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From R.E.M. to Nirvana: The 6 best MTV Unplugged sessions

The MTV Unplugged sessions have become a right of passage, and if you get invited to perform one, you are doing something right. An acoustic session in front of an intimate audience can make or break careers; there is nowhere to hide, allowing artists to showcase a different side to their artistry which can, more often than not, cement an iconic status.

Conflicting reports are surrounding how the show formed back in 1989, but singer Jules Shears had stated on record that he was the brains behind the operation when he was promoting his acoustic album, The Third Party. “What if we put these people together and create a show which consists of everybody playing songs together, but only with acoustic instruments, and we’ll try to get it on HBO or something?” Shear later said.

The first series of the now-famed programme kicked off in November 1989, with Squeeze performing a delightful set from National Television Centre in New York. The building was the location for all of the early shows before they decided to move the show to wherever the artist wanted to film because it was significant to them. Other artists to have performed in the first series include the likes of Elton John, Don Henley and Stevie Ray Vaughn.

The shows breakthrough moment, however, came when Paul McCartney performed in 1991 and cleverly created a hit album out of it, Unplugged (The Official Bootleg), and this took the programme to new heights, with it now being seen as the pinnacle.

McCartney later said: “I figured that as Unplugged would be screened around the world there was every chance that some bright spark would tape the show and turn it into a bootleg, so we decided to bootleg the show ourselves. We heard the tapes in the car driving back. By the time we got home, we’d decided we’d got an album.”

To celebrate this great institution, here are half a dozen of the finest performances from MTV Unplugged history.

The 6 best MTV Unplugged sessions

R.E.M. (1991)

R.E.M. was on the top of the world when they came into their MTV Unplugged session in 1991. It was recorded less than a month following the release of their stunning seventh album, Out Of Time. That record was the first album by the band to top the charts, and after the years of grinding they had put in, R.E.M. had reason to celebrate with their melancholic acoustic set.

They ran through an impressive set, one which captures the band at an extraordinary moment in their career as they made a seismic leap into the stratosphere and they knew the nation was watching at home to discover why there was all this fuss surrounding R.E.M. The band emphatically delivered and proved that they were the real deal.

“I think we were all nervous,” Mike Mills recalled to The Guardian in 2014. “The last time we’d really played before that was the 89 tour, which was full-on, big P.A.s, big amplifiers, and also MTV was really big at that point. We knew there was a big audience. So to sit there and expose yourself, warts and all, was very daunting. You really have to get yourself up for that.”

Jimmy Page and Robert Plant (1994)

Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Robert Plant reuniting to do an MTV Unplugged session showed the weight of importance that the programme had gained. It was now a cultural institution, people were desperate to take part, and having two-thirds of Led Zeppelin’s surviving members joining forces at London Studios helped cement MTV Unplugged’s legacy.

Robert Plant later recollected how the reunion came about: “By that time I didn’t feel like I was even a rock singer anymore. Then I was approached by MTV to do an Unplugged session. But I knew that I couldn’t be seen to be holding the flag for the Zeppelin legacy on TV. Then mysteriously Jimmy turned up at a gig I was playing in Boston and it was like those difficult last days of Led Zep had vanished. We had this understanding again without doing or saying anything. We talked about the MTV thing and decided to see where we could take it.”

Robert Plant isn’t, traditionally speaking, a person who likes to look backwards, so MTV Unplugged was a perfect opportunity to put a new, acoustic twist on a Led Zeppelin reunion. 

Check out the duo’s performance of ‘The Rain Song’, below.

Nirvana (1993)

Nirvana’s 1993 MTV Unplugged session is the definitive performance in the history of the programme. The session is noted for being one of Kurt Cobain’s last acts before his tragic death, putting in arguably the most iconic performance of his entire career and the acoustic setting left his vulnerabilities nowhere to hide. He showcased a different side to himself which many were unaware existed and were on full show when Nirvana covered David Bowie song ‘The Man Who Sold The World’.

Bowie was even in awe by Nirvana’s cover, saying: “I was simply blown away when I found that Kurt Cobain liked my work, and have always wanted to talk to him about his reasons for covering ‘The Man Who Sold the World’.” The Starman, ever the lover of any art, added: “It was a good straight forward rendition and sounded somehow very honest. It would have been nice to have worked with him, but just talking with him would have been real cool.”

Nirvana’s stripped-back cover was an authentic tribute to the song but also an honest interpretation of the track’s content. It’s a theme which Cobain delivers perfectly with his vocal. He allows the song’s protagonist to meet his doppelgänger and share the odd moment, offering Cobain the chance to crack open the door to his feelings of the time.

Oasis (1996)

Oasis’ MTV Unplugged show was infamous for two reasons. Firstly, it saw Noel Gallagher become a star in his own right. Secondly, the reason he was in the spotlight was because of the absence of frontman Liam Gallagher who no-showed and left his brother Noel entirely in the lurch.

“Even before we got to the day of the show, there was a ‘concern’, a concern with Liam,” Jac Benson, the associate producer of the show recalled in a documentary on the legendary MTV series. Fellow producer Claire Wool added: “Liam was in the paper a lot leading up to the Oasis Unplugged, he was portrayed as a bad boy.”

It then got to the day of the performance which Noel remembered all too well: “The day of the performance, he hadn’t turned up, and there were rumours that he’d been out drinking for a couple of days… and nobody knew where he was. About an hour before we were due to go on, he turned up, absolutely shitfaced. We said, well look, let’s see if you can sing a couple of songs, and it was fucking dreadful.”

Producers then made the call that the recording should go ahead and they would decide later whether to air it or not. Noel then recalled what happened next: “As they said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Oasis’, we walked out, and he wasn’t there,” Noel remembered. “He said, ‘I’m not doing it’. I thought, thanks a lot!”

Oasis then provided an impressive 12-song set that featured the likes of ‘Some Might Say’, ‘Live Forever’, ‘Whatever’ and ‘Wonderwall’ all without their lead singer. Liam was too busy on the balcony heckling his brother whilst drinking lager and chain-smoking throughout the performance which left Noel completely bereft.

Lauryn Hill (2001)

In July 2001, while pregnant with her third child, Lauryn Hill took the opportunity to perform on MTV Unplugged as a way of showing a brand-new side to herself. She was one of the biggest hip-hop stars of the ’90s, and that’s what people expected to hear from her session, but, Hill had other ideas. The former Fugees member took to the stage by herself, with just an acoustic guitar and showed off a collection of new blissful soul tracks.

An album of the concert, titled MTV Unplugged No. 2.0was released in May 2002 and split opinion from her die-hard fans who couldn’t get on board with her change in sonic direction. As the years have gone on, thankfully people have seen sense and view the album as being a masterpiece. 

The album has gone on to have a historic legacy, with Solange Knowles speaking about how MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 was a massive inspiration to her, as has Adele and Sam Smith.

Liam Gallagher (2019)

After missing out on Oasis’ MTV Unplugged session, over 20 years earlier — Liam Gallagher was finally gifted with an opportunity to make up for lost time, which he grasped firmly with both hands. Gallagher took to the stage at Hull City Hall and delivered an iconic career-spanning set.

“I was honoured to perform at the legendary showcase that is MTV Unplugged,” Gallagher later said. “It was a lovely experience, and the people of Hull were biblical and sounded fantastic. I hope you enjoy the record.”

He performed Oasis rarities, alongside a smattering of hits from his two chart-topping solo records and the MTV Unplugged session worked as a celebration of Gallagher bouncing back like a boomerang from the brink five years ago to back on top.

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