Mike Stebens takes a look back at some of the most iconic MTV Unplugged performances and breaks down exactly why the show has had such a lasting legacy in pop culture.
November 1st of this year marks the 25th anniversary of Nirvana’s iconic MTV Unplugged performance. To celebrate this, the album will be rereleased on vinyl, including five rehearsal performances that were hitherto only available on DVD. The show was recorded at the height of grunge and when Nirvana was arguably the most influential band on the planet. The release came only months after singer Kurt Cobain’s untimely death. Nirvana’s unplugged performance is perhaps the most iconic, but many other artists have given unforgettable appearances on the show, which have contributed to a lasting legacy, making MTV Unplugged a staple of pop culture and an honour for any artist to take part in.
Artists are given the opportunity to perform their songs in an unconventional setting, stripping them down to their bones. Many musicians write their music first on acoustic guitar and agree that a good song can be recognized by the fact that it works acoustically. Here lies what makes MTV Unplugged so important for artists and audiences alike. The singer is accompanied by acoustic instrumentation instead of the usual roaring electric guitars. The audience is sitting, which means that people won’t be dancing and screaming and apart from occasional cheering and applause in between songs, they stay silent, allowing the songs to take centre stage. The artist becomes more accessible and can present a more vulnerable and personal side to themselves, which takes us back to Nirvana and what makes their performance so special.
Unplugged presented an ideal opportunity for fame-shy Cobain to demystify the distorted prophetic image people had of him. Cobain was smoking cigarettes between songs, chatting with his bandmates and demonstratively pretending not to care at all about anything happening around him. All of this resulted in a vastly different experience to regular Nirvana shows which were known for frantic instrument smashing, howling vocals and a lot of loud feedback. Cobain, not being able to rely on his usual tricks, was sick with nerves before the show but in the end, he seemed more focused than normal, as if taking more care with the words he was singing. Nirvana only played a few of their hits like ‘Come As You Are’, ‘About A Girl’ and ‘All Apologies’ however, nearly half of the album consists of cover songs. Their version of David Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ might now be more famous than the original and has become a fan favourite.
Alice in Chains’ 1996 Unplugged is another example of a show that turned out great despite low expectations. Guitarist Jerry Cantrell had food poisoning and singer Layne Staley was in poor health as a result of his heroin addiction, which lead the group to not being able to perform live together in over two years. So, the pressure was on. Yet, the result is a contender for their best release. The unplugged versions of ‘Down in a Hole’ and ‘Rooster’ didn’t differ much from the album versions, but gained more depth from the intimate live setting.
Also from 1996 is Oasis’ Unplugged, is significant due to the absence of Liam Gallagher performing on stage. Noel Gallagher explained at the beginning of the show that his brother had a sore throat however, according to an interview with Noel, Liam was actually ‘shit-faced’ when the band walked out, so Liam wasn’t able to join them. Noel had to manage without him, singing his own songs without his brother for the first time. This was possibly the first time Noel realized that he didn’t need Liam and that he could stand on his own, making this one of the most important performances in the band’s career. It’s worth mentioning that Liam Gallagher is responsible for the newest addition to the MTV Unplugged catalogue, which premiered in September.
For artists of a previous generation such as Eric Clapton, Unplugged was a way of breathing new life into their established career. In 1992 it seemed like Clapton had passed his zenith, but iconic songs like ‘Tears in Heaven’, and ‘Layla’ made his Unplugged the best-selling release of the series to date.
Pearl Jam will be releasing their 1992 session for the first time on vinyl for Record Store Day’s Black Friday on November 29th. It features seven songs, almost all from their debut album, including ‘Black’, ‘Alive’, ‘Even Flow’ and ‘Jeremy’.
All these years later, MTV Unplugged still holds a lot of weight in the music industry. It remains relevant and necessary in an industry, which is ever more dominated by technology. Unplugged allows artists to showcase their talent and to connect with audiences on a more personal level.