The 30 stages of Pearl Jam’s evolution
For three decades Pearl Jam have been ripping up the rock rulebook, doing things entirely on their own terms and inspiring a lifetime of love among their global legion of devotees. Following new album Gigaton, this is the story, in 30 easy pieces, of how and why they remain a band apart…
1. Restless In Seattle
When it comes to the grand arc of the Pearl Jam narrative, it’s essential to start not so much at their beginning but, rather, earlier. Guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament’s time with Green River and Mother Love Bone, plus Matt Cameron’s seminal work in Soundgarden, sowed the seeds that would help America’s rain-swept Pacific Northwest become one of the most fertile artistic breeding grounds in rock history.
2. Everybody Loves Our Town
As reductive as it is to view Pearl Jam’s legacy through the prism of grunge, it’s also unavoidable. While the superlative contributions of Soundgarden and Alice In Chains could never be overstated, as far as grunge’s mainstream crossover was initially concerned, the scene had two principal avatars: Nirvana and Pearl Jam. With the huge success of 1991’s Nevermind and Ten respectively, the Seattleites all but razed the memory of of ’80s hair metal. In Pearl Jam’s case in particular, songs like Alive, Black and Jeremy introduced a lyrical sensitivity to the charts that was the antithesis of the preening, misogynistic music that had dominated the decade prior. The sales of these records affected not only music, but also culture. Vocalist Eddie Vedder was, after all, once offered a spot in a Calvin Klein underwear ad. The widely-recycled history of grunge now stands as a macramé of myth, misconceptions and, occasionally, the truth. What’s undeniable, however, is that Pearl Jam affected rock’s trajectory to a degree that few bands have ever before. Or since.
3. Fan The Flames
In the day and age of Twitter, Instagram, TikTok et al, the very notion of a fan club seems like some quaint relic from a bygone era. But not Pearl Jam’s. From the very beginning, they built something more akin to a living, breathing community than a faceless postal service. Launched in 1991, over the years the Ten Club has delivered exclusive vinyl 7‑inches, pre-sale access to tours, special T‑shirts and even its own magazine, Deep.
4. In My Family Tree
It is entirely possible to argue that no single band has ever spawned so many other critically acclaimed, successful and outright legendary other groups. Starting with their exquisite Chris Cornell collaboration Temple Of The Dog – which was recorded concurrently with Ten – Pearl Jam members’ extracurricular activities include Mike McCready’s Mad Season, Stone Gossard’s Brad, and Jeff Ament’s RNDM. That’s not to mention various solo releases, including two Eddie Vedder outings and Matt Cameron’s Cavedweller project.
5. Jeremy Controversy
Over the course of their career, Pearl Jam have, both intentionally and unintentionally, become embroiled in controversy. One of the first major instances of the latter was the video for Jeremy, which brought the song – based on the true story of Jeremy Wade Delle, a student, who died by suicide in front of his class – to life. Unfortunately, many misinterpreted the final frames of the video. “I think Pearl Jam was very, very upset that this piece about an alienated kid who killed himself was taken to be this glorified piece about a guy who shoots his classmates,” the video’s director Mark Pellington told the New Yorker. It remains one of the most famous – and powerful – videos ever.
6. Hitting It Off
Pearl Jam must surely be one of precious few bands to have actively avoided making hits. First, they refused to bow to substantial label pressure to release Ten’s emotional ballad Black as a single. Likewise, while Better Man is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest songs in their catalogue, it was actually cut from the tracklist of their second album. “That’s a hit!” Brendan O’Brien recalled saying in the studio, as detailed in Pearl Jam’s PJ20 anniversary book. “They all just looked straight down and the whole room was deflated. I knew I’d said the wrong thing.” The song eventually appeared on 1994’s Vitalogy.
7. Second To None
Following the jaw-dropping success of Ten, and with the world suffering from an incurable case of grunge fever, all eyes were on Pearl Jam when it came to their highly-anticipated second album Vs. in October 1993. The reviews were suitably ecstatic – Kerrang! proclaiming, “Pearl Jam have changed forever the way that rock music can be played” – yet the question lingered: how could they get any bigger? Simple. Vs. set a new record, selling an astounding 950,378 copies in just five days in the U.S. alone.
