On November 18, 1993, a three-man band played one of the best recorded-live acoustic sets in a generation. The recording wouldn’t be released as an album for almost a year, and just months after the death of the band’s lead singer.
Nirvana’s “MTV Unplugged” album is one of the best live albums ever made. The acoustic format is what makes the album so enjoyable and interesting to listen to. The band, comprising of Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and Dave Grohl was not known for—nor used to—playing acoustically, which automatically sets it apart stylistically from any other Nirvana album. The music and Cobain’s voice are laid out, showing off the skilled musicians beneath the grunge personas.
One of the best choices the band made was in the music set. Deviating from the usual “MTV Unplugged” series, the band (read as Kurt) decided to play mostly acoustic covers and deeper cuts from their albums, to the dismay of MTV at the time. This decision allowed for a stark contrast against Nirvana’s well-known punk rock electric music.
Keeping this separation by only playing a handful of original songs that lent themselves to an acoustic version (“About a Girl,” “Come As You Are,” “On A Plain,” “All Apologies,” “Polly,” “Something In The Way”) comprised a perfect balance that few could compare and complain about. But these are by no means the best songs on the album.
The covers, ranging from David Bowie’s “Man Who Stole the World” to the moving finale of blues singer Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” with Cobain’s wrenching vocals, truly make the album great.
Beyond the actual album, however, is the story behind the music. By all accounts, as well as clips from the rehearsals before recording, things were not going well. At one point during the rehearsal recordings, Cobain asks if his vocals are in key, and if you listen to the songs prior to the question you know why—he wasn’t hitting it.
As the band’s drummer, Dave Grohl stated in 2015, “That show was supposed to be a disaster,” he told American Way. “We hadn’t rehearsed. We weren’t used to playing acoustic. We did a few rehearsals and they were terrible. Everyone thought it was horrible. Even the people from MTV thought it was horrible. Then we sat down and the cameras started rolling and something clicked. It became one of the band’s most memorable performances.”
Little did Grohl know at the time Cobain saw him as a key part of why the acoustic sets weren’t going well and was close to being told he wouldn’t be playing for the final recording,
‘Kurt wasn’t happy with the way rehearsals were going; he didn’t like the way Dave sounded playing drums with sticks … He’s a heavy hitter, and the thing about ‘Unplugged,’ especially with rock bands, is if the drummer doesn’t really, really get it under control and tries to play a rock show on a smaller kit, then it brings the show to a bad-sounding electric show instead of a good-sounding acoustic show.’
Coletti handled the situation by sending a production assistant to Sam Ash to buy Grohl some new gear, including wire brushes and sizzle sticks. As a strong suggestions disguised as an early Christmas present, Grohl accepted the gear and went on to perform with his new gifts during ‘Unplugged.’
These gifts ended up making the album the masterpiece that it is. Not to get too into the “what if” game, but if the drummer had been anyone other than Dave Grohl, who is unarguably more popular now as the front-man for the Foo Fighters than he ever was in Nirvana, the album would not hold its true Nirvana value. The album would’ve been added to the annals of music that audiophiles slough to the side as “Great album, but…”
Kurt ultimately found the key and sang an incredible set, and Dave gave an amazing performance on drums, leaving us with a timeless album that could’ve been recorded yesterday, let alone 23 years ago.
Along with timeless, the album transcends generational and genre bias. People who don’t necessarily enjoy Nirvana’s music enjoy the “Unplugged” album. A perfect example is with my parents: they allowed no Nirvana music in their houses when I was growing up. Hence I came to love their music in my early 20s, a good ten years after Cobain’s death. However, my parents have both unknowingly enjoyed the “Unplugged” album while spending time at my house in recent years.
Released by MTV in 1994, Nirvana’s “Unplugged” was the last “new” album the band ever released, various compilations notwithstanding, and its timing in conjunction with Cobain’s death has cemented its place in pop culture history. How close one of the best albums ever came to being at best mediocre and at worst a disaster, we now know.
Watch the entire “MTV Unplugged” performance here: