The launch of the MTV Classic channel means the return of MTV Unplugged. Sort of. As we willingly jump back into the chuckles of Beavis and Butthead, we are now graced with the reruns of some of the most epic MTV Unplugged episodes. It’s a program that ranks amongst the most popular ever to be on MTV.
As a songwriter, many, if not all of the songs you write start on one simple instrument. A piano, a drumbeat or your standard acoustic guitar. As Writer/Director and original MTV Unplugged Producer, Bruce Leddy, recently explained in his brilliant Green Room guest column, a song is often in its purest state when played on its original single instrument.
Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready told Rolling Stone, “It forces you to play differently. You can’t rely on feedback. It forces you to use dynamics, and to look at each song in a different way.”
For the past 27 years, MTV Unplugged has demonstrated that. It’s no surprise there has been countless official MTV Unplugged releases as the platform served as one of the best performance points in many of careers of the artists that partook in the program. Late in its first season, Unplugged began to gain popular momentum with noteworthy appearances by Sinead O’Connor and Aerosmith. It was a second-season appearance by Paul McCartney however, that brought a new element to the show when McCartney released a recording of his performance. 106 live albums and 80 video recordings would follow as a result of the respective performances.
The Unplugged stage also served as a setting from some unique and unexpected “happenings.” It’s there where Simon Le Bon made his return after a lengthy hiatus, tending to a significant vocal strain. Concerned Duran Duran fans were put to ease as they witnessed Le Bon’s strong return. Songs such as “Serious” would climb that charts as a result.
Nirvana’s 2004 boxset, With The Lights Out, featured a single entitled “You Know You’re Right” – an original track that previously never been officially released. On February 14, 1995, Courtney Love and Hole performed the song during their Unplugged set, under the moniker, “You’ve Got No Right.”
In April of 1996 we saw one of the more bizarre moments when Oasis was scheduled to perform on Unplugged. At the last moment frontman Liam Gallagher pulled out of the performance claiming he had a “sore throat.” Instead of cancelling, brother and guitarist Noel Gallagher took the mic, earning much praise as brother Liam heckled the band from the balcony.
Nonethless, each MTV Unplugged performance has contained something special. In this feature, we look at 10 of best Rock moments of the show:
10. Neil Young – February 7, 1993. Universal Studios, Los Angeles, CA.
When Neil Young speaks you just listen. Young has a natural ability to have that effect through his music. Somehow, when you strip it down to just Young and an instrument, you listen even more intently. A perfect format to showcase the true element of song.
9. Hole – Brooklyn Academy of Music – Brooklyn, NY, February 14, 1995
A raw Courtney Love performance. At a sensitive time, Love opens up and even plays a Kurt Cobain song in honor of her late husband who had passed less than a year earlier.
8. REM – April 10, 1991. Chelsea Studios, NY, NY.
Michael Stipe was one of the most underrated voices in Rock music. Probably just the way he liked it.
7. Oasis – August 23, 1996. Royal Festival Hall, London, England.
Noel at the helm. Handled an uncomfortable situation perfectly, with Liam out. Spurred the question – is he even needed?
6. Paul McCartney – January 25, 1991. London Limehouse TV Studios, London, England
The performance that is largely responsible for the launch of multidimensional Unplugged with McCartney officially releasing a recording of his show. The 21st episode and one of the longer sets ever to grace the program at 23 songs.
5. Stone Temple Pilots – November 17, 1993 (aired in 1994). Sony Music Studios
“Big Empty” was debuted. But furthermore… the rocking chair.
4. Eric Clapton – January 16, 1992. Bray Film Studios, Windsor, England.
Clapton is so out-of-this-world on guitar you often lose sight of just how great his songs are. There was a vulnerability to Clapton’s performance here that made it pure artistic gold.
3. Nirvana – November 18, 1993. Sony Music Studios, NY, NY.
Kurt Cobain’s expressions throughout this performance really made you feel something and furthermore, think about the guy. You found yourself forgetting about their massive success and the electric frenzy that was around them and thinking two things. 1 – these are really great songs. Cobain was a melody master. 2 – maybe he really is in pain. During that specific version of “All Apologies,” you really believed him.
2. Pearl Jam – March 16, 1992. Kaufman Astoria Studios, Astoria, Queens, NY
Fresh off a flight from a 27 date European tour. Pearl Jam had just played a similar impromptu acoustic set in Switzerland a month earlier, upon noticing the stage was too small. Play acoustic? – Yeah we can do that. A soaring, heartfelt version of “Black,” and an epic rendition of “Porch.”
1. Alice in Chains – April 10, 1996. Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn, NY
A band that was built off an acoustic foundation where Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell perfectly duel. They were made for this type of performance. “I would have to say, this is the best show we’ve done in three years,” said Staley during the show.