OK sure, there are shades of electricity in places (no one’s pretending that GN’R Lies didn’t have a plugged-in side, or that Page and Plant totally shook off the need for amplification on Unledded), but what made all these albums was their unplugged core. Underscored by a willingness to embrace their softer side, the artists here proved that you don’t need a stack of Marshall amps to make a first-class rock album. Yes, some made other brilliant acoustic records (Neil Young, Bob Dylan… we’re talking to you), but we wanted to include as many voices as possible, so we’ve stuck to one album per band/artist.
Hush now, and enjoy the quiet riot…
25) J Mascis – Several Shades Of Why (2011)
The onset of middle age brought out a different side of J Mascis. The slacker generation’s first great guitar hero opted to ditch the distorted volume of Dinosaur Jr for a solo album artfully layered with acoustic guitars and subtle, but telling, embellishments. Joined by like-minded chums – Kurt Vile, Band Of Horses’ Ben Bridwell, Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew, Pall Jenkins of the Black Heart Procession and Godspeed You! Black Emperor violinist Sophie Trudeau – Mascis fashioned a low-key suite of songs that suggested he may have always been a sensitive balladeer at heart.
His warm, dozy drawl proved an ideal contrast to the liveliness of his finger-picked guitar melodies, especially on the title track, on which Trudeau adds some lovely textures. The pastoral folk of Make It Right is coloured by flute, lap steel guitar and Vile’s slide guitar; the lapping harmonies of Not Enough recall Moby Grape at their plangent best; Where Are You sounds like Here Comes The Sun-era Beatles. Elsewhere, as on Listen To Me and Very Nervous And Love, Mascis channels the gentle troubadour spirit of early Neil Young. Who could have guessed that America’s quintessential noise lord would turn out to be such a convincing folkie? RH
24) The Civil Wars – Barton Hollow (2012)
I’ve been a-waiting for you, and you’ve been a-waiting for me,’ sing Joy Williams and John Paul White amid the swoop of strings on Forget Me Not. And it was true. Rarely had two voices sounded so destined to be together. The pair discovered their telepathy at a Nashville songwriting workshop in 2008, and three years later Barton Hollow applied that rare chemistry to a set of intimate songs that touched all who heard them.
The courtship dance of White and Williams’s intertwined vocals lit up moments such as the stunning To Whom It May Concern and the doomed romance of C’est La Mort (‘You can sink to the bottom of the sea, just don’t go without me’). But Barton Hollow were at their most shiver-down-the-spine poignant on alt.country standout Poison & Wine (‘Oh, I don’t love you, but I always will’). Songs didn’t come more sparse, but to smother it in Marshall stack would only have diminished its emotional power.
Indeed it was the high-profile use of Poison & Wine on US TV drama series Grey’s Anatomy that turned The Civil Wars into mainstream contenders, starting a hot streak that culminated in them grabbing four Grammys (but perhaps hastened their demise, in 2014). Rarely has such a quiet album made such a big noise. HY
23) Joe Bonamassa – An Acoustic Evening At The Vienna Opera House (2013)
Usually an artist you could set your watch by, Joe Bonamassa’s first ‘unplugged’ album arrived with a welcome sense of potential disaster – one not lost on the bluesman himself. “It was, like, this could either go really well, or else we’re really screwed here,” he remembered of taking the stage in July 2012. “ It really is Kryptonite to me, the acoustic guitar.”
Bonamassa had initially planned to play it safe – “Just me sitting in a chair, on my tod, telling stories about the songs…” – before a nudge from producer Kevin Shirley sparked a bolder plan. A crack squad of left-field instrumentalists (glockenspiel, accordion, Irish fiddle) was quickly put together, and after three days of rehearsals the guitarist shed his skin in the Austrian capital, to astonishing effect. Stripped of the monster guitar solos, his songs flew, with Dust Bowl and Driving Towards The Daylight revealing rare poignancy. And his ever-underrated vocals were thrillingly front-and-centre, full of humanity and character.
