The acoustic boom that followed the unprecedented success of MTV Unplugged was a variable period for a number of grunge acts. Some of the biggest names like Nirvana and Pearl Jam found that their songs worked exceptionally well in the format, while Alice in Chains was so adept at it that they entered their own Unplugged performance with an entire setlist of acoustic songs that barely needed any tweaking for the format. Not everyone was uniquely suited for the acoustic show, but one band who endeared themselves thanks to their softer side was Stone Temple Pilots.
STP was getting bashed relentlessly in the wake of their multiplatinum 1992 debut album Core. They had committed a number of sins for which they had little control over: they weren’t from Seattle, they had a lead singer with a growly voice, and their album happened to drop just as the rest of the world was beginning to use the term “grunge”. To many, STP was the first in a long line of imitators who were copying the Seattle sound in order to get rich quick.
In reality, Stone Temple Pilots were a group of punk rock misfits woefully unfit for the Sunset Strip hair metal scene in Los Angeles. Instead, they rooted themselves in San Diego, building a following with their more aggressively and less shiny version of hard rock that was more akin to Guns N’ Roses than Poison. But the DeLeo brothers weren’t natural hard rockers: they listened to everything from ragtime jazz to Motown to reggae. They had a versatile and hard-hitting drummer in Eric Kretz and soon found that their lead singer Scott Weiland had an impressive range outside of the low rumbles that were also being used by Seattle musicians.
Like their spiritual predecessors Led Zeppelin, Stone Temple Pilots were beloved by fans and hated by rock critics. In 1994, STP was voted Best New Band by readers of Rolling Stone magazine and Worst New Band by the magazine’s writers. The muddied message of ‘Sex Type Thing’ and the too-close comparisons to Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains were a major turn-off for professional music journalists, but to scores of young fans, STP was one of the most exciting new bands around.
What the band needed to do was show that they weren’t beholden to the distorted riff-rock of grunge. MTV Unplugged provided that opportunity, and soon the band found themselves on stage with acoustic guitars while Weiland hunkered down in an old fashioned rocking chair. Songs like ‘Creep’ and ‘Plush’ were given a new life thanks to the stripped-back sound, and STP came off far more psychedelic and folky when they weren’t being cranked through heaps of amps.
STP had a surprise up their sleeve for their appearance as well. They were in the middle of writing their second album, Purple, and had a new song that was well-suited for the unplugged format. ‘Big Empty’ is almost a country song, complete with Dan DeLeo’s haunting slide guitar and tight harmonies between Weiland and Robert DeLeo. Even when the track launches into its chorus, it doesn’t explode like the songs on Core do – it unfurls itself like a snake, letting the dark beauty of Weiland’s lyrics take centre stage.
The new sound fitted Stone Temple Pilots, but it didn’t save Purple from experiencing the same middling reviews that their debut LP also got. Even the major overhaul of their sound on 1996’s Tiny Music… Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop wasn’t enough for critics to give the band their proper respect, and it wasn’t until after Weiland’s untimely death in 2015 that writers began to re-evaluate Stone Temple Pilots as something more than pilfering copycats.
Check out the debut performance of ‘Big Empty’ on MTV Unplugged in 1993 down below.