Discover more from The Album of Record
30 Years of Pearl Jam Ten
From the time I was 12-years-old, Pearl Jam has been in my life. We talk about the band's debut album as it turns 30 years old.
You only have so many unequivocal musical obsessions in your lifetime. It’s a question of bandwidth as much as anything else. For me, Pearl Jam was one of those obsessions, and one of the first in a line of meaningful, lasting relationships I’ve had with a band. If you’re reading this, you understand what I’m talking about. It’s a love that feels 360-degrees. It’s not enough to just have the albums. You buy posters, t-shirts, and magazines. With Pearl Jam, the effort was even crazier in a pre-internet world. I didn’t have a collection of bookmarks and a folder on my computer. I had physical tributes on my walls, in my closet, and all over my bedroom. That was the degree to which Pearl Jam consumed my life as I went from pre-teen to teen. It obviously started with Ten, but I think we should start with Vs. I can’t tell you the story of Ten without first talking about the hysteria it spawned.
Vs. Through the Lens of Ten
The yearning for the follow-up to Ten was intense. In my mind, I can still remember the feeling of waiting, and at times it was actually painful. As I’m typing this thinking about picking up my copy of Vs. in 1993, I feel electricity running through my scalp.
I can remember the smell of the little record store in the strip mall in Bainbridge Ohio because it shared a wall with a Subway sandwich shop next door. While looking through racks of CDs, your nose was infiltrated with the smell of oil and vinegar in a way you might imagine after years and years seeping through C-grade construction materials in a hastily-built strip mall. The Subway is still there, and I believe the record store is now a vape shop, so turnabout is fair play in the aroma seepage wars.
Pearl Jam’s sophomore album Vs. was packaged in a special cardboard eco-pack design and safely piled behind the counter for those who pre-ordered it. The clerk in the store saw me walk in and immediately turned around to grab my copy off the stack. He knew what I was there for the minute I pulled the door open and stepped inside.
I have trouble putting into words just how desperate I was for the school day to end so I could get that ride to the store to pick up my copy, which I had pre-ordered even though there would be more than enough copies. I had to guarantee that I’d have my copy the earliest possible moment that I could get it into my hands. I was not alone. Vs. went straight to the top of the albums chart. It sold more than 950,000 copies in its first five days, setting a record. Make no mistake, though. The record-setting sales weren’t really about Vs. This was about Ten.
An athlete who signs a ginormous contract with a professional sports team isn’t being paid for what they’re going to do. They’re being paid for what they did before. While Vs. is a great record in its own right, and went on to become beloved in its own way, those sales records belong largely to Ten. Those sales were the result of millions of fans stumbling their way through the verses of “Even Flow” until they got every syllable correct. It was the result of singing the chorus to “Alive” as if it was your own personal anthem. It was trying to sing the percussive falsetto “HOO” over and over again at the end of “Jeremy.” Eddie Vedder was doing some weird kind of emo scat and it somehow worked. Those sales of Vs. were the culmination of Ten dominating the airwaves and the band blowing people away from stages all across the world giving those songs even more life in concert.
Vs. gets the credit. Ten did the work.
Pearl Jam and the Music World They Inherited
Pearl Jam are incredibly talented, but not in a particularly showy way. The band always served the songs, and if anyone ever stuck out it was Eddie Vedder because of his urgent vocal style. Especially on Ten, it feels like most of what Eddie is singing is the most important thing he’s ever said. Jeff Ament is a great bass player, and Pearl Jam didn’t stabilize their drummer until Matt Cameron of Soundgarden eventually joined the band many years later, but the rhythm section can only lead the band when it’s Primus. Eddie was the one who did the most to bring the listeners into the flow of the songs. It’s not so much a shot at the rest of the band as it is to recognize the gravity that Eddie Vedder is able to create with his lyrics and vocals. He became known for hanging from the rafters of stages and some other crazy antics, but his vocals were always more than enough.
For how great Pearl Jam turned out to be, they do so within a very familiar template. Pearl Jam doesn’t innovate on the rock and roll archetype with two guitarists, a bassist, drummer, and lead singer as the frontman. I loved hard rock and glam in the late '80s as a pre-teen. As far as band makeup went, Pearl Jam wasn’t dissimilar to Tesla, who I fell in love with because of their album The Great Radio Controversy. Let’s just say, I wouldn't turn off "Love Song" by Tesla if it came on right this second. Just saying. But Pearl Jam is decidedly different from Tesla and all their contemporaries.
