Back when MTV actually played music, a particular show introduced fans to a unique perspective on their favorite bands and musicians. Starting in 1989, airing initially for ten years, and then periodically continuing to this day, MTV Unplugged provided the opportunity for popular musicians to perform music without the typical amplification, mixing, and such that you might find on one of their CDs or during a concert performance. Created by producers Robert Small (MTV’s The Spoken Word) and Jim Burns, the genesis for this idea was predicated on the question “How can we create another venue for artists?”
The first season included artists such as Poison, Squeeze, Joe Satriani, Aerosmith, Elton John, Joe Walsh, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. It quickly became a cultural phenomenon, earning three Prime Time Emmy awards and the George Foster Peabody Award. Initially, it was hosted by songwriter Jules Shear (“All Through the Night”, “If She Knew What She Wants”) but in later seasons no host was used. Along with the idea that performers would be mostly on mic’d acoustic instruments, a side-effect of the quieter performance was that the venue was usually smaller. As a result, the audience was often small in number, providing a more personal setting for the artists, audience, and viewers.
Many of the artists who appeared on MTV Unplugged took the opportunity to release their performances commercially, some with great success — most notably Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, Mariah Carey, Alice in Chains, and Tony Bennett. Clapton’s release, simply titled Unplugged, went on to sell 26 million copies worldwide, earning six Grammy Awards for the album, including Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Song of the Year (“Tears in Heaven”), Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, Best Rock Male Vocal Performance, and Best Rock Song.
In some cases, certain instruments were “electrified” given that, for example, by the nature of the frequencies, an acoustic bass guitar is often difficult to hear. In one case, Robert Plant reunited with Jimmy Page in 1994 for a show titled “Unledded” which included amplified instruments such as Page’s guitar – with additional orchestral musicians and some acoustic instruments. It was not an actual reunion given that Jon Bonham had since passed, but also that John Paul Jones was not even told about the event and thus did not participate. The resulting album, No Quarter: Jimmy Page and Robert Plant Unledded, was certified Platinum worldwide. Bruce Springsteen also chose to perform with fully amplified instruments, thus bringing into question the point of calling the show “Unplugged.”
In 1991, recognizing the growing popularity of rap music, Unplugged invited LL Cool J, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and MC Lyte to perform. In recent years, the show has invited Latin and South American singers, as well as musicians who are popular in Europe and Asia.
A particularly poignant episode associated with MTV Unplugged is Nirvana’s 1993 performance. The show had been negotiating with Cobain for some time when he and the band finally agreed to participate. This turned out to be one of the last live performances recorded with Kurt as he committed suicide five months later.
About the opportunity, then-drummer 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.”
To avoid that, Cobain requested that the space be dressed as if there was a funeral underway. Stargazer lilies, black candles, and a large chandelier adorned the stage. While the group performed one of their more well-known songs, “Come As You Are,” they filled the rest of the performance with lesser-known cuts and covers such as Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World.” Nirvana also performed “All Apologies” which would appear on their forthcoming LP In Utero.
Kiss reunited its original members (Peter Criss, Paul Stanley, Ace Frehley, and Gene Simmons) for a memorable acoustic episode that also included other artists who had performed with the band and had filled in for original members who had stepped away at different times. This led to a lucrative world tour with the founding members that might not have happened had they not appeared together on Unplugged.
Unplugged continues to this day, though more sporadically. The invited artists are kept mostly modern ones (save for Tony Bennett’s episode). Recent artists included Liam Gallagher (who was forced to perform without his brother due to a sudden throat problem), European sensation Biffy Clyro, Lorde, Carly Rae Jepson, and Shawn Mendes.
During Covid, the show debuted MTV Unplugged At Home, which included 14 online episodes and artists such as BTS, the aforementioned Tony Bennett (with Lady Gaga), Bastille, and Twenty One Pilots.
If you want to catch previous episodes of the show, Amazon Prime offers some episodes of Unplugged from 2020 to the present day. Paramount+ just announced they would not only carry this series but also other throwbacks such as Yo! MTV Raps, and Behind the Music. And of course, you might also stumble upon some episodes on YouTube.
Photo: Kurt Cobain (Getty Images)