Pearl Jam’s Ten: The evolution of a classic

A fresh look at how the 11 classic songs on Pearl Jam’s monolithic debut album Ten have evolved since 1991…

Pearl Jam’s Ten: The evolution of a classic
Originally published:

You already know the story behind Ten. About how the tragic death of charismatic Mother Love Bone frontman Andrew Wood precipitated the birth of Pearl Jam. About how a petrol station security guard and avid surfer in San Diego by the name of Eddie Vedder was sent a demo tape from Seattle and started writing lyrics that would soon help create arguably the greatest rock debut record of all time. You certainly know about the Seattle Sound/grunge scene explosion and how Ten, fittingly, went on to sell over 10 million copies in the U.S. alone. And you know how Pearl Jam struggled to process the whirlwind success and, ultimately, turned their back on fame while still finding a way to remain one of the biggest rock bands in the world. This you all know.

But let’s think about it a different way. Let’s talk about these 11 classic songs not as things frozen in time in 1991, but rather what they would become: how they found new expressions, changed meanings and open up themes for other PJ songs to tackle…


One of the most interesting things about the legitimately perfect album that is Ten is that its creators were not convinced that it was all that perfect, actually. And so in 2009, Pearl Jam re-issued their debut with an all-new remastered and remixed version by their long-term collaborator Brendan O’Brien. “Somewhere in the late ’90s, I found a rough mix tape of Ten,” explained bassist Jeff Ament in the official Pearl Jam 20th anniversary book. “I started playing it on cassette, and that’s when I started saying, ‘We have to remix Ten!’ It would usually happen after we’d been in a club or something, and we’d hear a song from it. I was like, ‘Ugh! This is killing me!’” While the 2009 reissue came with the original version produced by Rick Parashar, the new Brendan take on Ten gave it a much sharper sound. One of the biggest beneficiaries of this process was album opener Once – which was one of three songs to be first given the Brendan treatment on 2004 greatest hits collection Rearviewmirror. One of the heaviest, most frenzied Pearl Jam entries suddenly sounded even bigger and better.

2Even Flow

Alive may remain Pearl Jam’s perennial calling card, but it’s Even Flow that actually has the distinction of being the song they have played the greatest number of times live. Indeed, according to the good folk behind the Unofficial Pearl Jam Stat Tracker app it has been performed a whopping 836 times. It’s worth stating because Even Flow on record and Even Flow onstage are two very different beasts. In the studio it lasted four minutes and 53 seconds. Of course, as fans know, in reality it lasts however long Mike McCready wants it to, the guitarist extraordinaire drawing the song out with Hendrix-in-mind-and-fingertips solos. Even Flow has, then, become Mike’s platform to display why he is eligible for the title: Greatest Guitarist In The World.


Alongside Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, Alive is a song so ubiquitous and so omnipresent it is now much more than just a Pearl Jam song. It stands as a historical artefact: an aid to future generations looking to understand ’90s rock music and culture. But that’s not to say it hasn’t changed. Most principally for its creators, this is in relation to its meaning. Alive, lest we forget, is a gaping open wound of a song dealing with familial deceit and fractured identity – something that was lost on a lot of people upon its release, who just loved to bellow ‘I’m still alive!’ as a sort of prototype-YOLO anthem. On VH1 Storytellers, Eddie said that very phrase, as originally conceived, “was a curse”. Years of playing it to baying crowds altered it, however. “Every night I would look out on this sea of people reacting in their own positive interpretation, it was really incredible. The audience changed the meaning of these words. When they sing ‘I’m still alive’ it’s like they’re celebrating. And here’s the thing: when they changed the meaning of those words, they lifted the curse.” For a long time now – and as captured so electrically on Pearl Jam’s phenomenal 2007 concert film Immagine In Cornice – Eddie will change the words near the end adding, ‘You, me… We’re all still alive!’ Through a rather lovely twist of fate Alive actually became the celebratory anthem a lot of people originally mistook it for.

4Why Go

There is such a thing as continuity in the Pearl Jam canon. In Ten’s original liner notes, Why Go was listed as being written “4 Heather” – someone Eddie Vedder would later state in interviews that he knew in Chicago who was institutionalised. Its powerful themes of abandonment and mental health, not to mention the surging strains of the music, made Why Go a fan favourite upon release, but the story wasn’t done. Why Go found its spiritual successor on 1993’s Vs. courtesy of Leash, Eddie telling Spin magazine that it was about, “the same girl, Heather, that Why Go was about. She was stuck in a home because she was, like, caught smoking pot or something. This is what they do in Chicago in the suburbs.”


“It’s a true story, something that I really felt,” explained Eddie in the 2011 Pearl Jam Twenty documentary film. “And I still feel every time I sing it.” It goes without saying: this hurricane-force ballad has soundtracked a million heartbreaks around the world, and since its release it's been covered by everyone from Slipknot’s Corey Taylor to Staind’s Aaron Lewis. But the most rousing version of the song is not even on the Ten record. It is not unusual to hear Eddie howling a refrain lifted from Rickie Lee Jones’ 1981 track We Belong Together, as so famously captured on Pearl Jam’s MTV Unplugged set. In a live setting, however, the song has also been used in way that transcend the specific kind of heartbreak it is usually associated with. Eddie Vedder dedicated a profoundly moving performance of Black at Firenze Rock Festival in 2017 to Chris Cornell, who had passed away just two months prior. “It is Saint Giovanni’s day. The first two letters reminds me of one band… Soundgarden…” he told the audience. “We are many, we are one, and probably all of us, at one time, have been through the blacks.”


