In 2012, MTV may be best known for comedy shows called I Just Want My Pants Back, but a couple decades ago, it also helped songwriters redefine and rejuvenate their art. There’s a long-standing theory that if a song is really good, it works with just an acoustic guitar and a voice. MTV Unplugged helped prove that to be true.
For some, MTV Unplugged was merely old songs in a new context. For others – and listeners – it changed their music. Here are 10 of the best Unplugged appearances…
KISS are nothing without high heels, makeup and rocket-firing Les Pauls, right? Well, they showed another side here. Their MTV Unplugged performance marked the first time the original lineup performed live without their trademark makeup (other than at Ace Frehley’s wedding) and proved so successful, it even got the original band back together. A highlight is Peter Criss punching the air singing “Beth,” proof that behind the bombast KISS do write a fine Beatle-esque ballad.
It was no surprise R.E.M. worked so well on MTV Unplugged – they often wrote on acoustics alone. Even so, this was a bravura performance. Peter Buck was heavily into his “mandolin phase,” Peter Holsapple helped out on guitar and the whole thing just clicked. “It’s the End of the World (As We Know It)” was a struggle on acoustics, but “Fall On Me” showed R.E.M. to be what they really were – a great modern folk band.
Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged performance is the most notorious. Recorded in late 1993, only a few months before Kurt Cobain’s suicide, it set the band’s frenetic grunge tunes in a new light. Many have suggested this was the sound Cobain wanted to develop but, of course, we never found out. Dave Grohl said, “We’d seen the other Unpluggeds and didn’t like many of them, because most bands would treat them like rock shows – play their hits like it was Madison Square Garden, except with acoustic guitars."
Nirvana did exactly the same, though – Cobain’s acoustic was amplified and sometimes pushed through fuzz pedals. He was understandably uneasy about his guitar skills being laid bare.
The show has become rock folklore. When Cobain asked the set designer for stargazer lilies, black candles, and a crystal chandelier, it prompted the show's producer to ask him, “You mean, like a funeral?” To which the Cobain replied, “Exactly. Like a funeral.” And in many ways, it was just that.
The covers (Meat Puppets, Lead Belly, David Bowie) are perhaps the most remarkable, though it irked some. Bowie soon grew tired of fans referring to “that Nirvana song, ‘The Man Who Sold the World’.”
Eric Clapton’s Unplugged session has been one of the defining moments in a career spanning 50 years. EC was becoming AOR-safe before Unplugged, despite guitar-hounds still lapping up his every lick when he played live. But Unplugged re-connected Clapton with the blues that were his musical education and the source of his 1960s fame. There were covers of “Walkin’ Blues” and “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” and a shuffling re-work of “Layla” was supreme. But it was “Tears in Heaven” – for his late son Connor – that hit hardest. Clapton won six Grammys for his Unplugged performance. A decade later, Eric was still digging back into acoustic blues with his Me and Mr. Johnson album of Robert Johnson covers.
Rod Stewart (with Ronnie Wood)
Rod Stewart will always be a brilliant singer. Ronnie Wood will always be The Rolling Stones guitarist who is NOT Keith Richards. But the two ex-Faces band-mates worked magic on Rod’s Unplugged set. It’s full of great renditions of many hits, but “Maggie May” is the key moment. At the end, Rod kisses “Woodie” on the head for some superb acoustic playing on a Gibson J-200.
No surprise that Neil Young could make an Unplugged performance legendary. But his was, eventually, a great set. In 1993, Young had come off the back of the mega-grunge Ragged Glory album, but then cut the delicate Harvest Moon – a companion to his legendary Harvest album of the ’70s. “Harvest Moon” is surely up there with his greatest, but Young was unhappy for much of Unplugged. The show, on Young’s insistence, was recorded twice.
Typically Aerosmith, their Unplugged session wasn’t exactly hushed. Joey Kramer played a full drum kit, but the acoustics wielded by Joe Perry and Brad Whitford did bring Aerosmith back their bluesy rockin’ roots. And they prove the adage: great songs do work on acoustic guitars – the Unplugged “Dream On” sounds like an ancient piece of European baroque music, yet still works brilliantly. Seek it out.
Paul Simon has never been really “plugged” in his career, but this 1992 set for MTV was still special. Why? Simon’s songs. “The Boy in the Bubble,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Graceland,” “Still Crazy After All These Years,” “Cecilia,” “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover,” “The Boxer,” “Homeward Bound”... That’s only half of it. MTV Unplugged took Simon back to his natural environment. Art Garfunkel’s voice was maybe missed, but few can argue with Simon’s MTV Unplugged version of “Mrs. Robinson” and other gems of the pop-rock era.
Like Paul Simon, Paul McCartney didn’t need much electricity for his songs to shine. His ’91 MTV Unplugged set – recorded in London – is simply great popular songcraft delivered with minimal fuss. Unplugged (The Official Bootleg) album became one of Macca’s biggest hits in years. And to be fair, the guitars were truly “unplugged” – all was recorded by microphones close to the players’ acoustics and drums.
Alice in Chains
For MTV Unplugged in 1996, Alice in Chains gave their first performance in three years and one of their last concerts as an original group. Singer Layne Staley was visibly weak due to his addictions, but delivered a strong performance that reworked the band’s grunge anthems into surprisingly delicate yet doomy anthems. Fans claim it is one of the best and most memorable MTV Unplugged sessions ever. You?
10,000 Maniacs deserve a mention, as do the Eagles for the Hell Freezes Over recording on MTV Unplugged. Which is your favorite?