10 moments of genius from MTV Unplugged

Famous sets from MTV Unplugged
(Image credit: Getty Images)

It is weird to think now just how novel it was to witness rock bands deliver stripped-down renditions of their songs when MTV Unplugged launched at the end of the 80s. Up until that point, acoustic takes of rock classics were usually limited to your uncle whipping out his acoustic to demonstrate how he’d mastered the riff to Livin’ On A Prayer. But that first show, featuring British new wave dons Squeeze alongside Syd Straw and Eliot Easton, launched a whole new format. By the early 90s, an MTV Unplugged appearance had become an important cog in the promotion of a new record and probably one welcomed by bands who were getting an opportunity to play their music as they’d never done before (well, most bands - it didn’t exactly appeal to any artists of an electronic nature, like can you imagine Depeche Mode unplugged? It would mostly have been Dave Gahan a cappella).

It most definitely suited the wave of groups who emerged in the US over the first half of the decade, though, grunge bands who usually featured a virtuoso guitarist in their ranks and/or a singer whose stark emotion suited the mood. Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains and Stone Temple Pilots all tapped into that vibe, whilst Nirvana went in with a punky attitude to do something different and emerged with a rootsier version of themselves. Casting an eye over the rock acts who’ve performed, it feels like an oversight that Soundgarden and Smashing Pumpkins never got a crack but highlights from the performances aren’t restricted to one genre. Some saw it as a chance to expand their sonic vision, some to pare it down. Here are ten of the best MTV Unplugged moments from across the decades.

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Nirvana – Where Did You Sleep Last Night, 1993

It makes sense to start with the best. Nirvana did MTV Unplugged their way, ignoring (for the most part) their hits and choosing a selection of original cuts that would suit the occasion alongside some expertly-chosen covers that undoubtedly were frowned upon in MTV meeting rooms beforehand. Could MTV bosses have guessed that Kurt Cobain bawling out a cover of an old tune by blues trailblazer Lead Belly would become one of the station’s most-iconic moments ever? Of course not, but they were right to let Kurt & co. go ahead and do it anyway.

Paul McCartney – Blackbird, 1991

MTV Unplugged producer Alex Colletti credits McCartney deciding to release his MTV Unplugged performance as a standalone record marked a breakthrough moment for the show, showcasing the concept to an array of artists who’d soon want to be involved. Sir Macca strips it all back and his Unplugged (The Official Bootleg) album is basically like hearing classic songs being busked by the man who wrote them. Blackbird is one of its most intimate and lovely moments.

The Cure – Just Like Heaven, 1991

But recording the McCartney session had seriously eaten into MTV’s budget. It was the first time that producers had taken the show outside of the US, relocating at Limehouse Studios in London to film the ex-Beatle’s performance and to offset the cost, they had the idea of getting another performance filmed whilst they were in London. Enter The Cure, coming off the back of a monumentally successful decade in which their sound had grown ever more epic and expansive with each record. Their MTV Unplugged set stripped all the soundscapes away though. On this highlight, they look like a bunch of goths who’ve hijacked the guitars at a house party (but they still sound like The Cure, so it’s obviously brilliant).

Pearl Jam – State Of Love And Trust, 1992

When Pearl Jam made their MTV Unplugged bow in March, 1992, one of the best songs from their set hadn’t actually been released. Eddie Vedder and gang had recorded State Of Love And Trust during sessions for their debut album Ten but that version had been shelved, a re-done version released in June 1992 as part of the Singles soundtrack, meaning that for fans, their MTV Unplugged set aired in May 1992 was their first encounter with a non-album classic. Its choppy riff and urgent delivery suit the acoustic reworking in a way that some of the other songs from their set (Even Flow?) didn’t. For some fans, this is the definitive take.

R.E.M. – Country Feedback, 2001

The quartet-and-then-trio from Athens, Georgia performed two MTV Unplugged sets a decade apart. The first, in 1991, came in the wake of huge success after seventh album Out Of Time had elevated them to alt-rock giants but it’s the second in 2001 that really stands out. Something about the way they sound a little older, wiser and more weary – this was three years after the departure of drummer and co-founder Bill Berry – suits the vibe. This cut, from Out Of Time and bafflingly not played first time round, is best of way, Michael Stipe’s hypnotic sing-speak vocal at the centre of its dreamy, Americana-y sway.