The third single from Ten had an integral role in the development of Pearl Jam. Well, more specifically, its video did. Up until Jeremy, the group had opted only to record live music videos, hence the decision to surrender some control for a concept video was not one they made lightly. The clip – directed by Mark Pellington – that so vividly brought the short, unhappy existence and violent end of the song’s character to life on screen won awards but also provoked people enough to court censorship at MTV both at the time, and later in the aftermath of the 1999 Columbine high school shooting. The prescience of the song’s lyrics continues to this day. For the band, however – and despite being pleased with the result – the process of acting to the camera wasn’t agreeable. “Just not into it, really,” reflected Eddie in archive footage on the Pearl Jam Twenty documentary. Jeremy, then, marked a key shift in how the public would see – or rather not see – Pearl Jam going forward. Following the candid camera DIY footage of the Oceans video, the band wouldn’t make another music video for six years (that’s three albums without any videos). “Ten years from now I don’t want people to remember our songs as videos,” bassist Jeff Ament told Rolling Stone in 1993. The drought would only lift with the Todd McFarlane/Kevin Altieri-directed animated video for Do The Evolution in 1998. Finally, it should be noted that the Jeremy single’s B-side also gave the world an all-time fan favourite. To this day, the mystifying strains of Yellow Ledbetter can still regularly be heard closing Pearl Jam concerts.


The story of Ten’s fourth single Oceans and its creation has since long passed into Pearl Jam history: how Eddie Vedder got locked out of the studio but could nevertheless hear the band playing inside. Thus, he penned lyrics on a scrap of paper while listening through the door. While Eddie told the MTV Unplugged audience that the song was in fact, “about somebody named Beth [Liebling, Eddie’s then-partner]”, it nonetheless draws heavily upon imagery associated with an altogether different type of romance: Ed’s love of surfing. Ten wouldn’t be the last time he tackled the subject. For the ultimate Pearl Jam surfing mini-mix put this next to Big Wave (from 2006’s criminally underrated self-titled/Avocado album) and Amongst The Waves from 2009’s Backspacer. Oddly, despite its status as an official single, it currently stands as the Ten track Pearl Jam have played the fewest amount of times live with just 95 performances out 1028 shows according to the Unofficial Pearl Jam Stat Tracker. Still, that only makes it more special to hear live, especially when they use it as spellbinding opener like they did at London’s The O2 in 2018.


Beloved by fans, not to mention Dave Grohl’s pals in Zac Brown Band who took to covering it, Porch is the song behind two of the most important performances in Pearl Jam’s history. The sight of Eddie Vedder scrawling “Pro-Choice” on his arm in support of women’s abortion rights while balancing precariously on a stool during their MTV Unplugged set? That was Porch. The footage of him diving from a camera crane into the pit in front of 60,000 strong crowd at Pink Pop in 1992? Whaddayaknow, Porch! Over the years, its live delivery has changed, too. Compared to the urgent pace of the opening on the record, it has often evolved into a delicate intro as captured on 2011’s Live On Ten Legs album, which also saw the three-minute, 30-second-long song swell to double its original length.


Garden has had a relatively scarce showing live compared to the likes of Even Flow, having been played just 152 times. But one performance of Garden was signalled out as particularly important to Pearl Jam’s development as a live band. As part of directing the 2011 Pearl Jam Twenty documentary film, veteran Rolling Stone journalist Cameron Crowe curated a live soundtrack that captured milestone performances. One of which was Garden performed in the cosy confines of the Albani Bar Of Music in Winterthur, Zurich, Switzerland in 1992, where the stage was so small they decided to try play their music acoustically for the first time. “Here is a real-time account of the band learning that their music also worked in this context. Much would come from the discovery…” wrote Cameron. And how. It marked the first of many sensational acoustic outings, not just for MTV Unplugged, but also their Mansfield, Massachusetts show in 2003 when they played a full acoustic set before their support act, Sleater-Kinney, even came on, as well as their beautiful Live At Bennaroyal record. The seeds of such stunning moments were, in part, planted in this particular Garden.


Oddly, for a song that became the name of the Pearl Jam fan club’s official magazine, the curious thing about Deep is how relatively little we still know about it or get to see it. Only three pages of the comprehensive PJ Twenty tome even reference the song. Likewise, according to the Unofficial Pearl Jam Stat Tracker, it has only been played 204 times. What’s more, it remains one of the great mysteries in PJ live history. Deep was seemingly a mainstay in sets up until 1995 and then disappeared swiftly until (counts) 2003!? The reason why continues to keep the Pearl Jam message boards awake at night. Still, when Pearl Jam do play it, more and more light is shed on it. At their show in Manchester Arena in 2012, Eddie told the story of its creation. “This is a song that’s been around for a long time and for some reason it hit me today, I had an intense memory of where it came from,” he said. “I was walking in Seattle, I’d only lived there less than a year, and a lighter fell out of the sky onto the sidewalk. I looked up to see where it was coming from and about four storeys up there was a guy – real skinny, kind of scabby looking dude – in a windowsill with a band around his arm, putting a needle into the inside of his elbow. Once I saw that, I just knew I would never fucking do that. It was the most pathetic thing I’d ever seen.”


The story of Release is one of inversion: how Ten’s stunning emotional climax found new life as Pearl Jam’s greatest opening track at their live shows. Indeed, according to the Unofficial Pearl Jam Stat Tracker, Release has opened more Pearl Jam gigs than any other – standing at 145 performances with its closest runner up Wash clocking in at just 81. It typifies the evolution of Pearl Jam sets as a whole, the band for many years now preferring to start a show with a beautiful, slow-burn number before cranking things up. There are innumerable phenomenal live versions of Release, but for the greatest consult their 2006 show in Verona, Italy. As captured so dramatically in the PJ20 movie, the sight of the band playing to an ampitheatre in the pouring rain is proof, if any were ever needed, of how the songs that comprise Ten – not to mention Pearl Jam’s ability to play them – have only improved with the passage of time.

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