8. Press Pause
In 2020, it’s not uncommon for many of the world’s biggest artists to abstain from doing interviews. Pearl Jam helped blaze this trail. “I don’t want to be a star, it’s not worth it,” an already fame-fatigued Eddie Vedder told Kerrang! in 1993. “I personally think that the less you know about a musician, the better. All that you need is the music.” And so it was that Pearl Jam largely stepped back from promoting Vs.. It’s often cited that they deliberately sabotaged themselves by doing so, but that is to miss the point entirely. “If you hear that none of us in the band are doing interviews, it’ll just be because we’re trying to keep a little bit of control on this,” Eddie argued, not unreasonably. “[It’s] a little bit of music preservation.”
9. Single Video Theory
Part of the band’s new anti-promotion approach involved the incredibly bold move to stop making music videos. In the day and age of MTV’s global hegemony, this was an unprecedented move. “We didn’t make a conscious, ‘We’re not ever going to do videos again’ decision,” Stone Gossard told Kerrang! years later. “It was more a case of every time we had the opportunity to do a video, we all looked at each other and said, ‘Do we want to do a video? Nooooo, I don’t think so.’” True to their word, the band didn’t release another music video until 1998’s excellent animated clip for Do The Evolution.
10. Given To Climb
Pearl Jam’s reputation as a phenomenal live band was initially predicated not only on their prodigious playing, but also on spectacle. Eddie often took his life into his own hands by scaling the most perilously high points of venues/festival scaffolding and swinging or hanging from them. “Some people might say that I have a death wish,” Eddie told K! around the time. “That’s wrong. I have a total life wish.”
11. Brain Of J(eff)
Alongside Iron Maiden and Tool, Pearl Jam have been one of the foremost bands to produce innovative album artwork. In 1996, their fourth album No Code’s physical package boasted a collage of 144 interlocking polaroid pictures which, when unfolded and observed from a distance, revealed an eye. It’s also crucial to highlight Jeff Ament’s contribution to this side of the band. Not only did he create their ‘stick man’ logo and take the photograph of the angora goat on the cover of Vs., working with his brother Barry, plus Coby Schultz and Brad Klausen, they have created hundreds of original (highly collectible) tour posters for individual Pearl Jam shows.
12. Why Go Home?
One of the pillars upon which Pearl Jam’s legend is built is their preservation of the sanctity of the live experience. Shows often gallop past the three-hour, 30-song mark and at Mansfield, Massachusetts on July 11, 2003, Pearl Jam delivered a 45-song performance, which included a full acoustic set. “We’ve done it all backwards,” joked Jeff to K! in 2018. “When we were 25 years old it would have been great to have 45 songs to play… And here we are in our 50s, and just trying to stay upright is a process.”
13. Riot Activism
For Pearl Jam, activism and music have often been inseparable. Eddie Vedder scrawling the words pro-choice on his arm during their MTV Unplugged is but the most famous instance. Their causes have ranged far and wide, from the Tibetan Freedom movement to carbon mitigation and even preservation of wild horses. In 2018, the band helped raise an astounding $10.8 million for Seattle’s most disadvantaged people.
14. Spin The Black Circle
In 2019, Pearl Jam were appointed as official ambassadors of Record Store Day. In truth, they were passionate advocates for the format long before the vinyl revival struck and every band was releasing albums in 50 different colours. In 1994, they issued their classic album Vitalogy on vinyl two weeks before the CD version – selling 34,000 copies in its first week alone – a record that stood until 2014.
15. Plan B-Side
Pearl Jam never play the same show twice. That’s because no band has done more to elevate both B‑sides and deep cuts, the group often playing them with the same regularity as their biggest anthems. In the case of Jeremy B‑side Yellow Ledbetter, it became one of their standard set closers – impressive given few have a clue what the song is actually about. Including the man who originally created it. “Eddie started making up words on the spot and we kept them,” wrote Mike McCready in the liner notes to 2003 B‑side collection Lost Dogs. “I still don’t know what it’s about and I don’t want to!”
