To deny that the anti-rock star scene of the early ‘90s was no less pretentious and contrived than the aerosol-rock star scene of the late ‘80s would be naive. Decades later, it’s interesting to look back and see what bands and which records from each era have survived the test of time. Truth be told, the allure and luster of most all of them have faded over the years. Personally speaking, VERY few hair band records still sound fresh these days. Then again, I can’t think of many grunge records that still thwack me either. However…
The anointed messiahs of the decidedly un-glamorous early ‘90s “new rock” movement, the three-piece Seattle-based collective, Nirvana, birthed three official studio sets during their brief run from 1989-1993. While all three titles; Bleach (1989), Nevermind (1991) and In Utero (1993) remain relevant slabs, it can be argued that the brash brigade stood tallest and their songs shined brightest in their celebrated “unplugged” performance.
Recorded at Sony Music Studios in New York on November 18, 1993, Nirvana’s stripped-down appearance first aired on MTV on December 16, 1993 as part of the network’s wildly popular MTV Unplugged concert series. Produced by MTV’s Alex Coletti, famed R.E.M. producer Scott Litt and Nirvana, the performance was released as an official live album via DGC Records 25 years ago this week (November 1, 1994), nearly seven months following the April 5, 1994 suicide of the band’s iconic frontman, guitarist and chief songwriter, Kurt Cobain. The 14-song acoustic collection has since sold in excess of five million units.
Everything is always “About A Girl.”
Unlike most of the marquee musicians who appeared on the series, Cobain was less compelled to merely regurgitate acoustic versions of his band’s “greatest hits.” As a result, much to the dissatisfaction of the network’s “suits,” Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged playlist leaned primarily on deep cuts and covers — making for a uniquely authentic, organic effort.
Reflecting little stylistic difference from its original 1989 studio version, “About a Girl” kicks the show off with the band’s signature gusto, while the set’s only two hits, “Come as You Are” (1992) and “All Apologies” (1993) help to enhance the record’s “familiar”-feeling vibe. The highlight-heavy record also boasts impressive acoustic versions of several non-singles, including “Pennyroyal Tea” from In Utero (1993) and “Polly” and “On a Plain” — both from Nevermind (1992).
Reportedly shot all in one take, the performance also finds bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl stepping out frequently from their perceived comfort zones, with Novoselic switching off occasionally to acoustic guitar. On the remake of the Vaseline’s “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam,” Novoselic commandeers the accordion, as the dapper-looking, turtlenecked, pony-tailed Grohl mans an acoustic bass, all while touring member Pat Smear strums away on his classic, Buck Owens-style, red, white and blue guitar.
No idea who he is, but he’s “The Man Who Sold The World.”
Although MTV would have preferred “big name” special guests, Nirvana pissed in the ol’ corporate punch bowl (again) by choosing lesser-known musicians Cris Kirkwood and Curt Kirkwood from the Meat Puppets to join them on the program. Of the three Meat Puppets tunes showcased, “Plateau” proved particularly powerful.
The record also packs a few personal picks. The band spanks the David Bowie treasure, “The Man Who Sold the World,” like a naughty schoolgirl and makes it their own. In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ll confess openly that this is my all-time favorite Nirvana track. Additionally, “Dumb” comes darn close to nabbing the record’s “Best in Show” honor. Featured originally on In Utero, the song pops, much in part to Lori Goldston’s beautiful cello contribution. Finally, the re-imagined version of Lead Belly’s folksy, blues classic, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” ends the set with moving “WOW factor.”
I still can recall listening to my cassette copy of the album on my Sony Walkman while en route to a gig in Los Angeles, shortly after it’s release. Decades later, Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York remains as fresh and exciting to me as the day I landed at LAX. An important, timeless record that points to the band’s still untapped future potential.
“All Apologies” that this review is now over.
MTV Unplugged in New York Track Listing:
01. About a Girl (3:37)
02. Come as You Are (4:13)
03. Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam (4:37)
04. The Man Who Sold the World (4:20)
05. Pennyroyal Tea (3:40)
06. Dumb (2:52)
07. Polly (3:16)
08. On a Plain (3:44)
09. Something in the Way (4:01)
10. Plateau (3:37)
11. Oh, Me (3:26)
12. Lake of Fire (2:56)
13. All Apologies (4:23)
14. Where Did You Sleep Last Night (5:08)
Run Time: 53:50
Release Date: November 1, 1994
Record Label: DGC Records