Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



MTV (Music TeleVision) was launched in the USA in August 1981 and amounted to free advertising for the record companies, which would have been against the rules if the FCC had not been asleep for decades; the stultifying repetition of non-stop videos was parodied by Beck in 1994 in his 'MTV Makes Me Want To Smoke Crack' on Geffen: 'Everything's perfect and everything's bright/And everyone's perky and everyone's uptight/I love those videos/I watch them all day.' In October 1989 the format began to escape its adolescence by videoing live music, which it should have been doing in the first place. Inspired by informal, after-show acoustic sessions by guests, the co-creators of Unplugged, Jim Burns and Robert Small, associate producer Alex Coletti and art director Carol Fields provided an intimate stage on which musicians could present alternative versions of their work and, during the programme's finest hours (e.g. in Björk's appearance) strikingly different arrangements; this was hardly an innovation, yet for the dumbed-down MTV generation it was a revelation. Hosted by Jules Shear, the Unplugged debut featured Squeeze and Syd Straw, and went on to record shows by the Smithereens and Graham Parker, 10,000 Maniacs and Michael Penn, the Alarm and Nuclear Valdez, Joe Walsh and Dr John. The following year the show managed several coups, including Sinéad O'Connor's scoop performance of her album I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got that went on to sell millions, including 'Nothing Compares 2 U'. After Don Henley's landmark showcase career retrospective in March 1990, Shear no longer compèred; that year Elton John forsook stadium rock, Crosby, Stills and Nash delivered what they had been delivering for decades, and Aerosmith contributed.

Albums from the show were either bootlegged or (increasingly) released commercially. Surprisingly, while it may have seemed anathema, heavy metal acts were among the show's earliest supporters: Ratt, Testa, Great White and Poison all contributed. MTV had hitherto recorded in New York or Los Angeles; in January 1991 it recorded the Cure in London; with Paul McCartney's show the same month they took yet another step, with the session's legitimate limited edition Paul McCartney Unplugged: The Official Bootleg on Capitol '92 (although prudence demanded its release to forestall bootleggers, 650,000 copies sold out quickly; the CD included a cover of Bill Withers's 'Ain't No Sunshine', not broadcast because it would have exceeded time restrictions). In April Unplugged took another step by incorporating rap, recording M C Lyte, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and L L Cool J (whose performance shattered the slightly stately atmosphere of the show). Another scoop was R.E.M., who had chosen barely to promote their Out Of Time album otherwise. Eric Clapton's appearance in January 1992 followed shortly after the death of his son Conor, and provided the first public performance of 'Tears In Heaven', 'Circus Left Town' and 'Father's Eyes'; the session's subsequent release became Clapton's best-selling album (and won a Grammy). It was beaten into the shops by Mariah Carey's MTV Unplugged EP on Columbia from her March 1992 show, with its spin-off no. 1 hit in her cover of the Jacksons' 'I'll Be There'.

Over the following years MTV broadcast Arrested Development (Unplugged on Chrysalis '93), Neil Young (Unplugged on Reprise '93), Midnight Oil, Nirvana, Rod Stewart, Tony Bennett (MTV Unplugged on Columbia '94, won a Grammy), Bob Dylan (MTV Unplugged on Columbia '95), Hole, Pearl Jam, Melissa Etheridge, Sheryl Crowe, Bruce Springsteen (who was allowed a 'voltage enhanced' performance, to borrow Richard Thompson's phrase), Oasis, George Michael and Seal. Joe Cocker, Herbert Gronemeyer, Roxette and Was (Not Was) were filmed in Europe, Gilberto Gil and Barão Vermelho in Brazil. They wanted to complete the series by getting Led Zeppelin to re-form; after months of negotiation they got Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and guests in 1994 using plenty of amplification. The show also branched out in a limited way to include spoken word, featuring the likes of Maggie Estep, Henry Rollins and Gil Scott-Heron. A coffee-table tome Unplugged Book was published '96.