Eddie Vedder in 1992
Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage
How Pearl Jam's "Unplugged" Performance Captured The Grunge Gods' Pop Cultural Rise
For the last decade or so, Record Store Day and Record Store Day Black Friday have been the venues through which bands have chosen to offer their fans feverishly anticipated album reissues and first-runs on vinyl. One of the most celebrated stars of this year’s Black Friday event—taking place Nov. 29 at participating record stores across the U.S.—is Pearl Jam's MTV Unplugged (3/16/1992), the long-awaited official release of the band's unforgettable acoustic performance from the pioneering MTV show. Recorded on March 16, 1992 and aired less than two months later on May 13, 1992, Pearl Jam's "Unplugged" episode is notable for capturing the band as it successfully navigated an unfamiliar setting in the very early stages of its still-thriving career.
While bootleg audio files of the performance have been floating around fan circles for years, the Record Store Day Black Friday vinyl release of MTV Unplugged (3/16/1992) marks the first time fans can purchase an official, band-sanctioned version of the album. (It should be noted that previously a DVD of the performance was included in some versions of the 2009 reissue of their debut album Ten, but no standalone audio version was made available at that time.) This vinyl release of MTV Unplugged (3/16/1992) contains all six tracks from the original Unplugged television broadcast, as well as the inclusion of "Oceans," which did not make it to air.
To help commemorate the release of MTV Unplugged (3/16/1992), the Recording Academy spoke with "MTV Unplugged" director Joel Gallen about shooting the noteworthy episode as a first-time director and about how the band—vocalist Eddie Vedder, bassist Jeff Ament, guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, and then-drummer Dave Abbruzzese—approached their acoustic set with equal parts refined musicality and unfiltered bravado.
While Gallen's impressive production and directorial resume includes a variety of memorable musical events, movies and comedy specials ("Not Another Teen Movie," "Zoolander," the 2003 Super Bowl Halftime Show, 17 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, the last 14 years of "Comedy Central Roasts" and the Peabody Award-winning post-September 11 benefit concert special "America: A Tribute to Heroes"), he charted his first professional successes at MTV in the late 1980s and early 1990s. During this prolific period, Gallen produced the MTV Video Music Awards and the MTV Movie Awards, while also working on some of the most memorable episodes of "MTV Unplugged"'s earliest days—including iconic shows from Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton and Pearl Jam.
Joel Gallen: During my first few years of working on "Unplugged," we used to shoot multiple episodes within a single day to help on production costs and get more bang for our buck. We actually shot three shows on this particular day: one with Boyz II Men, Joe Public and Shanice around two or three in the afternoon, the very famous one with Mariah Carey around seven or eight that night, and then Pearl Jam at about midnight. I remember it was so cold that day and we had just had a snowstorm, so the Pearl Jam fans were waiting outside for hours in the freezing cold. When it was time for the show to actually start taping, they were enthusiastic and ready to go.
Up until that point in my MTV career, I was mostly just a producer. However, I usually operated as a bit of a backseat director and was always very involved with the production work, the editing, getting the right shots, and all that. Once I heard we were going to be doing an "Unplugged" episode with Pearl Jam, I went to Doug Herzog, my boss at MTV, and I told him that I would really like to direct it. Not only was I a big fan and already knew their music, but also it was the third episode of a single-day shoot, which seemed like a lot to ask of any director. In this specific case, that was Larry Jordan, who directed the first two episodes that day. Doug gave me the green light and this ended up being the first show I ever directed in my life.
At the time, both "Unplugged" and Pearl Jam were in relatively similar places in their career arcs—both were relatively new but equally on the brink of massive stardom and pop-cultural ubiquity. "Unplugged" was still finding its footing as being more than just a television show, having only released Paul McCartney's episode as an album and still being months away from releasing the juggernaut Eric Clapton "Unplugged" album. Similarly, Pearl Jam had experienced some success with the release of their debut album Ten, but at the time of their "Unplugged" taping, had only released "Alive" as their sole single to radio. Because of this, some MTV executives considered having the young band appear on the show at such a crucial momentum-building time as somewhat of a risk.
Joel Gallen: For the most part, I think most people at MTV were pretty excited about having a Pearl Jam "Unplugged" episode, but there might've been some concern because they were relatively unknown at the time. If there were some MTV folks who did feel that way, they minimized the risk by scheduling them on the same day that we were already recording two huge names: Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men. It might’ve been in their minds that, even if the Pearl Jam "Unplugged" didn’t work, it wouldn't exactly be wasting production funds because we were doing the other two no matter what.
Some of the more conservative executives might've thought Pearl Jam was risky, but it was MTV and rock music was still doing very well on the channel at the time. You have to remember, this was 1992 and about six months after Pearl Jam's "Unplugged," we had the most rock and roll MTV Video Music Awards ever: 5,000 screaming fans on the floor of UCLA's Pauley Pavilion with all the VIP and industry people around the sides. That night, on the same stage we had Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Black Crowes, Def Leppard, Eric Clapton, Guns N' Roses with Elton John on piano, and we also did a live remote with U2. That night was actually the second time I got to work with Pearl Jam and we've worked together about 15-20 times since then.
For any trepidation that Pearl Jam's youth and inexperience may have potentially produced in the MTV offices, one would only need to see their seemingly limitless energy, powerfully expressive musical abilities and charismatically emotive frontman commanded every stage on which they performed to have any fears put to rest. Although the acoustic setting of "Unplugged" would find them playing on rented instruments with no real rehearsal just a few short days after completing their grueling first-ever European tour, the band unquestionably rose to the challenge of harnessing their raw electric roar into a more nuanced acoustic approach. While "Unplugged" would require they play without the benefit of some of their signature sonic tools—guitar distortion, amp feedback, wah pedals—they successfully transformed a small slice of their song catalog and, according to Gallen, remained incredibly photogenic in the process.
