‘MTV Unplugged’: The 15 Best Episodes
MTV’s latest reinvention scheme involved getting back to their roots, which means recreating their iconic Times Square studio for a revival of Total Request Live. It also means they’re bringing back Unplugged. For those not around in the Nineties, that’s the show where big musical acts played acoustic renditions of their songs. It gave a new lease on life to veteran artists like Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart and offered newer groups like Pearl Jam and Nirvana a chance to strip their music back down to its essence and offer their fans some fun surprises.
The new edition of the show kicked off September 2017 with Shawn Mendes; to celebrate, here’s a chronological look at the 15 best Unplugged episodes of years past. Before commenters go insane, we are excluding performances by the groups like the Eagles and Page & Plant that merely used the Unplugged name, or variations of it, for their concert specials. Also, even Bruce Springsteen’s most die-hard fans probably feel that Plugged wasn’t exactly his finest moment.
[Editor note: a version of this list was originally published in September 2017]
Rod Stewart (1993)
The shocking sales figures for Eric Clapton Unplugged had many other veteran artists lunging for their phones to book their own MTV specials. Bob Dylan largely whiffed with his own (his acoustic Supper Club gigs around the same time were infinitely better), but Rod Stewart rose to the challenge in a huge way. Not only did he reunite with his former Faces and Jeff Beck Group bandmate Ron Wood for the duration of the show, but he carefully picked many of his best cover tunes, including “Have I Told You Lately” and “Reason to Believe.” It reminded many old-school Rod Stewart fans why they loved him in the first place and became his best-selling album in years. “Reason to Believe” was all over the radio, giving him a huge career boost.
Kiss were at the low point of their career when the idea of an Unplugged special was broached in 1995. They’d been reduced to playing acoustic sets at their own fan conventions, and after seeing Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart revive their careers with Unplugged it seemed like a very good idea. MTV insisted on bringing back original members Peter Criss and Ace Frehley to make the event newsworthy, a condition that Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley agreed to with no small amount of trepidation. “I heard secondhand stories about how much Peter’s playing had deteriorated,” Stanley wrote in his book Face The Music. “But there was an exciting and surreal sense of nostalgia in the room when they entered.” They only came out for the encores of “Beth,” “Nothin’ to Lose” and “Rock and Roll All Nite,” but once that happened there was no going back to the old Kiss. It paved the way for the huge reunion tour the next year and many tours to come.
Oasis were well into the debauched (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? tour when they agreed to an MTV Unplugged taping at London’s Royal Festival Hall. It was a rare chance to see the group outside of a stadium or giant festival, but shortly before showtime Liam Gallagher backed out due to a “sore throat.” Most groups would never dream of playing a gig without their lead singer, but his brother Noel simply shrugged it off and decided to simply take over vocal duties. After all, he wrote the songs himself and was a great singer in his own right. Making the night even more surreal, Liam decided to sit in the audience and heckle his own band throughout the show. There’s never been anything like it in rock history. And it was probably the first time Noel realized he could do all of this on his own.
Paul McCartney (1991)
After taking off a decade from the road, Paul McCartney went on a long tour in 1989 that took him to stadiums all over the world. But they were large, impersonal shows, and in early 1991 he was eager to do something completely different. Unplugged was the perfect opportunity to do that. He leaned hard into the concept, using completely acoustic instruments and not cheating in any way. The intimate show skipped most of his obvious hits in favor of covers like “Good Rockin’ Tonight” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky” mixed in with lesser-known songs from his solo career like “Every Night” and “That Would Be Something.” The highlight, however, is a stunningly tender rendition of “And I Love Her.” It remains the definitive version outside of the Beatles original. The show came out on CD in the summer of 1991 as Unplugged (The Official Bootleg), the first of many official Unplugged album releases.
