September 9, 1991, was the first time I heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It was a Monday night and I was a teenager working at a record store in a mall just outside of Philadelphia. The next day was Tuesday, when all the new releases would come out and the staff would always stay past closing and put out all the new product so it was available when the store opened the next morning. It had already been an eventful summer for modern music; we were playing the hell out of Metallica’s untitled album from the previous month, Big Audio Dynamite II’s The Globe, Massive Attack’s Blue Lines and, on more ambitious Friday and Saturday nights, God Fodder from Ned’s Atomic Dustbin.
This particular week was a pretty slow one, and nothing of interest was on the docket. While unpacking one of the boxes, we came across a handful of cassingles and compact disc maxi-singles by a band called Nirvana. The dark yellow tinged cover featured three people, though it was extremely blurred and you couldn’t really make out what they looked like. The band’s name was in Onyx font and turquoise. Underneath it, in flowery script like a 12 year-old girl might write, was “Smells Like Teen Spirit!” Each “i” was dotted with a heart as was the exclamation point. “Oh well,” was the consensus, “let’s crack one open, say it came in damaged, and put it on.” After all, it did have the Sub Pop logo on it in addition to Geffen, and down on South Street at the much cooler but lower paying independent record stores, the clerks there were always going on about bands from the label.
Opening up the digipak we got our first look at the band, a trio. There was a guy in an awful shirt with snowflakes on it waving to someone out of the shot, a blond-haired, blue-eyed dude with a wide smile and cleft-chin and a gangly looking goon who was a cross between Jay Leno and Andy Kaufman. An edit of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was the first track. Listed at 4:30 on the back cover, which featured the guitarist upside down onstage, it actually ran nine seconds longer. The opening riff, followed by those pulverizing drums, caught everyone’s attention immediately. It literally stopped us in our tracks. I distinctively remember saying, “Holy shit.” Following the initial flurry, when the vocals started, the borderline goth-girl I was crushing on who loved the Cure, wore 20-hole Dr. Martens, ripped fishnet stockings, and had a penchant for all black said, “This sounds like the Pixies… but better.”
We skipped back to the beginning of the song a bunch of times before moving onto the second track, “Even in His Youth.” Darker and drenched in feedback, it lacked the immediate punch and catchiness of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The third and final track, “Aneurysm,” started off slow before becoming almost tribal in its drum beats. Then the singer sang, “Come on over, shoot the shit,” and we all started arguing if it was sublime enough to get away with during in-store play (it wasn’t). Looking at the new release schedule, it listed Nirvana’s Nevermind as coming out two weeks later.
Twenty-five years ago today, I put it on at 9 p.m. when the store closed. At that point, we had played “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to death over the previous two weeks and were eager to hear if the group was going to be a one-hit wonder. Obviously they weren’t. “In Bloom” stuck out, same with “Come As You Are” and “Territorial Pissings,” the latter because of it’s bizarre opening vocals. I gravitated toward “Drain You” for some reason, it quickly became — and remains — my favorite from the record.
The now-iconic cover presented a bit of a problem, with the baby’s wang sure to offend some customers, so when stickering it with the price gun, we added an additional price tag to cover it. We stocked the smattering of longboxes and that was it, for a long time. Attention was already focused on the two Use Your Illusion releases from Guns N’ Roses where we were getting 100 of each every week. Sometime in October, Nevermind sales started picking up as the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” went into heavy rotation on MTV. The maxi-single for it had been deleted by then, so customers had to buy the whole album.
Come late December, two days before Christmas, Geffen re-released the single with an alternate cover. By then, we could barely keep Nevermind in stock — nobody else could either. We had a sister record store on the first floor of the mall that was three-times the size and they ran out of copies, as did a rival chain around the corner. It got to the point where we had a signup sheet for people who wanted the compact disc or cassette. When our product shipment would come in, three-quarters of it would go behind the counter for those who asked for a copy to be held.
At the start of 1992, Nevermind hit the top of the charts. Geffen’s supply had finally begun to catch up with the demand for the album, and we were getting in more copies of it than the combined Use Your Illusion shipments. We opened another copy for in-store play after discovering that some editions started showing up with a hidden track some 10 minutes after “Something in the Way” ended. A few even tried to return their Nevermind because it didn’t contain the song, hoping the one they exchanged it for would have it. But another problem had developed; people wanted more Nirvana music.
Nevermind and the single for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” weren’t’ satisfying interest in Nirvana and people started asking for the band’s debut, Bleach. Since that was distributed solely by Sub Pop, it had to be ordered from a catalog which featured more indie releases and out-of-print titles. Bleach would come in one or two at a time a sell out right away. Ultimately, in April of 1992, the album was re-released through a joint distribution deal between Geffen and Sub Pop.
Follow Michael Christopher on Twitter @BlackBranchMC.