Pearl Jam is the latest band to have their MTV Unplugged performance reissued on vinyl. The band’s 1992 unplugged set will be released on limited edition vinyl on Record Store Day’s Black Friday event on November 29. Pearl Jam’s news follows the announcement that Nirvana’s iconic MTV Unplugged in New York performance, which was released as an album in 1994 following Kurt Cobain’s death, is getting a deluxe 25th anniversary reissue.
MTV started the Unplugged series in 1989, and provided artists with an opportunity to showcase their songs in a stripped down, intimate setting. Many musicians have graced the Unplugged stage, but not all of their performances have withstood the test of time. For example, the Winger and Slaughter episode that aired in 1991 doesn’t have the same gravitas as the Elvis Costello, R.E.M., or The Cure sets also from that year.
Most of the performances, however, are a delight to revisit. In addition to Pearl Jam’s upcoming vinyl and others that have already made it to that format (Alice in Chains, for example), here are a few back-in-the-day performances we wouldn’t mind dropping on the turntable.
Liam Gallagher’s absence from the 1996 taping of his band’s Unplugged performance is likely as bad an omen as you’re ever gonna get for the fate of both Oasis and the relationship between the brothers Gallagher. An apologetic Noel Gallagher graced the stage and informed the crowd that his brother had to skip the evening on account of an alleged “a sore throat.” That explanation seemed a little suspect, given how Liam was loudly and drunkenly heckling Noel’s performance from the crowd.
Of course, Liam had good reason to feel threatened: Noel gave a brilliant performance and realized that he didn’t need his brother to be the mouthpiece for his songs. Granted, any proper release of this Unplugged should include the bits where Noel tells Liam to shut up between songs.
The Cure were poised to release another hit album, Wish, when they graced the MTV Unplugged stage in 1991 and gave a cozy performance in front of a crowd full of goths while lying around on a cozy set that looks like it consisted entirely of bedding. The British gloom rockers exuded a charming presence, with frontman Robert Smith cracking self-deprecating jokes between songs.
The band armed a few members of the audience with kazoos so that they could play along with this particularly playful version of “The Walk.” Check out guitarist Pearl Thompson multitasking with both a kazoo and a guitar.
The Cranberries’ 1995 MTV Unplugged performance is a reminder of the great talent that was lost when singer Dolores O’Riordan died in 2018. The taping took place on Valentine’s Day in Brooklyn just as their album No Need to Argue was rocketing up the charts.
This performance of “Zombie” was likely unforgettable for the approximately 250 people who got to see it live, especially given how well the accompanying string ensemble paired with O’Riordan’s haunting vocals.
Less than a year after her husband’s death, Courtney Love’s band, Hole, taped their MTV Unplugged episode. Love has always been an electrifying performer and Hole is a reliably great live band, but it’s interesting to see how Love adapts to more controlled situations where she can’t go feral and leap into the crowd.
Love didn’t let herself be hemmed in by the more subdued setting, and instead, channeled the anger, grief, and vulnerability she was consumed with at the time into an arresting performance. You can always count on Hole’s frontwoman to make a few unorthodox choices, which was apparent when the band performed a cover of the 1962 Crystals song “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss).” With cigarette in hand, Love introduced the cover by calling it “a sick song.”
“Look, we know there’s nothing cool about George Michael,” read an MTV News item announcing the artist’s Unplugged taping, “but he’s one of those guilty pleasures.”
That writeup sounds insane in retrospect. Michael was a brilliant songwriter and his Unplugged performance adds a whole new dimension to his more pop- and dance-oriented hits. Anyone who isn’t enthralled by this version of Wham’s 1994 hit “Everything She Wants” should do some serious soul searching.
Before she established herself as a chart-topping diva, Mariah Carey was a talented ingenue with a lot to prove. As former MTV News columnist Anne T. Donahue pointed out in 2017, before Carey taped her 1992 Unplugged special, the singer hadn’t toured yet, “which raised questions as to whether she could even sing live.”
After her special aired, Carey’s cover of the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” was seemingly inescapable. Her Unplugged was an undeniable turning point in Carey’s career, setting her on the trajectory to become a legend.
Yo! Unplugged Rap: LL Cool J, MC Lyte, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and Pop’s Cool Love
It was difficult enough getting hip-hop onto MTV’s airwaves in the first place, let alone having rappers perform in a concert series dominated by rock artists. However, a visionary 26-year-old Yo! MTV Raps producer named Moses Edinborough was forward thinking enough to know that rappers could thrive on the Unplugged stage while backed by a live band.
According to Viper magazine, Edinborough proposed the idea to MTV Unplugged producer Joe Gallen, and had it rejected before it was reconsidered months later. Edinborough was tasked with putting together a production on short notice when Aerosmith backed out. The resulting show’s impact was immeasurable, opening the door for other hip-hop artists to perform unplugged, and as OZY pointed out, influenced the rock and rap collaborations comprising the 1993 Judgment Night soundtrack.
Perhaps the most rousing performance was LL Cool J’s conga-heavy rendition of “Mama Said Knock You Out,” even if the clumps of deodorant under his arms were distracting as hell.
Stone Temple Pilots
The late Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland had one of the most distinctive voices in rock, and the band’s 1993 Unplugged really allowed his voice to take center stage. As part of the 25th anniversary reissue of their debut album Core, the band released the performance on CD, but it would nice to just have a standalone version of the set to throw on the record player.
“I was so nervous,” STP bassist Robert DeLeo told Billboard in 2017, regarding the Unplugged taping. “There’s something about volume and turning things up so loud that allows you to hide behind the wall of sound, and there we were doing something we’d only done together when we were alone in a room, just us.”
As the clip shows, not having a wall of sound to hide behind is a good thing.
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