MTV butchered Pearl Jam’s iconic Unplugged show, new biography reveals

Pearl Jam
(Image credit: MTV Unplugged)

On March 16, 1992, three days after the final date on their debut European tour, Pearl Jam headed to New York’s Kaufman Astoria Studios, best known as the home of Sesame Street, to tape a midnight performance of MTV Unplugged.

At the time, the Seattle band had released just one single from their 1991 debut album, Ten, but with Alive proving popular with radio listeners, MTV decided to take a punt on the rising band, booking them to perform late on the same day on which Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men were being recorded for their own Unplugged specials, to save on production costs.

Broadcast on May 13, 1992, Pearl Jam’s MTV Unplugged performance was an instant hit with viewers, with Eddie Vedder’s band successfully translating the power and dynamism of the highlights of their debut album into nuanced and emotional acoustic performances. As a new Pearl Jam biography, Not For You: Pearl Jam And The Present Tense, reveals, however, the show which entranced MTV viewers was markedly different from the performance the Seattle quintet actually gave in the storied Queens studio.

“The episode of Unplugged that aired on May 13, 1992, opened with Even Flow into Jeremy, Alive and Black,” writes author Ronen Givony in his forthcoming biography. “This, at any rate, was the program that MTV broadcast incessantly; the show that catapulted the band to a higher order of exposure; and the performance that the more enterprising among bootlegged directly to tape, and thereafter wore thin. You can imagine our confusion, then, years later, when something astonishing emerged – equivalent, to a Pearl Jam fanatic, with proof that the moon landing was fake. Somehow, the Unplugged we’d been watching all these years was, in fact, a fraud. In hindsight, it seems so obvious: of course Pearl Jam knew better than to open with Even Flow, which was actually played as an encore; or Jeremy into Alive, which was how MTV would re-order the setlist.”

It turns out that Pearl Jam opened their March 16 performance with the low-key Oceans, edited out of the original MTV broadcast, and closed with a cover of Neil Young’s Rockin’ In The Free World, also deleted from the subsequent TV show. The six songs which remained, however, showed the dexterity and confidence of a band on the brink of a major breakthrough.

“Stripped of amplification,” writes Givony, “the songs have shed gravity, aggression, bombast; stripped of effects, what emerges is the lyricism, the architecture, and the melodic sense; the harmonies and counter-rhythms; accents, textures and group interplay.”

With the correct running order restored, Pearl Jam’s Unplugged set (minus their still-unreleased Neil Young cover) was given a limited-edition release for 2019’s Record Store Day, and will be given a new release on October 23 to mark the band’s 30th anniversary. It can be pre-ordered now.

Not For You: Pearl Jam And The Present Tense will be published in the UK by Bloomsbury on October 29.

The publishers say: “Not for You: Pearl Jam and the Present Tense is the first full-length biography of America's preeminent band, from Ten to Gigaton. A study of their role in history – from Operation Desert Storm to the Dixie Chicks; "Jeremy" to Columbine; Kurt Cobain to Chris Cornell; Ticketmaster to Trump – Not for You explores the band's origins and evolution over thirty years of American culture.”

Pearl Jam

(Image credit: Bloomsbury)

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