30 Years of 'MTV Unplugged': Seattle's Musical Legacy Captured

Others may have been great, but these are great for Seattle.

December 2, 2019
Acoustic guitar

gettyimages / yanyong

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It's pretty crazy to think that there's an entire generation of kids that will be voting for the next president that were born after MTV stopped playing music videos. I can remember a crazy Green Day concert I had recorded and watched a zillion times in the 90's that I wouldn't have seen without MTV. 

MTV Unplugged, one of the music network's consistent live-performance shows, just hit the three-decade benchmark. It debuted on November 26, 1989 - thirty years of artists dropping the big production to play their songs on acoustic instruments in a much more direct or vulnerable manner.

Of the 30 years of performances, some of the earliest had such a massive impact boosting musicians in Seattle further on the national/international musical map.

Pearl Jam

I was pretty young, but I have this distinct memory of a madman falling from his chair before hopping back up to become stool-superman, and then ultimately scribbling on his arm with a pocketed market about some political thing I didn't understand. Can you imagine Pearl Jam doing this today?

Anyone snag the Record Store Day Black Friday LP of this performance?

Alice in Chains

In the days before everything existing online, Alice in Chains on MTV Unplugged gave us such a rare clear glimpse into the dynamic between Layne Staley and his dear friend Jerry Cantrell as they played off one another on stage. It was AIC's first performance in more than 2 years and one of the few remaining times Staley would ever take the stage with his friends. It's haunting and clear in the performance just how deeply Staley hurt.

What an incredibly expressive band that Alice in Chains.

Nirvana

I still remember ditching school and finding someone to drive us to the local record store to pick up a copy of Nirvana's MTV Unplugged in New York despite first watching it and not recognizing so many of the songs we had recorded to VHS - "who the hell are the Meat Puppets?!" My old man hated Nirvana! Who would take us to do such a thing??

It's this final track from the performance where Kurt reaches that next gear to fill a room with dark questioning and eerie mood:

Those three bands defined a generation of rock music - lazily lumped together with "grunge" but significantly different from one another. Can you imagine a mainstream act (or ten) that writes songs as lengthy as Pearl Jam or Alice in Chains?

It's hard to fathom a time when we didn't just fire up YouTube to see clips like these. Imagine you only got an hour or two in a band's whole living career to see what they're like live! 

These performances might come across as a little limp compared to plugging in the ol' Fender and letting it rip, but MTV Unplugged is one show did a superb job of taking a moment, likely come and gone, and lending it legacy.