shied away from crediting the people who influenced their music.
You can listen to both ‘More Than a Feeling’ and ‘Louie Louie’ below.