Unplugged – An Official History Lesson
Not that they’ve run out of artists. I don’t think Stackridge have done Unplugged yet. Everyone else has, though. You can’t move in record stores these days without falling over Unplugged albums. There’s Rod and Honest Ron Unplugged, REM Unplugged, and Pearl Jam. And, of course, there’s Eric. What a fuss there was about him doing it. You’d have thought the man had never been heard to play a guitar before doing Unplugged. Never mind “Clapton is God”, it’s “Clapton is Unplugged” these days.
And that’s what riles me. I was in a pub the other day when I got to talking to a farmer about Unplugged. “Arr,” he says, “them’s that MTV show that Eric Clapton does, right?”
This remark got me thinking that maybe there’s a whole bunch of people out there who think that what the Press call the “Unplugged phenomena” began with Eric Clapton
And as you may be aware, I’m one for putting the record straight, and this misconception niggles me. Not that I’m having a go at Eric, you understand. Not at all. Lovely man. Lovely. (I thought the old lead guitar breaks on Cream At The Albert Hall harped on a bit, but that’s by the by.)
Anyway, I had a word with Paul McCartney about this – this record-straightening bit – but he just said, “Nah, let it be.”
I never did do what I was told, so just listen up…
Back in 1990, you’d never heard of Unplugged. No you hadn’t. I know you hadn’t. Nobody had. Back in 1990 if you’d said to anyone, “I watched Unplugged last night” they wouldn’t have known what you were on about. People would have thought that you’d taken out your hearing-aid or something.
Not that Unplugged didn’t exist. It’s just that hardly anyone knew about it. At that time, Unplugged was a remarkably little-known show in some awful slot on MTV that nobody particularly brilliant played on. However, as we were on tour at the time and, by the nature of being on tour, you get to watch the awful slots, some of the class of ’89-’90 copped this show.
“So what?”, we thought, “it’s a bunch of guys in a room, playing.”
Anyway, a bit later on the World Tour, we went back to the USA for another leg and Paul gets hooked up with this guy called Joel Gallen, the producer of Unplugged.
“I want you to do the show,” says Joel
“Oh yea, what’s the show then?”
“Unplugged,” says Joel, “it’s something we’re trying to get off the ground.”
“Oh yeah? Well, let’s have a look then.”
So Joel produces a few videos of Unplugged and explains how “it’s an all acoustic show… that’s why it’s called Unplugged, the instruments are not plugged in”.
Well, call me daft [I’ve been waiting years for this opportunity: you’re daft Geoff. –Ed.] but there were leads and wires all over the place. Sure, the bands were playing acoustic guitars, but they seemed to have more leads coming out of their instruments than you’d see in the NASA control centre. It looked like a bloody telephone exchange up there.
“Hmm, they look pretty plugged to me,” said Macca. “Tell you what, Joel, if we do the show, we’ll really do it Unplugged. No leans, no amps, no plugs.”
And so, on Friday 25 January 1991 – years before Eric Clapton was even born, probably – at Limehouse Studios, Wembly, north of London, Paul McCartney, Linda McCartney, Hamish Stuart, Robbie McIntosh, Wix Wickens and (making his live debut with the Macs) Blair Cunningham became the very first band in the world to perform Unplugged – in the strict dictionary sense of the word/show.
And if you want to know just how not-plugged they were, ask Hamish Stuart about the great blisters he got from playing that acoustic bass; ask Blair about how he all but wet himseld with fear because he’d never played with brushes in his life (he couldn’t use drum-sticks because he drown out the band, them being Not-In-The-Least-Bit-Plugged); ask Wixy about having to learn to play the accordion; or Linda about having to play the Indian Harmonium on account of organs, synths and Moogs not working too great without electricity; ask Robbie and Paul about how they couldn’t move a centimetre from their marks because, not having electric guitar pick-ups, they had to keep their guitars on the microphones so that they’d be heard.
And you can also ask the people in Paul’s office about the call they got after Macca had grabbed a cassette of the show to play in his car on the way home that Friday night. The call started, “We’re putting an album out.:
“We’re putting an album out of the show. Just a little limited-edition thing, like an official bootleg. No fixing, just as it was.”
If I recall right, EMI printed just 250,000 copies of Unplugged – The Official Bootleg and every one of them sold out within four minutes or something. Whatever, I do know that you’ve got a fatter chance of laying your hands on The Holy Grail than you have of picking up The Official Bootleg these days.
Now, of course it was complete and utter coincidence that record companies were persuaded to get into Unplugged after Paul. The speed of the sales of The Official Bootleg did not influence them in the slightest.
Similarly, in no way whatsoever could it be suggested that MTV have promoted the fact that “McCartney’s done it” in order to entice other top name acts onto Unplugged in subsequent years.
And if you read Bob Geldof’s autobiography Is That It?, on page 343 you’ll see that he names the man whom he knew would make all the difference to the success of the worldwide televising of Live Aid. The man who, as Geldof put it, “if he played, millions would watch who would not otherwise watch.”
It isn’t Eric Clapton.