Tag Archives: Unplugged

Rocks In The Attic #615: Eric Clapton – ‘Unplugged’ (1992)

RITA#615In 1992, mild-mannered Somerset accountant Russell Chives was asked to perform his Eric Clapton impression for a group of friends at a dinner party in West London. He reluctantly pulled out his acoustic guitar and gave them a rendition of Wonderful Tonight, which everybody enjoyed through the fog of red wine.

Among the guests that night was MTV executive Chad Frame who saw something in Chives. Eric Clapton, a recovering alcoholic, had died the previous year; his passing overshadowed by the death of Queen’s Freddie Mercury and subsequently reported on page 7 of the tabloids (it’s true, nobody knows you when you’re down and out). Frame thought Chives’ impression of Clapton was good enough to show to the station and asked if he’d be interested in coming in for an audition.

Chives arrived at Frame’s London office and was greeted by a room full of executives. After he ran through his Clapton impression, Frame pitched the room his idea. He wanted to launch a range of albums featuring the work of deceased musicians performed by sound-alikes. The first release: a blues album featuring Russell Chives as Eric Clapton. If this proved successful the plan was to launch auditions to find performers for a synth album of Liberace songs, and a reggae album of Roy Orbison’s hits.

On 16th January 1992, Chives arrived at Bray Studios in Windsor to perform the album to a select group of accountant friends. In order to cover any mistakes that he might make, Chives was backed by a team of accomplished musicians – including guitarist Andy Fairweather Low and oddball percussionist Ray Cooper.  The group strolled through a lengthy set, featuring blues staples and a handful of Clapton originals. The audience was respectful and even applauded with pity when Chives attempted a version on Clapton’s Layla but got the tempo completely wrong.

The album eventually saw the light of day in August 1992. The five months between recording and release had been a heart-wrenching time for Chad Frame. In order to cut costs, he made the mistake of ordering the album cover to be pressed at a printing plant in Bosnia, where a brutal civil war was starting to emerge. As a result, there were many quality control oversights.

Chives’ one original song on the album – a biting critique of West Country racism (“Would you know my name, if I saw you in Devon?”) – was incorrectly listed as Tears In Heaven, but worst of all Chives’ name was left off the cover altogether. The record was supposed to be credited to ‘Russell Chives as Eric Clapton’ but printing plant employees misread Chives’ name as a Serbian insult, understanding it to be a practical joke from their Croatian colleagues.

The resulting double-album went on to sell 26 million copies worldwide and won three Grammy awards. MTV aired a film of the performance which resonated with a yuppie audience largely ignorant of Clapton’s recent death and who couldn’t quite remember if he had always dressed like an accountant from Somerset.

At the behest of a cocaine-fuelled Chad Frame, Russell Chives changed his name officially to Eric Clapton and signed a twelve-album deal with Reprise Records. His mediocre output from 1994 onwards is now viewed by historians to be the lasting cultural legacy of the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

Hit: Tears In Heaven

Hidden Gem: Old Love

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Rocks In The Attic #563: Stone Temple Pilots – ‘MTV Unplugged 1993’ (2016)

rita563Thank f**k for bootlegs. I reckon I might be waiting until the end of my days for Atlantic Records to dig this one for an official release, so thankfully the enterprising Russian chaps at DOL Records put this out last year. DOL were also responsible for putting out Aerosmith’s 1973 radio appearance at Paul’s Mall, so they’ve come out of nowhere to be one of my favourite – ahem – enterprising record labels.

I used to listen to so much STP in my teens that I almost can’t tell when one songs ends and another one starts. They’re burnt into my DNA. I was sad to see it was the anniversary of Scott Weiland’s death at the beginning of December. What a loss, albeit certainly not an unexpected one.

I don’t think I ever saw the original transmission of STP’s Unplugged set back in the day on MTV. While it might have been in heavy rotation across the Atlantic, it definitely didn’t see that kind of airplay in the UK. In fact, once Kurt Cobain killed himself, pretty much all of the rock programming on the channel was taken over by Nirvana.

When STP released their second record, Purple, they released one of the singles, Vasoline, with a couple of songs from the Unplugged set. I know these versions of the debut album’s Crackerman and David Bowie’s Andy Warhol like the back of my hands, and have always wanted to hear the full set. The wonder of the Internet allowed me to watch the show a couple of years ago, and then I finally got my hands on this disc last year.

Hopefully an official version will see the light of day someday. DOL are great at finding unreleased material to put in stores, but their mastering leaves a lot to be desired. On that early Aerosmith record, they change the running order of the songs to make them fit on the two sides better, and on this STP record there’s a one-second gap of air in the audience reaction between a couple of the tracks, like a badly mastered home CD. Still, beggars can’t be choosers.

