Nirvana: MTV Unplugged – [Record 139]
MTV Unplugged in New York is a live album by the American grunge band Nirvana. It features an acoustic performance taped at Sony Music Studios in New York City on November 18, 1993, for the television series MTV Unplugged. The show was directed by Beth McCarthy and first aired on the cable television network MTV on December 16, 1993. As opposed to traditional practice on the television series, Nirvana played a setlist composed of mainly lesser-known material and cover versions of songs by The Vaselines, David Bowie, Meat Puppets (during which they were joined by two members of the group onstage), and Lead Belly.
MTV Unplugged in New York was the first Nirvana album released following the death of Kurt Cobain. The album debuted at number one on the Billboard 200, and has become the group’s most successful posthumous release, having been certified 5x platinum in the United States by 1997. It also won the Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album in 1996. The performance was released on DVD in 2007.
1, About a Girl.
2, Come as You Are.
3, Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam.
4, The Man Who Sold the World.
5, Pennyroyal Tea.
8, On a Plain.
9, Something in the Way.
11, Oh, Me.
12, Lake of Fire.
13, All Apologies.
14, Where Did You Sleep Last Night.
The performance: Nirvana had been in negotiations with MTV to appear on its acoustic-based show MTV Unplugged for some time. It was while touring with the Meat Puppets that Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain finally accepted. The band wanted to do something different from a typical MTV Unplugged episode for its performance. According to drummer Dave Grohl, “We’d seen the other Unpluggeds 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.” The group looked at Mark Lanegan’s 1990 album The Winding Sheet as a source of inspiration. Among the ideas the band members came up with included covering David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” and inviting members of the Meat Puppets to join them on stage. Still, the prospect of performing an entirely acoustic show made Cobain nervous.
The band dedicated two days to rehearsals. The rehearsal sessions were tense and difficult, with the band running into problems performing various songs. During the sessions, Cobain disagreed with MTV as to how the performance should be presented. Producer Alex Coletti recollected that the network was unhappy with the band’s choice of the Meat Puppets as guests (“They wanted to hear the ‘right’ names-Eddie Vedder or Tori Amos or God knows who”, Coletti recalled) and the dearth of hit Nirvana songs on the setlist. Upset, the day before filming was set to take place, Cobain refused to play. However, he appeared at the studio the following afternoon. Cobain was suffering from drug withdrawal and nervousness at the time; one observer said, “There was no joking, no smiles, no fun coming from him… Therefore, everyone was more than a little worried about his performance.”
Nirvana taped its performance for MTV Unplugged on November 18, 1993, at Sony Studios in New York City. Despite the show’s premise, Cobain insisted on running his acoustic guitar through his amplifier and effects pedals. Coletti built a fake box in front of the amplifier to disguise it as a monitor wedge. Coletti said, “It was Kurt’s security blanket. He was used to hearing this guitar through his Fender. He wanted those effects. You can hear it on ‘The Man Who Sold The World.’ It’s an acoustic guitar, but he’s obviously going through an amp.” Nirvana was augmented by guitarist Pat Smear and cellist Lori Goldston, who had been touring with the band. Cobain suggested that the stage be decorated with stargazer lilies, black candles, and a crystal chandelier. Cobain’s request prompted the show’s producer to ask him, “You mean like a funeral?”, to which the singer replied, “Exactly. Like a funeral.”
Unlike many artists who appeared on the show, Nirvana filmed its entire performance in a single take. The band’s fourteen-song setlist included a single song from its debut album, Bleach, four songs off of Nevermind, three tracks from the then recently released In Utero, and six cover versions. The group shied away from playing its better-known songs; the only hit the band performed was its 1992 single “Come as You Are”. Ten songs in, Cris and Curt Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets joined the band onstage to perform three of their group’s songs with Nirvana. The set ended with a performance of a traditional song “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” arranged by blues musician Lead Belly. This rendition has been regarded by many as one of the greatest live single song performances of all time. As The Atlantic critic Andrew Wallace Chamings described, “For the final line, ‘I would shiver the whole night through,’ Cobain jumps up an octave, forcing him to strain so far he screams and cracks. He hits the word ‘shiver’ so hard that the band stops, as if a fight broke out at a sitcom wedding. Next he howls the word ‘whole’ and then does something very strange in the brief silence that follows, something that’s hard to describe: He opens his piercingly blue eyes so suddenly it feels like someone or something else is looking out under the bleached lank fringe, with a strange clarity. Then he finishes the song.” After the band finished, Cobain argued with the show’s producers, who wanted an encore. Cobain refused because he felt he could not top the performance of that song.