Pearl Jam's music was guitar rock, and it didn't even eschew guitar solos. Stone Gossard and Mike McCready never strutted around like C.C. Deville, of course. And I guess they didn't use any synths. And their fashion wasn't spandex and teased hair. They were a '90s band and not an '80s band, which fits in with the grunge revolution. But why did I have them on such a pedestal?
Before I dive into being 12-years-old and hearing those tunes for the first time, it's important to recognize what else was going on in music at the time. Just like Vs. is a product of the excitement created by Ten, the reaction to Ten is at least somewhat a product of the musical environment that preceded it. The 1990's album charts were chock full of artists like Phil Collins, Paula Abdul, Sinead O'Connor, M.C. Hammer, and Vanilla Ice. Guns 'N Roses, U2, Van Hagar, Tesla, Queensryche, and Extreme were all over the top 100 Rock and Roll Songs in 1991. Rock radio was important in those days, second only to MTV.
If you glance at the list of the top 100 videos from MTV's year-end countdown, Pearl Jam isn't on it at all. Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" sneaks in at Number 70 just after Bell Biv Devoe Featuring Bobby Brown, Ralph Tresvant, and Johnny Gill with "Word to the Mutha!" The exclamation point is theirs, not mine.
The year's top video was "You Could be Mine," which featured Guns 'N Roses and Arnold Schwarzenegger in a Terminator 2: Judgment Day collab. R.E.M. "Losing My Religion" came in second, and maybe my favorite eighth-grade dance slow-dance came in third. I see you, Bryan Adams, with your "(Everything I do) I Do It for You" Robin Hood soundtrack song. Sometimes the D.J. would play the album version, which had an extended section. Eighth grade me could dance with that cute girl just a little bit longer. If she liked you enough, like maybe more than a friend, she'd be close enough to put her head on your shoulder. That's the stuff. This is the world that Pearl Jam dropped into in suburban Cleveland Ohio for my friends and me in 1991.
And boy did I fall hard for Pearl Jam. They were the band to replace Guns 'N Roses as my musical obsession. I would watch GnR on every TV appearance they made. I wanted to read articles about them in Rolling Stone, Spin, and Entertainment Weekly, all of which came to my house to sate my musical appetite. I couldn't get enough of Lies or the Illusions albums when they came out. I was blown away by the size and scope of Guns 'N Roses. They were entertaining on and off the stage, including the controversy around Axl and the band being banned from St. Louis after inciting a riot. It was all so addicting. You wanted to see what would happen next. Until nothing happened next, as far as GnR were concerned. Their next release was a cover album called The Spaghetti Incident? (Their question mark, not mine.) And there's no way I'm diving into Chinese Democracy, which was finally released in 2008. In my world Pearl Jam replaced them.
Pearl Jam on Cassette
Ten is one of the few albums that I owned on cassette tape that I ponied up an extra $15 to have on CD after I finally got my first CD player. Let's go back in time though, because this came up in last week's essay where I talked about Pink Floyd's "Money." Someone on Twitter who goes by "The Commissioner" pointed out to me that "Money" wasn't quite so jarring on the record because it was the first track on Side 2. With that in mind, it's important for Ten.
My memory was vague, but I found a picture of the cassette to confirm it. Ten has one of the most impressive Side 1s of my lifetime.
Side 1 was:
Side 2 was:
As a Pearl Jam superfan, I obviously love both sides. I wouldn't be as giant a Pearl Jam fan as I am today without "Porch" and, more importantly, "Release." Hearing a bootleg of the band playing "Release" and hearing Eddie Vedder not taking any notes off cemented it for me. These were my guys. They were real, not just some studio creation. But holy shit, Side 1.
"Even Flow," "Alive," "Black," and "Jeremy" all on one single side of an album? In hindsight, it seems impossible. If not for Side 1 of Nevermind, we would be talking about this being one of the greatest of all time. I remember having a Sony Walkman stashed in my bag for the school bus rides. I don’t know how long Ten lived in my walkman, but it was a long time.
Playing Pearl Jam to Steal Their Thunder
Let's go back to the 8th grade, but skip the slow dances with Bryan Adams. At the end of the year, some friends and I convinced the school to let us play some rock music in front of everyone in the gym on the last day of school. I had some friends who played guitar. I played drums. We had another guy who could play drums too. I fashioned myself a singer as well though I hadn’t done it solo much. We put together a super short set of the songs we knew. Like every band that's ever learned to play power chords, we played "Wild Thing." I honestly can't remember what else we played, except my friend had learned to play "Alive" on the guitar thanks to a tutorial from one of my sister’s high school boyfriends.
