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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.