Once upon a time MTV was a shining beacon of hope in the music industry. They provided an enterprise of ‘cool’, and weaponised a virtual market for music videos. But above all, the crowning jewel in their now besmirched legacy was MTV Unplugged. Today we take a look at the best ever MTV Unplugged sets of all time.
Cable television revolutionised TV in the ’80s. 24 hour television made channels like CNN and HBO a sure thing from launch, however, MTV was a dark horse. Launching with only 250 cheap music videos, nobody knew it it would transform the entertainment industry.
A true test of artist malleability, we take a dig through the archives in order to find the greatest, most legendary MTV Unplugged sets of all time.
At midnight on 1 August 1981, MTV launched with Video Killed the Radio Star – a song that would go on to be prophetic for how the channel would change the music industry. Funnily enough, the second music video played was Pat Benatar’s You Better Run, programmed as a warning shot to the record companies who were still sceptical about MTV. Nevertheless they paid Mick Jagger $1 to run an ‘I Want My MTV’ and from there they monopolised an entire industry founded on the visual elements of music. And the cream of the crop is undoubtedly MTV Unplugged.
1. Nirvana 1993
Arguably on the most legendary concerts of all time, Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged set is pretty unbelievable from the get go. Despite popular belief and the mythologising of a tide of tongues, this was not Nirvana’s last show. Just one week after this show 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.
However, it certainly felt like their last performance. Kurt Cobain had the entire set decorated like a funeral, even down to the melancholy lilies and black candles. Joined by touring guitarist Pat Smear and cellist Lori Goldston, the band skipped over the majority of their big hits in favour of various unknown covers such as The Vaselines Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam, David Bowie‘s The Man Who Sold The World and three Meatpuppet songs.
The set closed out with a bang as Nirvana hailed the seminal blues singer Leadbelly. Renaming the classic In The Pines to Where Did You Sleep Last Night, Cobain’s grunts and howls through gritted teeth remain iconic to this day, landing the set a spot in the pantheon of ’90s performances and indeed all of rock n’ roll history.
2. Eric Clapton 1992
Clapton is god. His reputation certainly preceded the legendary blues guitarist and thus the stakes were high. Taking on a much mellower and more traditional blues stature in his later years as oppose to the fiery innovation of his time with Cream.
However, the mournful ballad Tears In Heaven – just one year after the death of Eric’s son Conor Clapton – has been hailed as one of the most touching tunes ever written and is a shining moment for the performance. A stripped back rendition of Layla and Old Love are exceptional among a selection of Muddy Waters covers. This stellar exhibition of blues history is what confirms Clapton as a staple of the genre.
3. LL Cool J/ A Tribe Called Quest/ De La Soul 1991
In the early days MTV Unplugged was more like a collaboration show where multiple artists would combine forces and maybe even do a duet. The first edition of this was entitled Yo! Unplugged Rap which featured LL Cool J, MC Lyte, A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. Their first attempt to introduce rap to the MTV universe was a huge success and is a must watch for any fans of the genre.
4. Pearl Jam 1992
Pearl Jam had just started to achieve national fame when they played their MTV Unplugged set in 1992 at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens. The band had just come out the other end of a gruelling European tour and headed straight into MTV with almost no 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.”
Pearl Jam later came out and said they wished they had more time to prepare a fresh set of songs like Nirvana did the following year, however it’s still a powerful snapshot of a great band beginning to unlock their full power and range.
5. Jay-Z 2001
Merely a few months after releasing The Blueprint, MTV brought in the artillery and did an unplugged set with Jay-Z. Crucially he employed The Roots for back up duties and they added an incredible elevated vibe to the set.
Pharrell came out for I Just Wanna Love U (Give It Me) while Mary J. Blige joined vocal forces for Can’t Knock the Hustle. All in all it’s an entirely new way to experience Jay-Z and an incredible testament to the malleability of any genre provided the artist is willing to evolve and they have the right people by their side.