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Thirty years ago, on Nov. 26, 1989, the very first MTV Unplugged aired, starring new wave legends Squeeze, singer-songwriters Jules Shear and Syd Straw, and Cars guitarist Elliot Easton. As the groundbreaking series’ producer, Alex Coletti, tells Yahoo Entertainment, the series’ point “was to be anti-Milli Vanilli, for the guys and the girls that can really do it.” But no one quite understood how important Unplugged would become.
“Getting someone to do the first one was like rolling a boulder up a hill. There were maybe 50, 60 people in the audience; I could look at footage and name half of them, because I had to invite people,” Coletti laughs. “I remember Squeeze showing up with electric guitars and I said, ‘Um, hello, it’s Unplugged!’ No one really knew what ‘unplugged’ was; the term didn't exist in the way it does now in the lexicon. Later, that term became a thing that took on a whole new meaning.”
Coletti recalls when Squeeze wrapped their set (which taped Halloween ‘89 at National Studios in New York City) with a cover of the Neil Diamond-penned Monkees hit “I’m a Believer,” everyone became a believer. “It was magic,” he recalls. “I knew from the vibe in that room that we had something special going on. I was like, ‘This show's going to be a hit. This is awesome. This is going to be fun, every day of my life.’ And it was.”
Eventually, MTV Unplugged didn’t just change the lexicon. It changed music, television, and pop culture in general — introducing Eric Clapton and Tony Bennett to a new generation, helping hip-hop cross over, kickstarting the KISS reunion, and inadvertently memorializing Kurt Cobain. Below, Coletti reflects on some of MTV Unplugged’s most memorable moments.
SINEAD O’CONNOR (March 18, 1990)
“The first woman to do the show — who, God willing, is having a comeback and in a good place — was Sinead O'Connor. It was Season 1, maybe the second or third time we were taping, and we were doing two bands per show for a half hour. So she did ‘Black Boys on Mopeds’ and ‘I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got,’ and she didn't do ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’! Like, how did we let that one go? But she came on by herself with her guitar and couldn't have been sweeter. And that voice — to be 10 feet away from her while she was singing was just an unbelievable privilege. Fifty people sitting in a room while she did that, just incredible and spellbinding. I still have her handwritten lyrics to ‘Black Boys on Mopeds’ somewhere in a notebook.”
ELTON JOHN (May 17, 1990)
“There was a chance Elton wasn't going to make it. He was playing Atlantic City and taking a helicopter [after] and we had bad weather, fog. And there was all of a sudden, it was like, ‘Oh, he may not be able to fly.’ They ended up getting him a car, obviously, and he made it, but it was definitely a little scary for a minute.
“Elton coming out in that sweat suit was not what we had expected. I guess my own naivete to think that he was going to come out in some outlandish outfit — the duck costume would have been great! But, here's a guy that hasn't sat that close to an audience in forever, right? To see him react to people's faces, without blinding stadium spotlights in his eyes… he just didn't want to stop. It was amazing, so magical. He was the first artist, I believe, to do the whole show by himself, no backing musicians you know, and it was just all you needed. Right? You got the songs, and that's what the show’s about. The songs and the talent.”
R.E.M. (April 19, 1991)
“I'll always remember Michael Stipe's eyes rolling in the back of his head as he sang ‘Fall on Me.’ That's when it really struck me how special it was: the real beauty of this show being so small and intimate, and shot so close-up. It was just stunning to watch the whites of his eyes, his eyes roll into his head as he hit that note. And, they were a great band for that show, the way the harmonies came through, and Mike Mills’s stacking vocals were always the secret sauce of REM. That moment stays with me.”
YO! UNPLUGGED RAP WITH LL COOL J, A TRIBE CALLED QUEST, MC LYTE (May 1, 1991)
“That was just groundbreaking, just a game-changer in so many ways. But Yo! MTV Raps was exploding and everyone at MTV was into hip-hop, so for us it wasn't a stretch. It was really Sheri Howell in the talent department who had this idea, and she put me in touch with Pop’s Cool Love, the backing band. LL had never played with live musicians. He actually then did a tour with a horn section [later].
“One funny thing people seem to remember about this one is the deodorant. We sent a PA out for deodorant for LL, and instead of a spray he came back with a stick. The lights were so hot, he just broke it in half and put it under his arm, never thinking anyone would see it. But he was feeling the show so much that he ripped his shirt off and when he did, there was two big pods of deodorant under his arms! But in the audience was the great [rapper/executive producer/TV host] Todd-1, who just passed away, and Todd stood up and took his shirt off in response to LL. That was amazing. To see someone just stand up and rip his shirt off at an Unplugged show, that was unheard of. We shot and R.E.M on the same day. I mean, what a day at work that was.”
