By Brian Ives
This weekend, Pearl Jam celebrates two anniversaries: that of their debut album, 1991’s Ten and their fourth, 1996’s No Code. Here, we look at both albums, and the progression that occurred between them.
“S— got f—in’ crazy,” Jeff Ament tells director Cameron Crowe in 2011’s documentary Pearl Jam Twenty. He was discussing the overexposure Pearl Jam was getting in the early ’90s, when they seemed to go from an unknown band to reluctant spokespeople for a generation in the space of a few months between 1991 and 1992.
And it’s true: s— did get crazy for them. Although by today’s standards, the idea that Pearl Jam were ever overexposed seems quaint. In the early ’90s, the internet wasn’t yet a force to be reckoned with, so people’s exposure to pop culture figures was limited to magazines, radio and MTV. Also quaint: the idea that a rock star would ever resist being on the cover of Time magazine, and they’d put him on it anyway. But Time‘s infamous Eddie Vedder cover shows how much everyone wanted a piece of Pearl Jam in ’92. In Twenty, Crowe edits a segment showing Adam Sandler’s “Operaman” mocking Vedder’s vocal style; we see “grunge” fashions selling for hundreds, or thousands, of dollars; and “Pearl Jam” is an answer to a question on Jeopardy. Worse, “Grunge Rockers Pearl Jam” are an answer on Wheel of Fortune.
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Most of Pearl Jam would probably have been glad to go along for the rock star ride. Lead guitarist Mike McCready had done the “pay-to-play” circuit in Los Angeles in hopes of finding stardom with his previous band Shadow. Guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament had watched their band Green River dissolve due to “artistic differences”: frontman Mark Arm wanted to remain in the indie-punk underground, while Gossard and Ament had arena visions for the band. (Arm would later form Mudhoney.) Their next group, Mother Love Bone, likely would have fulfilled those dreams, but singer Andrew Wood succumbed to drugs and died of an overdose. The duo surely were ready to be in a successful band with staying power.
And, as we know, Pearl Jam was that band. And Ten—released August 27, 1991—was the album that made them more than successful. Within months, it seemed like they were the biggest band in the world. Sure, Pearl Jam came out of the Seattle scene, and they had a pretty great endorsement from Soundgarden (whose Chris Cornell and Matt Cameron collaborated with Gossard, Ament and McCready in the now-legendary Temple of the Dog project). But they stood apart from the other bands in their town. Ten had a much clearer production and mix than any of the albums by their peers (so much so that they decided to completely remix the album for a 20th anniversary reissue). From the first few seconds of the album, there’s a strange soundscape that sounds like it could be a Peter Gabriel outtake. Hardly the stuff that indie punk classics are made of. Much of the album sounds like a band channeling Led Zeppelin via Jane’s Addiction: more aggressive, less blues-based. But they weren’t afraid of ballads, either: “Black” and “Oceans” had classic ’70s vibes to them, and had little to do with the slow tempo hair metal hits that had dominated radio and MTV in the late ’80s.
Their appeal went beyond their sound: there seemed to be an inherent sense of community in Ten. The first song that most people heard was “Alive.” It was a mid-tempo rock anthem that didn’t deal with the usual subjects. Instead, Vedder’s lyrics were inspired by his own history: he didn’t know that his father was, in fact, his father until after the guy died. To a generation becoming more and more accustomed to divorce and unconventional family structures—and were more open to talking about its effects—the song was nothing short of cathartic. And yet it had an optimistic tone. “I’m still alive!” Vedder bellowed, defiantly. Unlike lyrics by Cobain, Arm, Cornell or Jerry Cantrell, there was, just maybe, a light at the end of the tunnel. Vedder’s Bruce Springsteen influence was showing early on. And like Springsteen, his lyrics resonated with thousands of fans across America.
The next single was the more rocking “Evenflow,” which featured one of Gossard’s most massive riffs, and a soaring chorus. “Someday, yeah, he’ll begin his life again!” was another line that resonated with the Generation X crowd. The live video showed Vedder climbing the balcony over the audience, and diving in (something he would usually do during “Porch”). This wasn’t just a band that made a cool album, it was a great live band, and the video hammered that point home.
“Jeremy” was one of the only times that the band did a music video that wasn’t just a live performance; the clip, directed by Mark Pellington, made a big impact. The song was based on a child who committed suicide in front of his class in early 1991; not the stuff of most hit singles, and certainly not the stuff that most rock bands were singing about. It may not have been punk rock, but Pearl Jam was connecting with mass audiences the way that punk bands connected with smaller ones.
Punk rock cred—or lack thereof—would become an issue for the band pretty quickly, and this came to a head when Kurt Cobain told Musician magazine that he felt Pearl Jam represented “corporate, alternative and cock-rock fusion.” He then complained to Rolling Stone that “I would love to be erased from my association with that band and other corporate bands… I do feel a duty to warn the kids of false music that’s claiming to be underground or alternative. They’re jumping on the alternative bandwagon.”
Ament responded to Cobain in the same Rolling Stone article (where, by the way, Cobain posed on the cover wearing his “Corporate Magazines Still Suck” t-shirt). “Does he think we’re riding his bandwagon?” Ament asked. “We could turn around and say that Nirvana put out records on money we made for Sub Pop when we were in Green River—if we were that stupid about it.”
