An Introduction in to Pearl Jam
Countless bands try to claim the label of the “voice of a generation,” but one that can actually do it and no one will bat an eye is Pearl Jam a group’s influence that is undeniable. Since forming in Seattle in 1990, Eddie Vedder and company not only helped create the genre of grunge while becoming one of the most important bands over the last 30 years — but have shifted the way we’ll think about rock music forever.
The Band’s Formation
In the 80s, Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament were members of a band with Mark Arm and Steve Turner of Mudhoney fame called Green River that had decent success but disbanded in 1987. Next, they formed Mother Love Bone with vocalist Andrew Wood of the band Malfunkshun and spent a couple of years touring around the burgeoning late-80s Seattle music scene. During this time, Mother Love Bone signed to PolyGram and recorded a record called Apple. But sadly, four months before the debut was released, Wood died from a heroin overdose. A tragedy of massive levels, cutting the band’s career much, much too short. Ament and Gossard were devastated.
While reeling from the pain, Gossard began writing more intense music inspired by the loss. With the help of fellow Seattle musician Mike McCready, Gossard reconnected with Ament and the trio started recording some of the music Gossard had been writing. During this time, they met former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Jack Irons and gave him a demo, asking him if he’d be interested in joining the band and if he knew of any potential vocalists. Although Irons passed, he did share the tape with a friend of his who lived in San Diego.
That friend was none other than Eddie Vedder.
Legend has it that Vedder — who at the time was playing in a band called Bad Radio while working at a gas station — listened to the tape shortly before going surfing. While out in the water, lyrics struck him, and he immediately recorded vocals to three songs from the tape: “Alive,” “Once,” and “Footsteps.” He sent the recordings, later dubbed the Mamasan Trilogy, back up to Seattle, and the band was impressed enough to fly him up immediately.
The year was 1990, and within a week, Eddie Vedder had officially joined the band, unknowingly the beginnings of what would be Pearl Jam. Funny how the greatest things have actual beginnings, eh?
Early Years, Mookie Blaylock & Becoming Pearl Jam
The band added drummer Dave Krusen and started working under the moniker Mookie Blaylock, a name they took based on the young basketball player who was, at the time, playing for the New Jersey Nets. (In a later interview, Gossard would explain how much they loved Mookie then.) The band played its first official show at the Off Ramp Cafe in Seattle on October 22, 1990, before joining Alice In Chains as an opener. Within a couple of months, the band signed to Epic Records, changing their name to Pearl Jam.
Pearl Jam changed their name from Mookie Blaylock because of legal concerns. Obviously, they loved the guy though, and they’d show it again by naming their debut record Ten, an obvious nod to Mookie Blaylock’s jersey number.
But where did the name Pearl Jam come from? There are multiple origin stories for the name Pearl Jam. Initially, Eddie Vedder said that it was a reference to his great-grandmother named Pearl who was married to a Native American person and together they cooked up some jam with peyote as an ingredient. If your instincts tell you that story sounds like bullshit some 20-somethings would make up in the early 90s as a name origin story, your instincts are correct. Vedder would later tell Rolling Stone that the great-grandmother-peyote story was bullshit.
And what about that… other theory? You know, the whole, uh, semen thing? Well, the band denies that too. Make of that what you will.
Anyway, the most likely scenario is that the band simply liked the word “Pearl.” It’s beautiful and Vedder did have a great-grandmother named Pearl, and it’s surfing slang for submerging the nose of your board. Vedder also claims that he likes thinking about the meaning of the word and that the result of the creative conflict is similar to the process of turning a grain of sand in an oyster into a jewel. Oh, and they added “Jam” on the end after seeing Neil Young in concert and being amazed by his jamming skills going for almost 20 minutes on songs. An appropriate namesake, if you ask us.
The Release of Ten (1991) and Early Seattle Grunge Impact
Pearl Jam entered Seattle’s London Bridge Studios in March 1991 to record their debut album Ten, which would end up being quite possibly the most quintessential grunge album of all time. Much of the music on the album was written by Gossard and Ament, some even for Mother Love Bone, and Vedder helped reshape them with new lyrics and melodies. Sessions lasted for a little over a month, and after they finished, drummer Dave Krusen left the band due to his struggles with alcoholism and was temporarily replaced with Matt Chamberlain before bringing aboard Dave Abbruzzese full time.