MARIAH CAREY (June 2, 1992)
“Mariah really didn’t have lot of stage banter or audience experience, and she was nervous. She was with Tommy Mottola and he sat in the very front row. I walked over and said, ‘Tommy, I mean Mr. Mottola, excuse me, but can I move your seat?’ And he's like, ‘Why?’ And I said, ‘I don't want to make her any more nervous than she is.’ He totally got it. He went and sat in the back of the room; he totally got it.
“That was when we first started multi-tracking… so we were able to put an EP out. It was one of the first official releases. ‘I’ll Be There’ with Trey Lorenz was a No. 1 hit, and the EP went to No. 3. All of a sudden, the amount of money we put into Unplugged was nothing compared to the amount of money it was making us in record sales.”
ERIC CLAPTON (Aug. 18, 1992)
“The Clapton one was special, and obviously, it was about a year after [his son] Conor had passed. I sat down and interviewed him before the show. And it was great, because he was very open about certain songs where he clearly dealing with the loss of his son. So it was really heavy in the interview, and really thoughtful and measured, but then we were changing videotape, and [percussionist] Ray [Cooper] started playing and went into ‘Rollin' and Tumblin',' and luckily we got tape back up to speed in time. Eric put his arm around me and said, ‘Did you get that?’ I was like, ‘Yes, we got it!’ Eric just beamed. After that, it just changed the room, and it was so much fun.
“He was so happy, so unguarded, and unplugged in every sense of the word. It was a very raw show, a very cathartic show. It was not a heavy room at all. It was a very elated, joyful night. It was fun, Eric smiled a lot during that show. And I think everyone was just happy to see him happy. Remember, before ‘Layla,’ he said, ‘See if you can spot this one out’ – meaning, like, ‘I bet you're not going to guess this song right away.’ It was like a guessing game. It was clever. And to see him in that context, his voice was the standout. Everyone knew Eric could sing, and of course we always knew he was a great guitar god, but when you took away the amplifiers, and it was really his voice that stood out more so than his guitar playing. I thought that that just featured him in a whole new light.”
NEIL YOUNG (June 15, 1993)
“Neil was an interesting one. The night, before Neil was doing a rehearsal and it was a little tense. It wasn't going great. There was also an issue where I was told that we couldn't show the drummer’s face. I’m not sure why. So we literally had to position a cymbal in front of his face so you couldn't see it. But it wasn't going great for Neil with the band. I always told artists if they needed to do a song a couple of times until they were happy with it, they could. The audience would thrilled to sit through it twice. Neil did every song, like, three times. He did ‘Down By the River,’ things that didn't end up happening in the show that eventually got re-recorded.
“Neil went to remix the show, heard the first song, and just said no. It was not working. And I think if he would have plowed through the tapes he would have found a brilliant show in there. But we got a call saying, ‘Look, we're going to pay to reshoot this.’ Neil whipped the band into shape and they rehearsed it and took it a little more seriously. And we shot the second time in L.A. and it was a wonderful show, great album. I still hear that version of ‘Harvest Moon’ on the radio all the time. But there was some magic in the [first] Ed Sullivan Theater show [in New York]. It was a darker show, for sure. Neil told some hysterical stories about being on Letterman. So yeah, that's one that's lost to the ages.”
DURAN DURAN (Nov. 17, 1993)
“My main memory is Stephen Sprouse, the late, great punk fashion designer, was involved. Nick Rhodes brought him in and said, 'Stephen has some ideas about the set.’ Stephen said, ‘We want it dripping in orange.’ I remember that distinctly. And my set designer, Tommy Phillips, went out and got an orange snow fence, like that stuff you see on ski slopes, and made beautiful curtains out of them. That was just so Duran Duran, to have a fashion designer involved in the creative. They understood that the look is as important as the sound.”
NIRVANA (Dec. 16, 1993)
“It wasn't hard [to convince them]. Literally, I think we got a fax that said, ‘Yeah, we'll do it.’ I don't want to say it was just another day, because that takes away a lot of the magic, but at the time, no one knew what it would become. It was, we showed up at work, we did our job, they showed up, they did their job. Then it took on a life of its own.