Joel Gallen: You know how "Unplugged" works: the band walks out, everybody applauds, and then the rest is their show. Pearl Jam is just spectacular in that kind of setting. The whole band was just so raw and sensational. From a directing standpoint, I just had to try and put my cameras in the right place, anticipate the energy of the band, and react to the moments they were creating. In rehearsal, they gave us no heads up as to what they had planned. They just sort of strummed through the songs, so I didn't know what all they were going to do once the show started.
As a director and producer, I don't know that there’s a better close-up in rock and roll history than Eddie Vedder singing. I’ve shot Bono, I've shot Springsteen, I've shot Prince—I love them all and they all give great close-ups, but there’s no one better than Eddie Vedder. The energy and feeling and passion that you feel coming out of him when he's singing, especially all throughout that "Unplugged," is truly unsurpassed.
While the band played their more reserved tracks like "Alive," "Oceans" and "Black" in a somewhat composed manner, the more rambunctious numbers like "Jeremy," "State of Love And Trust" and "Even Flow" found the band negotiating the "Unplugged" setting with a more constrained, dog-on-a-chain demeanor. By the time the band hit the escalating climax of the frenetic "Porch," Ament was playing his bass while standing on top of the kick drum as Vedder was creating the most iconic visual of their "Unplugged" set by using a sharpie to write "PRO-CHOICE!!!" down his entire left arm and onto the back of his hand. In fact, eagle-eyed viewers will spot that "Even Flow" was actually played after "Porch" (even though the two songs were broadcast in reverse order) due to the fact that the scrawled exclamation points can be seen on Vedder's hand, peeking out from under the sleeve of his jacket. At the end of "Porch," the broadcast closer, Ament launched his bass offstage to the open arms of his sure-handed guitar tech.
Joel Gallen: We only had like five or six cameras to work with and I had a super helpful Assistant Director named Christine Clarke, now Christine Bradley, who helped make sure it turned out magical. However, I’ve got to give credit to my long-lens close-up camera operator, John Meikeljon, because he was the one who somehow got an in-focus shot of Eddie writing "PRO-CHOICE!!!" down his arm with a sharpie. It was really such a magnificent visual and a wonderfully emotional moment.
I also thought Jeff's bass toss at the end of "Porch" was a really great closing moment. I’ve been lucky enough to shoot three really cool guitar tosses: Jeff at the Pearl Jam "Unplugged" show, Nirvana's Krist Novoselic at the 1992 VMAs where his bass came back down and hit him on the head, and then Prince's incredibly memorable guitar tossing after he played "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" with Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne at the 2004 Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Quick story: Prince barely made it to rehearsal for that performance and when we got him plugged in, he was just kind of strumming around and making sure his levels were okay. I asked, "You’re going to really give it to us tonight, right?" and he just smiled really big at me and casually said, "Don’t worry about it." That's all he said to me and then later that night he just ferociously unleashed that unforgettable guitar solo during the performance.
As with most "Unplugged" sessions, the band played more songs than could be included in the 30-minute run time of the show’s early days. In Pearl Jam's case, the tracks they recorded that didn’t make it to broadcast were "Oceans" and their cover of Neil Young's "Rockin' In The Free World." While their "Unplugged" version of "Oceans" made its first official appearance on the "MTV Unplugged" DVD that accompanied the band’s 2009 reissue of Ten and it appears on the vinyl release of MTV Unplugged (3/16/1992), their "Unplugged" version of Young's "Rockin' In The Free World" is not included on either the 2009 reissue DVD or the new vinyl release for this year's Record Store Day Black Friday.
Joel Gallen: I do remember shooting "Rockin' In The Free World" but I don’t know why it didn't make broadcast or get released in audio form. Since it was a part of the encore, maybe they knew it wasn't going to be in there and they played it a bit looser or something like that, but I’m just guessing. Now that I think about it, probably the simple reason why it didn’t make it to broadcast is that "Unplugged" was still a half-hour show at that point and there just wasn’t enough time for it. I mean, what song would you cut to put "Rockin' In The Free World" in its place, that's the question. We weren't going to get a full hour for such a new band, which would've been the only other option. Even Mariah Carey was still only getting a half-hour show at that point.
For Gallen, directing the Pearl Jam "Unplugged" episode not only signaled the start of his directing career, but it also began his professional relationship with the band and his personal friendship with Vedder. Gallen went on to produce quite a few more memorable moments with Vedder and the band, including their scorching performance of "Rockin' In The Free World" alongside Young at the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards and Vedder's induction speech (and three-song performance) of The Doors at the 1993 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
Joel Gallen: I've done a lot of big music shows and events over the years and I still think that with everything that I’ve done, one of the most significant programs with the most personal meaning to me has to be this Pearl Jam "Unplugged" show. When I first played it back in the MTV offices, everyone was really blown away. There’s a reason why Pearl Jam's "Unplugged" has really stood the test of time and why the band has always loved it and cites it as an important moment in their history. The Pearl Jam "Unplugged" episode was also what formed a really cool bond between me and Eddie. We've worked together a lot over the years and almost every time I see him, we end up talking about it in some way. I'm lucky enough to have this beautiful professional and personal connection with the guy and it all started with their "Unplugged" taping.