Bob Dylan performing on "MTV Unplugged" in 1994
Photo by Frank Micelotta/Getty Images
Dylan Goes Acoustic: Celebrating 25 Years Of Bob Dylan’s 'MTV Unplugged' Album
While MTV’s "Unplugged" has mostly been around in some form or fashion over the last three decades, there’s no denying that it’s most memorable and creatively fertile period was its initial run throughout the entirety of the 1990s. With a deceptively simple ethos of stripping back the sparkle and roar of electric instruments in favor of the "nowhere to hide" proving ground of live acoustic performances, the unforgiving "Unplugged" format generated some of the most iconic musical moments of the decade. Smack dab in the middle of "Unplugged"'s impressive '90s stretch lies one of its most sophisticated and mystifying offerings: Bob Dylan’s MTV Unplugged album, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this month.
Originally recorded over two nights in November of 1994 (the first and, so far, only time that has occurred for an "Unplugged" session), and broadcast on MTV less than a month later, Dylan’s appearance on "Unplugged" was certainly a no-brainer from the jump. The walking pop cultural institution began his career as a folk-song troubadour and delivered some of the most enduring acoustic music of the 1960s across his canonized batch of initial albums. Even as he uninhibitedly dabbled with various genres, songwriting styles and personas across the ensuing decades (to famously mixed audience responses), acoustic music was always anchored at the core of his sonic alchemy. In fact, leading up to Dylan’s "Unplugged" performance, his two prior studio albums—1992’s Good As I Been To You and 1993’s World Gone Wrong—were both acoustic solo albums (something he hadn’t done since the early 1960s) and featured only traditional folk songs in lieu of any self-penned compositions.
By the time Dylan had been booked for his own "Unplugged" episode, the format had already shown its elasticity and adaptability to any performer’s whims with wildly successful results, both artistically and commercially. Eric Clapton’s blues-heavy, career-revitalizing session won six GRAMMYs and is still the best-selling live album of all time. Mariah Carey, Rod Stewart and Tony Bennett’s Unplugged albums were all certified platinum, with the later also winning two GRAMMYs (including Album Of The Year). Younger alt-rock bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots had used their episodes to showcase nuanced versatilities to their more well-known explosive ferocities. Showing its invitationally creative range early on, "Unplugged" had even devoted multiple episodes to some conventionally non-acoustic mediums like hip-hop, R&B and spoken-word poetry.
As the collision course trajectories of Dylan and "Unplugged" materialized, many wondered just exactly what the mercurial songwriter would have hidden up his sleeve for his episode. Would he deliver a solo acoustic performance with just his guitar and harmonica, evoking both his earliest performances and his two most recent albums? Would his set list feature just the hits to woo a new generation of listeners or be filled with rarities meant to cater to his insatiable longtime fans? Would he echo his infamous "Dylan Goes Electric" performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival and forsake the acoustic format altogether for an electric guitar? As it turns out, in true Dylan form, the answers to these questions lay somewhere in between and no one really knew exactly what was going to transpire until he and his band took the intimate stage at Sony Music Studios.
Across the two-night set, Dylan and his crack-shot quintet band—which included a special appearance from in-demand producer Brendan O’Brien (Pearl Jam, Black Crowes, Stone Temple Pilots, Red Hot Chili Peppers) on organ—played a total of 23 songs, with a handful of them showing up in both performances. The first night’s 10-song set featured a few more rarities, such as the live debuts of "Hazel" and "Dignity" and two songs he hadn’t played since the 1980s—"Tombstone Blues" and "With God On Our Side." The second night's 13-song set featured a few more recognizable classics like "All Along the Watchtower," "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" and "Like A Rolling Stone," while still containing the surprising selections of "Shooting Star" and "John Brown" (an anti-war protest song that he wrote in 1962 that had never made it onto an official studio album). While the collective set lists leaned heavily on Dylan’s prolific ‘60s oeuvre, he managed to also sprinkle in a smattering of tunes from his ‘70s ("Hazel," "Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door"), '80s ("Everything Is Broken," "Shooting Star") and ‘90s ("Dignity") releases as well.
