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Pioneers of a genre: Pearl Jam

Pearl Jam is an American rock band formed in Seattle, Washington, in 1990. Since its inception, the band’s line-up has consisted of Eddie Vedder (lead vocals), Mike McCready (lead guitar), Stone Gossard (rhythm guitar) and Jeff Ament (bass). The band’s fifth member is drummer Matt Cameron (also of Soundgarden), who has been with the band since 1998.

In late 1987, Gossard and Ament began playing with Malfunkshun vocalist Andrew Wood, eventually organizing the band Mother Love Bone. Mother Love Bone’s debut album, Apple, was released in July 1990, four months after Wood died of a heroin overdose. Ament and Gossard were devastated by the death of Wood and the resulting demise of Mother Love Bone. Gossard spent his time afterwards writing material that was harder-edged than what he had been doing previously. After recruiting fellow Seattle guitarist Mike McCready, the band were in search for a vocalist and were recommended a part time gas station worker, Eddie Vedder. He was then sent a demo tape, that he listened to shortly before going surfing, where lyrics came to him. He then recorded the vocals to three of the songs (the immensely successful Alive, Once, and Footsteps) in what he later described as a “mini-opera” entitled Momma-Son. Vedder sent the tape with his vocals back to the three Seattle musicians, who were impressed enough to fly Vedder up to Seattle for an audition. Within a week, Vedder had joined the band.

After the addition of Dave Krusen on drums, the band took the name Mookie Blaylock, in reference to the then-active basketball player Mookie Blaylock. The band opened for Alice in Chains at the Moore Theatre in Seattle on December 22, 1990, and served as the opening act for the band’s Facelift tour in 1991. Mookie Blaylock soon signed to Epic Records and renamed themselves Pearl Jam. In an early promotional interview, Vedder said that the name “Pearl Jam” was a reference to his great-grandmother Pearl, who was married to a Native American and had a special recipe for peyote-laced jam, which was later confirmed to be untrue.

Their first album, released on August 27, 1991, Ten (named after Mookie Blaylock’s jersey number) contained eleven tracks dealing with dark subjects like depression, suicide, loneliness, and murder. Ten’s musical style was influenced by classic rock and combined an expansive harmonic vocabulary with an anthemic sound. The album was slow to sell, but by the second half of 1992 it became a breakthrough success, being certified gold and reaching number two on the Billboard charts. Ten produced the hit singles Alive, Even Flow, and Jeremy. Alive and Once formed part of a song cycle in Vedder’s demo tape sent to the band, later described as a “mini-opera” entitled Momma-Son (the third song, Footsteps, appeared as a B-side on the Jeremy single). Vedder explained that the lyrics told the the semi-biographical tale of a son discovering that his father is actually his stepfather, while his mother’s grief turns her to sexually embrace her son, who strongly resembles the biological father (Alive), causing him to go on a killing spree (Once) which leads to his capture and execution (Footsteps). It was later revealed that Vedder’s lyrics were inspired by his long-held hurt in discovering at age 17 that the man he thought was his father was not, and that his real father had already died. The song Jeremy and its accompanying video were inspired by a true story in which a high school student shot himself in front of his classmates.

Nirvana’s Nevermind may have been the album that broke grunge and alternative rock into the mainstream, but there’s no underestimating the role that Pearl Jam’s Ten played in keeping them there. Nirvana’s appeal may have been huge, but it wasn’t universal – it’s easy to see why Pearl Jam clicked with a mass audience — they weren’t as metallic as Alice in Chains or Soundgarden, and of Seattle’s Big Four, their sound owed the greatest debt to classic rock. The ballads rock pretty hard at times (with the exception of Oceans which is pretty much the only soft song on the album) and the guitars are at their soloing prime, which took a back seat on future releases with more mature, riff-oriented songwriting. The guitars on this album are nothing short of jaw-dropping. The riffs are heavy, distorted and rocking, but they carry a fantastic sense of melody so that every song has some sort of point. Vocalist Eddie Vedder is at the top of his game here, taking his signature vocals to their extreme as he delivers some of the finest vocals he ever performed on tracks like Alive and Black. Black is the story of a failed relationship, which may sound clichéd but with Vedder’s writing prowess it becomes one of the most intense listening experiences you’ll ever have. This is 6 minutes of raw emotional pain, and it doesn’t let up for one second. The lyrics make you empathize with the man telling the story even though he most likely doesn’t exist, and lines like “and now my bitter hands cradle broken glass of what was everything” bleed pure sadness. Ten stayed on the Billboard charts for nearly five years, and has gone on to become one of the highest-selling rock records ever, going 13x Platinum.

