It Was 20 Years Ago Today: MTV Unplugged With Eric Clapton

It’s hard to imagine, but 16 January 2012 marks the 20th Anniversary of the recording of Eric Clapton’s blockbuster album, Unplugged, before a live studio audience.  Back on 16 January 1992, 300 music fans boarded coaches in London that took them to Bray Studios, near Windsor. Little did they know music history would be made that night on Soundstage 1 as MTV filmed the opening episode of Unplugged’s third season. It would turn out to be some of the finest music ever recorded by Eric.

When MTV Unplugged with Eric Clapton debuted on television in March, it became the series’ highest rated show. It proved to be so popular, a “Part 2” featuring a few songs not included in the original broadcast was put together for broadcast in June. The resulting live album, released in August, became the biggest selling album of Eric’s career. On the 20th Anniversary of the filming and recording of this landmark work, the Where’s Eric! Team takes a look back at Clapton’s one and only all-acoustic concert.

The premise of MTV Unplugged was simple: musicians associated with amplified music would “unplug” from their amps and effects and go acoustic performing stripped down and sometimes radically reworked songs. By the time MTV approached Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, Don Henley, Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Allman Brothers Band, Sting, Elvis Costello and others had been featured. With Eric’s episode, the show would have its finest moment. The music was minimalist, alternating between his pop songs and the traditional blues that influenced him as a youth. Eric would also debut five new songs, all penned in the months following the tragic death of his young son, Conor.

In an interview filmed the afternoon of the taping, Eric said, “When I first started playing, I played a lot of finger style. I could never really find the right combination of flat pick, finger picks or thumb picks so really the easiest way to learn to play – though it’s quite strenuous on the fingertips – is finger-style. I think you get a nice tone that way; there’s a beautiful sound to be gained from the finger actually touching the string. I wouldn’t mind trying it on electric. It’s something I just recently started to work on again.” One of the outgrowths from Unplugged was that Eric did indeed begin to play finger style on the electric guitar and the style continues to feature prominently in his live shows and recordings.

Back on 6 January 1992, BBC Radio 1 gave away 150 pairs of tickets for the taping. The question asked was a no brainer, even for casual music fans, “Where did Eric stay whilst recording ‘I Shot The Sheriff’?” Competition winners were told the show would take place at a “secret location”. They were also given a letter (pictured at left, click on it to enlarge), that read in part: “You should all be aware that sitting is not on a ‘first come first served basis.’ The producers of the show will allocate everybody their seats. This will depend on various points eg. colours that you are wearing etc. Please be patient while this process is happening.”

After everyone was seated and some directions were given by the stage manager, Eric walked out to loud applause. He sat center stage with 6 and 12 string acoustic guitars and a dobro within easy reach. New band recruit Andy Fairweather Low (rhythm guitar and mandolin) was to his right and Nathan East (bass) to his left. Behind them were Steve Ferrone (drums), Ray Cooper (percussion), Chuck Leavell (piano) and Katie Kissoon and Tessa Niles (backing vocalists). It was a typical television shoot with a lot of stopping and starting over the course of two hours. Some songs had to be redone due to technical concerns.

Music historian and author Marc Roberty recently told WE!, “Eric was in fine form that night and I especially recall how emotional he looked after playing the songs he had written in memory of Conor. The different arrangements of some of his classic songs made the evening so special for me as I was so familiar with those songs in an electric setting.”

Eric and his band opened the two hour taping with the bouncy samba, “Signe” (the song order would be changed for the television broadcast and again for the home video release and CD; the interview segments would also be cut from the home video release). On Eric’s hand-penned set list – which can be glimpsed taped to a table next to him – it’s listed as “instrumental”. It was also the first public indication of Eric’s love of Brazilian music. Eric later said he wrote it on a yacht named Signe, which he had charted the previous summer. It was also the first song he wrote as part of his healing process after the death of his young son, Conor, the previous March.

Bo Diddley’s 12-bar blues “Before You Accuse Me” and “Hey Hey” featured Eric and Andy on guitars without the rest of the band were next. Eric pointed out, “this show was a great opportunity for me to pay homage to the things that originally influenced me. “Hey Hey” is a semi-instrumental by Big Bill Broonzy, and that was probably one of the first blues albums I ever heard. It was a piece I used to play in pubs when I was very young.  I never felt that I mastered it, so that’s why we’re doing it with two guitars!”

