Smells Like Teen Spirit
|"Smells Like Teen Spirit"|
|Single by Nirvana|
|from the album Nevermind|
|Released||September 10, 1991|
|Recorded||May 1991 at Sound City Studios, Van Nuys, California|
|Nirvana singles chronology|
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" is a song by American rock band Nirvana. It is the opening track and lead single from the band's second album, Nevermind (1991), released on DGC Records. Written by Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and Dave Grohl (lyrics by Cobain, music by Nirvana) and produced by Butch Vig, the song uses a verse-chorus form where the main four-chord riff is used during the intro and chorus to create an alternating loud and quiet dynamic. The sound of the song (as Cobain admitted) is modeled after the sound of the Pixies.
The unexpected success of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in late 1991 propelled Nevermind to the top of the charts at the start of 1992, an event often marked as the point where alternative rock entered the mainstream. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was Nirvana's biggest hit, reaching number six on the Billboard Hot 100 and placing high on music industry charts all around the world in 1991 and 1992.
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" received many critical plaudits, including topping the Village Voice Pazz & Jop critics' poll and winning two MTV Video Music Awards for its music video, which was in heavy rotation on music television. The song was dubbed an "anthem for apathetic kids" of Generation X, but the band grew uncomfortable with the success and attention it received as a result. In the years since Cobain's death, listeners and critics have continued to praise "Smells Like Teen Spirit" as one of the greatest songs of all time.
- 1 Origins and recording
- 2 Composition
- 3 Release and reception
- 4 Lyrics and interpretation
- 5 Music video
- 6 Live performances
- 7 Cover versions
- 8 Parodies and appearances in other media
- 9 Formats and track listing
- 10 Personnel
- 11 Charts and certifications
- 12 Bibliography
- 13 References
- 14 External links
Origins and recording
In a January 1994 Rolling Stone interview, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain revealed that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was an attempt to write a song in the style of the Pixies, a band he greatly admired. He explained:
I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it. When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily that I should have been in that band—or at least a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.
Cobain did not begin to write "Smells Like Teen Spirit" until a few weeks before recording started on Nirvana's second album, Nevermind, in 1991. When he first presented the song to his bandmates, it comprised just the main riff and the chorus vocal melody, which bassist Krist Novoselic dismissed at the time as "ridiculous." In response, Cobain made the band play the riff for "an hour and a half." In a 2001 interview, Novoselic recalled that after playing the riff repeatedly, he thought, "'Wait a minute. Why don't we just kind of slow this down a bit?' So I started playing the verse part. And Dave [started] playing a drum beat." As a result, it is the only song on Nevermind to credit all three band members as authors.
Cobain came up with the song's title when his friend Kathleen Hanna, at the time the lead singer of the riot grrrl band Bikini Kill, wrote "Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit" on his wall. Since they had been discussing anarchism, punk rock, and similar topics, Cobain interpreted the slogan as having a revolutionary meaning. What Hanna actually meant, however, was that Cobain smelled like the deodorant Teen Spirit, which his then-girlfriend Tobi Vail wore. Cobain later claimed he was unaware that it was a brand of deodorant until months after the single was released.
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" was, along with "Come as You Are", one of a few new songs that had been written since Nirvana's first recording sessions with producer Butch Vig in 1990. Prior to the start of the Nevermind recording sessions, the band sent Vig a rough cassette demo of song rehearsals that included "Teen Spirit". While the sound of the tape was wildly distorted due to the band playing at a loud volume, Vig could pick out some of the melody and felt the song had promise. Nirvana recorded "Smells Like Teen Spirit" at Sound City recording studio in Van Nuys, California with Vig in May 1991. Vig suggested some arrangement changes to the song, including moving a guitar ad lib into the chorus, and trimming down the chorus length. The band recorded the basic track for the song in three takes, and decided to keep the second one. Vig incorporated some sonic corrections into the basic live band performance because Cobain had timing difficulties when switching between his guitar effects pedals. Vig was only able to get three vocal takes from Cobain; the producer commented, "I was lucky to ever get Kurt to do four takes."