So …Vienna wasn’t the “lead balloon” that Bonamassa feared. In fact it’s one of the gems of his catalogue. “Honestly,” he says, “it was the most fulfilling musical experience of my life. Nobody wanted it to end.” HY
22) R.E.M. – Unplugged: The Complete 1991 and 2001 Sessions (2014)
The only act to appear twice on MTV Unplugged, R.E.M.’s performances 10 years apart captured them in markedly different phases. In 1991, after a decade of building steadily, they were on the cusp of breakout success with seventh album Out Of Time. Thus the first part of this collection was slanted in its direction, and includes the mandolin-driven Half A World Away and international hit single Losing My Religion.
The truly great moments occurred elsewhere, though, when the stripped-down settings allowed the grainy burr of Michael Stipe’s remarkable voice to locate the inherent grace of Perfect Circle, World Leader Pretend and Fall On Me.
By 2001, drummer Bill Berry had quit and R.E.M. were established global superstars. For their second Unplugged session the core trio was augmented by Scott McCaughey, Ken Stringfellow and Joey Waronker. The recording was fuller as a result, though hardly less impressive. A curious smidgen of Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone crept into the lyrics of Country Feedback, while some of their newer tunes – All The Way To Reno, At My Most Beautiful – offered conclusive proof that the band had lost little of their emotional wallop.
Catnip for long-time fans, this 33-song set is R.E.M. at their most affectingly raw. RH
21) Status Quo – Aquostic (Stripped Bare) (2014)
The runaway success of 2014’s Aquostic took just about everybody – including Status Quo themselves – by complete surprise. After spending the best part of five decades cranking out 12-bar riffs at thunderous volume the band had become a living, headbanging institution, although those prepared to delve beneath the surface knew of the diversity hidden within their catalogue.
Aquostic (with a humourous cover photo by Bryan Adams) brought all of these foibles to the surface, revising well-thumbed arrangements and using guest musicians including an accordion player, a female backing singer and a six-piece string section to scratch the band’s melodic underbelly in the most celebratory way possible.
Just 10 months before the album’s release, Francis Rossi said: “Quo unplugged? The idea makes my bottom twitch. It would be good for about twenty minutes.” Rick Parfitt was more open to the suggestion but hated the title. “It conjures up something phallic in my mind, like a cock sticking up in the air,” he mused. “A Quo stick.”
But the results spoke for themselves, and following December’s The Last Night Of The Electrics tour it will be ‘aquostic’ all the way from now on. DL
20) Guns N’ Roses – GN’R Lies (1988)
The electrifying hard rock of Guns N’ Roses’ debut album Appetite For Destruction had the young LA band tagged ‘the new Aerosmith’. What they came up with in 1988, a year after Appetite was released, was something as brilliant as it was unexpected: four acoustic songs on their album GN’R Lies that evoked not Aerosmith, but the greatest rock’n’roll band of them all, the Rolling Stones.
GN’R Lies was not an orthodox album. The first half was a reissue of the band’s debut EP from 1986, Live ?!*@ Like A Suicide – famously, a bogus ‘live’ recording laid down in a studio. But in the acoustic material on the album was complete honesty, for better and for worse. There were echoes of the Stones in the beautiful ballad Patience, a worldwide hit, and Used To Love Her, with its faux-country swing and blackly humorous lyrics. There was a great stripped-down version of You’re Crazy, a song from Appetite. And to finish there was the most controversial song that Guns N’ Roses ever recorded: One In A Million, in which Axl Rose poured scorn on ‘niggers’ and ‘faggots’ – it was shocking then, and it still is now. The uncomfortable truth is that Axl put more of his soul into that song than he did any other. PE
19. Townes Van Zandt – Live At The Old Quarter, Houston, Texas (1977)
“I’ve never heard it so quiet in here,” Townes Van Zandt remarks as he makes his way through the monumental live set captured on Live At The Old Quarter. It’s a testament to both his craft as a composer and the emotional weight of his songs that he was able to keep a full house spellbound using only his voice and an acoustic guitar.