In January 1995, Pearl Jam were taking over the airwaves in more ways than one with DJ Eddie Vedder hosting their very own show christened Self-Pollution Radio. A four-and-a-half hour special broadcast, Self-Pollution featured interviews, two sets from Pearl Jam and live cuts from Soundgarden, Mad Season, Mudhoney and the Fastbacks, plus the debut of a song titled Exhausted, taken from a still untitled, upcoming post-Nirvana project from a certain someone. You’ll never guess Foo…
17. Masters Of Tour
Famously, in 1994, Pearl Jam entered into a protracted spat with Ticketmaster, taking issue with the additional fees being charged to fans. While the band experimented with numerous ways to circumvent Ticketmaster, they soon struggled to locate venues not beholden to exclusive contracts with the ticketing giant. It is often incorrectly cited that Pearl Jam sued Ticketmaster – they didn’t – but they did journey to the U.S. Congress to argue that the company was tantamount to a monopoly. “All the members of Pearl Jam remember what it’s like to be young and not have a lot of money,” said Stone Gossard at a hearing. “We’ve made a conscious decision that we do not want to put the price of our concerts out of the reach of our fans…” In 1995 Pearl Jam commenced with their Ticketmaster Boycott Tour by building their own shows, which were subsequently affected by counterfeit tickets and bad weather. The tour was scrapped. Eventually, the Ticketmaster case was closed and headlines declared Pearl Jam the losers. The pages of history, however, have been far kinder in casting them as the noble band who went above and beyond to protect their fans.
18. Talking 'Bout My Generation(s)
Pearl Jam’s role as a unifying generational force in rock is commonly overlooked. Bruce Springsteen and The Who rank among their highest-profile fans, but it was in 1995 that this was most clearly seen – on top of touring together, Pearl Jam and Neil Young joined forces to record their brilliant album Mirror Ball. “Working with him was just surreal,” Stone told K!. “You’re there, thinking, ‘Okaaaaaay, that’s Neil Young!’ We went in there and hacked as well as we could!”
19. GRAMMY Out Of Control
For many musicians, a GRAMMY win is the ultimate artistic accolade. It is for that reason that Eddie’s bemused 1996 acceptance speech reverberates to this day. “I don’t know what this means, I don’t think it means anything. That’s just how I feel,” he offered, gazing upon Pearl Jam’s award for Best Hard Rock Performance. “Thanks, I guess.”
20. Under The Influence
You don’t sell 10 million copies of one album without having a profound impact on the next generation of artists. As such, Pearl Jam’s influence is felt – often in ways undetected – in the work of everyone from Corey Taylor and Biffy Clyro to Brian Fallon and Billy Talent.
21. Lights! Cameron! Action!
When Soundgarden’s Matt Cameron joined Pearl Jam in 1998 it was not only a landmark moment for alt.rock, but also the band. After years of having a revolving cast of drummers, Matt brought a stability that had been lacking. Crucially, he also brought huge tracks, too – conjuring up the beloved likes of The Fixer and You Are. “Matt Cameron writes songs and we run to find step stools in order to reach his level,” said Eddie in Lost Dogs’ liner notes.
It was a tragedy that shook the music world to its core. On June 30, 2000, a crowd crush occurred during Pearl Jam’s headline set at Roskilde Festival, Denmark, which – despite the band’s best efforts to calm the situation – resulted in the death of nine people. “It was the worst thing we’ve ever experienced, hopefully it will remain so,” reflected Eddie to K! in 2009. “I was having a really hard time with, ‘Why us?’ We tried to take care of people, to protect people, to feel responsible for the crowd at all times with ticket prices and their safety.” The tragedy nearly broke Pearl Jam. “We just had to get through it, somehow,” Eddie added. “As you do with anything. As you do with death, or any of the negative things that happen to human beings. And we had to keep the music intact.”
