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Flashback: Nirvana Top triple j’s Hottest 100 With ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’

On February 9th of 1992, Nirvana had just wrapped up their sole Aussie tour, but triple j’s burgeoning Hottest 100 was next on their list of goals.

In the first few weeks of 1992, there was no bigger band in Australia than Seattle’s own Nirvana. Not only were they in the midst of global chart-topping history, but they were also helping to cement themselves as icons of the nascent Hottest 100 countdown.

As many music historians would recall, Nirvana’s visit to Australia was the stuff of legends. While concert promoters Ken West and Vivian Lees were in the midst of planning a local tour for US college rock icons the Violent Femmes, fellow promoter Stephen Pavlovic – who had recently toured grunge trailblazers Mudhoney – suggested that Mudhoney contemporaries Nirvana join the tour, due to their own fondness for the Femmes.

Inspired by a large-scale outdoor festival in Milwaukee called Summerfest, which the Violent Femmes had once played, West began toying with the idea for a similar festival to take place in Sydney. As history now knows, that festival would become the Big Day Out, one of Australia’s most iconic annual events.

A one-off event that was scheduled for January 25th in 1992, the Big Day Out would be headlined by the Violent Femmes, while names such as Nirvana, the Beasts of Bourbon, Yothu Yindu, and much more would also fill out the bill.

Unbeknownst to the promoters though, they had inadvertently booked an act who would soon become the biggest band in the world.

Releasing their second album, Nevermind, in September of 1991, lead single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” had arrived just two weeks earlier, lighting the fuse for the grunge explosion that would soon take over the world.

Within mere months, Nevermind would become one of the world’s biggest albums, knocking Michael Jackson’s Dangerous off the top of the Billboard charts just two weeks before the grunge act were set to perform at the inaugural Big Day Out.

But we’re not here to talk about how Nirvana performed to a packed crowd at the Hordern Pavilion, or how their accompanying Australian tour would be one of the most feverish and in-demand events to ever grace local soil. No, it was what happened afterwards that continued their mesmerising success on the Australian stage.

It was in 1989 that triple j launched what would become their annual Hottest 100 countdown. Initially created as a way for listeners to vote on what their favourite songs were, the first two years went by rather uneventfully, with Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” topping the list in both 1989 and 1990. In fact, these two polls even relatively sounded the same. But by 1992, things had changed a little bit.

Holding their third ‘All Time’ countdown on Sunday, February 9th of 1992, it soon became clear that a little bit of new blood had been injected into the poll.

While the very first countdown included tracks by the likes of Womack & Womack, Marvin Gaye, Daddy Cool, and Cold Chisel, the sound had changed in just a few short years, with the 1991 poll being peppered with Jane’s Addiction, R.E.M., Massive Attack, and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, just to name a few. Even The Cure had their strongest showing to date, appearing with a record nine songs in the list.

Additionally, a few of the songs that charted were even recordings made by triple j for their Live at The Wireless series, with the Violent Femmes’ “Add It Up” charting at #18 with a live version of the song, while Andy Prieboy hit #5 with “Tomorrow Wendy”, which would become the highest-charting live song until The Wiggles topped the poll with their Like a Version cover in 2021.

But most importantly, the pointy end of the countdown had shifted a bit as well. While both Joy Division and Hunters & Collectors had taken out the gold and silver medals for two years running, everything started to look a little bit different when Hunters & Collectors’ “Throw Your Arms Around Me” was announced as the #4 song – a veritable fall from grace given the past two years.

At #3, Nirvana charted for the second time that day, with “Lithium” following up their appearance at #76 with “Come As You Are”. Considering these two songs had only been out for about four months by this point, their appearance made sense, but surely recency couldn’t account for that much of a change, right?

That question was swiftly answered when a special guest took to the phone to introduce the second-placed song. “This is Peter Hook from New Order, and Joy Division, and Revenge, and I shouldn’t be talking to you lot because we’re not number one this year,” explained the Joy Division bassist, before throwing to “Love Will Tear Us Apart”.