Recorded during a five-night residency at a small club in July 1973, but only released four years later, this is an album that finds Van Zandt at his peak. The songs are ready-made for such an intimate setting, his finger-picked guitar lines and sad, yearning vocals essaying tales of dissolution and wanderlust, his characters engaged in physical and spiritual flight. Like his hero Hank Williams, Van Zandt proves himself a chronicler of the damned and the weary, in affecting songs such as Waiting ’Round To Die, If I Needed You, No Place To Fall and Pancho And Lefty. His amiable banter brightens the tone, with the laconic pairing of Talking Thunderbird Blues and Fraternity Blues offering further light relief. Elsewhere, deft covers of songs by Bo Diddley, Merle Travis and fellow Texan traveller Lightnin’ Hopkins provide a route map to the forces that shaped him. RH
18) Eric Clapton – Unplugged (1992)
As MTV Unplugged producer Alex Coletti remembers it, Clapton’s set at Bray Film Studios in Windsor found the star “looking grief square in the eye”; overtly mourning his son Conor with Tears In Heaven; wistful on Running On Faith; winding back the clock with his rattling slide work on covers of formative-years tunes such as Robert Johnson’s Walkin’ Blues.
Yet the ache at the core of Clapton’s performance is offset by the joy of moments such as Signe and Before You Accuse Me, and the frequent flashes of humour: fluffing the intro to Alberta (“Hang on, hang on!”) and teasing the audience with Layla (“See if you can spot this one”), the 1971 classic now played as a rootsy amble. “Making it acoustic denied all the riffs,” Clapton explained. “So it just seemed to naturally become jazzier.”
Eric Clapton Unplugged sold 26 million copies, won three Grammys and put a few noses out of joint, with
J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr struggling to understand “how someone could butcher their own song so horribly” and Chris Rea sniping at a set-up that evoked Pebble Mill At One. But they were a minority. The album was a fearless reinvention, and arguably the last time that Slowhand surprised us. HY
17) Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire (2011)
An artist as prolific as Ryan Adams was always going to get to an acoustic album, and when The Cardinals folded in 2009 – the band’s frazzled and tinnitus-plagued singer noting that he was “ready for quieter times” – it seemed the perfect juncture.
Post-Heartbreaker, his solo debut, his quality control had always been suspect, but for Ashes & Fire Adams “threw out eighty per cent” of his initial material before he settled on the tracklisting, explaining why this collection is so tight. The modus operandi is established by opener Dirty Rain – a sad strum of acoustic, a tick of percussion and a vocal from the depths – and the paring back suited him on heartfelt gems such as Save Me. When the instrumentation threatened to get too spare, meanwhile, Chains Of Love had Adams’s vocal puncturing a sweep of strings. And we’ll bend the ‘no electrics’ rule for the somersaulting wah-wah solo on Invisible Riverside.
Working in the acoustic format has awoken many an artist’s reflective side, and Ashes & Fire plays out like a man taking stock, never more so than when, on the gorgeous Lucky Now, the former hellraiser sings: ‘I feel like somebody I don’t know./Are we really who we used to be?/Am I really who I was?’ HY
16) Robert Johnson – The Complete Recordings (1990)
The 29 songs that Robert Johnson recorded over two sessions in Texas during 1936-37 stand as the blues’ very own Rosetta Stone. Indeed it’s impossible to overstate their influence on a broader level. Johnson’s compositions became rock standards, covered by Eric Clapton, Fleetwood Mac, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the White Stripes and just about anybody who’s owed a debt to black American blues.
A master technician with an extraordinary touch, whose guitar style was also conversant with country and ragtime jazz, Johnson had a haunting delivery that Clapton once called “the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice”. I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom, Sweet Home Chicago, Terraplane Blues, Love In Vain, Hellhound On My Trail and Traveling Riverside Blues are just a few of the essentials included on The Complete Recordings.
