When Eric Clapton Staged an Acoustic Comeback With ‘Unplugged’
When Eric Clapton took the stage to record a performance for MTV's Unplugged series, he hadn't a Top 10 album in the U.S. for more than a decade – when 1981's Another Ticket reached No. 7. You'd have to go back another seven years to 461 Ocean Blvd. for the last time he made it all the way to No. 1.
But with the release of Unplugged's souvenir album on Aug. 25, 1992, Clapton scored his second chart-topping LP and set in motion a comeback that carried over well into the new millennium.
The years leading up to his Unplugged session that January at Bray Film Studios in Windsor, England, were pretty typical for Clapton: some ups, some downs, loads of respect carried over from his legendary work in the '60s and '70s. Money and Cigarettes, from 1983, was made after he got sober for the first time; its follow-up two years later, Behind the Sun, was made with Phil Collins, who was at a commercial peak at the time. August, another super-polished collaboration with Collins, arrived in 1986. But none of the albums reached the Top 10, and the latter two failed to crack the Top 30.
So in 1989, a year after the Crossroads box set summed up and renewed interest in his career, Clapton made Journeyman, a semi-return to the straightforward rock 'n' roll that had powered some of his best records, dating back to the Yardbirds, Cream and Derek and the Dominos. It sorta got Clapton back on track, but the bigger boost came three years later when he sat down with an acoustic guitar in front of a small audience at Bray Film Studios and performed the concert that made up Unplugged.
The set list consisted of a handful of new original songs (like "Tears in Heaven," an elegy to his late son that had just been released on the soundtrack to the little-seen movie Rush), reworked versions of past classics (Derek and the Dominos' "Layla" was drastically altered) and lots and lots of blues covers (Son House, Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters were all represented).
Working with a band of similarly stripped-down musicians – including bassist Nathan East, drummer Steve Ferrone, pianist Chuck Leavell and guitarist Andy Fairweather Low – Clapton sounded peaceful and relaxed throughout the show, replacing the plugged-in intensity of his earlier days with laid-back effortlessness. Much of this could be attributed to the death of his 4-year-old son Conor, who had fallen from a 53rd-floor window less than a year before.
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The mournful tone that runs through many of Unplugged's songs were no doubt spurred by the tragic event that shaped Clapton's life at the time. But the 46-year-old guitarist was also ready for a change – specifically, a stroll into middle age performed with grace and on his own terms. Unplugged not only gave him a second life on the charts, it also sparked him creatively as he approached his fifth decade.
While some tracks lacked immediate passion – the revamped "Layla" drained the song of its pained howl until it became a casual blues shuffle – the covers especially captured Clapton at a stage of his career where he didn't need to hide his emotions or debt to his heroes behind flashy solos. "Before You Accuse Me," "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out," "Walkin' Blues" and "San Francisco Bay Blues" crackle with life, even in the acoustic setting.
Clapton was having so much fun onstage that the album-closing cover of Waters' "Rollin' and Tumblin'" wasn't even planned. As MTV's camera crew was setting up a shot between takes, Clapton broke into the song – which he recorded with Cream on their debut album – and the rest of the group soon joined in. Nobody knew where it would lead to, but the crew eventually hit "record" (the recording starts mid-verse), and Unplugged got an accidental highlight.
It all pretty much went down without much hassle. A handful of songs needed to be performed again to get perfect takes, but the show revitalized Clapton, who followed up Unplugged two years later with an all-covers blues album, From the Cradle, which hit No. 1. Unplugged also topped the chart, staying at No. 1 for three weeks. It also earned Clapton a Male Rock Vocal Grammy and was named Album of the Year. Since its release, it's become one of the few live albums to sell 10 million copies.
But the boost to Clapton was even more monumental. His tours – which now included the slowed-down version of "Layla" – became more focused. His records became more personal, whether they included original (Pilgrim) or cover (Me and Mr. Johnson) material. And his legacy, a bit shaky as the '80s gave way to the '90s, was renewed.
All it took was an acoustic guitar and some familiar songs in a new setting.
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