Sample of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" from Nirvana's 1991 album Nevermind. The sample illustrates the change in dynamics from verse to pre-chorus and chorus. The band maintains the F-B♭-A♭-D♭ chord progression throughout, relying on the changes in dynamics and the reintroduction of the main guitar riff at the end to indicate the shifts between sections.
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"Smells Like Teen Spirit" follows a Fmin–B♭min–A♭–D♭ chord progression, with the main guitar riff constructed from four power chords played in a syncopated sixteenth note strum by Cobain. The guitar chords were double tracked because the band "wanted to make it sound more powerful," according to Vig. The chords occasionally lapse into suspended chord voicings as a result of Cobain playing the bottom four strings of the guitar for the thickness of sound. Listeners made many comments that the song bore a passing resemblance to Boston's 1976 hit "More Than a Feeling". Cobain himself held similar opinions, saying that it "was such a clichéd riff. It was so close to a Boston riff or [The Kingsmen's] 'Louie Louie.'" However, Rikky Rooksby points out that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "More Than a Feeling" follow different chord progressions.
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" uses a "somewhat conventional formal structure" consisting of four-, eight-, and twelve-bar sections that includes an eight-bar verse, an eight-bar first chorus (pre-chorus), and a twelve-bar second chorus (main chorus). Musicologist Graeme Downes, who led the band The Verlaines, says that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" illustrates developing variation. Elements of the song's structure are marked off with shifts in volume and dynamics, going back and forth from quiet to loud a number of times during the length of the recording. This structure of "quiet verses with wobbly, (Small Clone) chorused guitar, followed by big, loud hardcore-inspired choruses" became a much-emulated template in alternative rock because of "Teen Spirit".
During the verses the band maintains the same chord progression as the chorus. Cobain plays a two-note guitar line over Novoselic's root-note eighth note bassline, which outlines the chord progression. As the song moves closer to the choruses, Cobain begins to play the same two notes on every beat of the measure and repeats the word "Hello". Following the first and second choruses, Cobain simultaneously sings the word "Yay" and performs a unison bend on his guitar. After the second chorus, Cobain plays a 16-bar guitar solo that almost completely restates his vocal melody from the verse and pre-chorus. During the closing refrain, Cobain sings "A denial" repeatedly; his voice becomes strained and is almost shot from the force of yelling.
Release and reception
Issued to radio on August 27, 1991, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was released two weeks later on September 10 as the lead single from Nevermind, the band's major label debut on DGC Records. The song did not initially chart, and it sold well only in regions of the United States with an established fanbase for the group. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was not expected to be a hit, for it was merely intended to be the base-building alternative rock cut from the album. It was anticipated that the follow-up single "Come as You Are" would be the song that could cross over to mainstream formats. However, campus radio and modern rock radio stations picked up on the track, and placed it on heavy rotation. Danny Goldberg of Nirvana's management firm Gold Mountain later admitted that "none of us heard it as a crossover song, but the public heard it and it was instantaneous [. . .] They heard it on alternative radio, and then they rushed out like lemmings to buy it." The video received its world premiere on MTV's late-night alternative rock program 120 Minutes, and proved so popular that the channel began to air it during its regular daytime rotation. MTV added the video to its "Buzz Bin" selection in October, where it stayed until mid-December. By the end of the year, the song, its accompanying video, and the Nevermind album had become hits. Both the song and Nevermind became a rare cross-format phenomenon, reaching all the major rock radio formats including modern rock, hard rock, album rock, and college radio.
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" became a critical and commercial success. The song topped the 1991 Village Voice "Pazz & Jop" and Melody Maker year-end polls, and reached number two on Rolling Stone's list of best singles of the year. The single peaked at number six on the Billboard singles chart the same week that Nevermind reached number one on the albums chart. "Teen Spirit" hit number one on the Modern Rock Tracks chart, and has since been certified platinum (one million copies shipped) by the Recording Industry Association of America. However, many American Top 40 stations were reluctant to play the song in regular rotation due to its sound, and restricted it to night-time play. The single was also successful in other countries. In the United Kingdom, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" reached number seven and charted for 184 weeks. The song was nominated for two Grammy Awards: Best Hard Rock Performance with Vocal and Best Rock Song. Entertainment Weekly would later name Nirvana's loss to Eric Clapton in the Best Rock Song category as one of the 10 biggest upsets in Grammy history.
