Synopsis of Pop Music
“Son, she said, have I got a little story for you…”
In the wake of Nirvana’s revolutionary 1991 album Nevermind, the world embraced alternative rock, welcoming grunge-rockers of all shapes and varieties onto the formerly unfriendly shores of mainstream music. The boom times lasted until around 1994, when Nirvana’s singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, but one veteran of the “Seattle scene” managed to ride out the ups and downs of teenage whims to become one of the most popular and durable rock acts of the 1990’s. Pearl Jam’s rise to fame was built on the merging of alt-rock themes and sounds with classic rock hooks and riffs, a fusion that turned the band into that rarity of rarities—a mainstream success, critical favorite, and long-lasting chart-topper, all at the same time.
Born from tragedy, the band that would come to be known as Pearl Jam was assembled after the 1990 overdose death of Andrew Wood, lead singer of the popular Seattle band Mother Love Bone. That band’s guitarist and bassist—Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, respectively—joined up with guitarist Mike McCready, drummer Dave Krusen and singer Eddie Vedder to form a group then known as Mookie Blaylock (named for the pro basketball player). Renamed Pearl Jam, the group recorded its debut album, Ten (Blaylock’s jersey number), and worked on an Andrew Wood tribute album with fellow Seattleites Soundgarden.
With the breakout success of Nirvana at the end of 1991, mainstream rock and MTV scrambled to find the next big Seattle band. Pearl Jam seemed a likely candidate: Ten was packed with catchy tunes, blending 70’s arena rock, Neil Young’s proto-grunge and Vedder’s angry, doubting lyrics into a radio-friendly whole. Surprisingly, the band chose not to release any singles to Top-40 radio, instead filming three videos for MTV—“Alive,” “Even Flow” and “Jeremy.” The latter video was a fan favorite, winning a slew of awards at the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards (where the band played a memorable version of Neil Young’s “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World” with Young himself), but by that time, Pearl Jam (now with Dave Abbruzzese on drums) was already one of rock’s big boys.
Ten eventually sold over 10 million copies, and the release of the Wood tribute album—Temple of the Dog—cemented the band’s mainstream reputation. Pearl Jam began jamming with its heroes—from Keith Richards to the Doors—while in the meantime, the band was building its own concert legend. Pearl Jam’s live shows were electrifying, as the band threw in covers of 70’s rock anthems and little-known tunes to pay tribute to their influences and to turn the kids in the audience on to new musical experiences. Eco-conscious 90’s kids were also turned on by the band’s variety of social causes, which eventually embraced everything from the environment to voting to capital punishment to Tibetan freedom.
Live performances and social activism aside, Pearl Jam’s reputation still had a foundation in the music. 1993’s Vs. was intentionally less radio-friendly than Ten, taking a harder edge on songs like “Go” and “Animal,” but ballads like “Daughter” and “elderly woman behind the counter in a small town” ensured that pop-rock fans wouldn’t be totally turned off. The album was another smash hit, once more despite the lack of a radio single (this time, the band didn’t even produce a video).
During Vs.’ run at the top of the charts, Pearl Jam once more earned its unpredictable, ‘alternative’ reputation with a highly-publicized legal battle against ticket-selling giant Ticketmaster. The band felt that the booking company had a harmful monopoly, and rather than go along to get along, Pearl Jam refused to play in Ticketmaster venues. The lack of big-ticket arenas may have hurt the band’s touring success, but die-hard fans (and there were plenty) were willing to seek out their musical heroes wherever they played.
In 1994, Vitalogy added yet one more story to the Pearl Jam lore. For the first week of release, the band insisted that Vitalogy only be available on vinyl. Surprisingly, the album hit #55 anyway, and once the CD and cassette versions went on sale, Vitalogy was an easy #1. “Spin the Black Circle” became the band’s first officially-released single in the US, and the album went on to continued success. A 1995 non-album single, “I Got Id,” gave the band its first Top-10 hit (at #7), and despite continued problems booking venues on tour, life was good.
As “grunge” moved off the pop culture radar, Pearl Jam continued to expand its musical repertoire, delving into Eastern music and spirituality on 1996’s No Code. While some fans strayed, most stayed with the band, embracing the folksy (and often Zeppelin-esque) change of pace. 1998 brought a return to straightforward rock with Yield, which went platinum in less than a month. A concert album, Live On Two Legs, followed later in the year, as the band continued its strong touring presence.
Surprisingly, Pearl Jam’s biggest success to date on the singles chart came in 1999 with a cover of the rock-n-roll oldie “Last Kiss.” Originally released only to the band’s fan club, the song climbed to the #2 position in the summer of ’99, reminding boy-band-crazy pop radio of Pearl Jam’s enduring appeal. 2000 brought the release of a new studio album, Binaural, along with a 25-disc series of authorized bootlegs, recorded on the band’s summer 2000 tour of Europe.
Pearl Jam continues to maintain a strong and loyal fan base, maintaining its hard/alt-rock integrity as the musical winds shift around them. Even in a post-grunge world, Pearl Jam has proven its alternative-yet-mainstream credentials time and again, and the band’s success is likely to continue well into the new decade and beyond.
“It’s evolution, baby…”
Artist Release History1991 - Ten
1993 - Vs.
1994 - Vitalogy
1996 - No Code
1998 - Yield
1998 - Live on Two Legs
2000 - Binaural
2000 - 25-disc live European concert bootleg series
Pop Sub Categoriesrock
Essential Music AlbumsTen
Band MembersEddie Vedder vocals
Mike McCready guitar
Stone Gossard guitar
Jeff Ament bass
Matt Cameron drums
Dave Krusen drums
Dave Abbruzzese drums
Jack Irons drums