Central to Johnson’s enduring appeal is his air of mystery. An itinerant musician from Mississippi who was dead by the age of 27 – supposedly poisoned by the jealous husband of one of his sexual conquests – he is most often associated with the classic blues myth about selling his soul to the devil in a midnight pact at a Delta crossroads. RH
15) Johnny Cash – American Recordings
In 1992, Johnny Cash was all but washed up. Having been reduced to playing a residency in the glitzy fun palaces of Branson, Missouri, a kind of low-rent Las Vegas, he felt deserted by country music radio and all but ignored by his record company. Then he met a hip-hop/metal record producer who not only saved his career but, it’s claimed, added 10 years to his life by recording the groundbreaking solo acoustic classic American Recordings. JB
Read the full story of the acoustic album that saved Johnny Cash’s life here
14) Lynyrd Skynyrd – Endangered Species (1994)
This millennium has seen Skynyrd enjoy a rich, purple period in their creative history. The 90s, however, were much less kind. Some people still struggled to get their heads around Johnny Van Zant having taken over from his late brother Ronnie as lead singer and, much like today, their line-up was a revolving door. Another key difference was that Rickey Medlocke had yet to pledge allegiance as a faithful lieutenant to mainstay Gary Rossington.
So Skynyrd did what is now fairly commonplace in such circumstances of adversity and/or doubt: they whipped out the acoustics and dusted down their back catalogue.
But wait one moment. Far from a cash-in doubling as a life-raft, aside from an ill-advised stab at Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel, 1994’s Endangered Species is actually a little-known jewel in the band’s canon. Its campfire mood often carries a real sense of swing. Revisions of Sweet Home Alabama, Saturday Night Special and I Ain’t The One are no-brainers though, pointedly, Free Bird is ignored. However, deeper cuts such as Down South Jukin’, Poison Whiskey and Things Goin’ On provide real attention to detail, and a handful of new tracks signpost the revival to come. DL
13) Nirvana – MTV Unplugged In New York (1994)
Wary of the Unplugged format, Nirvana agreed to record this on the condition that their performance skipped the hits to explore their catalogue’s dark corners and rifle through Kurt Cobain’s record collection. Even then, Dave Grohl recalls, two days of rehearsals were “horrible”, the band struggling with acoustic instruments, the singer suffering from heroin withdrawal, the drummer hitting too hard. “That show was supposed to be a disaster,” Grohl concludes.
Against the omens, when Nirvana took the stage on November 18, 1993 it all clicked, right from the moment that Bleach’s lumpy About A Girl revealed itself as a tinglingly pretty pop gem. Highlights include the squeezebox-bolstered Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For A Sunbeam and the magical All Apologies, but the best comes last, when Cobain’s drawl breaks into a ravaged howl at the three-minute mark of Where Did You Sleep Last Night.
In retrospect it’s easy to read the signs that Cobain was not long for this world, from the funereal stage vibe to the icy cover of Bowie’s already bleak The Man Who Sold The World. And five months later he was gone, making a transatlantic No.1 inevitable when the album was released posthumously. Unplugged or not, it’s electrifying. HY
12) Bert Jansch – Bert Jansch (1965)
Recorded on a reel-to-reel tape machine in a North London flat, Jansch’s debut solo album was the perfect illustration of the new breed of folk music that was sweeping Britain in the mid-60s. His guitar playing was extraordinary, taking what were essentially traditional forms but bending them into complex new shapes from an alloy of jazz, folk and claw-hammer blues. Fresh from a two-year stint around Europe and North Africa, Jansch picked up a crop of vernacular idioms on the way and incorporated them into his own style, thus positing himself as both an archivist and innovator.
