The Astoria, London, December 3, 1989. Sub Pop, a tiny, Seattle-based independent label building a reputation as a home for regional punk bands, was showcasing three of its acts at their biggest show to date. All the attention was on the headliners, Mudhoney, whose anarchic take on the 1960s garage band sound had become a surprise hit. Also on the bill was Tad, featuring a behemoth-like frontman called Tad Doyle who had enough charisma to translate into breakthrough appeal. And in third place, an unremarkable addition to the burgeoning grunge movement called Nirvana.

That summer Nirvana had released their debut album, Bleach, to polite uninterest from the world at large. At that time the British music press were obsessed with the acid-house-meets-indie-rock hedonism of Madchester bands such as the Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays, and didn’t want to be bothered by a bunch of mopey Americans with ripped jeans and a few old Neil Young albums. At the Astoria, Nirvana and Tad tossed a coin to see who would go on first. Nirvana lost.

The bands arrived late, Nirvana went on without a sound check (and actually played very badly), but proceeded to ensure they would never be forgotten by smashing up their instruments, throwing themselves around and inspiring a tidal wave of stage divers. As their publicist Anton Brookes remembered in Gillian G Gaar’s book Entertain Us: The Rise of Nirvana: “After the show I was, like, ‘Wow, that’s the future of rock’n’roll … Forget Tad. Forget Mudhoney. This is the band. They’re gonna be huge.”

Cobain at the Reading Festival, 1991.

Two years later Nirvana were indeed one of the biggest bands in the world. The success of the album Nevermind, released in September 1991, turned an underground punk concern into a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon and the cost was brutal. “I was in a band where heroin addiction was a problem, where one of the members committed suicide,” says Nirvana’s drummer Dave Grohl, who dealt with the death of Kurt Cobain by forming the less dynamic if more enduring Foo Fighters. “I’m a musician. I love playing for people. And what happened in Nirvana was horrible. And it all happened so quickly, nobody had a chance to take a deep breath and think about what was going on.”

Nirvana’s journey to the top was, according to the band’s bassist, Krist Novoselic, “a very happy time”. It was when they got there that the problems started. Friends from Aberdeen High School in Washington state, Cobain and Novoselic started out by combining their love of Young and Black Sabbath with the rebellion and immediacy of 1980s American punk bands such as Bad Brains and Black Flag. After teaming up with the drummer Chad Channing in 1988, they recorded Bleach for a grand total of $606.17.

At that time the British music press were obsessed with the acid-house-meets-indie-rock hedonism of Madchester bands such as the Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays, and didn’t want to be bothered by a bunch of mopey Americans.

By 1990 Channing was out, the 21-year-old Grohl was in, and after making some demos with the Wisconsin-based producer Butch Vig, the band started garnering attention from big labels. Things started to click into place.

Cobain was also, despite his image as the ultimate slacker, extremely ambitious. Jonathan Poneman of Sub Pop recalled being berated by the singer after Bleach failed to sell the millions of copies he thought it should. After seeking advice from the manager of the more commercially successful Soundgarden, Cobain and Novoselic held a series of meetings with lawyers and managers in Los Angeles, leading to a deal with the Geffen subsidiary DGC.

The songs that made it onto Nevermind were worked out over long jams and rehearsal sessions in a converted barn in Tacoma, Washington, where the band played every day for the first three months of 1991. “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, Cobain’s articulation of Generation X apathy, was formed over one of the jams after Novoselic and Grohl suggested slowing parts of the song down, leading to the quiet/loud tension that fueled one of the greatest anthems of the 1990s.

The success of the album Nevermind, released in September 1991, turned an underground punk concern into a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon and the cost was brutal.

By the time they got to record the album at Sound City in LA, Nirvana, small-town outcasts all, were exposed to American entertainment excess at its worst. This was the era of hair metal, when bands such as Guns N’ Roses and Van Halen were doing a dressed-up, fey-yet-macho take on pop-rock histrionics. The three members of Nirvana witnessed it up close when they stayed in an apartment complex alongside the Swedish band Europe. Vig remembered Europe as “good-looking, skinny guys with long blond hair and really hot girlfriends walking around”. Their world was about to be consigned by Nevermind to history.

Nevermind showcased Cobain’s increasingly sophisticated songwriting, something the album’s overdriven guitars, screamed vocals and general mood of angst and resignation did well to cover up. “We’re just musically and rhythmically retarded,” Cobain claimed in a 1991 interview with Guitar World, adding, with greater perception and honesty: “We sound like the Bay City Rollers after an assault by Black Sabbath.”

Memoria: Grohl, RuPaul, Cobain, Courtney Love, Frances Bean Cobain, and Novoselic, 1993.

In fact, Cobain was merely rejecting the excesses of stadium rock and hair metal for a return to classic pop, codified within the distortion, ennui and flannel-shirted humility of grunge. He boasted about recording “Polly”, one of the most affecting and intimate songs on Nevermind, on a $20 thrift store guitar and having such a lack of respect for the tools of his trade that he never spent much money on equipment because he generally ended up breaking it. “I keep blowing up amplifiers, so I use whatever I can find at junk shops. Junk is always best.”

Cobain was also deeply conflicted: a punk outsider who craved mainstream success. “We might just be a flash in the pan,” he told Alternative Press magazine in the week of Nevermind’s release. “Actually, I hope we are.”

Instead he became the vulnerable-but-caustic poster boy of a disillusioned generation who would express themselves by being sarcastic, smoking too many cigarettes and, in the more extreme cases, developing drug addictions.

Hoping that Nevermind might sell as many albums as alternative acts such as Pixies and Sonic Youth, Geffen pressed about 46,000 copies. A week later, demand went through the roof and pressing plants were struggling to make CDs fast enough. In January 1992, Nevermind replaced Michael Jackson’s Dangerous as the No 1 album in the US. It went on to sell 30 million copies.

Cobain’s disintegration was as quick as Nevermind’s ascent. Things had started going wrong by the summer of 1991, when his developing heroin addiction and relationship with the singer Courtney Love became the subject of media scrutiny. A US arena tour for April 1992 was canceled, there were disputes over songwriting royalties and Nirvana made their distinctly unfriendly third album, In Utero, over two weeks in a Seattle studio.

Spencer Elden, the cover baby. His father was paid a $200 fee to let him appear.

On October 30, at a stadium in Buenos Aires, Nirvana sabotaged their own set by playing badly, performing obscurities and teasing the audience with the opening riff to Smells Like Teen Spirit before playing something else — a riposte, they claimed, to the audience’s boorish treatment of the all-female band supporting them, but also a sign that they were sick of the whole circus. On April 8, 1994, Cobain was found dead at 27. He had shot himself in the head.

There is a happy ending to the Nevermind story. That smiling baby chasing after a dollar bill on a fishing line in the water is, like the album cover he features on, 30 years old. And Spencer Elden, whose dad was paid $200 by the photographer Kirk Weddle for the use of his newborn son, appears to have taken early fame in good grace. “Everyone in the world has already seen my penis,” concedes Elden, who now works as an artist in LA. “It’s kind of a fun fact about me … I guess.”

Will Hodgkinson is the chief rock-and-pop critic for The Times of London and contributes to Mojo magazine