Ten released to the reception of immediate success, both commercial and critical. It’s easy to see in the grand scheme why it hit the way it did. The early ‘90s were an interesting and challenging time in America. Coming out of the conservative 80s, the 90s represented the feeling of freedom. Grunge emerged through this attitude, becoming an outlet for an angsty generation searching for meaning. The band toured throughout 1992 to much fanfare while appearing on Saturday Night Live and MTV Unplugged before nabbing a slot at Lollapalooza.
The themes of Ten included frustration, anger, suicide, and self-loathing and were spat through such aggressive and intense music that hit audiences perfectly. Alongside fellow Seattle bands like Soundgarden and Nirvana, Pearl Jam achieved what many great musicians aspire towards: helping people understand and express what’s inside of them, maybe better than they ever could. This musical relationship with fans would prove to be the foundation upon which the band continued to build success.
Vs. (1993) and Vitalogy (1994), and Cementing Fame
Immediately, the band took issue with their success, which makes sense considering the music is built upon an attempt to achieve real, human connections. Vedder and the rest of the band, at their core, represent the antithesis of traditional rock stars. These guys didn’t dress themselves up in leather that shimmered in front of stage lights. They proudly wore old flannel shirts you could find at a thrift store — the more holes in the shirt the better.
But their impact grew, but rather than running from the crowds, the band used it as fuel to create. They recorded their sophomore record Vs. and released it on October 19, 1993, selling almost a million records in the first week. Hits on Vs. included “Go,” “Daughter, and “Animal,” and Vedder’s songwriting was being compared to other young male poets of music history such as Jim Morrison or Pete Townshend. And similar to these greats, Vedder avoided the press — taking an attitude that was of a true artist, making music for the fans and nothing more, embracing the everyman nature of his and the rest of the band’s mystique.
Moreover, the band openly warred with Corporate America. In 1994, it was learned that Ticketmaster was price-gouging Pearl Jam tickets through reporting by Chuck Phillips, so the band absolved themselves from a relationship with Ticketmaster. To some success (and some failure due to Ticketmaster’s grip on the industry), the band attempted to work directly with venues for shows. Eventually, in 1994, Gossard and Ament testified before congress in a case against Ticketmaster, which resulted in legislation being written that tried to prevent Ticketmaster price-gouging. (The band would continue touring throughout 1995 without help from Ticketmaster.)
During this time, the band was also recording Vitalogy, which would eventually release on November 22, 1994, to more success, birthing singles “Better Man,” “Not for You,” and “Spin the Black Circle” (which would win a Grammy.) These recording sessions proved challenging as they would also cause drummer Dave Abbruzzese (who’d joined during the Ten tour) to leave the band and be replaced by Jack Irons, the former Red Hot Chili Pepper who’d, as you probably remember, introduced Vedder to Gossard and Ament back in 1990.
There’s something particularly American about Pearl Jam, and this period is a strong example of that. The band viewed their work with a blend of artistry and everyday work, a punk recipe that pushed against the narratives of major labels. The commitment to individuality as an ethos is a core pillar of the band’s success and one that’s reflected in the music from this era.
The Late ‘90s, No Code (1996) and Yield (1998)
As the 90s continued, Pearl Jam continued to grow in popularity while maintaining a counterculture spirit, with band members dealing with the intensity of fame and how that can displace the spirit of a creator.
With this mentality, Pearl Jam recorded No Code — the most experimental record since Ten, featuring a wider range of instrumentation and a dosing of ballads — and released it on August 27, 1996. The band’s alternative direction in sound confused critics, though, and No Code wasn’t met with the best response, both critically and commercially. In fact, radio stations ditched the record almost immediately — and when analyzing the band’s placement in musical history, No Code is often marked as the “official” end of grunge.
