No, the first band on MTV Unplugged wasn’t Spinal Tap — but for a while it seemed that way. When Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford, frontmen for the British group Squeeze, headlined the series’ debut show, something got lost in the titular translation. ”Chris and Glenn showed up for rehearsal with electric guitars,” remembers producer Alex Coletti. ”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!”’
In the seven years and 74 shows since Unplugged premiered as a series on Jan. 21, 1990, everyone’s grown slightly more used to the idea. Created by producers Robert Small and Jim Burns, Unplugged was conceived as a pared-down antidote to the Milli Vanilli-esque image-over-substance musical atmosphere of the late 1980s (lovingly nurtured, it should be noted, by MTV itself). After a low-key start, the show attracted bigger artists, including Don Henley (1990), Elton John (1990), and Paul McCartney (1991), as well as a number of missteps (how about that Ratt/Vixen double bill?). Spring of 1992 brought the series’ first big shot in the arm, when Mariah Carey’s version of the Jackson 5’s ”I’ll Be There” topped Billboard’s Top 40 and started the practice of releasing Unplugged albums (there have been 14 to date).
Though the series has devoted plenty of airtime to such MTV favorites as R.E.M. and Nirvana, its forays beyond the Gen-X horizon have proved the most successful. Eric Clapton’s 1992 installment (recorded 10 months after the death of his 4-year-old son, Conor) and the pre-rock crooner Tony Bennett’s 1994 performance both won Album of the Year Grammys and introduced the artists to a younger generation of music fans. ”It’s funny,” Bennett has said about his smash MTV gig, ”because I’ve always been unplugged.”
Critics argue the show has strayed from its original, intimate tone by letting artists bolster performances with string sections and backing vocalists (Carey’s show included 26 musicians; Rod Stewart’s featured 33). Even Alex Coletti admits, ”Unplugged needs to be unplugged a bit itself.” Still, there’s no denying its influence on the music world — or at least on one performer. Besides reviving Clapton’s career, says Coletti, Unplugged inspired in Slowhand a newfound appreciation for his acoustic guitar: ”His manager said, ‘Great. I can’t get him to put the damn thing down now.”’