In the wake of Nirvana's success, Michael Azerrad wrote in a 1992 Rolling Stone article, "'Smells Like Teen Spirit' is an anthem for (or is it against?) the 'Why Ask Why?' generation. Just don't call Cobain a spokesman for a generation." Nevertheless, the music press awarded the song an "anthem-of-a-generation" status, placing Cobain as a reluctant spokesman for Generation X. The New York Times observed that "'Smells Like Teen Spirit' could be this generation’s version of the Sex Pistols' 1976 single, 'Anarchy in the U.K.', if it weren’t for the bitter irony that pervades its title," and added, "As Nirvana knows only too well, teen spirit is routinely bottled, shrink-wrapped and sold." The band grew uncomfortable with the song's success, and in later concerts often pointedly excluded it from the set list. Prior to the release of the band's 1993 follow-up album In Utero, Novoselic remarked, "If it wasn't for 'Teen Spirit' I don't know how Nevermind would have done," and observed, "There are no 'Teen Spirits' on In Utero." Cobain said in 1994, "I still like playing 'Teen Spirit,' but it's almost an embarrassment to play it [. . .] Everyone has focused on that song so much."
In the years following Cobain's 1994 death and the band's breakup, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" has continued to garner critical acclaim, and is now often listed as one of the greatest songs of all time. It was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's list of "The Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll" in 1997. In 2000, VH1 rated the song at number forty-one on its "100 Greatest Rock Songs" list, while MTV and Rolling Stone ranked it third on their joint list of the "100 Greatest Pop Songs". The Recording Industry Association of America placed "Smells Like Teen Spirit" at number eighty on their 2001 "Songs of the Century" list. In 2002, NME awarded the song the number two spot on its list of "100 Greatest Singles of All Time", with Kerrang! ranking it at number one on its own list of the "100 Greatest Singles of All Time". VH1 placed "Smells Like Teen Spirit" at number one on its list of "100 Greatest Songs of the Past 25 Years" in 2003, while that same year, the song came third in a Q poll of the "1001 Best Songs Ever". In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked "Smells Like Teen Spirit" ninth on its list of "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time", and described its impact as "a shock wave of big-amp purity," noting that "[it] wiped the lingering jive of the Eighties off the pop map overnight." The song was placed at number six in NME's "Global Best Song Ever Poll" in 2005. In the 2006 VH1 UK poll The Nation's Favourite Lyric, the line "I feel stupid and contagious/Here we are now, entertain us" was ranked as the third-favorite song lyric among over 13,000 voters. VH1 placed "Smells Like Teen Spirit" at number one on its list of the "100 Greatest Songs Of The '90s" in 2007, while Rolling Stone ranked it number ten on its list of "The 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time". In 2009, the song was voted number one for the third time in a row on the Triple J Hottest 100 of All Time in Australia (it was first place previously in 1991 and 1998). That same year, VH1 ranked the song seventh on its list of the "100 Greatest Hard Rock Songs". Despite previously proposing in its 2006 entry for Nevermind on "The All-TIME 100 Albums" that "'Smells Like Teen Spirit' [. . .] may be the album's worst song," Time magazine later included it on its list of "The All-TIME 100 Songs" in 2011. That same year, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" kept its number nine ranking on Rolling Stone's updated list of "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time". NME placed the song at number two on its list of the "100 Best Tracks Of The '90s" in 2012, and at number one on its list of "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time" in 2014. In 2015, the song was also named the most iconic song of all time according to a study by Goldsmith's College, which analysed various songs featured in numerous 'all-time best' lists, using analytical software to compare their key, BPM, chord variety, lyrical content, timbral variety, and sonic variance – the result of which designated the title to this song.