The band remained in the spotlight, attempting to stay steadfast against the major label world (while being signed to a major label), and continuing war against Ticketmaster was taking its toll. Gossard would later tell Spin Magazine that there was “a lot of stress associated with trying to tour at that time” and that “it was growing more and more difficult to be excited about being part of the band.”
But in true Pearl Jam fashion, the group pressed onward — and changed drummers again, this time hiring Soundgarden’s Matt Cameron to replace Jack Irons who’d left the band because he was frustrated with the band’s heavy tour schedule. Yield, which Irons recorded and briefly toured with the band before his departure, was released on February 3, 1998, featuring singles “Given to Fly” and “Wishlist,” and was viewed as a return to form not found since the band’s beginnings. And it was at this point that the band resolved some issues with Ticketmaster, able to truly tour for the first time in years, leading to massive success and the release of Live on Two Legs, a live album compiled from tour stops.
In 1998, the band also recorded a cover of “Last Kiss,” which accidentally became a massive hit. The next year, simply out of demand from the public, the band released it as a single. A hugely successful song — you can probably hear the rendition in your head as you read this — and the group saw its success as an opportunity and donated all “Last Kiss” proceeds to aid refugees of the Kosovo War, helping in the best way they could.
Binaural (2000), Tragedy, Riot Act (2002), and Leaving Epic Records
The turn of the millennium meant that Pearl Jam would exit the ‘90s as the most popular rock band of the decade. A bit of a strange title to have, but the band responded by recording more music. Moreover, the band elevated its relationship with tape culture. The group had always encouraged fans to record and distribute their music throughout communities, but around this time, they began participating and releasing official bootlegs of all shows. The band’s output had always fostered a ferocious fan mentality, but this decision helped elevate it to a different level. Fans dissected and achieved all live performances in a way that was similar to other rabid fanbases, such as Deadheads.
On May 16, 2000, they released Binaural. The record was drummer Matt Cameron’s studio debut and wrestled with various themes of struggle with addiction while Vedder fought through writer’s block. The record was named after the binaural recording techniques that were utilized by producer Tchad Blake, offering a more holistic sound that captures the complexities of Pearl Jam’s instrumentation.
2000 also brought unfortunate tragedy. Near the end of the band’s European tour, nine fans died after being crushed near the stage while performing at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark. Once there was a realization of what was happening, the band wasn’t able to stop it.
It’s difficult to illustrate the impact this tragedy had on the band. Just a horrible thing to think about, trying to imagine what that kind of experience would be like while on stage.
Later, Vedder would speak about the challenging nature of it, and how continuing to tour helped them focus and heal, taking a year off before starting work on Riot Act, with music directly created to help parse the Roskilde Festival tragedy. Multiple songs such as “I Am Mine,” “Love Boat Captain,” “Thumbing My Way,” and “Arc” were born from the fallout of the tragedy. Riot Act was released on November 12, 2002, and met with esteemed praise. Continuing their punk and grunge ethos, the band protested heavily throughout the Riot Act tour, with Vedder often performing in a George W. Bush mask while playing the track “Bu$hleaguer” off the album. With Riot Act, the band closed out their deal with Epic Records and left the label.
Around this time, the band also released Lost Dogs, a two-disc compilation album, on November 11, 2003. It was a collection of B-sides and other unreleased material, and showcased just how productive the band had been over the years — but perhaps more significantly, illustrated how selective they’d been as artists, revealing their talent as editors as much as writers. Lost Dogs debuted at number 15 on the Billboard 200, eventually going Gold.
Joining J Records, Avocado, Monkeywrench, and Entering Pearl Jam’s Second Act
In 2006, Pearl Jam signed to J Records, executive Clive Davis’s venture with Sony. There, the band had more creative freedom while still harnessing the power of the music industry and being a successful band. Over 15 years into their career, the band began moving gracefully from an incisive and bold young band — creating music that harnessed and channeled the specific frustration and anger of Generation X — into something more mature. Still mad as hell, still defining music, but with a larger lens on what the world means and how to impact it.