Three new songs followed – “Circus Left Town”, “Tears In Heaven” and “Lonely Stranger“ – with the full band. Warmly received, they were also written during the summer of 1991 as Eric grieved. He said, “Some of the songs are still in a very early stage of development, but they will be on a record someday. “The Circus Left Town” is about my son and the last night I spent with him, which was, in fact, at the circus.  It’s….there’s not much I can say about it except that these songs helped me get through a very hard patch in my life and I wanted to make them public.” Over the next several years, fans heard “Circus Left Town” evolve on stage during Eric’s worldwide tours. In 1998, the title was shortened to “Circus” when Eric recorded it for his album, Pilgrim.

“Tears In Heaven” dealt with his loss in stark, powerful terms. Throughout his career, Eric’s most popular songs originated from emotions at the core of his very being. “Tears In Heaven” resonated with the public like no other. He said, “I think that with what happened to me last year – the loss of my son – my audience would have been very surprised if I didn’t make some reference to it.  And I wouldn’t want to insult them by not sharing my grief with them in some way. So I do intend to make these things known and I will play the songs in concert and put them on record. It is a healing process for me, and I think it’s important to share that with people who love your music.” After the song was over, Eric was clearly moved by the audience’s response to it; a scene that would be repeated around the world in venues large and small during his 1992 Tour.

The taping continued with Jimmy Cox’s “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out”. “I learned it and played it around the pubs, myself when I was 15, 16. It was part of my early repertoire. I played it unaccompanied and it was one of the first songs I felt I could sing because it was a melodramatic song. I could put all this angst into it. When I was with Derek and The Dominos, we did a version of it, but this is the way I originally used to do it with acoustic guitar,” Eric related in the between song comments.

The biggest surprise of the night was next. It was also a song that had been recorded by The Dominos. Eric had radically reworked one of his best-known songs, “Layla”, as a slow shuffle and it clicked. Saying to the audience, “See if you can spot this one,” Eric and the band launched into it. It took only a brief measure before one audience member shouted “yeah!” with the rest breaking into tumultuous applause, hoots and whistles a split second later. Eric said “Layla sort of mystified me I’ve done it the same all these years, and never considered trying to revamp it. A lot of artists do that. Bob Dylan, for instance, changes everything every time he plays a song. I thought this was another great opportunity to just take it off on a different path and make it into a shuffle. For a start, making it acoustic denied all the riffs which would have sounded a bit weak really on the acoustic. It just seemed to become jazzier somehow.  And, of course, I’m singing it a whole octave down, which gives it a nice atmosphere”. Reception was so favorable it was released as the album’s single, backed with the Unplugged version of “Tears In Heaven”.

Throughout the taping, Eric’s keen sense of humor was at the fore. One of the most amusing moments came after “Layla”. A makeup girl scooted out to powder the shine from Eric’s and Nathan’s faces. The director then decided more makeup was a good idea prompting Eric to inquire,“what happens to the first part of the show as I didn’t have any on in the first place?” The makeup girl tried to cajole him saying “just the smallest, tiniest bit” but Eric playfully growled “I don’t want no makeup. Get off!” Seconds later, Eric wiped at his face and whined sotto voce, “I can’t play with it on,” causing lighthearted laughter amongst the band and audience.

The Sun, in typical tabloid form, took a huge amount of poetic license with this moment when they reported it on 27 January 1992: “ERIC CLAPTON lost his cool with an MTV director who stopped him mid-song during an acoustic show in Windsor, Berks. to apply make-up to the band. ‘I’m a f****** artist, not a bloody Barbie doll,’ he raged.” Talk about gilding the lily!

Following the re-worked “Layla”, Eric introduced another new song, “My Father’s Eyes”. He said, “It’s a very personal matter, but I never met my father, and I realized that the closest I ever came to looking in my father’s eyes was when I looked into my son’s eyes.  So I wrote this song about that. It’s a strange kind of cycle thing that occurred to me, and another thing I felt I would like to share”. Cut from the broadcast and omitted from official releases, Eric would perform it on stage regularly over the next several years. Like “Circus,” it too would be recorded for 1998’s Pilgrim.

