On November 18, 1993, after months of negotiations and two days of rather tense rehearsals, Nirvana headed to Sony Studios in New York to record their episode of “MTV Unplugged.”
At the time of the taping, the series had already played host to legends like Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen and Elton John, and experienced unprecedented success with the release of Eric Clapton Unplugged, an album that sold more than 10 million copies worldwide and won six Grammys, including Record, Album and Song of the Year. “Unplugged” had also served as a showcase for the era’s highest-profile acts — R.E.M., Boyz II Men, Pearl Jam, etc. — and proven to be a safe space for established artists like Mariah Carey and L.L. Cool J to shake things up.
In short, by 1993, “Unplugged’s” legacy was already secure. But when Nirvana’s episode aired that December, it was clear to everyone that the show’s history needed to be re-written immediately. With their stripped down, steely set, staunch refusal to play hits like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and sonorous covers of songs most had never heard (quick show of hands: how many Vaselines fans we got out there?), Nirvana had turned what many considered to be the defining performance of the “Unplugged” era. And twenty years later, that assessment still holds.
Of course, in the months following that initial broadcast, the legend of “Nirvana: Unplugged” only continued to grow. Kurt Cobain took his life in April 1994, making the show one of Nirvana’s final televised appearances, and his death fundamentally changed the way the performance was viewed. From the funereal floral arrangements (stargazer lilies) Cobain himself picked out to adorn the stage, to the staggering final stanza of Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” — where he yowls, gasps and all but gives up the ghost — it was impossible to view the show as anything less than otherworldly; more than just a final performance, it seemed to be a final farewell.
Nearly seven months after Cobain’s death, DGC would release Nirvana: MTV Unplugged in New York, an album that not only sold more than 6 million copies in the U.S. (making it the band’s most successful posthumous effort) and won a Grammy, but was named one of “the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time” by Rolling Stone and one of “The 50 Greatest Live Albums” by NME. It’s legacy, much like the performance itself, is now set in stone.
And in honor of that performance’s twentieth anniversary, MTV News spoke to the people who made “Nirvana: Unplugged” possible: Director Beth McCarthy Miller and producer Alex Coletti, both of whom were present in Sony Studios the day Nirvana changed everything. All week, we’ll be unveiling their behind-the-scenes stories of the “Unplugged” taping, and today, we’re taking you back to the beginning … when the cameras rolled, and history was made.