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20 years on: smells like middle-age spirit

It lasted just 65 minutes, but for those who were among the loud, violent, sweaty, drug and booze-fuelled chaos that night, Nirvana at the ANU bar remains a concert memory of a lifetime.

Tomorrow marks 20 years since the pokey campus bar played host to what was, in early 1992, the world's fastest rising band.

For the student union that hosted the Seattle trio - Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic - it was the stuff of fantasy. They'd secured a date for the band's first Australian tour when they were still on the periphery of the mainstream. But by the time of the gig, the grunge act had displaced the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, from the top of the US charts with its album Nevermind and its anthem Smells Like Teen Spirit.

The sold-out concert became a magnet for students and the city's Gen Xers, at the stage in life when music could feel like everything and the future not so important.

Getting inside the gig became a matter of desperation; some even hid in the ceiling cavity of the men's toilets earlier that day, with the plan of popping out in time for the concert.

As freelance music writer Chris Downton, who snuck in to the concert at 17 and later met Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl, recalls, ''The big folklore of that night was that a lot more people suddenly wanted to get in because of the band's success right before the tour. It's funny, at the time it didn't really seem like a really big gig.''

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Of the 2000 who did get in, the memory was of exhilarating mayhem. The ANU's student magazine described ''bodies joined so close together that it was all just a writhing mass of heat, sweat and shoulders and only the stage divers stood out as individuals''. Former UC student Leah Horsley paid $20 for a ticket and remembers people being offered ''all sorts of money'' to get in. ''I remember some big, burly bloke pushing me towards the front and holding me there and me being hemmed in unable to breathe the whole gig,'' Horsley said.

Peter Spicer, who was 23 at the time and that year co-founded Canberra entertainment mag BMA with Lisa Howdin, had a media pass and remembers the crush as the venue's 1875 capacity was exceeded.

''There would have been about 2000 people inside and about 2500 outside,'' Spicer said. As the band moved through Come As You Are, Lithium and into Teen Spirit, the crowd outside began trying to force its way in.

Gavin Findlay recalls rushing in after a padlocked door was forced open by fans and being ''literally swept off our feet in the mosh. My feet didn't touch the ground for four songs, before I was eventually spat out the other side into the bar area, completely soaked in sweat and utterly elated''.

Findlay's friend, the late theatre director and actor David Branson, had an easier time getting in by turning on the charm and palming a bouncer a $50 handshake.

''It was one of the greatest nights of my life,'' Findlay said.

For Steve Hyde the night was memorable for a different reason. The former activities officer of ANU bar was usually responsible for bringing talent to the venue and ensuring the smooth running of gigs. But Hyde was sidelined to his office for the start of the night - until things got out of control. ''People outside ended up tearing the side doors off the venue, windows were broken and there were people that actually smashed their way through the ceiling to try and get in,'' Hyde said.

Downton remembers standing near a window during the last few songs, possibly during Stain? when he realised fans outside were pounding on the foggy window.

''Suddenly the entire floor-to-ceiling window came in,'' he said.

''There was glass flying past me, but the people all got up.''

Although there was thousands of dollars damage to the bar, Hyde said the concert was ''phenomenal''.

''It was the biggest thing ever for years ... for Nirvana to be playing in our little venue right at their peak ... there's probably been nothing like it since in Canberra,'' he said.

Byron Budak, co-owner of Landspeed Records, knew the album Nevermind back to front by the time the band got to Canberra. With close ties to tour promoter Steve Pavlovic, he also heard Cobain wasn't well on the Australian tour.

''He was a little dope sick at the time - I think he'd been in and out of hospital in the week leading up to it [the Canberra concert]. But there wasn't a sign of it on stage.''

Part of the legacy and magic of that night is undoubtedly due to the band's early demise. Just over two years later, as Pavlovic was preparing to bring the band back Down Under, lead singer Cobain took his own life.

From that tragedy came the guarantee the band would stay eternally cool in their fans' eyes. Grohl went on to forge success with a second mega band, Foo Fighters.

Incredibly, 20 years on, the remaining members of Nirvana still recall the ANU gig as one of the wildest nights of their short touring career.

Novoselic told Triple J radio last year he still vividly remembers that crazy Wednesday night. ''We played in Canberra at a school and it was nuts ... it was nuts.''