I wanted to sing it so badly that I taught the other kid how to play the drum part so that I could take center stage and sing one of my favorite rock songs in front of our entire grade. We were suitable for eighth-graders, which means we were objectively bad by actual standards. I think I sang it ok, considering my voice was changing at the time. Nobody would have been able to tell because we had the vocals mic’d through the same amp as the guitar because it had two inputs. If you know amps at all, you know this is a horrible idea for presenting live music. Imagine one cheap, overloaded speaker trying to render the audio from a Fender Stratocaster and a vocal mic at the same time. No Bueno.
It didn't matter to our audience. The sound was muddy and booming in the middle school gym, but our ability to play together at all was impressive to our classmates. I had my first personal moment of musical pride singing Pearl Jam. I even tried to do the vocal growl while screaming “yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah” like Eddie Vedder.
This wasn’t the last time I’d glom onto Pearl Jam to try and make myself more interesting. I sang “Black” at an open mic when I was 16 or 17 because this guy I knew could play it on guitar. Again, due to very low expectations, I was able to shine. Many of the acts at that open mic had trouble getting through any complete songs at all. Did I get to make out with any girls as a result? Of course not, because I was an awkward teen with little to no game. However, I was the most interesting person in the collective female friend zone for a night. If that’s not the power of Ten, then I don’t know what is.
Ten is So Old it Sounds Fresh Again
For this newsletter, I went back and listened to the album on Spotify. I haven’t listened to it front-to-back in a very long time. Some of it definitely sounds dated, but it was surprising to me just how fresh it came off after all this time. When you live with an album as long as we have with Ten, you take it for granted. When you’ve heard “Jeremy” as many times as our MTV-fueled generation has, you stop hearing the little things. You can’t hear it in the same way you did when you first discovered it. This week, though, I was able to hear it in a more authentic way than at any other point in quite some time. I encourage you to do it. Concentrate on it. Try and actually hear these songs even though you’ve listened to them hundreds of times before. Try and bring yourself back to the time and place where it stuck out.
This is one of the most interesting things about going back and doing retrospective looks at albums and bands I fell in love with as a kid. The world normalizes the things that were once earth-shattering. Pearl Jam is a classic rock band to today’s generation just like I took Black Sabbath and Zeppelin for granted as “those crusty classic rock bands on 98.5 WNCX in Cleveland” when I was a kid.
It all started with the atmospheric tune that bookends Ten. That sound raises the volume slowly to begin the album before it’s shredded by the opening guitar riff of “Once.” That same sound leaks back into the mix after the band breaks your soul with the gut-wrenchingly emotional “Release" to end the album.
I am not obsessed with Pearl Jam the way I once was, but there’s still magic in these tunes. That’s probably the best thing you can say about any art you’ve lived with for 30 years.
I’ll let you know how it sounds to me after 50.
Postscript: Pearl Jam Fans are Annoying
My god are we Pearl Jam fans annoying. When we're talking about the music behind the scenes of our WaitingForNextYear Cleveland sports Discord server, half of us dive straight into the deep end every time Pearl Jam comes up. The other half groan loudly, "Pearl Jam again? Can't you guys D.M. this conversation?" That's one of those things about Pearl Jam. I talked about how annoying Floyd fans can be in last week's newsletter. Pearl Jam fans are somewhere between Springsteen fans and Phish fans in terms of being intolerable.
Pearl Jam fans aren’t quite like Springsteen fans, because those joyless bastards almost hate it when Bruce plays “Born to Run” because they’re too cool for the popular song. Pearl Jam leans into their most popular songs from the earliest part of their career. According to Setlist.fm, the band’s most-played song in concert is “Even Flow,” followed by “Alive,” “Porch,” and “Black.” Pearl Jam play the hits. They also play three-hour concerts and are well known as a live band. Their fans follow them around, but they don’t have the same communal vibe as the jam bands. They commercialized their “bootlegs,” recording every show and releasing it for sale. Pearl Jam fans lap it all up. We’re annoying. I know. I get it. I think most of us have some self-awareness around it, at least.
Thanks for reading this week. Have a great long weekend. I’m excited for next week when we’ll be discussing Rage Against the Machine’s Evil Empire. Start re-listening to it now and you’ll be fully prepared.