But he wasn’t just a dazzling virtuoso. Jansch was also an uncommonly gifted songwriter, at his most eloquent on Strolling Down The Highway, Running From Home and Needle Of Death. The latter, a moving eulogy to his drug-casualty friend Buck Polly, was later appropriated by Neil Young for Ambulance Blues. Meanwhile, his version of Davy Graham’s Anji (retitled Angie) became a touchstone for aspiring beatniks everywhere, from Paul Simon to Jimmy Page. Indeed Page has admitted to being obsessed with Jansch at the time. “When I first heard that LP in 1965 I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “It was so far ahead of what everyone else was doing.” RH
11) John Martyn – Solid Air (1973)
John Martyn sang like an angelic choirboy but always looked like he’d drink you under the table and then punch you under it. This mix of raw aggression and bruised vulnerability wreaked chaos in his private life, but it fed into his best work. Never more so than on Solid Air, an album that makes a strong case for Martyn being one of Britain’s finest blues – never mind folk – singers.
His version of Skip James’s I’d Rather Be The Devil taps into all sorts of primal anguish, with Martyn’s wounded voice the most powerful instrument here. Tellingly, much of the album was intended as an elegy to his friend, the then recently deceased singer-songwriter Nick Drake.
Martyn had been drifting away from his pure folk roots ever since 1970’s Stormbringer!, his collaboration with then-wife Beverley. Solid Air’s predecessor, Bless The Weather, included Martyn’s first use of Echoplex, a tape-delay unit used to such gripping effect here.
On Solid Air highlights Don’t Want To Know, May You Never and Man In The Station, Martyn trailed a new style of folk, rooted in acoustic music but with electrification used judiciously to provide subtle embellishments. Strip away this musical gilding, though, and the album still wouldn’t lose an ounce of its power or charm. MB
10) Alice In Chains – MTV Unplugged (1996)
After two and a half years off the scene, as singer Layne Staley battled an increasingly desperate heroin addiction, Alice In Chains returned on April 10, 1996 for what is regarded as one of the most memorable of all MTV’s Unplugged shows. Expanding their line-up to a five-piece with the addition of guitarist Scott Olson, the band played a set of their most renowned songs. But these were lifted to an unprecedented level, with all of them seemingly inspired by the acoustic format.
The intensity and passion of the music throughout is impressive; it’s as if they knew this would be one of their final gigs with Staley, and were determined to capture the depth and clarity of the connection between all those involved.
They did play one new song, The Killer Is Me, and even added spontaneity to proceedings as they paid tribute to Metallica, strumming the intro to Enter Sandman at the beginning of Sludge Factory.
Despite Jerry Cantrell suffering from food poisoning during the recording, there’s no doubt that this album captured Alice In Chains at their peak. They’re one of the bands who benefited enormously from embracing the full meaning of being unplugged. MD
9) Joni Mitchell – Blue (1971)
Joni Mitchell seemed primed for superstar status with the release of 1970’s Ladies Of The Canyon (which made the Top 10 in the UK), an album that included her airy hit Big Yellow Taxi. But the trials of romantic love meant that its follow-up was altogether darker and less commercially friendly.
Blue, its stark confessionals triggered by the end of her relationships with Graham Nash and James Taylor, was arguably the definitive break-up album. Taylor and Stephen Stills appeared as guests on some tracks on the album, although theirs is an unobtrusive presence that serves only to highlight the unfussy simplicity of Mitchell’s arrangements on guitar, piano and, most strikingly, Appalachian dulcimer.
She lays her heart bare on a suite of songs peopled by liars, losers, lovers, drunkards and poets. Taylor is the subject of All I Want, This Flight Tonight and the title track, an ode to salvation that makes reference to his heroin addiction: ‘Ink on a pin/Underneath the skin/An empty space to fill in.’ Little Green addresses the daughter she gave up for adoption, My Old Man is most likely about Nash, and the subject of A Case Of You is rumoured to be Leonard Cohen.
Blue remains a devastatingly beautiful work. RH
8) Roy Harper – Stormcock (1971)
For his fifth album, Roy Harper immersed himself in the possibilities of the recording studio for the first time. Comprising just four songs and primarily driven by six- and 12-string acoustics, Stormcock was an often fierce masterwork that took aim at religious dogma, war, the judicial system, big business and even pesky rock critics. It also featured a certain S. Flavius Mercurius, aka Jimmy Page, on the epic brilliance of The Same Old Rock. RH
Roy Harper reveals the secrets of Stormcock here
7) Neil Young – Unplugged (1993)
Neil Young was always a musical schizophrenic, birthing grunge with his ragged rockers, but never more than a gear shift away from angel-hair delicacies like The Needle And The Damage Done. Unplugged caught that dual personality in the bottle: ostensibly soft, yet simmering with intent.
