25 Years of Nirvana Unplugged

A quarter of a century of influence on both sides of the Atlantic

Thursday 22nd November 2018

'Nirvana Unplugged in New York' was recorded 25 years ago in November 1993. The resulting album and broadcast captured one of the landmark moments in MTV history. It sits with the channel's other moments that scratched the surface of Western youth countercultures. Memorable events such as video promising to kill the radio star, Debbie Harry rapping, Dire Straights' groundbreaking computer-generated graphics and The Specials' video for 'Rat Race', the latter notable for being the only non-white artists to be included on MTV's first day of broadcast.

A dozen years before Youtube, MTV was still the way that many in America and Europe accessed new music in a visual medium. Unplugged caught Nirvana at a unique point in their short existence as a band and introduced them to audiences in a new way. Cobain's struggles with his own success were already well documented, and Nirvana were not completely happy the MTV unplugged format. MTV wanted a setlist of Nirvana's greatest hits with guest appearances from the like of Pearl Jam and Tori Amos, but instead, the set list featured songs by David Bowie, Leadbelly and '80s Scottish band The Vaselines. The additional players were made up of members of Meat Puppets along with Nirvana's touring guitarist Pat Smear, a former member of American punk band Germs.

Rejecting the contrived nature of MTV's Unplugged series, the set was recorded in one take from start to finish. In an interview with Billboard, Meat Puppet's Curt Kirkwood later said, "I’ve never been at another one of those Unplugged tapings, but I've definitely heard they can be a little more trying for some people. But this was just like a real show… almost a coffee house-sorta thing from front to back, with no retakes or anything".

Kurt Cobain managed to present an alternative to the stereotypical rock star ego throughout the set. One of the most memorable moments of the set was the cover of David Bowie's 'The Man Who Sold The World'. The inclusion of the song introduced the audience to an era of Bowie that many were unaware of, knowing Bowie more for his then relatively recent period with Tin Machine or 'Let's Dance'. 

Another song that many people were introduced to by its inclusion was Leadbelly's 'Where Did You Sleep Last Night'. It's fair to say a lot of the MTV audience were unaware of the controversial blues singer in the1990s before Nirvana highlighted his work. Aside from anything else, together with the inclusion of The Vaselines' 'Jesus Don't Want Me For A Sunbeam', the Nirvana show acted as a gateway to a list of further listening, picking from genres and artists otherwise overlooked by MTV. 

There's also a more surprising set of events that were set in motion by Nirvana's prominence around this time. Much was made in the mid-'90s of the rivalry between Blur and Oasis, but years earlier it was reportedly the success of Nirvana in America and the UK that sparked competitiveness in the Blur camp. While Nirvana's Kurt Cobain was apparently a big fan of Blur's 'There's No Other Way', Blur seemed to resent the cultural invasion of American alternative rock bands like Nirvana. The Britishness of the songwriting on Blur's 1993 album 'Modern Life Is Rubbish' was seen as a reaction to this, a record credited with kickstarting the Britpop movement, or at least rallying the London element of the scene. In a bizarre aside to the story, Blur's US label at the time wanted to get Nirvana's producer Butch Vig to produce Blur's sophomore LP, in order to ensure better sales in the US, but Blur instead managed to argue that Stephen Street was the man for the job.

Nirvana's combination of punk, country, blues and rock offered a more accessible and direct route into the world of confrontational disruptive music than either US or UK punk's legacy presented in the 1990s. Today's crop of post-punk and new wave-influenced bands, on either side of Atlantic and further afield, show more than a little of the Nirvana spirit, perhaps owing as much to Nirvana and fellow US alternative bands such as Sonic Youth, Pavement and Bikini Kill as they do to UK punk.

Despite the worldwide success of 'Nervermind', it was Unplugged that gave Nirvana the biggest platform, and Kurt Cobain used it to dismantle the idea of the strutting male singer with a guitar, replacing it with a reality young people could connect with.

Following Kurt Cobain's death just six months after Unplugged was recorded, MTV repeated the show on an almost daily basis, and the success eventually led to the release of the five times platinum album release.

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