With Pearl Jam, aka Avocado, the band’s eighth record, they embraced the idea of a self-titled record, finding their roots once again, and creating an album that was compared to Vs. and carried heavier tones with tracks like “Worldwide Suicide.” The band was very vocal about their politics, criticizing U.S. foreign policy and taking stands against George W. Bush, performing at various Vote for Change rallies throughout the decade.
It’s through this that the band showed, despite selling millions of records, Eddie Vedder and company still proved they stood for something — understanding their role and influence in culture. Pearl Jam toured the world and headlined multiple festivals, assuring themselves as one of — if not the — great modern American rock band.
Later, in 2009, the band recorded and released their ninth studio album Backspacer, released on September 20, 2009. A record contained more lyrical optimism than a typical Pearl Jam record — something Vedder credited to the election of Barack Obama — and debuted at number one on the Billboard charts, the first Pearl Jam record to do so since No Code, and achieved a generally positive reception, being praised for its assured lyrics and innovative musicality. Moreover, the band released it through their own label imprint Monkeywrench Records, their first time doing so.
They capped the ’00s with a cover of The Who’s “Love, Reign o’er Me” in 2008 for the film Reign Over Me, a quietly powerful film that dissected the impact of 9/11. Pearl Jam understood how to send a message, both subtly and overtly.
Lightning Bolt (2013), Gigaton (2020), and the Cementing of a Legacy
The band continued to work. Over two decades into their career, they released their 10th studio album Lightning Bolt on October 14, 2013, before setting off on a two-leg North American tour. The record sold 166,000 copies in its first week and went number one on the Billboard 200. In other words, they still had it and continued to tour relentlessly for the better part of the 2010s. Then in 2020, they released Gigaton, a late-career record focused on bringing awareness to climate change that achieved positive reception from critics.
The legacy of Pearl Jam is one of hardworking success rooted in bold statements about humanity and the world. Yes, they hit it big almost immediately — and rocketed in a way that was almost too fast and too assured. But this was countered and leveled out by the consistency of the product. A generation embraced their impact, but they worked against the potential for capitalistic gain, understanding their impact while not succumbing to it (their fight against Ticketmaster in the ‘90s being a strong example).
What does it mean to be American? Pearl Jam attempts to answer that question. Hard work, humility, and an attempt to understand the other. There’s beauty in the music, complicated guitar soundscapes that whip around you like a tornado, but then Vedder counters the aggressiveness with elegant and succinct lyrics, understanding the Big Questions without getting lost in cliche.
A truly great band.
5 Essential Pearl Jam Albums
Believe us when we say we understand that Pearl Jam’s discography can be a little intimidating. And hey, maybe you’re not like us and don’t want to spend the rest of the century listening to one band. So here, we offer our take on the five essential Pearl Jam albums, although our opinion might change tomorrow.
Pearl Jam’s Ten might be the most significant album in the group’s lengthy discography. Not just because it’s the debut record — although that helps its case — but because it showed exactly what they were capable of. At the time of its release, grunge was starting to hit its stride, and the band entered the Seattle scene with enormous impact. Once the world heard Vedder’s voice, it really never was the same.
Must-hear songs: “Alive,” “Even Flow,” “Jeremy”
After the commercial success of Ten, Pearl Jam faced pressure to deliver. So they buckled down in the studio and created Vs., a driven and dynamic album that’s more aggressive in sound while remaining refined. Upon its release, despite the band’s lack of promotion efforts, the album was a smash, both commercially and critically. It set the record for most album copies sold in the first week and, at this point, has been certified platinum seven times over. Seven.
Must-hear songs: “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town,” “Daughter”
After helping create and define what “grunge” means with their first two records, Pearl Jam again transformed their sound for Vitalogy, introducing more punk and hardcore into their sound. And once again, the band’s release was met with critical and commercial acclaim. Again, they were praised for their innovation, absurdity, and experimentation — Rolling Stone’s Al Weisel wrote originally that Vitalogy is “a wildly uneven and difficult record, sometimes maddening, sometimes ridiculous, often powerful” record. Meanwhile, people flocked to the stores, helping it sell 877,000 copies in its first week.