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" was re-released as a limited edition 7-inch vinyl single in December 2011. In an attempt to emulate a successful 2009 Facebook campaign to promote Rage Against the Machine's song "Killing in the Name", a similar online campaign has been launched to promote the Nirvana single to 2011 Christmas number one in the UK Singles Chart in protest at the dealings of The X Factor television series with the children's charity Rhythmix. A similar campaign was also launched in Ireland to get the track to 2011 Christmas number one in the Irish Singles Chart. The campaign resulted in the song reaching number 11 on the UK Singles Chart, with 30,000 copies sold.
|List of accolades for "Smells Like Teen Spirit"|
Lyrics and interpretation
The lyrics to "Smells Like Teen Spirit" were often difficult for listeners to decipher, both due to their nonsensicality and because of Cobain's slurred, guttural singing voice. This problem was compounded by the fact that the Nevermind album liner notes did not include any lyrics for the songs aside from selected lyrical fragments. This incomprehensibility contributed to the early resistance from radio stations towards adding the song to their playlists; one Geffen promoter recalled that people from rock radio told her, "We can't play this. I can't understand what the guy is saying." MTV went as far as to prepare a version of the video that included the lyrics running across the bottom of the screen, which they aired when the video was added to their heavy rotation schedule. The lyrics for the album—and some from earlier or alternate versions of the songs—were later released with the liner notes of the "Lithium" single in 1992. American rock critic Dave Marsh noted comments by disc jockeys of the time that the song was "the 'Louie Louie' of the nineties" and wrote, "Like 'Louie,' only more so, 'Teen Spirit' reveals its secrets reluctantly and then often incoherently." Marsh, trying to decipher the lyrics of the song, felt after reading the correct lyrics from the song's sheet music that "what I imagined was quite a bit better (at least, more gratifying) than what Nirvana actually sang," and added, "Worst of all, I'm not sure that I know more about [the meaning of] 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' now than before I plunked down for the official version of the facts."
"Teen Spirit" is widely interpreted to be a teen revolution anthem, an interpretation reinforced by the song's music video. In an interview conducted the day Nevermind was released, Cobain stated the song was about his friends, explaining, "We still feel as if we're teenagers because we don't follow the guidelines of what's expected of us to be adults [. . .] It also has kind of a teen revolutionary theme." As Cobain did more interviews, he changed his explanation of the song and rarely gave specifics about the song's meaning. When discussing the song in Michael Azerrad's biography Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana, Cobain revealed that he felt a duty "to describe what I felt about my surroundings and my generation and people my age."
The book Teen Spirit: The Stories Behind Every Nirvana Song describes "Teen Spirit" as "a typically murky Cobain exploration of meaning and meaninglessness." Azerrad plays upon the juxtaposition of Cobain's contradictory lyrics (such as "It's fun to lose and to pretend") and states "the point that emerges isn't just the conflict of two opposing ideas, but the confusion and anger that the conflict produces in the narrator—he's angry that he's confused." Azerrad's conclusion is that the song is "alternately a sarcastic reaction to the idea of actually having a revolution, yet it also embraces the idea." In Heavier Than Heaven, Charles R. Cross' biography of Kurt Cobain, the author argues that the song is a reference to Cobain's relationship with ex-girlfriend Tobi Vail. Cross cites the line "She's over-bored and self-assured" and states the song "could not have been about anyone else." Cross backs up his argument with lyrics which were present in earlier drafts, such as "Who will be the King & Queen of the outcasted [sic] teens."
Cobain has said, "The entire song is made up of contradictory ideas [. . .] It's just making fun of the thought of having a revolution. But it's a nice thought." Drummer Dave Grohl has stated he does not believe the song has any message, and said, "Just seeing Kurt write the lyrics to a song five minutes before he first sings them, you just kind of find it a little bit hard to believe that the song has a lot to say about something. You need syllables to fill up this space or you need something that rhymes."