“Running On Faith” was next, with Eric picking up a dobro and glass slide for the song. Eric recounted, “it was on Journeyman so I knew that that song was easily adaptable. It was an obvious choice and it’s also a fairly well known song and part of my usual stage repertoire. I thought it was good to include it.” He continued, “I played the dobro on that because I did on the record. I don’t play it on the stage so it was another opportunity. This program gives me all these opportunities to do things that I’ve always done at home but don’t do on stage.”

The main part of the taping was moving quickly towards its end and it would be nothing but the blues. “Walking Blues” – which was used as the opening song for the MTV Unplugged with Eric Clapton – Part 2 broadcast – featured Eric alone on dobro. Although it would become commonplace in succeeding years, this was the first time fans got to see and hear a song performed in this manner by Eric. “Walking Blues”, as done by Eric for Unplugged, was actually a hybrid song. Eric borrowed the guitar part from Muddy Waters’ “Feel Like Going Home,” and superimposed Robert Johnson’s lyrics. Eric recalled, “It’s sort of my simultaneous tribute to both of them. It’s a piece I’ve played since I was 14, but I only recently decided to start singing it.”

Next up was an old Snooks Eaglin song, “Alberta”, with its humorous false start (Eric forgot to remove the glass slide from his little finger) and tells the band to “hang on, hang on.”. Like all of the cover songs in the set, it was another that Eric had heard during his youth that he always wanted to do. He said it was “accessible to me as a beginning guitar player, because it consists of three chords and just straight strumming. It’s just lodged in my head as a very sentimental song, and part of my early influences”. 

“San Francisco Bay Blues” – performed with kazoo like Jesse Fuller’s original “one man band version” and “Malted Milk” (the second Robert Johnson cover of the night) wrapped things up.  But shortly after telling the studio audience “that’s it,” Eric said they needed to do two – no three – no five songs over again adding “if you don’t mind, I don’t mind.”  No one minded!

After the second take of “My Father’s Eyes” there was a brief break and cameras were off. Eric broke into an impromptu “Rollin’ and Tumblin’”, which he had last performed with Cream. The seasoned musicians quickly picked up on it and the crowd clapped along. The director, realizing what a gem this was, signaled the crew., They only managed to capture part of it which is why there’s such an abrupt start to the song. In fact, Eric was so pleased with it that when the song ended, he asked the director, “did you get that?”

The second take of “Running On Faith” was next, but the first take was still used in the broadcast and the official releases. “Walking Blues”, “San Francisco Bay Blues”, and “Malted Milk” were then set down for the second time and these are the takes that were used. The final songs recorded were “Worried Life Blues” – which was cut from the broadcast and releases – and “Old Love” from 1989’s Journeyman. The latter is one of the high points of the night, with Eric taking his usual long improvised solo during the song. It was captured in one brilliant take at the very end of the evening. 

What was surprising to many at the time was the rich sound of Eric’s voice. He said, “it’s such a joy to sing with a full band acoustically and be able to hear your voice; I find it so much more easy to adjust the volume of my own voice. On stage, I seem to be singing flat out all the time. Here, I could sing quietly, and have more dynamic range.”

Nathan East, a long-time member of Clapton’s band, reminisced with WE! about the recording of Unplugged. Nathan said, “It’s always an honor to be on stage with Eric and this became a very special performance for many reasons. The new arrangements of songs like ‘Layla’, ‘Old Love’ and ‘Running On Faith’ turned these songs into classics all over again. Of course, ‘Tears in Heaven’ had a powerful impact on the overall concert being such an emotional tribute to little Conor whose spirit definitely filled the room. I loved the entire experience and the challenge of presenting Eric’s music in a truly unplugged fashion!  The vibe on stage was so relaxed, the band was amazing and it just felt like a room full of friends sharing music together one afternoon out in the country.” When asked what his favorite track was, Nathan told us, “‘Tears In Heaven’, ‘Alberta’, ‘Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out’, ‘Running On Faith’, ‘Layla’, ‘Before You Accuse Me’, ‘San Francisco Bay Blues’, ‘Old Love’, ‘Hey Hey’ and ‘Walkin’ Blues’.”

Guitarist Andy Fairweather Low, who still tours and records with Eric, told WE!, ” I have only one thought – ‘Hey Eric, we should do this again!’ It was the most unbelievable moment in my life. No more no less. Unbelievable.”

