It’s been 27 years since the 1989 debut of MTV Unplugged, and a lot has changed on television. But there’s no denying that the pop culture program, the title of which has inspired a shorthand for any acoustic performance and stripped-down, intimate stage presentation, has been musical touchstone. The Emmy-winning series continues to this very day, but we’re traveling back in time to remember some of MTV Unplugged’s best performances on the anniversary of the series.
Nirvana – November 18, 1993
Recorded just months before Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain’s death. From the Atlantic: “The band run through a tense and brilliant 14-song set in one scintillating take, something unusual at the time for the popular MTV series, and the result is one of the greatest live albums ever—an unforgettable document of raw tension and artistic genius.”
Everyone – April 10, 1991
MTV’s first acoustic rap performance featured A Tribe Called Quest doing their hit “Can I Kick It?” with a five-piece back-up band, a spirited LL Cool J, MC Lyte, and De La Soul.
Eric Clapton – January 16, 1992
Clapton’s Unplugged performance took place in London. The resulting album became a bestseller and went on to win six Grammy Awards. The performance includes Clapton’s emotional rendition of “Tears in Heaven,” written by the artist during his struggle with the tragic death of his young son Conor.
Hole – February 14, 1995
Hole performed covers of Nirvana’s “You Know You’re Right” and “Old Age,” but Courtney Love’s acoustic “Miss World” and “Doll Parts” became fan favorites. Bonus: a sneering cover of the Crystals’ “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss).”
Lauryn Hill – July 21, 2001
Recorded three years after her acclaimed album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, the artist returned with a folk and soul-inspired performance for the MTV stage in Times Square, which became the album MTV Unplugged No. 2.0.
Kiss – August 9, 1995
Kiss reunited on MTV Unplugged in the mid ’90s. The response was so big that the band got back together for the first time since 1979.
Maxwell – June 15, 1997
Maxwell covering Kate Bush? Yes, please. The song “This Woman’s Work” was written from a male perspective according to the artist. From an interview with Bush from The Quietus:
It was written for John Hughes’ film She’s having A Baby. Really light comedy about this young guy who gets married, very much a kid. His wife is pregnant and it’s alright until they get to the hospital and the baby’s in the breach position. That’s the sequence I have to write the songs about and it’s really very moving, him in the waiting room, having flashbacks of his wife and him going for walks, decoration…It’s exploring his sadness and guilt, suddenly it’s the point where he has to grow up. He’d been such a wally up to this point.
10,000 Maniacs – April 21, 1993
A shaggy-haired David Byrne joined vocalist Natalie Merchant for “Let the Mystery Be.”
Tori Amos – April 11, 1996
One audience member’s account of Amos’ performance of “Silent All These Years” at the Brooklyn Academy Of Music:
After a minute on this one, she stopped and told the crowd ‘I’ve playing for 30 years and I’m sucking pretty bad tonight. Give me a couple minutes to find the girl that plays the piano.’ Then she left the stage for about fifteen minutes. I did noticed that Arthur Spivak (her manager) left his seat and ran backstage, most probably trying to talk and make her feel better.
Pearl Jam – March 16, 1992
The year 1992 was a big one for Pearl Jam. The band appeared on Saturday Night Live, joined a memorable Lollapalooza tour, contributed two songs to Cameron Crowe’s film Singles, and appeared on MTV Unplugged. During his performance of “Porch,” singer Eddie Vedder wrote “PRO-CHOICE” on his arm. The same year, Vedder explained his stance on abortion in an interview with Spin.