Lauryn Hill (2001)
It had been three long years since Lauryn Hill released her debut LP The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill when she stepped onto the MTV Unplugged stage. She had a ton of new songs, but was just learning to play guitar and clearly was in no position to be presenting them to the public. “Anyone with ears can hear there are only three chords being played on every song,” an anonymous industry executive told Rolling Stone in 2003. “I saw it with a roomful of professionals, and someone said, ‘I feel like jumpin’ out a window.'” But with her label desperate for new Lauryn Hill music of any sort, they released it as a double album. “A lesser artist, it would’ve never been released,” an industry insider said. “A lesser artist would’ve been shot and thrown out the window.” But 16 years later, things feel a little different, especially since there was no follow-up of any sort. It’s an artist battling a shredded throat, the crushing weight of industry expectations and her own fragility. Putting this all out there for the public to see was an amazing act of courage and the most unique, unpolished Unplugged ever to see the light of day.
Neil Young (1993)
Neil Young was playing unplugged shows long before MTV dreamed up the concept, so he should have taken to the concept without any difficulty. But his initial attempt to play an official Unplugged episode at New York’s Ed Sullivan Theater in December 1992 was a complete fiasco. Despite reuniting the Stray Gators from Harvest and Harvest Moon, he just wasn’t happy with the performance, ultimately walking out of the show and onto the street, leaving the producers and audience baffled. He returned and treated the audience to his first performance of “Last Trip to Tulsa” in 16 years, but he hated the show and refused to release it. Two months later they tried again at Universal Studios in Los Angeles. It was a very different set list, complete with the super deep cut “Stringman” and a haunting solo rendition of “Like a Hurricane” on the pump organ. He let MTV air this one.
Alicia Keys (2005)
There weren’t a lot of great Unplugged episodes in the 2000s, with years often passing without a single new episode. But in 2005, Alicia Keys helped bring the series back with a stunning show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. She only had two albums worth of songs at that point, so she brought out Adam Levine to sing the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” and Mos Def, Common and Damian Marley for “Welcome to Jamrock.” What nobody knew at the time was that Keys came close to bringing in Bruce Springsteen to play his 1973 classic “New York City Serenade” with her. “I was going to cry,” she said. “The schedule just conflicted.” That’s a huge bummer. Had they pulled it off, it would have been one of the great moments in Unplugged history.
Less than a year after Kurt Cobain’s suicide, Courtney Love and her band played an Unplugged show to promote their album Live Through This. It was a ballsy move since it would invite comparisons to her husband’s Unplugged set, which was already the stuff of legend, but Love not only delivered killer versions of “Doll Parts” and “Miss World,” but she covered Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf” with surprising reverence. She also dug out the Nirvana outtake “You Know You’re Right,” though she changed the words to “You’ve Got No Right.” It may not have stood up to the Nirvana version that eventually came out, but watching Cobain’s widow try to grapple with an unimaginable loss onstage for the whole world to see was very moving.
Mariah Carey (1992)
By the summer of 1992 Mariah Carey had released two best-selling albums, but she hadn’t promoted them with many concerts and there was a sense in the air that perhaps she was just a studio creation that couldn’t deliver the good onstage. To put that notion to bed forever, her label booked an Unplugged show at Kaufman Astoria studios in Queens. The show featured hits like “Vision of Love” and “Emotions” along with a cover of “I’ll Be There” by the Jackson Five, which was sung as a duet with backup singer Trey Lorenz. The special was such a huge success that MTV played it for years, and radio embraced the version of “I’ll Be There.” Lorenz remains a key part of her live band to this day and they continue to sing “I’ll Be There” together.
LL Cool J / A Tribe Called Quest / De La Soul (1991)
In the early days of Unplugged, every episode featured multiple artists, giving us shows like Great White and Damn Yankees, Sinéad O’Connor and the Church, and Ratt and Vixen. The most successful of this run was an episode billed as Yo! Unplugged Rap, which featured LL Cool J, MC Lyte, A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. This was MTV’s first attempt at bringing hip-hop into the Unplugged universe, and it was a huge success. The highlight was LL Cool J tearing through “Mama Said Knock You Out,” teaching kids all over America to never wear white, flakey deodorant when playing shirtless on national television. “People have teased me about the deodorant for years, but I love it,” he said in 2010. “It was raw! It was nasty! At least you know I wasn’t stinking.”