You’d be forgiven to think that a young band, having just broken through into mainstream music and reaching out and touching stardom would only be driven by their insatiable desire to push forward and cement their place further as one of the biggest rock acts in the industry, but the immense success of Ten only drove Pearl Jam into recluse as they feared and despised the new found instant fame and success at their footsteps. The group was under extreme pressure to produce a record worthy of being a successor to their previous album, none more so than Eddie Vedder, who was struggling to finish songs in the build up to the release of their next album, Vs. They quickly discovered though, just like Nirvana, that their efforts to dodge the mainstream only brought the mainstream to its door. The band released Vs. in the year 1993, meanwhile deciding to scale back its commercial efforts for the album, including declining to produce music videos for any of the album’s singles. Upon its release, Vs. set the record for most copies of an album sold in its first week, a record it held for five years.

Pearl Jam are one of the very few bands to have hit such heights with their debut album, which makes the further success of Vs. even more commendable. The band were able to find their comfort zone in a rawer, stripped down and abrasive music. The album opens with the track Go, and the soft distorted strums from the very beginning of the song give off a strange calm-before-the-storm feeling but also show what the album is all about, as heavy guitars and a growling Vedder come, see and conquer. A lot of the album’s songs are short bursts of energy-only 4 of the album’s 12 tracks eclipse 4 minutes in length. But the beauty of this is no filler whatsoever-sure there are some weak tracks but none of them are out of place. Eddie Vedder is an incredibly capable vocalist with one of the most amazing and original voices heard in the genre. While Staley surpasses him in emotion and Cornell beats him in technicality, Vedder’s signature tones are simply the most fun to listen to. Besides the heavier songs, the album features two acoustic ballads in Daughter, that tells the story of a child who is abused by her parents because they do not understand her learning disability, and Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town is about an old lady who has been stuck in a small town her whole life. By the time all was said and done, Pearl Jam’s Vs. was a huge success, further establishing the band as one of the top acts in the rock scene.

Pearl Jam have since gone on to release 8 more albums, but chose to diverge their sound radically and definitively, experimenting with funk, folk rock and finally settling into mainstream rock, the discussion of which goes beyond the scope of this article. Pearl Jam have been by far the most active and successful band amongst all the acts of Grunge, and surely having a frontman who doesn’t shoot himself in the head or overdoses helps a lot in that regard.

A word also goes out to the San Diego based band, Stone Temple Pilots. Thanks to the prevailing mood during the Grunge era, any band not belonging to Seattle was deemed to be bandwagon-jumpers. That did not stop the band from achieving commercial success though, releasing the albums Core, certified 8x platinum, and the album Purple that was certified 6x platinum by the RIAA. In a January 1994 Rolling Stone poll, Stone Temple Pilots was simultaneously voted “Best New Band” by Rolling Stone’s readers and “Worst New Band” by the magazine’s music critics, highlighting the disparity between critics and fans. The band’s vocalist, Scott Weiland was found dead in 2013 and was replaced by none other than the recently deceased Chester Bennington, who left the band in 2015 to focus solely on Linkin Park.

Though Grunge could claim to have lived for a little over 10 years, the golden age of ‘Seattle sound’ was between the years 1989-1993, which saw 4 of the biggest bands in Rock history come together and create a sound never heard before or since, and doing all of that while staying (mostly) true to their roots. By 1994, Grunge was fading fast, with Pearl Jam retreating from the spotlight as fast as they could; Alice in Chains, Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots and hordes of others were battling horrid drug addictions and struggling for survival.

Ultimately, Grunge was replaced by a more accessible and uplifting Post-Grunge, the most famous acts of which were Creed and Nickelback. It didn’t go down well with the hardcore fans, and to this day Creed and Nickelback stand out as two of the most hated acts in music history. Conversely, another rock genre, Britpop, emerged in part as a reaction against the dominance of grunge in the United Kingdom. In contrast to the dourness of grunge, Britpop was defined by youthful exuberance and desire for recognition. Blur and Oasis dominated the landscape and almost monopolized it, till Radiohead tore down the genre’s success with brutality with the album, OK Computer.

Ultimately, Grunge needs to be remembered as what it really stood for – a desire to truly accept and embrace one’s shortcomings, and the feeling of wanting to escape what society stood for. The genre also spawned four of the biggest bands in music history, and hundreds more who did not receive enough success to be mentioned in this article. This feels enough to consider it a paradigm-shifting event, and enough to consider it as a major genre that had an incredible role to play in the natural timeline of Rock music.


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