While we readily think of bands like Duran Duran and Culture Club having their careers “made” by MTV, one of the biggest career-boosts the video network ever gave was for an unlikely artist. On this day in 1993, Eric Clapton‘s Unplugged hit #1 in both the U.S. and Canada. Later Nirvana would also top charts with their album gleaned from the MTV show, but that wasn’t nearly as surprising as Clapton. After all, Clapton’s career pre-dated MTV by close to two decades, and he was not one of the aging artists who really jumped in to the deep end of ’80s video revolution , unlike say George Harrison or Paul Simon.
The concept of MTV Unplugged was simple and effective – take artists usually known for rock performances and have them play their songs in a stripped-down fashion using largely acoustic instruments. In Clapton’s case, he performed mostly using an acoustic Martin guitar. “Slowhand” did his set in England in early 1992, performing 20 or so songs for the crowd, of which 14 made the CD. It included quite a mix of material, including old Blues standards like Robert Johnson’s “Malted Milk” and Bo Diddley’s “Before You Accuse Me” as well as some of Clapton’s own songs, most notably “Layla.” and “Tears in Heaven.” The latter tear-jerker was written for his four year-old son who’d fallen to his death in 1991 and was released on the Rush soundtrack before Unplugged hit shelves.
It was quite a different sound for the rocker many consider the best rock guitarist of all-time, decidedly more laid back than some were accustomed to (although when you think about it, many of his familiar tunes like “Lay Down Sally” were anything but raucous rock numbers). Critics were of mixed opinions. Entertainment Weekly graded it A- calling it “A charmer…(with) just the right combination of intensity and giddy fun”.
Rolling Stone, in an article on his career at that point compared him to The Beatles and The Stones and thought this record “A delight because of its atypical focus” although noting it was a “mere shadow of his electric virtuosity.” Others like crusty New York critic Robert Christgau yearned for more rock and remembered wistfully his hard rock days “relegated to the mists.”
No matter what the critics thought, the public loved it. It ended up going diamond-status in both the States and Canada, 4X platinum in the UK and when all was said and done, selling well past 20 million copies , making it his biggest-seller ever and handily reviving his career which had been rather in the doldrums. The Grammys agreed as well. They gave it the Album of the Year trophy and picked the unplugged “Layla” as Best Rock Song, an award many might have thought it should have won 20 years earlier…when it was a rock song!