The music video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was the first for director Samuel Bayer. Bayer stated he believed he was hired because his test-reel was so poor the band anticipated his production would be "punk" and "not corporate." The video was based on the concept of a school concert which ends in anarchy and riot. Inspiration was taken from Jonathan Kaplan's 1979 film, Over the Edge, as well as the Ramones' film Rock 'n' Roll High School. Filmed on a soundstage in Culver City, the video featured the band playing at a pep rally in a high school gym to an audience of apathetic students on bleachers, and cheerleaders wearing black dresses with the Circle-A anarchist symbol. Occasionally, the scene would cut to a janitor (played by Tony De La Rosa) wearing a navy blue jumpsuit and dancing with a push broom handle. The video ends with the assembled students destroying the set and the band's gear. The demolition of the set captured in the video's conclusion was the result of genuine discontent. The extras that filled the bleachers had been forced to stay seated through numerous replays of the song for an entire afternoon of filming. Cobain convinced Bayer to allow the extras to mosh, and the set became a scene of chaos. "Once the kids came out dancing they just said 'fuck you,' because they were so tired of this shit throughout the day," Cobain said. Cobain disliked Bayer's final edit and personally oversaw a re-edit of the video that resulted in the version finally aired. One of Cobain's major additions was the next-to-last shot of the video, which was a close-up of his own face after it had been obscured for most of the video. Bayer noted that unlike subsequent artists he worked with, Cobain did not care about vanity, rather that "the video had something that was truly about what they were about." The video had an estimated budget between $30,000 and $50,000.
Like the song itself, the music video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was well received by critics. Rolling Stone writer David Fricke described the video as looking like "the greatest gig you could ever imagine." In addition to a number one placing in the singles category, "Teen Spirit" also topped the music video category in the Village Voice's 1991 "Pazz & Jop" poll. The video won Nirvana the Best New Artist and Best Alternative Group awards at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards, and in 2000 the Guinness World Records named "Teen Spirit" the Most Played Video on MTV Europe. In subsequent years Amy Finnerty, formerly of MTV's Programming department, claimed the video "changed the entire look of MTV" by giving them "a whole new generation to sell to." Rolling Stone placed the music video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit" at number two on their 1993 list of "The 100 Top Music Videos". MTV ranked the song's music video at number three on its "100 Greatest Music Videos Ever Made" list in 1999. VH1 placed the debut of the "Teen Spirit" video at number eighteen on its 2000 list of "100 Greatest Rock & Roll Moments on TV", noting that "the video [ushered] in alternative rock as a commercial and pop culture force." In 2001, VH1 ranked the video fourth on its "100 Greatest Videos" list. The video has been parodied at least twice: in "Weird Al" Yankovic's music video for "Smells Like Nirvana" and in Bob Sinclar's 2006 music video for "Rock This Party (Everybody Dance Now)".
Sample of "Smells like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana, from the live album From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah (1996). The band performs the song at a faster tempo than the studio recording.
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"Smells Like Teen Spirit" was first performed live on April 17, 1991 at the OK Hotel in Seattle, Washington. The performance is featured on the DVD of the 2004 box set With the Lights Out, while shorter clips are included on the Nevermind Classic Albums DVD, as well as the documentary film Hype! As the song's lyrics had not yet been entirely written, there are notable differences between it and the final version. For example, the first performance started with "Come out and play, make up the rules" instead of the eventual opening of "Load up on guns, bring your friends." A recording of the earlier version appears on With the Lights Out and again on Sliver: The Best of the Box. A similar early live performance of the song is found in the documentary 1991: The Year Punk Broke, filmed during a 1991 summer tour in Europe with Sonic Youth.