Album release: After Cobain was found dead in April 1994, MTV aired the Nirvana episode of MTV Unplugged repeatedly. In order to fulfill demand for new Nirvana material and to counter bootlegging, DGC announced in August 1994 that it would be releasing a double album titled Verse Chorus Verse, which was to include live performances from 1989 to 1994, as well as the entire MTV Unplugged performance. However, the task of compiling the album was too emotionally difficult for the surviving band members, so the project was cancelled a week after the official announcement. Instead, Novoselic and Grohl opted to commercially release just the Unplugged performance. Scott Litt, who had produced the performance, returned to produce the record.
MTV Unplugged in New York was released on November 1, 1994. The album debuted at number one on the Billboard charts, selling 310,500 copies in its first week, giving the band its strongest first week sales. Ben Thompson of Mojo wrote, “The problem with Unplugged albums tends to be that, given that their original identity is as a video, you feel that you are not having the whole experience without something to watch. In Nirvana’s case, that is actually an advantage, because this particular whole experience is too intense to have over and over again. Even the colourless, generic aspect of the Unplugged format is vaguely reassuring here.” Entertainment Weekly gave the album an A rating. Reviewer David Browne noted that listening to the music in light of Cobain’s death was “unsettling”; Browne added, “Beyond inducing a sense of loss for Cobain himself, Unplugged elicits a feeling of musical loss, too: The delicacy and intimacy of these acoustic rearrangements hint at where Nirvana (or at least Cobain, who was said to be frustrated with the limitations of the band) could have gone.” Robert Christgau also gave the album an A rating, writing “the vocal performance he evokes is John Lennon’s on John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band.” By early 1995, MTV Unplugged in New York had surpassed Nirvana’s final studio album In Utero (1993) in sales with 6.8 million copies sold. Rolling Stone ranked MTV Unplugged in New York at #313 in its list of “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time”. Rolling Stone also ranked the album as the 95th best album of the 1990s. NME placed MTV Unplugged in New York at number 6 on their 2011 list of the “50 Greatest Live Albums”. In July 2014, Guitar World ranked MTV Unplugged in New York at number 30 in their “Superunknown: 50 Iconic Albums That Defined 1994” list.
“About a Girl” was released as the album’s only commercial single in October 1994, backed with the Unplugged version of “Something in the Way” as the B-side. It was released on CD only in Australia and Europe. Promo singles were released for “The Man Who Sold the World”, “All Apologies”, “Lake of Fire”, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” and “Polly”. Of the songs on the album, “About a Girl” became the biggest hit, becoming Nirvana’s fourth number one on the Modern Rock Tracks chart, and was also a top ten hit in Australia, Denmark and Finland. “All Apologies”, “About a Girl” and “The Man Who Sold the World” were also released as single music videos and charted at number 7, 33 and 72 respectively on the MTV Year End Countdown of 1994 with the latter in 1995.
DVD release: The MTV Unplugged In New York performance was released on DVD on November 20, 2007. The DVD release featured the entire taping, including the two songs (“Something in the Way” and “Oh Me”) excluded from the broadcast version. Bonus features consisted of the original broadcast version of the performance, a 1999 MTV special titled Bare Witness: Nirvana Unplugged featuring the recollections of MTV producers and audience members, and five songs taped during the pre-show rehearsal: “Come as You Are”, “Polly”, “Plateau”, “Pennyroyal Tea”, and “The Man Who Sold the World”.