“I had some set sketches, and I showed them to Kurt Cobain. He said, ‘Oh, can you get some stargazer lilies?" And I'm not a botanist. I was like, ‘What kind of flowers are those? Those are the ones at funerals, right?’ He's like, "Yeah, yeah. Those." They were out of season, so we had to get a lot of plastic ones, which I guess under the TV lights was better, because the real ones would have, all the petals would have fallen off by the time the show was over. So that was a touch the band put on, but it wasn't an extreme request. Six months, eight months later, we're watching it, and it's a very different feeling. It looks like a funeral, and it hits you, and you go, ‘Oh, s***. Wow.’ But that was never the intention of the moment, and that wasn't Kurt's intention. It was just a thing. It wasn't this nefarious, ‘I'm plotting my funeral’ thing but in retrospect that [theory] gets a lot of play. Clearly when Kurt did die, that Unplugged show became how we mourned him. But I saw no nerves, nothing but positivity. I remember a sense of ease. I felt that this was a band that knew exactly what they were doing. They had complete confidence, and they were just musicians working. That's the best way to describe it.
“I always say that, as much as people want to talk about Kurt, Unplugged was where Dave Grohl became a frontman as well. Dave, very kindly, will remind people that I gave him the brushes and the sizzle sticks; he had ever played with those things before. I don't think anyone really paid attention to his backing vocals and how pristine and pitch-perfect he was. He's singing these killer harmonies, pitch perfect, just playing perfectly around the vocal, kind of in a Ringo way. By restraining his drumming, Dave Grohl-as-frontman became a reality. I saw it through the camera lens instantly.
“The funny thing was, there were no obvious Nirvana hits in the setlist, other than ‘Come As You Are.’ So I was like, ‘Guys, you finished in an hour and 10-minutes, we've got time. … Is there an encore? Is there another song?’ I was just trying to get a little bit more out of them, and they thought about it. Krist [Novoselic] and Dave were brainstorming, but Kurt just looked at me and said, ‘I don't think I can top that last song.’ When he said it, it just clicked to me. It's like, ‘Oh no, this was planned out start to finish, and that's how it should end. Let's call it a wrap and walk home.’ So we did.”
STONE TEMPLE PILOTS (Feb. 2, 1994)
“‘Plush’ lyrics gave me this backwoods vibe, almost like how I would now think of a Kings of Leon vibe — Southern, swampy — so I asked my set designer to bring in trees. I had this idea of a front porch, so I said, ‘Let's get Scotty a rocking chair.’ Scott he showed up and I said, ‘Do you mind trying this?" And he was like, ‘Yeah, this is great, I'll sit.’ It was interesting because Scott was such a dynamic frontman — to contain him that way, and just make it be about his voice and his face, was really a rare way to experience that band.”
TONY BENNETT (June 28, 1994)
“Tony Bennett was one that was out of the box. He was having a moment in the pop culture, but he wasn't an obvious choice for Unplugged. I was watching David Letterman one night in bed, and Tony was on the couch. Tony had just been at the VMAs with the Chili Peppers. Dave asked Tony, How is it that you're so cool?’ Tony said, ‘You know, Dave, I've been unplugged my whole life.’ And I literally fell out of my bed trying to reach for a pad and pen. I was like, ‘Tony Bennett Unplugged!’ The next day I went to [MTV] Doug Herzog and then [Sony’s] Donny Ienner, and got everyone to sign on. And Tony’s Unplugged won the Grammy for Album of the Year, so that was pretty special. With people like k.d. Lang and Elvis Costello participating, it was a thrill. And Tony still out there doing it. He was absolutely right, he was ‘unplugged.’ He can charm a room like nobody's business.”
MELISSA ETHERIDGE (March 21, 1995)
“Melissa Etheridge and Bruce Springsteen. Wow. Bruce coming out to do ‘Thunder Road’ with her was amazing. That for me was a real triumph. I took Melissa to lunch at the Lodge, MTV’s commissary. When she agreed to do the show, I said, ‘Let's get lunch and chat,’ and instead of finding a fancy New York City lunch I thought, ‘Let's see how willing she is to play along. We're doing food trays in cafeteria.’ And she was great, she loved it, we had a great time. So I said, ‘OK, what's the one thing that would make this show the best thing in the world for you?’ She said, ‘I've always wanted to sing with Bruce Springsteen.’ And it happened to be that Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ceremony was that week in New York. I got a ticket to get in, I found [Springsteen’s manager] Jon Landeau, and I whispered it in his ear. Pretty soon, Bruce was knocking at the stage door at Brooklyn Academy of Music. He walked in, and they got to do that amazing duet. It's great when dreams come true.”
