In celebration of Nevermind‘s 20th anniversary, Riki Rachtman recalls Nirvana’s most notorious MTV appearance.
By James Montgomery, with reporting by Matt Elias
On October 25, 1991, with their Nevermind album only a month old but already gaining traction and the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” beginning to turn the world on its ear, Nirvana appeared on MTV’s flagship metal show “Headbangers Ball” for an interview that would become legendary — mostly for all the wrong reasons.
As they made abundantly clear during their stint on the show, Nirvana considered “Headbangers” to be the epicenter of everything they considered evil: the teased-and-tousled, tough-guys-and-tanned-babes world of mainstream metal. As if barely feigning interest wasn’t proof of this point, one only had to look at the canary-yellow ball gown Kurt Cobain threw on for the occasion. It was about as un-metal (and tellingly un-macho) as you could get.
The on-camera interaction between Cobain and bassist Krist Novoselic (drummer Dave Grohl had apparently decided to skip the taping) and “Headbangers” host Riki Rachtman was awkward enough, but you don’t know everything that happened behind-the-scenes. Now, in celebration of Nevermind‘s 20th anniversary, we sat down with Rachtman to get the story of what happened on that fateful, cringe-inducing day. And, as is the case with most great rock stories, this one starts backstage.
“I did that show for five years, and when Nirvana was coming in, here was a band that I could tell was on the verge of making it huge. I was a fan of [them], and I was pretty stoked that I was going to get to meet them, because I had never met Cobain or any of these guys,” Rachtman told MTV News. “Bands would always sit in the green room before they came on the set, you know, have some drinks or whatever, and I walk into the green room thinking, ‘Hey, I’m going to meet Kurt Cobain, you know, we’ll talk a little bit before the show.’ And he is just sprawled out on the floor, passed out. I mean, kick him, not moving.”
Of course, things didn’t improve much once the cameras started rolling, as Rachtman repeatedly tried to rescue the interview, despite mounting evidence that this one was heading downhill fast.
“So the first time that I ever met Kurt was when all of the sudden they bring him onto the show with his big yellow ball gown. … I’m like, ‘OK, whatever.’ So he sits down, and the whole time he’s just like, ‘Uhhh.’ You could tell that he didn’t want to be there,” Rachtman explained. “People always knew that when I was on the show and there was a band that I was digging and excited to meet, I’m all excited, so I’m up … [but] in that interview, I looked like I was about as slow as he was, because as we started … I wasn’t getting any good answers, I wasn’t finding out anything about them. … It was like pulling teeth. And what started as a day that I was really excited about ended up becoming a day that I was just like, ‘When is this over?’ And you can just see [it].”
Of course, Nirvana’s anti-antics only further rankled metal fans, most of whom were already suspicious of the band’s motives and increasing popularity. They saw their “Headbangers” appearance as not only a slap in the face of the respected Rachtman, but of the entire genre. Then again, all that has only added to the episode’s mystique in the years since it first aired. Even if, to this day, Rachtman won’t watch it.
“I don’t watch that show, even though it was pretty historic and, hey, I got to interview Nirvana; it was one of the worst interviews I’ve ever done,” he said. “And you can just tell that I didn’t want to be there the whole time, because they didn’t want to be there either.”
Despite the “Headbangers” experience, Rachtman remained a Nirvana fan. In fact, almost 20 years later, he’ll still defend them to metal fans who maintain they singlehandedly killed their genre.
“People say, ‘Nirvana killed heavy metal,’ and they didn’t. If you had any type of music scene that is so weak that another band can come on playing a different type of music and kill your scene, then your scene wasn’t good enough in the first place,” he laughed. “You come out with this crazy hair and all glam, look like a chick, you know, if you do that, OK, that’s fine, but after awhile, you’re going to need some sort of substance behind it. And what happened was, here’s somebody new that really doesn’t care, that picks up dirty clothes off the floor, wears ‘em, has no stage show, goes on camera, does concerts and just plays rock and roll.”
Stick with MTV News all week as we reveal the Nevermind You Never Knew, celebrating the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s definitive album with classic footage, new interviews and much more.