Welcome back to our feature on MTV Unplugged and Martin.
In this edition, we’re diving in with the first taping of MTV Unplugged, and how a special relationship between the program and Martin guitars was established.
In 1989, MTV recorded the inaugural episode of Unplugged. But, pitching the radical new format to artists and audiences wasn’t exactly easy.
As producer Alex Colleti recalls, “getting someone to do the first one was like rolling a boulder up a hill. There were maybe 50, 60 people in the audience; I could look at footage and name half of them, because I had to invite people,”
British new wavers Squeeze – known for their hits “Cool for Cats” and “Up the Junction” – were tapped for the first episode. But, they weren’t at all prepared for the unplugged format:
“I remember Squeeze showing up with electric guitars and I said, ‘Um, hello, it’s Unplugged!’ No one really knew what ‘unplugged’ was; the term didn't exist in the way it does now in the lexicon. Later, that term became a thing that took on a whole new meaning.”
Once suitable acoustics were sourced, the show was recording and the resulting episode was the proof of concept that Colleti needed:
“It was magic,” he told Yahoo. “I knew from the vibe in that room that we had something special going on. I was like, ‘This show's going to be a hit. This is awesome. This is going to be fun, every day of my life.’ And it was.”
MTV Unplugged was a goer, but as the Squeeze episode showed, the specifics of the format presented a challenge. Acts featured on the show didn’t necessarily tour with acoustic instruments, and wouldn’t have them on hand for the taping. The solution, as Absolute Guitar notes, was a phone call to a certain acoustic guitar manufacturer:
“MTV called C.F. [Martin] IV to explain their brand new idea for a show… [They asked] would Martin be kind enough to give them some guitars to equip these artists to save them bringing their own instruments?”
C.F. IV said yes, starting a longstanding association with the programme in the process.
Martin’s endorsement of MTV Unplugged established a precedent for artists using Martin guitars on the show. And, as the format picked up steam, the guitar company saw a resurgence of interest in their products.
It helped that some of the most high profile performers on Unplugged were already Martin guitarists. Eric Clapton, for example, whose Unplugged broadcast sparked a latter day career revival, had his Martin guitar front and centre. As Guitar.com notes:
“Clapton, in particular, was key to Martin’s association: his first MTV Unplugged performance in 1992 saw him playing his 000-42. This individual instrument, which achieved even greater notoriety after featuring on the cover of the multi-platinum Unplugged album, was sold at auction in 2004 for $791,500 – then the highest price ever paid for an acoustic.”
For a younger generation of guitarists, Nirvana’s Unplugged appearance, in which Kurt Cobain played a 1959 D-18E, established Martin as the acoustic maker par-excellence. Nirvana’s appearance on the show, which aired in December 1993, was praised for laying bare the songwriting prowess of a band that normally traded in pounding drums and Marshall stacks. After Cobain’s suicide in April 1994, however, the show took on a near-mythic quality. Acquiescing to demand for re-runs of the performance, MTV’s repeat airings of the show pushed Cobain - and the image of him holding that D18E – to iconic status.
By the mid-1990s, Martin and MTV Unplugged were synonymous. So synonymous, in fact, that the guitar company introduced its very own MTV Unplugged acoustic model. As this entry from Martin’s August 1996 issue of “The Sounding Board” states:
“Perhaps one of our most interesting new products is the Martin MTV-1 Unplugged® guitar. MTV Unplugged® has been a significant catalyst for the increasing appreciation of the acoustic guitar. The guitar we designed is unique in that it combines mahogany with rosewood for the back and sides. The mahogany on the treble side accentuates the high and midrange while the rosewood on the bass side accentuates the deep booming bass expected of the Martin Dreadnought.”
In the late 1980s, some cultural commentators were lamenting the death of the acoustic guitar. But, as the MTV Unplugged revival of the 1990s showed, the steel strung solid-top wasn’t going anywhere any time soon. And nor were Martin, whose legacy – like the MTV Unplugged format – shines through to this day.
What’s your favorite MTV Unplugged episode? And did you ever play the MTV-1?
As always, share your stories in the comments.
Cal Jam doesn’t get the same love as festivals like Monterey Pop or Woodstock. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t have the late ‘60s countercultural cred, happening a full five years after the summer of love reached its peak. Maybe it’s because it was staged to be filmed for television (as part of ABC’s legendary “In Concert” series). Why do I love California Jam so much? It is because it established the record for the largest concert sound system ever assembled? Was it because it featured the first ever appearance of the Good Year blimp at a music festival?
Guitar lessons eventually followed. But, classical guitar didn’t grab me in the same way that my own freeform compositions had. Firstly, I didn’t know any of the songs I was supposed to be learning. Secondly, it required the kind of co-ordination and finger dexterity that I was – at that time at least – far too impatient to master. “I read somewhere that there are these things you can use to hit the strings so you don’t have to use your fingers. I think they began with a P,” I once told my guitar teacher. “The thing that begins with a P is called practice,” he replied. He was right, of course, but that didn’t mean I wanted to hear it.
This week, to satisfy my yearning for live music, I’ve taken a deep dive into my record collection and rediscovered some live favourites. Given how much joy I’ve got out of these records, I thought I’d share them with you today. Putting together this list, I’ve tried to take the road less travelled. I didn’t want to put together a list of classic live albums that everyone already knows like the back of their hand. Instead, my three picks serve as alternatives to some of those classic albums, offering a new look at some legendary bands.