HOLE (April 17, 1995)
“I have a great memories of that experience, actually. … There was some weirdness onstage, with [Courtney Love’s] stage banter — she took a shot at [MTV VJ] Tabitha Soren or something — but other than that, there was no drama, you know. Courtney was in good spirits. I got there a little early, and Courtney and I were the only two people in the room. She had just ordered some food, she sat down on the floor, shared her dinner with me, and pulled out a boombox and said, ‘Do you want to hear the last thing Kurt ever recorded?’ And she popped in a cassette of ‘You Know You’re Right.’ From that point on, it was just a fun ride. … She was just so inviting and loving and open and it was everything you would think a Hole Unplugged wouldn't be. It was so easy.
“There was one funny moment. We were sitting in SIR, and someone came in. I could feel a presence — that's the best way I could put it — behind me. [Hole’s] Eric [Erlandson] at the time was dating Drew Barrymore, so for a second I thought it was Drew, because it just had that smell or that vibe of just someone who is well-groomed, Hollywood or something. I could see Courtney back up a bit, and she said to the woman standing behind me, ‘Oh, I got that [outfit] too. Fred Segal?’ And I heard the unmistakable voice of Madonna going, ‘Yeah.’ They were wearing the same thing, and it got really tense for a minute. Madonna happened to be rehearsing next door, it turned out.”
BOB DYLAN (May 2, 1995)
“[Sony Music’s] Donnie Ienner at the time said, ‘Look, Bob has good shows and bad shows sometimes, so if we put it all on one night, and it doesn't work, we're in trouble. So let's do two shows.’ So I said, ‘Great. Wear the same clothes, we'll collect all the band clothes, launder them, and as long as they dress the same. I'll make it work.’
“The first night, I got called into the dressing room when the show was over, and Bob was like, ‘Oh man, it was just flat out there.’ I said, ‘Well, we gave you 250 tickets, and honestly, Seymour Stein was the youngest guy in the audience. Give me your tickets back.’ So Bob reached into his bag, and gave me 200 tickets back, and the next night, we had Uma Thurman in the audience, and about 50 MTV Grind dancers — young and beautiful people who were hanging on his every word, as opposed to industry friends — and he just lit up when he walked out onstage. It was so much more fun, and we used the entire second night.
“I got called in at the end of that night too, and Bob poured champagne and toasted with his band. He looked at me and said, ‘We've done 300 shows this year, this is our last one.’ I raised my glass and said, ‘Keep at it! I'm sure it will pay off.’”
KISS (March 2, 1996)
“We put [the original four members of] KISS back together. I take great credit in putting the band back together. No one was begging for a KISS Unplugged at the time, but we were doing a couple of other shows anyways, and Gene [Simmons] and I talked about it. I told him. ‘I'll take it back to MTV, but it would be better obviously with Peter [Criss] and Ace [Frehley].’ I felt that I had enough currency in the bank at MTV that I could say, ‘Hey, I want to take a chance on something. Let's roll the dice on a KISS Unplugged. So that was the beginning of the reunion, if only for a couple of songs.
“I remember being at SIR and watching them rehearse and seeing each other for the first time. I actually jumped on a piano and played ‘Nothing to Lose’ as a goof. I couldn't help myself. Everyone's head spun around — like, what? It was just such a great feeling that for a second, I was in KISS. It was so much fun that the band that originally made me want to [go into music], was back together.
“But it wasn't without issue. The next night, at the soundcheck, the camera rehearsal, everything fell apart. Lawyers got in the way. Ace didn't show up to soundcheck, and Paul [Stanley] said, ‘Put on his guitar.’ So what should have been a cool moment for me, playing ‘2,000 Man,’ was me sitting there sweating, going, ‘All right, I put my ass on the line. I'm getting fired for this one.’ But we worked it out. The next day, Ace showed up, and it was the beginning.”
ALICE IN CHAINS (July 30, 1996)
“That voice? Wow! Out of [singer Layne Staley’s] body, that small frame and that voice was unreal. That night was magical. We had lava lamps on the set. And someone didn't realize that they had to warm up for several hours, so if you look at the video, the lava is very sludgy — which was actually perfect for their sound. It wasn't meant to be, but there were just these little blobs wobbling around, just barely and it was just kind of perfect for what the music felt like.
“Jerry Cantell got really sick. He had a street hot dog, I think, before the show and he was not feeling well, as I recall. He had some stomach issues. But other than that, that show went really, really well, with only a couple of retakes.”