At the time, nobody realized how successful the album would become. In fact, Eric did not even want to release it because he felt it would not do as well as a studio album of new material. After some cajoling, the album was released on 25 August 1992 to some of the best reviews of his career. The album renewed the public’s interest in Eric, boosted his popularity to an almost unimaginable level (much like his 3 song performance at Live Aid had done 7 years before) and re-established him as an artist to be reckoned with. An entirely new crop of fans came on board and another generation of guitarists were inspired. The album later received the first Diamond Record Award (sales of more than 10 million), and garnered 3 Grammy Awards (Album of the Year, Best Rock Song – “Layla” and Best Male Rock Vocal Performance). For 18 months after its release, “Layla” and “Tears In Heaven” were in heavy rotation on radio stations worldwide.  A re-edited version of the show was released on VHS Tape and laser disc (remember them?). In 1997, it was issued on DVD. The DVD format is of great interest to audiophiles as it is the only available version with the audio in Dolby Digital Surround sound. 

In retrospect, the critical acclaim and public reception of Unplugged helped to pave the way for Eric’s return to an all blues format with From The Cradle (1994), the international success of “Change the World” (1996), as well as the staple acoustic renditions of songs featured on his later tours.  Stunning performances such as “Driftin'” during the last few years attest to the strength and continued development of Eric’s acoustic playing. The acoustic set, like the orignal broadcast, now serves as a platform for Eric to perform songs that originally influenced him like “When You’ve Got A Good Friend” or even re-work songs from his back catalog as he did in 2010 with “I’ve Got A Rock N Roll Heart” and “Wonderful Tonight,” which was performed acoustically during Eric’s recent Japan Tour with Steve Winwood. Lastly, Eric’s episode of Unplugged introduced millions of viewers to country blues and clearly demonstrated that a man armed only with an acoustic guitar can seriously rock out.

To wrap up our 20th Anniversary reminiscences, here’s a little known fact: Lou Reed was scheduled to record a show for MTV at Bray Studios immediately after Eric’s taping, which had started at 6:15PM. The Clapton prizewinners were invited to remain for this second taping, but Lou Reed never showed up!

The Eric Clapton MTV Unplugged Band
Eric Clapton – guitar / vocals
Andy Fairweather Low – guitar
Nathan East – bass
Steve Ferrone – drums
Ray Cooper – percussion
Chuck Leavell – keyboards
Katie Kissoon – backing vocals
Tessa Niles – backing vocals

The Complete Performance Set List
01. Signe
02. Before You Accuse Me
03. Hey Hey
04. Tears In Heaven (not broadcast / unissued)
05. Circus Left Town (TV broadcast only / unissued)
06. Lonely Stranger
07. Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out
08. Layla
09. Signe – Take 2 (not broadcast / unissued)
10. My Father’s Eyes (not broadcast / unissued)
11. Running On Faith
12. Walking Blues (not broadcast / unissued)
13. Alberta
14. San Francisco Bay Blues (not broadcast / unissued)
15. Malted Milk (not broadcast / unissued)
16. Signe – Take 3 (not broadcast / unissued)
17. Tears In Heaven – Take 2
18. My Father’s Eyes – Take 2 (not broadcast / unissued)
19. Rollin’ And Tumblin’
20. Running On Faith – Take 2 (not broadcast / unissued)
21. Walking Blues – Take 2
22. San Francisco Bay Blues – Take 2
23. Malted Milk – Take 2
24. Worried Life Blues (not broadcast / unissued)
25. Old Love

MTV Original Broadcast Version
Debuted 11 March 1992  in the US and 27 an 29 March in the UK
01. Before You Accuse Me
02. Lonely Stranger
03. Running On Faith
04. Nobody Knows You
05. Layla
06. Tears In Heaven
07. Circus Left Town
08. Alberta
09. Rolling And Tumbling
10. Old Love

MTV “Part 2” Broadcast
Debuted June 1992
01. Walking Blues
02. Hey Hey
03. Layla
04. Rollin’ And Tumblin’
05. Signe
06. Malted Milk

Audio and Video Track List (All Formats)
01. Signe
02. Before You Accuse Me
03. Hey Hey
04. Tears In Heaven
05. Lonely Stranger
06. Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out
07. Layla
08. Running On Faith
09. Walkin’ Blues
10. Alberta
11. San Francisco Bay Blues
12. Malted Milk
13. Old Love
14. Rollin’ & Tumblin’

Where’s Eric!
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