Nirvana and the Kurt Cobain we knew

A 20th anniversary edition of Nirvana's final album, In Utero, is released on Monday. Those who worked with the band, and musicians inspired by their music, talk to Elisa Bray

Hearing In Utero when Kurt Cobain was alive, what struck you first were the blatantly recycled Nevermind riffs, says The Independent's music critic Nick Hasted. Nirvana seemed to be parading their inability to develop the sound that had swallowed the rock world. But while Nevermind's over-exposure had already stripped away some of its excitement, In Utero remains a sometimes cynical and ironic primal scream of defiant despair.

It's the sound of a cornered US punk band refusing their new commercial “responsibilities” (while typically fudging the issue with Scott Litt's last-minute varnish to Steve Albini's stark production). The rising edge to Cobain's kamikaze, throat-shredding screams on the provocative, perfect “Rape Me”, and of “Go away!” on “Scentless Apprentice”, in which guitar and bass moan like brontosauruses in a swamp, ram home the album's raw strengths. If you're feeling troubled, it's a healing howl. That's why its fans are as disparate as Dizzee Rascal, who took teenage solace from it, and raucous Americana band Deer Tick (who recently played the whole thing live).

In Utero is open-ended, even unfinished-sounding. A guitar solo in “Heart-Shaped Box” droops; songs collapse. “Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through the Strip” is slacker psychedelia, channelling Sonic Youth and Jim Morrison; like the kettle-whistle squeals of “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter”'s guitars, it turns away from commerce to the comfort of punk experiment. The 20th anniversary repackage is particularly absurd. In Utero doesn't need remixes and extras to blast your brain clean, in a healthier way than its author eventually chose.

Pat Smear, Nirvana's guitarist 1993-1994

Kurt Cobain called me. My first response was it was a prank call or something, my second response was, “yeah, of course!” At the time I was working at a punk-rock record store, not really thinking about playing music – I was kind of bored and sick of it and then this came along. It was all such a whirlwind, and only from August to April. Then Kurt passed on and my life went back to how it was. I went inward and was a hermit for a while. I didn't play at all until Dave [Grohl] came by – he was in LA – and dropped off a tape. It was the Foo Fighters album. It was the first thing that got me interested in music again. Kurt was fun, he was funny, very specific about what he wanted and very serious about his music. I would say he hated fame, but he loved success.

Steve Gullick, Nirvana's photographer

I photographed them for Melody Maker at Reading 1991. They had a very good sense of humour. On that In Utero tour, I hung around with them for a couple of days in America. We had a party on the tour bus – we were all watching Kurt's Queen videos and I won a bowling ball and a piece of TV screen for doing the best Freddie Mercury impression. I thought In Utero was the best album. Seeing them live around that time I was massively excited by their potential. Pat Smear added a massive amount to them live and I was excited to hear what he'd contribute in the studio. They seemed very united and quite happy with each other which they hadn't been in 1992. The last time I saw Nirvana was at the MTV show – that was my favourite time seeing them. I expected them to continue to get better and better, but they went out on a high, musically anyway.

Anton Brookes, Nirvana's press officer

Musically they were really exciting, and very accomplished. For me, In Utero is their finest piece of work. Songs like “Pennyroyal Tea” and “All Apologies” just stop you in your tracks. But at the time, even before the record came out, there was loads of debate. People thought Nirvana were incapable of being able to function because of Kurt's problems. The general feeling was that Nirvana had burnt out. I knew they would go on and make a brilliant record. It seemed like every other month or week there was a new “Kurt's dead” rumour. I remember [the day Kurt died] all too well – it was a Friday afternoon, I was sat in the office and it just became a flood of calls. In your heart of hearts you're still clinging on to that hope that everything will be fine, it's just another false alarm. And then their tour manager called me up to say: “He's dead.”

Kacey Underwood, Guitarist, Big Deal

Neither of us would be in a band if it weren't for Nirvana. I still listen to everything they made. It still breaks my heart though. I remember crying in my bed and my dad coming in to talk to me, trying to understand why a kid could be so upset by some singer calling it quits. In Utero sounded so much rougher and louder and savage compared to Nevermind. The lyrics are much more honest and you can hear how hard it was for Kurt Cobain, dealing with changes and the pressure.

Max Bloom, Frontman, Yuck

I think In Utero is Nirvana's most interesting-sounding album. I prefer Steve Albini's production to Butch Vig's because he made the band sound more heavy. He can get the best drum sounds out of any producer from that era. Grunge has inspired my music because it was a group of frustrated people making noise, but there were beautiful melodies within their noise.

Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'