Must-hear songs: “Corduroy,” “Better Man,” “Nothingman”
Upon its release, Pearl Jam’s No Code was met by fans and critics with divisiveness (although it still debuted at number one on Billboard, just like the band’s previous two records). On the record, Pearl Jam experimented with worldbeat and garage rock, pushing their sound to something fresh and innovative. The album’s boldness was appreciated, but many critiques of the record are rooted in seeing it as inconsistent. However, in hindsight, No Code broke the mold of what the band could be, clearing the future for Pearl Jam’s sound and helping establish their reputation as innovators.
Must-hear songs: “Present Tense,” “Who You Are,” “In My Tree”
With Yield, the band’s fifth album, Pearl Jam returned to what established them as a band initially: aggressive, straightforward grunge rock. It was met with instant acclaim, with critics celebrating the band’s return to form. Commercially, it didn’t go number one like its predecessors (it went number two, so still not too bad, heh), but sold more in the longrun. At that point, it was the band’s most collaborative creative effort, not solely relying on Vedder for lyrics. In short, it’s a banger.
Must-hear songs: “Wishlist,” “Given to Fly,” “Faithfull”
5 Essential Pearl Jam Songs
Sheesh. 32 years of music (and counting) Limiting this to 5 songs is impossible — go read our list of the Top 50 Pearl Jam songs if you really wanna know our thoughts — but since we have to, we tried. Here are 5 essential Pearl Jam songs.
“Do the Evolution”
“I Got Shit”
Best Pearl Jam Podcasts
If listening to Pearl Jam’s music isn’t enough, we’ve got more recommendations for your ears. Hear (heh) are our recommendations for the best Pearl Jam podcasts.
Live On 4 Legs Podcast
Live On 4 Legs is the definitive podcast about the Pearl Jam Live experience. Hosted by super fans and PJ professors Randy Sobel and John Farrar, the show combs through the group’s extensive touring history — breaking down live performances one date at a time.
State of Love & Trust
Hosted by Jason Kerepesi & Paul Ghiglieri, the State of Love & Trust podcast extensively explores the band’s history and lore. They take a sophisticated approach to the band, breaking down different bits and bops — for example, ranking the top five outros in the band’s catalog — while attempting to be comprehensive. An excellent resource for expanding and challenging your knowledge of Pearl Jam.
The Touring Fan Live
The Touring Fan Live takes the idea of a podcast and pushes it outward. Host Anthony Krysiewicz explores all elements of the band in podcast form, but they also publish essays, interviews, and articles. He also hosts a variety of guests who offer their own PJ perspectives and connect the band to more significant cultural trends in the world.
Better Band Podcast
The Better Band Podcast is a comprehensive and detailed guide through the discography of Pearl Jam. Hosted by Branden Palomo, The Better Band Podcast is a journey through every single album in the Pearl Jam discography, analyzing records track-by-track and inviting guests on to provide their thoughts.
The Jamily Matters podcast is an exploration rooted in Pearl Jam fandom. Hosts Roche and Billie Jean Sarullo bring years of experience in the music industry as they dig into the history and culture surrounding Pearl Jam. What’s made this band so impactful? They attempt to answer.
Single Podcast Theory
Hosted by Brad Lyons and Brad Blazek, Single Podcast Theory is a weekly podcast exploring Pearl Jam. It ranges in the topic, such as looking at the best album closer to identifying and discussing specific legendary shows. Its weekly programming pace is great for drinking up the band’s history and impact.
Best Pearl Jam Books
Can’t get enough Pearl Jam? Still looking for more? Here are the best Pearl Jam books.
Pearl Jam 20
An authorized biography of the band by longtime music journalist and talent buyer Jonathan Cohen that paired with Cameron Crowe’s documentary about the band. Although over a decade old at this point, the book and documentary provide a great deep dive into the band’s come-up and impact on the culture of the 90s.
Long Road: Pearl Jam and the Soundtrack of a Generation
Music critic and journalist Steven Hyden offers his love letter to the band, taking a long lens on how the band became intertwined with Generation X and why they’re such an important pillar of American culture.