WORDS: JO COSGROVE
1994 was a pivotal year for music and it was mostly because of the same band that shook the 90s since its very start: Nirvana. A band that shaped a community and forged a genre out of the rock and punk styles that came before them, creating something new and exciting for the youths who were struggling to fit in and fought to be heard and accepted. 1994 unfortunately saw the sudden end of Nirvana, as April that year, news broke of frontman Kurt Cobain taking his own life. A man who had an imagination that in the same way inspired, also spooked, was suddenly gone.
Later that year on 1st November, their 1993 ‘MTV Unplugged’ session in New York was officially released. Recorded and first aired the winter of 1993, it’s still one of the greatest live shows to ever be captured on film in the history of music and was iconic due to the fact it was the band stripped down to their basic elements and focusing on bringing their lesser known songs to the forefront for once, instead of their more well-known singles.
Nirvana’s most famous live performance and they didn’t even play ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. Yes, it’s true!
To honour 25 years since the original release, the ‘MTV Unplugged’ recordings are being given a vinyl reissue – their first pressing as a 2-LP set – and here’s why it’s more than deserving of this honour.
“Drenched in energy and passion these tracks were everything post university adults and teenagers needed to spark excitement in an entirely new wave of music.”
When people think of Nirvana, they tend to think about the aggression and the angst. The sadness and fear about the world that they laced within their music. How Cobain’s own perspective on the world was it was too cold, heartless, void of all love and warmth – and that it was turning humans into a similar kind. How he would scream and he would growl his frustrations into the mic while shredding on the guitar, both crying out for the world to change or for the world to just consume them and take them out of their misery. But that’s where ‘MTV Unplugged’ flipped the switch in a way; it showed a softer, gentler side to Cobain and the whole band to their fans, to the industry, to the entire world that was watching them like a group of hungry hawks. ‘MTV Unplugged’ is how it exactly sounds: stripped back, soft, acoustic renditions of bands’ most famous tracks, in an intimate setting where it’s just them and the music that brought them together – and that’s probably what made Cobain able to relax and focus and sing his heart out rather than scream and puke it up with force. Setting the atmosphere with dimmed lighting, plants and lit candles, it was a beautiful sight to behold and for many diehard alternative fans, a show they wish to travel back and witness with their own eyes.
One can’t talk about this show without talking about what’s probably the most famous song performed that night: the band’s beautiful interpretation of David Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Sold The World’. At this point, it’s probably more famous than Bowie’s original – and that statement says enough about the influence Nirvana had on the music industry – and is always a favourite to spin over and over on the recording. To see where Cobain’s inspiration can be pulled from in those short minutes, it’s breathtaking to see excellence acknowledge excellence. Two acts from two different worlds in the industry, but the same universe; they were both alternative in their own ways and it was Cobain who brought these two worlds together and made something fascinating and unforgettable. It may sound hyperbolic, but he was truly one of the most creative, most intelligent men in music that’ll ever walk the earth.
“it is no surprise how seventeen years ago this band made an earthquake in underground music and shot to fame rapidly”
What many may not be able to see or understand at face value, but take in subconsciously, is that ‘MTV Unplugged’ made Nirvana look truly humane and at peace. They were always labelled as anti-establishment; anarchic in their own way; pushing the envelope and crossing so many lines they’ve all turned into grids. But this session allowed them to sit, play, have fun and do what they love without there being this great divide between them and their fanbase. If they wanted anything, it was to have no bounds or barriers stopping them from being that close to those who they played their music for and who paid to hear their talents. From the live footage, after they’ve finished playing, this is more evident than ever as Cobain sets his guitar down and walks into the crowd, interacting with fans and signing their items for them. From rising through the underground scene, everyone was one and the same so having to be apart from those who helped them and supported them from the very early days was foreign to them, especially to Cobain himself.
There is always something to be found in every live Nirvana show from the 90s, whether it’s the power of their music, the anger in their stage presence, or even this. Their passion and humility, playing side by side in a manner that many probably never would’ve thought they’d be able to do with having such loud, in-your-face styles such as grunge. Nirvana’s ‘MTV Unplugged’ set will always be one of music’s most heartwarming, beautiful, internally exciting live recordings to ever exist and it’s already going down in history as such.
25 years down the line, it’s time to remind the younger generations what inspired the youth of yesterday back before they were even in existence. If it hasn’t been said before, let it be said here: Nirvana is an experience, and one everyone has to go through.