Stone Temple Pilots – Big Empty, 1993

Stone Temple Pilots were still dealing with a lot of questions about whether they were the real deal when they recorded their Unplugged set in November 1993. The suspicion that they were grunge copyists jumping on the bandwagon was the general gist, but debuting one new song during their performance, they pretty much shut the doubters up. That song was Big Empty, a strangely eerie track that started off a bit like a bossa nova goth track and bursted into a darkly epic chorus. Even acoustically, its power was clear for all to see and hear, although we’re not sure about Scott Weiland’s choice of chair. It doesn’t look comfortable for sitting, let alone singing.

Alice In Chains – Nutshell, 1996

One of the most poignant MTV Unplugged recordings, Alice In Chains’ performance was one of the last times that Layne Staley took to the stage with his band before his subsequent retreat from public life and death in 2002. There would be a handful of Alice In Chains dates later in 1996 but none were as powerful as this set. Opener Nutshell is the best opener of any Unplugged set ever, beginning with Jerry Cantrell’s plaintive acoustic strums with each band member adding their part as they take to the stage until Staley appears to applause and breaks out that soulful, yearning croon. Heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time, and totally jaw-dropping.

Hole – You’ve Got No Right, 1995

Maybe the most controversial of all the Unplugged performances, and that includes Jimmy Page and Robert Plant conveniently forgetting to tell John Paul Jones they were reuniting for the occasion, is this song performed by Hole during their set in 1995. The final track recorded by Nirvana, it was eventually released as You Know You’re Right in 2002, but not before Courtney Love performed it with her Hole bandmates. Aside from all the controversy, it’s a brilliant rendition, Love’s vocal delivery pained and frazzled and her bandmates offering up a slightly more intricate and spidery backing than the Nirvana original. For a deep dive into the whole tale, read Paul Brannigan’s excellent piece here.

Oasis – The Masterplan, 1996

An entry to break up the heavy vibes, just because it’s quite funny. A week after a pair of era-defining gigs at Knebworth, Oasis were due at London’s Royal Festival Hall for a filmed MTV Unplugged show. Rehearsals were a little testy, though, with Liam Gallagher hardly showing and complaining that he was losing his voice. He turned up for the show, though, except he'd been on a two-day bender and was what Noel Gallagher described as “shit-faced”. Noel decided they’d see what happened when they got onstage, except Liam disappeared as stage-time arrived, leaving his bandmates to get on with it. They delivered a pretty solid set, Noel taking vocal duties and the sound beefed up by strings and brass, as best demonstrated on their classic B-side The Masterplan. That wasn’t the real highlight, though – that was when Liam turned up halfway through the gig in one of the venue’s boxes and started heckling.

Florence + The Machine (feat. Josh Homme) – Jackson, 2012

Florence Welch’s grandiose second record Ceremonials proved that her debut was no fluke, establishing the London indie-rocker as one of the world’s biggest new stars. Despite much of her music being based on anthemic bombast, Welch showed she could do restraint too during a mesmerising Unplugged set in 2012. This duet with QOTSA’s Josh Homme was a highlight, lending the cover of the Johnny Cash and June Carter staple Jackson a sense of soulful breeziness amidst all the heartbreak paeans.

Niall Doherty

Niall Doherty is a writer and editor whose work can be found in Classic Rock, The Guardian, Music Week, FourFourTwo, on Apple Music and more. Formerly the Deputy Editor of Q magazine, he co-runs the music Substack letter The New Cue with fellow former Q colleagues Ted Kessler and Chris Catchpole. He is also Reviews Editor at Record Collector. Over the years, he's interviewed some of the world's biggest stars, including Elton John, Coldplay, Arctic Monkeys, Muse, Pearl Jam, Radiohead, Depeche Mode, Robert Plant and more. Radiohead was only for eight minutes but he still counts it.