OASIS (Aug. 23, 1996)
“We rehearsed for about five days off-site. Every day, the band would show up and run through the set once or twice. Noel Gallagher was very organized and professional. Liam Gallagher showed up the first day in head-to-toe green: green Hush Puppies, green Boy Scout shorts, and a really nice green shirt. And for five days, he showed up in the same outfit every day, and sang a little less every day. He sang through once and said, ‘I'm going to save my voice.’ I could see this going in a bad direction. Day four he showed up and said, ‘I'm not going to sing at all,’ but in the same clothes. ‘OK, he likes this outfit or he hasn't showered, or he hasn't been home yet,’ was my strong suspicion. He was clearly not taking great care of himself.
“So, we get to Royal Festival Hall, show day and he's like, ‘Yeah, I'm not going on.’ And we had flown a lot of people from the States [to the taping in London] and put all this money into it, because Oasis at the time were the biggest band, arguably, in the world. This show costs a couple hundred thousand dollars, and I wasn't going to cancel it. I looked at Noel and said, “Look, you wrote the songs, so you sing the songs. It's like Pete Townshend.’ So we filmed it that way.
“Halfway through the show, one of the camera guys said, ‘Alex, look in the balcony, look in the balcony!’ And there's Liam, with some champagne, hanging out and having a great time. I thought maybe he'd come out and sing one song, maybe he was just been winding us up, but no, he just went backstage. At the end of the show, he literally walked across the stage to go to the dressing room. Like, through the shot. Later, I had to step over Liam to get into the band's dressing room, because he was just laying in the hallway. It was rock ‘n’ roll. Liam looked at me and said, ‘That was great! He was like a fan watching it in the rafters, and didn't think that we would even be mad at him for jerking us around. But I wasn’t in trouble. I can't control Liam Gallagher. No one to this day has.”
GEORGE MICHAEL (Oct. 11, 1996)
“Other than Amy Winehouse and Layne Staley, I don't think I've ever stood next to someone who just can't hit a wrong note. George’s voice was just so incredibly pure. He mixed his own in-ear monitor, so he had a little weird thing on a music stand and he was tweaking his own knobs. The most human moment, the thing that I loved most about it, was the show started 20 minutes late because George misplaced his favorite tie. So we were doing a mad search for his tie, while the audience was sitting there waiting. You’ve got to love an artist who's nervous enough that can't go on without his favorite tie.”
JEWEL (June 27, 1997)
“Jewel actually wrote a song onstage. She was so comfortable up there that she said, ‘You know, I've been working on a song. Give me 10 minutes.’ And she literally pulled out paper and pen and finished a song. It was called ‘Last Dance Rodeo,’ and that was the first time anybody heard it.”
ALANIS MORISSETTE (Nov. 9, 1999)
“This was one of the easiest and best ones, because she's Alanis, you know? Those songs, her voice, her stage presence. So it was all about getting it to look right. I remember challenging my lighting designer, where at the end, I said, ‘I don't want any moving lights. I want you to light this like 1940s theater.’ And he did.”
LAURYN HILL (July 1, 2001)
“I was on vacation with friends, in a pool up to my waist, and my cell phone rang, and I picked it up. It was Lauryn Hill. She said, ‘Look I got your number. I want to do an Unplugged.’ I said, ‘Great! I'm on vacation, can I call you in a couple of days?’ She said, ‘I'm six months’ pregnant and we got to do it now.’ She said, ‘I taught myself how to play guitar, I've written a bunch of new songs and I want to do them acoustic.’
“I called Van Toffler, head of MTV at the time, and said, ‘Look, Lauryn Hill just called me. She taught herself guitar. She doesn't want to play any of the hits. She wants to play a bunch of new songs. Do we roll the dice or not?’ He's said, ‘Yeah, do it.” So we did it, and it was pretty special. There were some definite 4 A.M. phone calls in the remix phase and some things got a little weird, but it's definitely a standout show that people still talk about. That’s really her last full studio album.”
JAY-Z (Dec. 18, 2001)
“The Jay-Z Unplugged is legendary. Jay had the Roots behind him in Times Square, when Unplugged was really funded. We weren't really doing them anymore — Alanis was kind of the last official one for a bit — but that opportunity came up and it was too good to pass up. Those arrangements were phenomenal and Jay owned that room and that audience. It was gritty, it was in the city, it was in the pulse of Manhattan, and it was just incredible.”
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