Who Played the First ‘MTV Unplugged’ Episode?
One of the most popular music shows to ever emerge was MTV's Unplugged series, which started in the late '80s and has continued in a variety of forms into the 2020s. But where did it all begin and who played the first MTV Unplugged episode?
Who Created MTV Unplugged?
Producers Robert Small and Jim Burns were behind the initial idea for the series. As EW reported, the series was viewed as "an antidote" to the more image-over-substance artists that were populating the video channel at the time. As part of the gimmick, artists were asked to play acoustically, allowing viewers to enjoy the stripped back sounds and put more focus on the songwriting.
Did Bon Jovi Inspire the MTV Unplugged Series?
Bon Jovi's Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora may have wowed viewers with their acoustic performance at the 1989 MTV Video Music Awards, but despite the frequently floated narrative, they were not the inspiration for the MTV Unplugged series. The show had already been in production at the time of that buzz-generating performance.
So who did inspire the series? Per StairwayTo11.com, Small and Burns got the idea after attending a Bruce Springsteen concert in which the musician played an acoustic encore. Springsteen would appear on MTV Unplugged in 1992, just a few years after the show's initial launch.
Who Played the First MTV Unplugged Episode?
Though names such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Eric Clapton and Mariah Carey immediately come to mind when thinking about the MTV Unplugged series, the show started rather quietly with an opening show lineup of Squeeze's Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford, playing on a show with Syd Straw and The Cars' Elliott Easton.
The taping took place at the National Video Center in New York City on Oct. 31, 1989 and it aired on MTV on Nov. 26, 1989. But the show almost got off on the wrong foot.
Producer Alex Coletti recalled to EW that the two Squeeze members showed up to the taping with two electric guitars. ”I said, ‘Very funny, guys. Where are the acoustics? It’s Unplugged.’ They looked at each other and went, ‘Riiight… Make a phone call, quick!'"
What Format Did the First MTV Unplugged Follow?
While the program primarily served as a sole artist showcase once it got going, it didn't start that way. Many of the initial MTV Unplugged tapings featured multiple artist bills for short acoustic sets and there was a host, musician Jules Shear. After the first 13 episodes, the show continued without a host.
Among the initial performances taped and aired included The Smithereens and Graham Parker; 10,000 Maniacs and Michael Penn; The Alarm and Nuclear Valdez; Joe Walsh and Dr. John; Stevie Ray Vaughan and Joe Satriani; Michelle Shocked and The Indigo Girls; Sinead O'Connor and The Church; Don Henley; Great White and Damn Yankees; and Crowded House and Tim Finn.
When Did MTV Unplugged Start Yielding Albums?
Paul McCartney was the first to take his performance from the show and offer it as an album release. One of his reasons for releasing the show was his fear of it being bootlegged.
"I figured that as MTV Unplugged would be screened around the world there was every chance that some bright spark would tape the show and turn it into a bootleg, so we decided to bootleg the show ourselves," said McCartney of Unplugged (The Official Bootleg) album. "We heard the tapes in the car driving back. By the time we got home, we’d decided we’d got an album – albeit one of the fastest I’ve ever made."
Of course, that opened the way to more artists issuing Unplugged sets. Eric Clapton's Unplugged, from his 1992 taping, sold 26 million worldwide, making it the best selling live album of all-time. Clapton and Tony Bennett both won Grammys out of their Unplugged releases, while Mariah Carey earned a chart-topping single with her cover of The Jackson 5's "I'll Be There" from her Unplugged album.
MTV Unplugged Episodes Ranked
Gallery Credit: Chad Childers