As a kid growing up, my parents didn’t even have basic cable. All the TVs at the house had the old rabbit-ear type antenna. When there were multiple football games being broadcast on New Year’s Day, my dad would bring three TVs down to the living room and watch all three major networks (yes, only three) to catch every game. If one of the TV’s screens was out of wack, I’d often have to stand in the corner, one hand on the TV set, one hand in the air, just to make the picture clear. I was the Human Antenna. Thankfully in those days I wasn’t facing the New Year’s Day hangover… that didn’t come until later.
Eventually, shamed by other parents, my parents got basic cable so we kiddos could watch Sesame Street to build our young minds. We had the most bare-bones cable package you could get. My father, who closely modulated the thermostat to save cash, wasn’t about to “piss away money” on cable TV. There was no HBO or Showtime at the house. If I wanted to see any R-rated stuff, I had to do it the old fashion way, sneak into a theater (thank you Bo Derek for 10). The neighbors had HBO and on a sleepover I once saw Lynda Carter, the original Wonder Woman, in a biker movie and she was topless. It was like “discovering plutonium” as they say on Seinfeld. I couldn’t help but think, at that tender age, “fuck yes, I’m getting HBO when I’m on my own…I’ll never leave the house.”
It wasn’t until I was in high school that I discovered there was something called MTV, short for Music Television. My buddy Matthew and I went up to Kansas State to visit some older friends of ours who were already up at University. As I was wandering around the labyrinth of the dorm filled with hallways and separate rooms (it was like walking in a human-sized ant farm), I came upon a room with like 5 guys crammed around a TV. They invited me in and lo and behold, they were watching MTV. Back then MTV was like radio with videos, one after another… Mostly the videos were crude concert footage with low grade effects, but I thought it was really cool.
Eventually, much to everyone’s surprise I graduated from high school and was accepted to a state university. Where I lived, they had the opposite philosophy as my father and bought the most expensive cable package available. We had every channel on the planet, save for pornography, on the TV in the common room. Invariably, late at night on weekends, I’d end up in the basement in front of the TV with a few of the other drunken, lonely heart’s club types and we’d watch MTV videos until the sun came up. The crowd down there got thicker during finals week… we all needed something mindless after exams so after drinking we’d end up watching countless videos. Of course, there were great videos and then crappy, pop music type videos. I can always remember thinking, “Ok, if the next video sucks, I’m going to bed…” Invariably one more decent video would come on and I’d be stuck for another thirty minutes. It was so relaxing it could be described as mind erasing.
When I moved into exile in Arkansas, there was literally no rock and roll radio. MTV, who had begun to schedule some regular broadcast shows into their programming was still predominantly playing videos. Nowadays you’re more likely to see a music video n the weather channel… MTV got me through the tough years down there. MTV is where I discovered Guns N Roses, the Black Crowes and many other bands. They certainly weren’t playing that music on the radio in Ft. Smith, Arkansas. It was around that time, I believe in 1989, that MTV began what may be their greatest legacy, the ‘Unplugged’ series. I’d always heard they were inspired by a video awards show where Jon Bon Jovi, looking coke-addled (he always looked that way to me) and Richie Sambora got on stage with only two acoustic guitars and played “Wanted, Dead Or Alive.” That was cool, lets do a show like that… The concept was simple, put a band on stage, give them acoustic guitars and let them play stripped-down versions of their tunes.
They started the series with some minor to semi-big bands. I think Squeeze was on once. But it wasn’t until 1991 when Paul McCartney performed on ‘Unplugged’ that the show took on some “next-level” kind of rock and roll credibility. McCartney took the next step and actually released his performance as an album (well, as a CD), the first artist to do so. It was a limited edition of only 500,000 copies and I had one in my hand in a record store in Warrensburg, Mo but didn’t have the cash and passed up buying it, which I obviously regret to this day. After that it was Katie-bar-the-door. Everybody was on ‘MTV Unplugged’ after that. Strangely though, not all the artists released the results on an album/CD.
There were all manner of performances on ‘MTV Unplugged’ from the sublime to the questionable. It got to the point where ‘MTV Unplugged’ became “appointment television” for me and my friends. If there was a band we really loved, we’d make sure we were together, beer iced down, in front of the television ready to watch. I remember I was flying back from St. Thomas the night Robert Plant and Jimmy Page did their Unledded episode of the show but I got stuck in a hotel in Atlanta and missed the show. I was in the only hotel on the planet without MTV. I was pissed.
Thinking about those ‘Unplugged’ shows I decided to compile a list of the B&V favorite ‘Unplugged’ albums. This is not a list of the best performances from the show – many acts chose not to release an album after being on ‘Unplugged.’ But, for the ones who did, and there were many, these are the 10 albums I find myself going back to after all this time. Again, we’re only talking about actual LPs here, not performances on MTV. Yeah, they’re a little mellow, but who cares, a good acoustic evening is just what the doctor orders sometimes.
- Pearl Jam – Eddie Vedder was simply unhinged on this performance. He writes “Pro-Life” on his arm in magic marker while teetering on a very unstable bar stool. They put a blu-ray disc of the performance in the rerelease of Ten, but have yet to release it as an album. I wish they would.
- Aerosmith – I have a bootleg of this performance and it’s awesome. They were still bluesy and sounding like the old 70s Aerosmith at this point. Huge mistake not to release this one.
- The Rolling Stones, Stripped – The Stones never deigned to be on MTV’s ‘Unplugged,’ but they went ahead and recorded their own, predominantly acoustic album and it’s one of their better live documents.
The BourbonAndVinyl Top 10 ‘Unplugged’ Albums
- Nirvana, MTV Unplugged In New York – This is simply the best MTV Unplugged ever. This was a sublime performance. Stripped of the sturm und drang, Cobain’s brilliance as a songwriter and dare I say, writer of melodies rises to the fore. This is not only a great acoustic concert it’s just a great concert. Bittersweet as it was released after Kurt Cobain’s tragic end.
- Alice In Chains, MTV Unplugged – I love AIC when they’re heavy, like on “Man In A Box” but I always loved the acoustic based Jar of Flies. This performance was a perfect extension of that. While I’m the first to admit nobody probably needed an acoustic version of “Frogs” there are some great versions of “Killer Is Me,” and “Over Now” just to name a few. It would be Layne Staley’s last concert.
- Paul McCartney, Unplugged – I love McCartney in this stripped down show. Like his recently released Amoeba Gig (Live) album (LP Review: Paul McCartney, ‘Amoeba Gig (Live)’ – His Best Live Album?), playing in front of a small audience brings out the best of him. Beatles tunes, solo hits, and rare covers make this a special performance.
- R.E.M., Unplugged: The Complete 1991 and 2001 Sessions – This album only got released in 2014 and I’m hoping it serves as an example to all those bands who held back on releasing their performances. R.E.M. was a very strumming/acoustic based band to start with… They’re perfect for the ‘Unplugged’ setting. I probably lean more toward the 1991 session, which was when they were touring for Out of Time. However, the 2001 set, when they were touring behind Reveal has some beautiful and melancholy moments that are irresistible. Obviously, I’d play one disc at a time.
- Rod Stewart, Unplugged…And Seated – Rod has always had that perfect melding of acoustic and electric, folky and rocker. The thing I love about this album is he brings back Ronnie Wood, his erstwhile band mate in the Faces and they return to Rod’s best period, when he was on the Mercury label, and tear it up! I believe there was a lot of drink involved.
- Eric Clapton, Unplugged – McCartney may have given ‘Unplugged’ it’s credibility, but Clapton showed that these albums could be a commercial juggernaut. This thing sold a ka-jillion copies. At the time we all loved the acoustic version of “Layla,” done here as a shuffle… It kind of got worn out. I like the older blues covers he throws in here. Chuck Leavell who plays with the Stones now is on piano and he has a fabulous solo in the song, “Old Love.”
- Page/Plant, No Quarter (aka Unledded) – These guys turned the whole concept of ‘Unplugged’ on its head. Some tracks are live, electric versions of their old Zeppelin tunes. Some are straight up acoustic and some are just great experiments, fucking with their sound, i.e. “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.” The spirt of experimentation ran through three new tracks released on this album, the first Page/Plant collaborations since Zeppelin broke up. It would have been nice to see John Paul Jones here too, but that’d have upped the pressure.
- Eagles, Hell Freezes Over – I may be fudging a little here… this started off as an ‘Unplugged,’ but there is really only one acoustic take on a classic, on a sublime version of “Hotel California.” This was the first time in 14 years the Eagles got together, if they want to plug the electric guitars in and go for it, why not… It’s certainly what Springsteen did on his ‘Unplugged’ with much less spectacular results.
- Bob Dylan, MTV Unplugged – People will scoff at this entry. Dylan was coming off two great, unappreciated folk/acoustic records when he did this ‘Unplugged.’ He’s engaged and playing faithful versions of classics here. It was, for me, the beginning of his recording come back. It seemed like he cared for the first time in a long time. There are great versions of “Shooting Star” and “Dignity” on this record too.
- 10,000 Maniacs, MTV Unplugged – I’m like most guys from this era. I don’t have any 10,000 Maniacs, I never liked the 10,000 Maniacs, I never bought their albums. However, almost every woman I dated, and there were a few, had this or some of their other albums. After hearing a few times… because I was a bit of a man about town in those days, I realized Natalie Merchant’s vocal performance makes this the only 10,000 Manaics album you need. I love the cover of “Because the Night” written by Springsteen but made famous by Patti Smith.