Hit: Plush

Hidden Gem: Crackerman

Rocks In The Attic #478: R.E.M. – ‘Unplugged 1991’ (2014)

RITA#478I’m glad that MTV’s Unplugged shows are gradually becoming more and more available on vinyl. Only the other day I picked up a bootleg of Stone Temple Pilots’ fantastic Unplugged set from 1993. Of course, the really famous ones are Eric Clapton’s Grammy award winning record from 1992, and Nirvana’s swansong show in 1993, also a Grammy winner.  Now if they would just release Aerosmith’s 1990 show, I’d be very happy.

As cynical as you want to be about the whole Unplugged thing – a soul-less cash-in by a corporate TV station only interested in producing programming content – it’s become a nice little time capsule of early ‘90s rock and alternative rock. Of course the show is still going to this day, but the last one recorded was by Miley Cyrus in 2014 which shows just how much it’s devolved over time. It’s just a ratings chaser and always has been. In the early ‘90s, it was Nirvana fans and Pearl Jam fans who were propping up the album charts, these days it’s tweens propping up the download charts.

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R.E.M.’s first Unplugged set (they recorded another one in 2001) is dated between 1991’s Out Of Time and 1992’s Automatic For The People – effectively smack bang in the peak of their career. They take the time to go as far back as their debut record Murmur( for Perfect Circle), and of their studio albums only Reckoning and Fables Of The Reconstruction are passed over. The set does lean a little more towards the later albums – Green and Out Of Time – which is understandable considering how the music videos from those albums had opened the door to the wave of Alternative Rock which would fill the station for the first half of the 1990s.

The sound on this record is superb, and my only gripe is that the guitars all sound a little too clear and bright. That’s R.E.M. all over though – jangly ‘80s pop guitars rather than an authentic dusty blues guitar vibe.

Hit: Losing My Religion

Hidden Gem: Rotary Eleven

Rocks In The Attic #104: Nirvana – ‘MTV Unplugged In New York’ (1994)

Rocks In The Attic #104: Nirvana - ‘MTV Unplugged In New York’ (1994)Released following Cobain’s suicide, I guess this is the first example of Geffen Records cashing in on his death. None of the other contemporary bands that recorded an Unplugged performance on MTV went on to release them on record (except for Alice In Chains and Alanis Morrissette) – the tracks usually found their way onto singles as B-sides (or existed in full only on bootlegs). An Unplugged album was more of a classic rock thing to do – hence the releases by Clapton, Dylan, Bryan Adams and the Page & Plant reunion.

I wasn’t a fan of Nirvana at the time this was released – mostly because I didn’t like that he wasn’t particularly a good guitarist. Learning the guitar will give you crazy notions and put you off bands like that. I later realised that it’s far more important to be a good songwriter than it is to be a good guitarist; a guitar solo is never going to change anybody’s life.

Trying not to like them, and failing miserably as this performance was getting a lot of airplay on MTV, the songs started seeping in and I started to become a Nirvana fan, purely by osmosis.

You know those famous questions – ‘Where were you when Kennedy was assassinated?’ or ‘Where were you when the Berlin Wall fell?’ – the first such question I can remember in my lifetime was ‘Where were you when Kurt Cobain shot himself?’ The answer: travelling home in a taxi, on a Friday night, leaving Middleton and just reaching Chadderton. We asked the taxi driver to turn the radio up, and still shocked, had to explain to the taxi driver who had died.

Hit: Come As You Are

Hidden Gem: Oh Me

Rocks In The Attic #22: Eric Clapton – ‘Journeyman’ (1989)

I bought this because it had Bad Loveon it. I’m glad I bought it because the rest of the album is sweet – I could never understand how Unplugged was considered his comeback when he was making albums of this quality 3 years earlier.

The opening guitar riff to Bad Lovehas to be one of most underrated rock riffs of the 1980s. I’d put it up there with Dire Straits’ Money For Nothingas the best of that decade. In fact, does anybody even write riffs of that calibre anymore? Jack White has a few under his belt, but there’s been a shift away from putting a riff like that front and centre in the production.

I love everything about this album – the photo of Eric looking vaguely psychotic in the dark on the front cover, to the photo of him on the reverse – wearing a grey linen suit over a bright yellow turtleneck, standing on metal shavings.

I read his autobiography not too long ago, and it really got to me that so much of his life has been plagued by alcoholism, and frankly, wasted. If he had been able to knock albums like this out every couple of years, he would have a pretty impressive back catalogue rather than the sketchy affair that it is.

I remember, many years after first buying this record, I was working on a late night as a supervisor of a DIY store. I put the album on in the break room, thinking that nobody would know it, but one of my colleagues Carly got overexcited and started singing and dancing along to it whilst doing the vacuuming – a favourite album of hers too. It’s funny how things stick in your memory like that.

Hit: Bad Love

Hidden Gem: Breaking Point