Top 12 ‘MTV Unplugged’ Episodes
Since its debut in late 1989, MTV’s Unplugged has gotten artists of all genres to trade in their electric instruments for acoustics. Within a few years, it proved to be an artistically and commercially viable way for acts to recast their best-known songs in a new light, break out some obscurities (and/or covers) and promote their newest work. Our list of the Top 10 MTV Unplugged Episodes is comprised of the most memorable appearances by classic rockers, some of whom were performing together for the first time in a long while.
Unlike most of the artists on our list of the Top 12 MTV Unplugged Episodes, Aerosmith didn’t release an album of their 1990 performance. But that doesn’t mean it was any less memorable. They eschewed the post-comeback hits (only one album cut from both Permanent Vacation and Pump were performed) in favor of more obscure songs like “Seasons of Wither” and “One Way Street,” and their choice of covers reminded us of their blues roots nearly 15 years before Honkin’ on Bobo. We also believe that this may have been the longest Steven Tyler has remained seated in his entire life.
For much of his career, Bruce Springsteen had largely shied away from being on television, so there were some nerves on display when he entered Warner Hollywood Studios in 1992 with his new band. After a solo rendition of “Red-Headed Woman,” he changed his mind on the acoustic format and broke out his Telecaster. MTV executives weren’t happy with his decision, but you can’t really argue with the Boss. When it aired, the network crossed out the first two letters of Unplugged.
Alice in Chains
Following a tumultuous couple of years, Alice in Chains re-emerged in late 1995 with their self-titled third album. Their April 10, 1996 performance on Unplugged was their first since their 1993 world tour ended. Apart from a few shows opening up for Kiss on their own Unplugged-sparked reunion (see below on our list of the Top 12 MTV Unplugged Episodes), this turned out to be singer Layne Staley’s last concert before his 2002 death.
For the Eagles, a shot on Unplugged wasn’t about selling their newest product; it was their newest product. This 1994 episode, called Hell Freezes Over, was the first time they had performed together since Glenn Frey and Don Felder almost got into a fight onstage in 1980. They played a handful of their biggest hits, including a flamenco-tinged version of “Hotel California,” and unveiled several new songs. The resulting album has sold nine million copies.
Paul McCartney’s Unplugged appearance came a year after his first world tour since the Wings days. He mixed some of Beatles songs that fit the format perfectly (“Blackbird,” “‘And I Love Her”), a handful of covers (“Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Blue Moon of Kentucky”), a song he wrote when he was 14 (“I Lost My Little Girl”) and reminded us of the brilliance of the obscure “Every Night.” Because the commercial potential of an album from Unplugged had not yet been explored, it was released in a limited-edition, numbered run. By the end of the decade, it was permanently issued.
Wanting to make his performance a special event, Rod Stewart brought in Ronnie Wood to join him, the first time they had performed together since the breakup of the Faces in 1975. The album, Unplugged…and Seated, spawned a couple of hit singles in “Have I Told You Lately” and “Reason to Believe.” But it’s the rare airing of the gorgeous “Handbags and Gladrags” that causes it to be placed in the middle of our list of the Top 12 MTV Unplugged Episodes.
At the very moment he was being hailed as the “Godfather of Grunge,” Neil Young, true to form, went in the opposite direction with Harvest Moon, where he revisited the country-rock leanings of 1972’s Harvest. Although he was no stranger to the solo acoustic format, his taping didn’t go as well as hoped, so he scrapped the show and, a few months later, brought in some old friends like Ben Keith, Tim Drummond and Nils Lofgren to help him out on a second go-round. This proved to be more successful, with Young supplementing the Harvest Moon material with obscurities like “Pocahontas,” “Transformer Man” and “Long May You Run,” and a rendition of “Like a Hurricane” played on a pump organ that made him sound like the world’s coolest mad scientist.
Nirvana’s In Utero was a deliberate attempt to scale back their fame after the industry-changing out-of-nowhere success of Nevermind, so it was a bit of a surprise that they agreed to play on Unplugged in 1993. Naturally, Nirvana defied expectations, playing only one of their hits (“Come as You Are”), being supplemented by Cris and Curt Kirkwood from the Meat Puppets and closing with Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” After Kurt Cobain’s suicide, the wounded, warts-and-all performance became heavily scrutinized for clues as to his mindset in his final months.
Richard Linklater’s brilliant Dazed and Confused reminded the world of how important Kiss was to an entire generation of teenagers in the ’70s. Even though they still enjoyed success with newer members, the film helped lead to clamoring for a reunion of the original lineup. In 1995, old feelings were set aside as Ace Frehley and Peter Criss took the stage with Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons for the first time since 1980. Its success led to the estranged duo being brought back into the fold for a handful of massive full-makeup tours and Psycho Circus, but by 2004, Criss and Frehley were once again out of the picture.
It wasn’t a full episode. Heck, Unplugged hadn’t even premiered yet. But the acoustic versions of “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “Wanted Dead or Alive” by Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora at the 1989 Video Music Awards is widely credited with providing the inspiration for the series. In 2007, Bon Jovi promoted their country album, Lost Highway, with a 90-minute Unplugged that aired on MTV’s sister station, CMT.
Jimmy Page and Robert Plant
The reunions of the Eagles and Kiss (see above on our list of the Top 12 MTV Unplugged Episodes) were great, but arguably MTV’s greatest coup was getting Robert Plant and Jimmy Page to get back together. And while this wasn’t a true Led Zeppelin reunion — John Paul Jones reportedly wasn’t even asked — it was a greater artistic achievement than the previous times they had gotten together since their breakup. They recorded the special in London, Wales and Morocco, working with a dozen Egyptian musicians and a full string section on classics like “Kashmir” and “The Battle of Evermore” along the way. A tour followed, as did 1998’s Walking to Clarksdale album.
Not only was it a shock to see one of rock’s definitive electric guitar heroes trade in his Stratocaster for a Martin, Eric Clapton’s 1992 appearance on Unplugged set the curve for what could be accomplished on the program, and it has not been equaled since. From the reworked “Layla” to the blues covers to the moving “Tears in Heaven,” the episode resonated with the public in unprecedented fashion, with the album selling 10 million copies and winning six Grammys, including Album of the Year.