Pearl Jam – Ten
Released August 27th, 1991 on Epic Records
Produced by Rick Parashar and Pearl Jam
Peaked at #2 U.S., #18 U.K.
“Alive” (#16 U.K., #16 U.S. Mainstream Rock)
“Even Flow” (#3 U.S. Mainstream Rock, #27 U.K.)
“Jeremy” (#15 U.K., #79 U.S.)
In the beginning there was a band called Green River in a scene based around Seattle. Green River was a band of early twentysomethings in the early Eighties – one of the earliest bands in the scene that would later come to be known as grunge. There were some fairly famous names in what was then an obscure garage band: Mark Arm, Steve Turner, Jeff Ament, Stone Gossard. After releasing Rehab Doll on Sub Pop Records in 1988, they broke up. Gossard and Ament wanted to keep the band’s momentum going toward a major label deal; Arm was content to fuck around. The division is evident on the record; it’s part grunge (that classic Black Flag + Black Sabbath formula) and part Sunset Strip metal posturing, making for an odd dichotomy. Afterward, Arm and Turner went on to form Mudhoney (along with Melvins bassist Matt Lukin) and Gossard and Ament would form Mother Love Bone with Andrew Wood. Mother Love Bone signed with PolyGram and recorded a debut, but Wood would die of a heroin overdose before Apple was released in July of 1990.
Gossard and Ament went their separate ways and Gossard began practicing with Mike McCready, whose band Love Chile was on the rocks. Gossard was spurred to write heavier material, and McCready convinced him to get back into touch with Ament. The trio recorded some instrumental demos and began quietly slipping them into the hands of acquaintances in the hopes of finding a drummer and a singer for the nascent band. They gave it to Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Jack Irons (who turned down the offer to play drums but would join the band in 1994), who then gave it to a San Diego surfer named Eddie Vedder. Vedder, who worked part-time in a gas station at the time, was a veteran of the San Diego scene and once played in a band called Indian Style with Rage Against The Machine/Audioslave drummer Brad Wilk. After listening to the tape he went surfing, where he came up with lyrics and vocals for three of the songs that were on it, spinning up a mini-opera about a man who is the victim of incest, becomes a serial killer, and is later executed. He was a fan of Quadrophenia from a young age, you see. These songs would become “Alive”, “Once”, and Vitalogy’s “Footsteps.”
The band, impressed, invited him to Seattle. Once there he was thrown into the fire; the band, along with Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell and Matt Cameron, were recording a tribute to Andrew Wood that would later be released as Temple Of The Dog. There was some awkwardness with the outsider at first but Vedder, by all accounts a loving and friendly kind of guy, soon won everyone over (especially Cornell, who later said of Vedder’s part on “Hunger Strike” that even though Cornell hadn’t told him about the part he wanted, he had delivered it exactly right). From there they leapt into putting together a cohesive band of their own.
Calling themselves Mookie Blaylock, after a famous contemporary basketball player, they supported Alice In Chains on their 1991 Facelift tour and went through a few drummers. The first, Dave Krusen, left for alcohol rehab. The second, Matt Chamberlain, left to join the SNL band. The third, Dave Abbruzzese, stuck around for the album and the tour. They were signed to Epic Records and at some point changed their name to the less obvious but equally ridiculous Pearl Jam. There used to be some bullshit story about Vedder’s great-grandmother and her psychedelic peyote jam, but Vedder admitted this was fake in 2006. They claim now that the band had the name Pearl and then, after seeing Neil Young play, they added the jam part. Sure. Face it: the band’s name is a clever way of saying cum. They are Cum: The Band.
The recording of Ten (named, of course, because it was Mookie Blaylock’s jersey number) was mostly on the shoulders of Gossard and Ament; McCready likes to say that he and Vedder were more or less along for the ride. There’s a lot of evidence as to the truth of this. For one thing, Ten is like little else in Pearl Jam’s catalog. The band turned leadership over to Vedder for Vs. and they’ve been doing things like that ever since. Despite the grumblings of some (most notably NME), the band was dealing with classic rock gestures and happened to get lumped in with the alternative movement because of timing, city of origin, and the fact that, much like Nirvana, Alice In Chains, and Soundgarden, they didn’t sound anything like the mainstream Headbanger’s Ball bands infesting MTV. Soundgarden and Alice In Chains went in for that sludgy Black Sabbath Sound; Nirvana threw in some poppier elements (as Kurt Cobain once said, they were Sabbath crossed with the Bay City Rollers). Pearl Jam, though, had a style that built upon artists like Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Kiss: flashy rock ‘n’ roll with scorching guitar leads. It was this aspect that caused Cobain to hate on the band at first, although there’s a very nice story about Vedder and Cobain making up and becoming friends and eventually dancing together at an event. It might be apocryphal, but rock ‘n’ roll is built on apocryphal stories.
Still, the point is that Pearl Jam had a much different sound than the other Pac-Northwest bands of the time, even though they somehow got seized as the face of grunge. Stone Temple Pilots were eventually lambasted for being Pearl Jam knockoffs, and even though later post-grunge dreck like Creed and Nickelback had much more in common with Nirvana ripoffs like Bush and with Alice In Chains, their ‘rib-rattling guitar attack’ (always, always referred to as such) was always compared for some reason with Pearl Jam. That’s not to say that Ten doesn’t feature a ‘rib-rattling guitar attack’ – one of the big draws of the album, much like Siamese Dream, was that it featured heavy, searing guitar work in a way that was completely different from, say, Ratt and Warrant. McCready’s wailing solo on “Alive” is a standout moment – he claims to have nicked it from a Kiss song, but that Ace Frehley took it originally from “Five To One” by the Doors. Another difference from other contemporary bands is the heavy use of reverb to create that ‘oceanic’ sound that permeates a lot of the sound, most notably on “Oceans” and “Release” but also filling in the harmonic sections of “Black” and “Garden.”
Another difference lay in subject matter. Most of the grunge bands of the era (including the B-listers like Mudhoney, Tad, and the Melvins) dealt in twisted, off-kilter stuff that was like tripping on bad acid. Alice In Chains brought up the plight of Vietnam veterans on “Rooster” but for the most part stuck to songs about heroin; Soundgarden did “Spoonman” in 1994 but their picture of homelessness was more about a specific recognizable homeless person in Seattle. Pearl Jam, then and now, tended toward more social commentary in their music. “Even Flow” was about homelessness, “Jeremy” was about a kid who shot himself in front of his class, and also about a kid Vedder knew from school who was always getting in fights and ended up almost killing himself at school as well. Vedder would later describe it and the video as being about the idea that no matter how much you rage and struggle and seek your revenge, all you’ll ever get is just a paragraph in a newspaper. “Why Go” talked about teens being locked up in mental institutions against their will for no other reason than that their parents don’t want to deal with them. “Deep” dealt with drug addiction but without the glamour that other bands put on it.
Ten would go platinum thirteen times and is by far the biggest seller in Pearl Jam’s catalog to this day. It was slow to start but after Nevermind came out a month later it began to pick up listeners. In the end mainstream news was reporting on them using terms like “voice of a generation” and “biggest band of the era.” From 1993 onward they would be much more democratic in their writing and recording, leading to the band as they are today, but Ten remains a testament to the times it was recorded in, and emblematic of the sort of path you can blaze when you just keep plugging away at your own thing long enough.