MTV Unplugged has played host to a ridiculous list of A-listers over the years, but there’s one Unplugged set that stands head and shoulders above the rest. On November 18, 1993, Nirvana dropped into Sony Music Studios in Hell’s Kitchen and the rest is history. The highlight of the show was their otherworldly take on David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World”.
Seattle’s finest created an unearthly vibe led by Kurt Cobain’s overdriven acoustic playing and his one-of-a-kind vocal approach. With 517 million views on YouTube, Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged performance of the song has far overshadowed the original recording, which was only known by serious Bowie fans before Nirvana got their hands on it.
Cobain insisted that the stage be mocked up like a funeral, with lilies and black candles, which given his death just a few months later, casts an eerie pall over the proceedings. The song choice is also unusual. After all, given their reputation as punk rock die-hards, a psychedelic 70s rock song might not seem like the most obvious choice for their MTV set.
However, the whole band were massive Bowie freaks, as drummer Dave Grohl and guitarist Pat Smear made abundantly clear on their video with Playboy in 2016, where the pair visited old Bowie haunts in LA. In the clip Grohl prompts Smear to tell the story of how Nirvana chose “The Man Who Sold The World” for the MTV Unplugged set.
Smear then shared the story, saying “I think it was my idea. We were sitting in Kurt’s living room going through his record collection and he said ‘let’s pick a cover song for the Unplugged thing.’ And he goes ‘let’s do a Bowie song – you love Bowie.’” Smear then said that he saw Bowie’s third album The Man Who Sold the World and declared “F***, it’s gotta be off this record! Definitely pick one from this record.” The pair then “settled on” the title track.
Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York live album was released on November 1, 1994, which was seven months after Cobain’s passing. It was the first full-length release from the band since his death, and you couldn’t ask for a better album to go out on. MTV Unplugged went to number one just about all over the world, including the US and UK, and is certified eight times Platinum in the US. The album also won the band their one and only Grammy Award, and is frequently ranked as one of the greatest live albums of all time.
Despite its chart-slaying success, MTV Unplugged in New York is quite quirky and looking at the track list, you wouldn’t exactly expect it to be a mega hit. The band eschews many of their biggest hits such as “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in favour of a more unconventional setlist, with a range of deep cuts and covers from The Vaselines, Lead Belly and Meat Puppets. The power that the band puts out even with the stripped back arrangements is undeniable though. If you would like to see more from Nirvana, you can subscribe to their YouTube channel or follow them on Facebook.