23. Monkey (Wrench) Business
In 2012, Metallica launched their own label, Blackened Recordings, and were widely saluted for taking complete control of their art. Yet, all the way back in late 2004, Pearl Jam had made the move to set up their own label Monkeywrench. After experimenting with self-releasing music – via The Molo Sessions and releasing their 5K-rated self-titled album as a joint venture with Clive Davis’ J Records – Backspacer eventually became the band’s first fully self-released album in 2009.
24. Boot Legends
When Gigaton was released on March 27, Pearl Jam officially had 11 studio albums to their name. In truth, however, they have hundreds of albums. Alongside their official live records – 1998’s Live On Two Legs, 2011’s Life On Ten Legs, 2017’s Let’s Play Two, plus 2007’s sprawling, seven-disc Live At The Gorge boxset – they have been releasing their live shows as official bootlegs for years. And every tour, that number continues to grow.
25. The Seattle Sound(track)
Pearl Jam have made their mark in Hollywood more times than you would think. The band made cameos in Cameron Crowe’s 1992 movie Singles, and who could forget Eddie delivering an utterly absurd speech in spoof music biopic Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story? Moreover, many films have benefitted from Pearl Jam’s music – including Big Fish, Reign Over Me and Dead Man Walking – but none more so than Eddie Vedder’s incredible debut solo album Into The Wild serving as the soundtrack to Sean Penn’s 2007 film of the same name.
26. Beat Around The Bush
Before Green Day, NOFX and other acts were holding George W. Bush to account over the Iraq War, Pearl Jam had been busy locking antlers with the 43rd president of the United States. In 2002, Stone Gossard and Eddie Vedder wrote Bu$hleaguer – a bitter critique of Dubya – that was played onstage with the frontman wearing a mask of the president. This at a time when national patriotism was at fever pitch in the wake of 9/11. The result? Their HQ received threatening messages. Quarters were hurled at them. They weren’t fazed. “I come from a punk rock background so I love that stuff,” Jeff Ament told Kerrang! in 2018. “I love people getting mad and getting upset and reacting. That’s the best of art, that you can get a reaction out of somebody – whether it’s a reaction of pure joy or pure hate. I think both are good.” It wouldn’t be the last time a president would feel their wrath…
In 2011 something extraordinary happened: Pearl Jam, after years of embracing their right to privacy, opened the vaults to mark their 20th anniversary. The PJ20 film – which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival – saw director Cameron Crowe assemble 30,000 hours of Pearl Jam footage and music, all bolstered with new interviews. It was a revelatory and joyous look into a world that had long been off limits. “It was amazing, and I feel honoured that Cameron made it,” Mike McCready told Kerrang! in 2013. “Sitting there in Toronto, it was a big emotional release. And sad. It was hard to watch.”
Currently taking up George W. Bush’s former role as a lightning rod for Pearl Jam’s ire is, unsurprisingly, president Donald Trump. In 2018, the group allowed a huge inflatable balloon of an infantalised Trump to be set up outside their O2 Arena show in London. More damningly, they released the one-off single Can’t Deny Me – a protest song, featuring the pointed lyrics ‘The country you are now poisoning / Condition critical’. And that’s just an appetiser compared to some of the lyrics aimed at him on Gigaton…
29. The Long Road
“Trying to order pizza with five guys is hard,” said Eddie Vedder at the PJ20 film launch press conference. “To get five guys together and make music for this long is a miracle.” Behind this is the sobering fact that Pearl Jam are the only one of grunge’s four superstar acts that never fell apart. “The story of Pearl Jam takes the usual rock story and turns it on its head,” said Cameron Crowe. “Usually it starts out with a spark of brilliance, and then you have success, and tragedy cuts it short. Pearl Jam is tragedy surmounted, joy through survival.”
30. It's Evolution, Baby
When Pearl Jam released Gigaton’s brilliant first single Dance Of The Clairvoyants, it came as a surprise to many. Where has the Talking Heads influence come from? Why is Stone playing bass? Since when has Mike been this funky? Some 30 years into their existence, Pearl Jam are still finding new ways to enchant and confound listeners on Gigaton.
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