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Revisiting Nirvana's most candid record: 'MTV Unplugged'

Although there have been many incredible MTV Unplugged records with Neil Young, Alice and Chains and even Eric Clapton making memorable outings under the direction of the titanic music broadcaster, the definitive example is, without a doubt, Nirvana‘s 1994 release.

Although the iconic live performance was first aired on MTV on December 16th, 1993, in terms of the record, it became the first release by the band after the tragic suicide of Kurt Cobain in April 1994. 

A legendary set, both visually and sonically, this was the final time that audiences were able to get close to the band. On reflection, the show and record – which have an intrinsic symbiosis – is viewed as an authentic portal into the musical mind’s eye of Cobain and Nirvana.

During the show, we’re able to overhear the band banter with one and another, there are interactions with the crowd, and even more tellingly, they play a whole host of brilliant covers, all of which range from David Bowie to the Meat Puppets. It’s Nirvana’s version of Being John Malkovich.

The interesting thing about Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged is that band had been in negotiations with the network for quite some time before finally agreeing to take part. Typically, the Washington trio wanted to do something slightly different from the usual Unplugged performance. Drummer Dave Grohl said: “We’d seen the other Unplugged’s and didn’t like many of them, because most bands would treat them like rock shows—play their hits like it was Madison Square Garden, except with acoustic guitars”.

When looking for inspiration, they turned to their friend, Mark Lanegan, and his 1990 album The Winding Sheet for inspiration. From it, they decided on covering David Bowie‘s early classic song ‘The Man Who Sold the World’, which is now ironically one of the most essential points in the whole of Nirvana’s back catalogue. They also set on inviting members of their friends, the Meat Puppets, to join them on stage, as well as doing a set that was entirely of their own direction.

The band rehearsed for two days before the show. Notoriously, the sessions were tense, with the band running into many problems during the majority of the songs. Cobain repeatedly disagreed with MTV about the nature of the performance. The producer, Alex Coletti, claimed that the network was unhappy at the absence of hit Nirvana songs and the fact that they chose the Meat Puppets as guests. He recalled: “They wanted to hear the ‘right’ names – Eddie Vedder or Tori Amos or God knows who”.

The day before filming and recording was due, Cobain refused to play, suffering from drug withdrawal. Luckily, he appeared on the day of the show. The day before, one observer remembered: “There was no joking, no smiles, no fun coming from him … everyone was more than a little worried about his performance”. Again, this was wickedly ironic, as the show and album would become one of the highlights of Nirvana’s short but critically important career, and in many ways, it was their last hurrah.

Being Nirvana, this was the first time a band had used electric amplification for an MTV Unplugged performance. Famously, they were joined by rhythm guitarist Pat Smear and cellist Lori Goldston. Due to their added help, you could argue that this was Nirvana augmented, and at one of their most candid points, even if it was on the platform given to them by the leader of the era’s unflinching consumerism. Furthermore, there’s a case to be made that this was one of the best performances they ever gave. Regardless of the fact MTV handed them the platform, they did it on their own terms, and for that reason, the recording is one of their most enduring.

There’s no downside. They kick off with Bleach track ‘About A Girl’, there’s the totally acoustic version of ‘Pennyroyal Tea’, the incredibly haunting rendition of ‘Something in the Way’, the stellar Bowie cover, Meat Puppets’ ‘Lake of Fire’, ‘Dumb’, ‘All Apologies’. Additionally, the closer, ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’, a rearrangement of Lead Belly’s track, was a roaring way to bow out. 

The record touches on every facet of Nirvana’s existence and genetic makeup, and that is its true majesty. Over the album’s 53-minute duration, the listener is exposed to Nirvana‘s full essence, something we never truly got from the likes of BleachNevermind or In Utero, as all seemed to be missing something.

There’s electric guitars, acoustic guitars, covers of their heroes, banter, sadness, happiness, everything. Whilst indeed not the definitive Nirvana record, this was them at their most honest in the face of global fame.

As important today as it was then, Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged is not only one of their best records, but one of the most important of all time. The last concerted effort we got from the band, it was their sonic Charge of the Light Brigade, and it will endure for as long as music does. Driven by Cobain, his spirit permeates the record and continues to live on through it.

Listen to MTV Unplugged in full below.