Still, the barbs surely stung, and it seemed like Vedder was more affected than anyone. For the next few years, it seemed like he was hell-bent on proving his, and the band’s, credibility. He toured as Mike Watt’s guitar player (in a band that backed the former Minutemen bassist that also featured Dave Grohl and Pat Smear), sang backing vocals for Bad Religion and made sure to show his love for left-of-the-dial bands, from the Frogs to Fugazi, whenever he could.
The band stopped making music videos, adopted a more raw sound on 1993’s Vs. and 1994’s Vitalogy, parted ways with drummer Dave Abbruzzese (who enjoyed the rock star lifestyle a bit too much for the band’s taste), and, of course, they didn’t tour in the U.S. due to their war with Ticketmaster.
On August 27, 1996—five years to the day after Ten had been released—Pearl Jam released their fourth LP, No Code. Two older friends seemed to have an influence on the band. First, Jack Irons, formerly of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who happened to be the guy who originally introduced Vedder to Gossard and Ament. And now, he was the band’s drummer. He’s also credited with helping the band to get comfortable with getting weird. This affected the band’s popularity: No Code was their first album not to go multi-platinum. But times were changing, and Pearl Jam was no longer at the center of the cultural zeitgeist. Alternative radio was moving away from aggressive music as well, with Alanis Morrisette, Oasis and the Cranberries as three of the genre’s biggest acts in 1996.
The other big influence was Neil Young, who collaborated with the band the year before on his Mirror Ball album and on their Merkin Ball EP. The band—especially Veddervoften expressed admiration for Young. It surely didn’t escape their notice that he was a guy whose popularity ebbed and flowed over the decades, but he followed his instincts, and was better for it. If he did an album that didn’t have a “Cinnamon Girl” or a “Heart of Gold,” he didn’t seem to sweat it. (And No Code‘s harmonica-driven “Smile” seemed to be more than a slight nod to Young.)
The album’s first single, “Who You Are,” co-written by Irons, had a world-music vibe and was miles away from what was being played on the radio at the time. The fact that it was the world’s first taste of No Code was proof that the band had taken Young’s example to heart: it may not have been Trans, but it was quite different from their previous material, and they didn’t seem to be sweating it. The second single, “Hail, Hail,” however, was a more recognizable Pearl Jam rock anthem. But No Code showed a lot of diversity: “Red Mosquito” sounded like their take on an Allman Brothers Band song; on “Lukin,” named after Mudhoney bassist Matt Lukin, they channeled Black Flag. “In My Tree” was another Irons co-write, and had a tribal feel; “I’m Open” saw Vedder doing spoken word vocals over a droning tune. Vedder took an honest look at himself on quiet acoustic piece “There He Goes” and on “Mankind,” he relinquished singing and songwriting duties to Gossard (a nice gesture, as Gossard was still smarting over losing control of the band to the singer).
All of this experimentation was likely good for the band, but it wasn’t easy for everyone at the time. “I wasn’t super involved with that record on any level,” Ament told Spin. “I found out three days into the session that they were actually recording.” The album showed that, unlike many other ’90s bands, they’d transcend the era where they found fame. In the next few years, MTV would shutter 120 Minutes and Headbanger’s Ball; it would soon be all about Total Request Live. Boy-bands, pop divas and rap-metal would have their day. Many of Pearl Jam’s peers would break up, burn out or fade away.
In “Present Tense,” Vedder reasoned, “You can spend your time alone redigesting past regrets, or you can come to terms and realize you’re the only one who cannot forgive yourself.” It was a maturity that few bands of their generation had, and showed that Pearl Jam could grow up: both with each other and with their audience. “[It] makes much more sense to live in the present tense,” Vedder sang. The battle with Ticketmaster had been lost, and pop culture was moving on; the media scrutiny that was once directed at the band and their peers was now on *NSYNC or Britney Spears or Korn or Limp Bizkit or someone else.
The band hit the road for a brief non-Ticketmaster-venue tour in the fall of 1996, playing shows to many fans who hadn’t seen them for years, or maybe at all. By the band’s next album, 1998’s Yield, they’d be even further from the pop culture zeitgeist, but went on their first full-scale tour, and yes, it was with the help of Ticketmaster. Part of growing up, as grown-ups know, is compromise. And working with the corporate ticket seller was the price they had to pay to play for their fans. It’s paid off for everyone involved. As a touring band, they’re more popular than ever, and sold out two nights each at Fenway Park and Wrigley Field this summer.
In the years since, they’ve put out (often underrated) albums every few years, and tour frequently. Cobain’s criticism over whether or not they were “alternative” enough is nothing more than a fading memory; today, they’re the example of a band who calls their own shots, treats their fans well, and gets respect from any source that matters.
If Ten was the album that made them instant superstars, No Code was the one that helped them sustain a two-decade plus career on their own terms, a la the Grateful Dead. As Vedder sang in “Red Mosquito,” if they knew then what they know now, maybe they would have done some stuff differently.
On the other hand, maybe they wouldn’t. Today, they’re the rock band version of Springsteen: they operate outside of the mainstream very successfully; whether or not radio plays their new music, whether or not magazines want them on the cover, it no longer matters. They still sell out arenas and occasionally stadiums and play old songs that the fans love and new songs that still matter. And, in a youth-obssessed era where so many artists with more than a decade under their belt bank on nostalgia, that s— really is f—in’ crazy.