Young had already fumbled his first attempt at a live acoustic album, walking out of a fractious New York taping in 1992. His second pass, recorded in Los Angeles in February 1993, ran smoother, although anyone expecting a straight run through his all-conquering (and acoustic-based) Harvest and Harvest Moon albums was thrown a loop by a set-list that represented Young’s career from top to tail; Buffalo Springfield’s Mr Soul and CSNY’s Helpless sat alongside curios that had never seen the light of day (Stringman). But the undoubted centrepiece was Like A Hurricane, for which a leather-jacketed Young sat unaccompanied at the organ, his back to the audience, squeezing new darkness from his 1977 benchmark. “Aw, it’s nothing really,” he shrugs at one point, after an audience member shouts their approval.
Unplugged was really something: a shape-shifting artist at his most musically honest. HY
6) Simon & Garfunkel – Sounds Of Silence (1966)
The central-casting version of the modern folksinger and his song begins here: pensive ruminations, autumnal grey skies, lonely railway stations and high body counts, via suicides and unobserved deaths. And yet the bleakness was never balanced so sublimely as it was with Paul and Artie’s Everlys-go-to-Greenwich Village harmonic blend on their breakout album. It has some English flavour stirred in too, with a cover of Davy Graham’s Anji and the landmark song Simon started at Widnes station in Farnworth, Homeward Bound.
Even decades and umpteen plays on, the latter – and The Sound Of Silence and Kathy’s Song – can reach you in your present moment with its innocence and sweet simplicity. The lesser-known songs have aged well too, especially April Come She Will, Blessed and the poetic Leaves That Are Green.
Although it became known famously as the record where S&G ‘went electric’ (thanks to a post-production experiment by producer Tom Wilson that launched the title track into the charts), everything here is driven by Simon’s pristine acoustic finger-picking and a smart coffee-house aesthetic that has been widely imitated but never bettered. BdM
5) Tesla – Five Man Acoustical Jam (1990)
It was the biggest hit of Tesla’s career, a live acoustic album that sold more than a million in America, and yielded a Top 10 single with a cover of Signs, a great old song from the early 70s; an album that was praised, from on high, by Jimmy Page. The band, from Sacramento, California, had made a flying start with their first two (fully electric) albums, Mechanical Resonance and The Great Radio Controversy, but no one expected their songs – of the covers they’d chosen – to translate into an acoustic form so well. MTV’s Unplugged was already underway, but this was the record that truly ushered in the unplugged era. PE
Read the full story of Tesla’s Five Man Acoustical Jam here
4) Bob Dylan – The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963)
Dylan’s second album was the game changer. His first, titled simply Bob Dylan, featured only two original compositions among 13 tracks: the remainder being his interpretations of folk and blues standards. Those numbers were turned around on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the album on which he delivered, at the age of 22, songs that reached out to the world.
In an era of social unrest, with America embroiled in the Vietnam War, the Cold War and the struggle for civil rights, Dylan emerged as the voice of his generation with protest songs that resonated powerfully: Blowin’ In The Wind, Masters Of War and A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.
He played them in the classic folk tradition, with just an acoustic guitar and harmonica to accompany a voice that cut like a knife. But in 1965, two years after this album was released, Dylan enraged folk purists when he performed with a full electric rock band on the album Bringing It All Back Home on stage at the Newport Folk Festival, where he was booed.