Nirvana often altered the song's lyrics and tempo for live performances. Some live performances of the song had the line "our little group has always been" changed to "our little tribe has always been," which can be heard on the 1996 live album From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah. Rolling Stone remarked that the Wishkah version of "Teen Spirit" "[found] Cobain's guitar reeling outside the song's melodic boundaries and sparking new life in that nearly played-out hit." A notable alternate performance of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" occurred on BBC's Top of the Pops in 1991, during which the band refused to mime to the pre-recorded backing track and Cobain sang in a deliberately low voice and altered numerous lyrics in the song (for example, "Load up on guns, bring your friends" became "Load up on drugs, kill your friends"). Cobain later said he was trying to sound like former Smiths frontman Morrissey. When Top of the Pops was cancelled in 2006, The Observer listed Nirvana's performance of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" as the third greatest in the show's history. This performance can be found on the 1994 home video Live! Tonight! Sold Out!!.
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"Smells Like Teen Spirit" has been covered by numerous artists. One of the first cover recordings was an acoustic piano version by Tori Amos on her 1992 Crucify EP, which Cobain referred to as "a great breakfast cereal version". The jazz trio The Bad Plus recorded the track for its CD These Are the Vistas, the Melvins recorded a version on The Crybaby featuring former child star Leif Garrett, and the industrial act Xorcist also released a tribute on the various artists compilation album Shut Up Kitty. The Moog Cookbook put out a synthesizer-based cover version on The Moog Cookbook and the Japanese Beatboxer Dokaka has recorded a beatboxed cover version. British group The Flying Pickets released an a cappella version of the song on their album The Original Flying Pickets: Volume 1. Covers of the song on tribute albums include Blanks 77 on Smells Like Bleach: A Punk Tribute to Nirvana, and Beki Bondage on Smells Like Nirvana; both released in 2000. In 2005, "Teen Spirit" was covered as a swing song by 1950s star Paul Anka. In 2006, the band Flyleaf covered the song for Yahoo!'s LAUNCHcast service. In 2007, Patti Smith included a cover version, which incorporated a piece of her poetry, on her album of cover songs Twelve. This was particularly a lyrical and melodic version of the song.
The song has been adapted into other forms over the years. Germany's Atari Teenage Riot sampled "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in the song "Atari Teenage Riot" from their 1997 album, Burn, Berlin, Burn! DJ Balloon, a German techno DJ, also used the sample in his song "Monstersound". An instrumental cover version (slightly altered and named "Self High-Five" to avoid legal complications) was produced by World Championship Wrestling as the entrance music for wrestler Diamond Dallas Page.
Parodies and appearances in other media
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" has inspired a few parodies. "Weird Al" Yankovic parodied the song in 1992 with "Smells Like Nirvana", a song about Nirvana itself. Yankovic parodied the difficulty in understanding Cobain's singing as well as the lyrics and their meaning. Yankovic has said Kurt Cobain told him he realized that Nirvana had "made it" when he heard the parody. In 1995, the queercore band Pansy Division recorded a parody of the song called "Smells Like Queer Spirit" for its Pile Up album. Pansy Division guitarist Jon Ginoli insisted that his band's version of the song was not a parody but "an affectionate tribute".
The song has also appeared in films. In the 2001 film Moulin Rouge!, the song was sung during the "Can Can" scene introducing the titular nightclub. In the 2011 film The Muppets and its soundtrack, one of the acts of the Muppet Telethon involves Rowlf the Dog, Link Hogthrob, Sam Eagle, and Beaker performing the song as a barbershop quartet, where unwilling special guest Jack Black accuses them of "ruining one of the greatest songs of all time". A cover of the song (performed by the band Think Up Anger with Malia J) was featured in one of the trailers for the 2015 film The Gallows. In the 2015 film Pan, a version of the song is sung by Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman) and the miners when Peter first arrives in Neverland.
Formats and track listing
UK 7" single (DGC 5)
UK 12" single (DGCT 5)
UK CD single (DGCTD 5)
UK picture disc 12" single (DGCTP 5)
US 7" single (DGCS7-19050)
US CD single (DGCDS-21673)
US cassette single (DGCCS-19050)
Charts and certifications
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- Marsh, Dave. Louie Louie. Hyperion, 1993. ISBN 1-56282-865-7
- Rooksby, Rikki. Inside Classic Rock Tracks. Backbeat, 2001. ISBN 0-87930-654-8
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