Quickly, it became evident that the race to the finish – one that was clearly neck-and-neck between Mancunian post-punk and Seattle-bred grunge – had reached its conclusion, with a group of relative newcomers storming the countdown, as announced by the poll’s host, H. G. Nelson.

“Let’s face it, [they’re] three people that have been over my place during the week,” H. G. explained. “They’ve just been destroying the place. They’ve been doing all the sorts of things that you’d expect them to do in my place, like laying the carpet in the kitchen. They’ve been demolishing my stand of trophies, they’ve been gutting fish on top of the television and letting the innards ooze through so it doesn’t work anymore, things like that.

“I call them Dave, Krist, and Kurt and the fourth member of the band, the silent member of the band, is Wally, but you probably know them as Nirvana,” he added.

Handing the envelope to a voice that ostensibly belonged to Krist Novoselic, the Nirvana bassist revealed the number one song to be Michael Jackson’s “Black or White”, before Nelson interrupted to explain that that song had in fact placed at #113 before unveiling the real top song.

“A bit of a tune those houseguests of mine all week have knocked up in the garage,” Nelson continued. “We’ve got it out of the garage, we’ve tidied it up a bit. And of course, the number one on triple j’s Hottest 100 for this year is a fantastic romp. It’s rude, it’s a little bit lewd. It’s got a terrific set of bass guitar riffs in it, and it’s a simple song.”

Interestingly, while all accounts indicate that Krist Novoselic was indeed the voice announcing the “winning” song at the top of the countdown (the group had in fact previously been in the triple j studios for a relatively ill-fated interview), Nirvana were actually in New Zealand on February 9th, meaning that Novoselic’s appearance was likely pre-recorded in anticipation of the top spot – if it was indeed his voice that was played.

As it turned out though, this would be the final annual all-time countdown for triple j’s Hottest 100, ultimately ruining Peter Hook’s desire that “Love Will Tear Us Apart” reclaim the top spot the following year.

This decision wasn’t made solely due to Nirvana taking out the top spot, but rather because producers realised that if they kept holding the poll in this fashion, it would likely become rather repetitive as the same songs kept finding their way into the 100.

However, it wasn’t Nirvana’s final appearance in the poll, either. Once the Hottest 100 returned in 1993 – albeit in a capacity that would see voting limited to tracks released with the previous calendar year – the group would chart with “Heart-Shaped Box” from their final album, In Utero.

Following Kurt Cobain’s passing in 1994, a live recording of “About a Girl” would hit the top ten, a live version of “Aneurysm” polled in 1996, and the group’s final recording – “You Know You’re Right” – would poll in 2002.

In 1998, triple j would revive their All Time countdown, where Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” would again hit #1. 11 years later, a final – at least currently – All Time poll took place, with Nirvana’s iconic single once again grabbing the gold medal.

Though it remains to be seen whether or not triple j will ever bring back their All Time countdown (a ‘Hottest 100 of The Decade’ poll did take place in early 2020), the question of whether Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” would again hit #1 remains as pertinent as ever.

However, until we receive an answer to the question, it’s worth reflecting on the track that not only helped change the life of a trio of Seattle musicians, but helped to change the face of live music in Australia, and saw triple j’s Hottest 100 move to the next level on its way to becoming the biggest music poll in the world.

triple j’s Hottest 100 of All-Time – 1992

1. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – Nirvana
2. “Love Will Tear Us Apart” – Joy Division
3. “Lithium” – Nirvana
4. “Throw Your Arms Around Me” – Hunters & Collectors
5. “Tomorrow Wendy” – Andy Prieboy
6. “How Soon Is Now?” – The Smiths
7. “Fools Gold” – The Stone Roses
8. “A Forest” – The Cure
9. “Blister In The Sun” – Violent Femmes
10. “Blue Monday” – New Order