As we noted in our previous articles on the subject, MTV Unplugged was a landmark show. It propelled acoustic back into the mainstream in the 1990s, and gave us some of the best television of the decade to boot.
There are plenty of great MTV Unplugged performances. And then there are those that are truly transcendent; the ones that changed the way we thought about an artist or introduced them to a new generation.
In this article, we’re running through three of those iconic MTV Unplugged moments and what made them so special.
Circa 1995, hard rock veterans KISS weren’t exactly in a great place. 1992’s “Revenge” album might have been a hit with hardcore fans, but the general public wasn’t buying records from the “hottest band in the land” like they used to.
KISS, who’d been playing acoustically on the KISS Convention circuit for some time, were ready-and-willing to go on “Unplugged.” After all, they had their acoustic arrangements down and it was a great format for revitalizing the careers of veteran rockers. MTV, however, had a condition to the band appearing; the original KISS line-up – including drummer Peter Criss and guitarist Ace Frehley – needed to feature on the show.
Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley acquiesced, and, for the first time since 1979, the four founding members of KISS shared the stage. Granted, it was only for the three song encore – “Beth,” “Nothin’ To Lose” and “Rock N’ Roll All Nite” – but it was enough to send the media into a frenzy. Those songs, performed by the men responsible for their creation, reminded millions just how potent the band’s original incarnation was. A wildly successful reunion tour followed, and KISS’s reputation as hard rock trailblazers was restored.
In 1989, Paul McCartney undertook his first stadium tour after a decade off the road. For Macca’s legions of fans, it was a joy to see the man back in action. Yet, there was something decidedly impersonal about those cavernous gigs. His 1991 MTV Unplugged performance was a different story entirely.
Unlike some of their peers, who were happy to bend the “unplugged” rules, Macca and band took the concept to heart, performing acoustic in the strictest sense.
They also gave the setlist some serious consideration. Obvious hits were eschewed in favor ofcovers like “Good Rockin’ Tonight” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” As for McCartney originals, it was deep cuts like “Every Night” and “That Would Be Something” that got the acoustic treatment. It was a risky move, but it paid off, reminding audiences just how impressive the former Beatle’s back catalogue was.
The standout performance on this one? A tender take on the Beatles’ “And I Love Her.” It’s simply spellbinding.
A year after the tragic death of his son, Eric Clapton was booked to perform on Unplugged. Few could have known then how transformative the 1992 performance would be for the guitarist. As Rolling Stone put it, “the death of his son put the guitarist in an understandably fragile state of mind, but he poured all his sorrow into the music and created a concert that went on to sell millions when it came out on CD.”
The version of “Tears in Heaven” – the song inspired by his son’s passing – quickly surpassed the studio recording as the definitive rendition. And, the radical reworking of Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla” brought the song to a whole new generation of listeners.
Speaking to Yahoo Music last year, MTV Unplugged producer Alex Coletti remembered that watching the normally amplified Clapton in an acoustic setting was a revelation:
“…to see him in that context, his voice was the standout. Everyone knew Eric could sing, and of course we always knew he was a great guitar god, but when you took away the amplifiers, and it was really his voice that stood out more so than his guitar playing. I thought that that just featured him in a whole new light.”
So that’s it for this edition. But, don’t worry: we’ll be back with the second article in this series before you know it!
What’s your favorite MTV Unplugged performance? Were you lucky enough to see a taping of the legendary show? And which artists would you like to see in the Unplugged format today? As always, share your stories in the comments!
In the footage, Emmanuel kicks off with his original Stevie Ray Vaughan tribute, “Stevie’s Blues,” before launching into an absolutely mind-bending take on Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.” Before clicking play, I’d consider disconnecting the phone and sending the dog/kids outside. For the next eight and a half minutes, you do not want to be disturbed.