The first in a long line of bestselling albums resulting from an MTV series, Unplugged (The Official Bootleg) was a live acoustic performance recorded at Limehouse Studios in Wembley, London, on 25 January 1991.
MTV Unplugged had begun broadcasting in November 1989, and offered musicians a chance to perform their songs acoustically in an intimate setting, without the high production values of normal live shows. The show was not promoted heavily by the network, mainly because it initially struggled to attract big name acts.
The show gained momentum during its first season, but Paul McCartney’s appearance in the second season was a pivotal moment. MTV Unplugged’s producer Alex Coletti later claimed that had McCartney not released it, the concept would have never gained the cult status that it went on to enjoy.
The episode’s success – and that of the subsequent album – encouraged big names of the early 1990s, including REM and Nirvana, to take part. It also allowed older artists including Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart and Tony Bennett – whose Unplugged albums each became million sellers – to connect with younger audiences.
The show’s stripped back nature appealed to McCartney. He had recently concluded a world tour, as documented on the 1990 live album Tripping The Live Fantastic. Unplugged stood in direct contrast to the stadium shows, and allowed him to explore a different side of his vast back catalogue and informally record a few cover versions.
Unlike many other artists who appeared on Unplugged, McCartney’s band used no amplifiers. Instead a range of microphones were positioned around the stage to pick up sound from vocals and acoustic instruments.
Although the album featured 17 songs, a further five were performed on the day of recording: ‘Mean Woman Blues’, ‘Matchbox’, ‘Midnight Special’, ‘The Fool’, and ‘Things We Said Today’.
The band also rehearsed a number of other songs including ‘Mother Nature’s Son’, ‘Figure Of Eight’, ‘Cut Across Shorty’, ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, ‘Heart Of The Country’, ‘She’s My Baby’, and ‘Mrs Vandebilt’.
McCartney, evidently taken with the stripped-back format of Unplugged, undertook a six-date European tour between May and July 1991. The dates were in Spain, England, Italy and Denmark; a planned seventh date in Paris was cancelled.
Unplugged (The Official Bootleg) became McCartney’s third post-Beatles live album, following Wings Over America and Tripping The Live Fantastic. Unplugged contained three songs which were not featured in the television broadcast: ‘San Francisco Bay Blues’, ‘Hi-Heel Sneakers’, and ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’.
The album was released on 13 May 1991 in the UK, where it peaked at number seven in the album chart. It was issued the following month in the US, where it reached number 14 and became his highest charting album in almost a decade.
The vinyl version was limited to 250,000 copies worldwide, which were individually numbered.