Eric Clapton (1992)
Eric Clapton’s mournful ballad “Tears in Heaven” – inspired by the tragic death of his four-year old son Conor – first appeared on the soundtrack to the largely forgotten 1991 Jennifer Jason Leigh movie Rush. But the version most remembered was cut shortly afterwards at his MTV Unplugged concert. The death of his son put the guitarist in an understandably fragile state of mind, but he poured all his sorrow into the music and created a concert that went on to sell millions when it came out on CD. In addition to “Tears in Heaven,” a radical reworking of Derek and the Domino’s “Layla” also got a lot of airplay. And that’s the reason we didn’t list this one higher: It’s caused him to revive that rendition of “Layla” in countless concerts during the past 25 years. It’s fine and good at an Unplugged show, but at a regular gig we want to hear the original, electric “Layla,” not that.
Alice in Chains (1996)
Alice in Chains hadn’t played a single show in two and a half years when they walked onstage at Brooklyn’s Academy of Music on April 10th, 1996. Lead singer Layne Staley’s severe heroin addiction made it impossible to promote their 1995 self-titled disc, but on this night he was able to forget his problems and pour himself into his music, delivering unforgettable acoustic renditions of “Rooster,” Down in a Hole,” “Over Now” and other AIC classics. Bizarrely, it was guitarist Jerry Cantrell who was having a rougher time getting through the show since he ate some bad hot dogs earlier that day and was dealing with a nasty case of food poisoning. The group played a handful of gigs later that year opening for Kiss on their reunion tour, but Unplugged was their last true great moment with Staley.
A couple of months after dropping The Blueprint, Jay-Z staged an Unplugged special at MTV Studios in New York. Crucially, he invited the Roots to serve as his backing band for the entire show. They brought an incredible live energy to songs like “Big Pimpin’,” “Can I get A …” and “Hard Knock Life,” reinventing them from the ground up. Mary J. Blige came out for “Can’t Knock the Hustle” and Pharrell joined him for “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It Me.)” It’s an entirely new way to experience Jay’s catalog, and the ultimate example that any genre of music can work on the show given the right backing group and the right arrangements.
Pearl Jam (1992)
Pearl Jam were just beginning to gain a national profile when they taped their Unplugged special at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens on March 16th, 1992. They’d just wrapped a grueling European tour and had little time to prep. “We literally got off the plane from Europe, spent all day in a cavernous sound studio in New York, and did the show that night,” said bassist Jeff Ament. “It’s pretty powerful, and Ed’s singing great. Yet it’s kind of naive, which is awesome.” The group later said they wished they had more time to put together a whole set of newly arranged songs like Nirvana would do late the following year, but it’s still an amazing look at a band just starting to realize their own incredible power and range.
Unplugged wasn’t Nirvana’s last concert. Just one week after it wrapped they’d resume the American leg of the In Utero tour and then head to Europe early the following year for two months of additional shows. But in many ways, the show felt like their final statement to the world. The vibe was dark before they even walked on since Kurt Cobain insisted that the stage look like a funeral, complete with lilies and black candles. Joined by touring guitarist Pat Smear and cellist Lori Goldston, the group skipped over nearly all of their obvious hits in favor of covers like David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World,” The Vaselines’ “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam” and no less than three Meat Puppets songs, where they were joined by bandleaders Cris and Curt Kirkwood themselves. Near the beginning, Kurt delivered a chilling rendition of “Come as You Are,” repeating the line “no, I don’t have a gun” through gritted teeth, a moment that became very hard to watch in light of later events. The show wraps up with “All Apologies” and a cover of Lead Belly’s “In The Pines,” which they renamed “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.” It’s hard to think of a more powerful double shot from any live concert in the entire 1990s, or perhaps even the entire history of rock & roll.