Written by Ben Dodd.
The 18th of November 2018 marks 25 years since the recording of Nirvana’s now iconic MTV unplugged concert. Not much can be said about Kurt Cobain or Nirvana which hasn’t been said better a thousand times, but I think it’s important to continue the conversation about a band which changed the lives of millions from the early 90s all the way up to the present day, and continues to inspire countless bands and artists.
While the image of Cobain sat hunched over an acoustic guitar and draped in a cardigan is now almost synonymous with the band, at the time this was a huge image shift for Nirvana. Their lyrics, often screamed by Cobain, were usually indecipherable, and their live shows, especially the earlier ones, were renowned for being loud and offensive and the crowds even violent. An intimate acoustic gig was a step away from this and reflected Cobain’s comments around the time, where he described wanting to move away from the “grunge” aesthetic.
With the exception of ‘Come As You Are’, the band selected deeper cuts from their records as well as covers of the Vaselines, David Bowie, the Meat Puppets and Lead Belly. This was not the norm for an MTV concert; bands usually played their biggest hits; yet Nirvana opted for the songs which better leant themselves to an acoustic performance, completely uncaring of what the top brass at MTV wanted them to do. The result was a concert which felt genuine and showed a new side to Cobain and to Nirvana; in watching or listening, you feel a connection with him as he sings his lyrics softly and with feeling, whether it be songs he penned himself or one of the six incredible covers the band performed.
In a 1993 interview (linked below), Cobain says he wants to be able to sit down and play “an acoustic guitar like Johnny Cash” when he’s older, and not have It “be a big joke”. This sense of insecurity and doubt makes the MTV concert especially poignant; it shows how the band could have taken a new and softer direction, and validates Kurt Cobain’s desire to be something more than an angry grunge rocker, though tragically this was never meant to be.
The concert was released as an album on the 1st of November 1994, and to this day remains the best-selling posthumous Nirvana release. For me, the concert represents everything to admire about Nirvana as a band: they were willing to take risks and experiment with a kind of sound far removed from their usual aesthetic, and were completely unwilling to compromise their vision just to appease the corporate heads of MTV and put out what would essentially be an acoustic greatest hits compilation; devoid of the soul and emotion that elevates the Unplugged performance to such a prominent level in their discography.
The record is a perfect entry point into Nirvana for new listeners; Cobain’s voice is as strong and moving as it ever was, and it contains none of the abrasive and sometimes strange cuts present on the three studio albums, which could prove to be more of an acquired taste for those unfamiliar with the band. It stands as a testament to the new style and sound Nirvana could have discovered for themselves, and as a connection to one of the last and greatest worldwide rock stars.
You can watch and listen to the preformance here:
Here is the 1993 Interview cited above.