When MTV first broadcast Dylan’s "Unplugged" episode on Dec. 14, 1994, the hour-long format of the televised event understandably required some trimming of Dylan’s compelling two-night outing. Gone were both night’s openers ("Tombstone Blues" and "Absolutely Sweet Marie") and, somewhat surprisingly, neither version of the sublime "I Want You" appeared in the MTV broadcast, even though the dreamy pedal steel and bowed bass ballad garnered an enthusiastic audience response during both performances (though, it should be noted that "I Want You" was added back in for an airing of the show on PBS). The eight songs chosen for air somewhat functioned as a quasi-retrospective hits package, perfectly showcasing Dylan as a confident frontman and effortless bandleader who knew his songs well enough to continually pull at their melodic, instrumental and lyrical threads in ways that created new versions of enshrined classics. "The Times They Are A-Changin'" saunters along on Dylan’s impish delivery and some gorgeous dobro-organ interplay, the controlled pulse of "All Along The Watchtower" lands somewhere between Dylan’s acoustic original and Jimi Hendrix’s fiery electric cover, and "Like A Rolling Stone" feels more seasoned and less acerbic than his definitive Highway 61 Revisited version (and the broadcast featured a charmingly fumbled intro that drew out Dylan’s only real banter with the audience to let them know the band had gotten ahead of him). Other standouts include the slow burn, barroom slink of "Shooting Star," the refreshing swagger-and-shuffle of "Dignity" and the hymn-like anti-war existentialism of "With God On Our Side."
Dylan’s episode was packaged for release as his 40th official album and hit the market as MTV Unplugged on May 2, 1995. Along with the eight songs aired on the original MTV broadcast, the U.S. version of the record added three more cuts: "Tombstone Blues" was positioned as the rollicking opener, while "John Brown" and "Desolation Row" were plugged in mid-album as a back-to-back double shot of '60s protest sentiments and cinematic Beat poetics. Other international versions of MTV Unplugged also included Dylan’s relaxed take on the surrealist folk of "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" from his first night’s set list, which meant that U.S. customers would have to purchase the VHS release to score the elusive track. About a month prior to the album’s release, there was also a special promo CD single of "Dignity" made for the European market that featured both the MTV Unplugged live version and the Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. 3 studio version produced by O’Brien.
Much like the episodes for Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Neil Young and Tony Bennett that came before his, Dylan used the "Unplugged" stage as a primetime moment to speak to his older audience and also to introduce himself to a younger one within an environment that both groups would find extremely familiar. The mid-‘90s were still a peak time of monoculture, and legions of teenagers remained perma-glued to MTV and its various original programming efforts—especially the vibrantly popular "Unplugged." Even if most younger viewers were not as familiar with Dylan’s catalog as their parents were, there was some excitement in tuning in to hear the producer of Pearl Jam’s Vs. and Stone Temple Pilots’ Core play organ and to hear the original version of "Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door" that they may have only known through the Guns N’ Roses covers on the Days Of Thunder soundtrack and Use Your Illusion II album.
Dylan’s MTV Unplugged album is an important chapter in his catalog, not only because it gave him some of his best commercial numbers in years (it was certified gold in the U.S. where it reached as high as number 23 on the Billboard 200, and it charted even better in the U.K. where it cracked the top 10), but also because it wonderfully reinstated Dylan within the cultural conversation just prior to him releasing one of his career-defining works, 1997’s Time Out Of Mind. After letting his "Unplugged" set remind listeners of his otherworldy ability to translate acoustic-based music like no other, Dylan once again surprised his audience by collaborating with Daniel Lanois (U2, Peter Gabriel, Emmylou Harris) to craft the atmospherically bluesy Time Out Of Mind—a platinum-selling album (hist first since the late ‘70s) that would go on to win three GRAMMYs (including Album Of The Year at the 1998 awards show) and reestablish his relevancy as one of the greatest singer-songwriters of the last half century (and counting).
With Dylan’s official The Bootleg Series releases already up to 15 volumes (the celebrated Travelin’ Thru: 1967-1969 entry featuring the famous Johnny Cash sessions just released last November), one can only hope that there will eventually be a set devoted to his noteworthy Unplugged moment. Not only could listeners finally have a proper way to experience all 23 tracks from both nights of filming, but it would also provide an opportunity to have some official releases from his four-show acoustic stand at N.Y.C.’s The Supper Club from the year prior—an important footnote to the story as it is rumored that Dylan’s scrapping of those acoustic recordings helped pave the way for him finally committing to doing an "Unplugged" taping.