He went on to make so many other classic albums, across several decades, but it was The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan that first defined him as one of the world’s great songwriters. PE
3) Jimmy Page & Robert Plant – No Quarter: Jimmy Page & Robert Plant Unledded (1995)
In spring 1994, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant visited Marrakesh in Morocco to play with local musicians in the old city square, Jemaa El-Fnaa. The collaboration was recorded, and part was used for the pair’s No Quarter: Unledded album and video/DVD. The new songs they played – City Don’t Cry and Wah Wah – were unlikely to usurp Whole Lotta Love or Black Dog, but an acoustic jam with Moroccan drummers and guembri (a bass lute) players showed Page and Plant’s willingness to experiment and try something new. The result was the greatest Led Zeppelin reunion that never happened. MB
Read the full story of Page and Plant’s Morrocan adventure here.
2) Nick Drake – Pink Moon (1972)
Maybe it’s better just to let the album be what it is: a doorway to enchantment and discovery. On the other side awaits a hushed, velvety place that feels like some lost fifth season, lodged secretly between autumn and winter. There are questions (Which Will), incantatory spells (Know), black humour (Parasite) and beautiful chills (From The Morning), along with a certain feeling that this is something more than a mere record. It’s a glimpse into another person’s soul.
Yet for all that, Drake seemed resigned to the album’s possible obscurity when he dropped off the tapes at Island Records without fanfare. ‘Who’ll hear what I say?’ he wonders on Things Behind The Sun. Thanks to a slow, magnetic build (and a popular VW advert in 2000), more fans than he might have ever dreamed in his brief life. BdM
1) Bruce Springsteen – Nebraska (1982)
Bruce Springsteen’s former manager Mike Appel once said: “Bruce is not afraid to try things that are not popular. He’s not afraid to be a stone in the stream.” There are few better examples of Springsteen’s willingness to provoke the mainstream than 1982’s Nebraska. That he released this stark, largely acoustic album two years after his then biggest hits to date (The River LP, and single Hungry Heart) seems amazing, even now.
Springsteen had just returned from touring The River and was in no hurry to spend months in a studio again. As a way of reducing studio time, he decided to record a set of demos he could bring to the E Street Band. His guitar tech bought a four-track Teac tape recorder and set it up at Bruce’s house in Colts Neck, New Jersey, in January 1982.
The inspiration for these stark new songs included original bluesman Robert Johnson, Terrence Malick’s 1973 crime movie Badlands and southern gothic novelist Flannery O’Connor’s short stories. “The songs connected more to my childhood than on any other record I made,” Springsteen said in 1998. “We lived with my grandparents until I was six. I recalled shat that time felt like, particularly my grandmother’s house… the lack of decoration, the almost painful plainness.”
Songs such as Atlantic City, Highway Patrolman and Mansion On The Hill were intended as demos. It was only after Springsteen recorded them with the E Street Band and didn’t like the results that he went back to the source. That bleating train-whistle harmonica on the opening title track, a song inspired by the same 1950s murder spree on which Terrence Malick based Badlands, sets the tone for everything after. The whole of Nebraska has the “almost painful plainness” of Springsteen’s grandmother’s house. These are barren songs about burned-out cops, desperate lovers and death-row prisoners.
At times the closeness of Springsteen’s voice and the empty space around it makes Nebraska almost uncomfortably intimate. That was intentional. Springsteen wanted to make a record “that sounded good with the lights out”. He wanted his listeners to think they were eavesdropping on his characters’ most private thoughts and emotions – “to get inside their heads”.
There’s a hint of a smile on Open All Night (a song about a car and a girl – ‘Wanda, behind the counter at the Route 60 Bob’s Big Boy’). But it’s offset by the manic State Trooper; a song Springsteen later said was partly an homage to NY art punks Suicide’s Frankie Teardrop. It was done in just one take.
The whole recording process took just a few weeks. Springsteen added the odd harmony, the occasional rattle of a tambourine, but kept the finished article as unadorned as possible. He would return to this simple template again, for several tracks on 1995’s The Ghost Of Tom Joad, but he would never better what he did here. Nebraska is the sound of the soon-to-be biggest pop star in the world going right back to nature. The lack of starry affectation – and electricity – only makes it more thrilling. MB