Pearl Jam's Ten turns 30

30 Years Since Punk Broke - Part II

These days, it’s hard to remember that while so many of us may associate Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as the Grunge anthem that killed off ‘80s Hair Metal and ushered in a new wave of what heavy music could sound like in the mainstream, it was actually Pearl Jam’s Ten that would hit stores first and technically lay the groundwork for what would follow a month later. Only a few months after making their debut under the name Mookie Blaylock, the members of Pearl Jam would make a quick name-change as they would record what would become not only their debut, but also their best album and a true masterpiece. That’s not to say that everything was downhill from there for the band, in fact their popularity would only increase in the decade that followed and they’d actually go on to record better songs, but as a whole, their legacy is built upon Ten and it would forever stand as their crowning achievement.

When the album dropped at the end of August 1991, it wasn’t like the same serendipitous weekend that had occurred earlier in the year when the simultaneous events of Nirvana’s live debut of “Teen Spirit,” Temple of the Dog’s self-titled release date, and the filming of Cameron Crowe’s Singles would all happen on the same day, but it was just as life-changing for this Seattle group and added another notch in the city’s belt as the next up and coming music capital. This also wasn’t the overnight sensation that many might think it was, but a rather long-haul in terms of how the album’s reputation would build over the years to come. “Jeremy,” for instance, would get nominated for an MTV VMA in 1993 (it won Video of the Year), the same year as Ten’s follow-up Vs. was hitting shelves.

Today, Pearl Jam are treated as more of classic rock luminaries and less like Grunge heroes like their peers in Nirvana, so it can be hard for newer fans to totally grasp the legacy of Ten today, but the historical importance remains as significant as ever. Not only was it one of the best debut album of the ‘90s, but it was one of the best albums of the decade and one of the best debuts of all time. From the album, the band would release a staggering FIVE singles and all of them could stand as the best song on the album (so could others not chosen as singles). In fact, what stands as perhaps the album’s most defining aspect is that it could almost be a stand-alone greatest hits album for the band. Every track rocks just as much now as they did 30 years ago.

Looking back, the state of rock was in much more dire shape than people probably realized. While metal bands were still reigning supreme, the underground was ready for an uprising and this five-piece from Seattle was about to take the reins (whether they were up to the task or not). As bands like Sonic Youth, Pixies, and Dinosaur Jr brought punk closer to radio and MTV rotation, Pearl Jam were still more like their friends in Soundgarden and channeled hard rock of the ‘70s and left the more punk approach for Nirvana to handle. Even though their sounds were fundamentally different, critics would label the scene as Grunge, lump these groups together, and never look back. What would come next is something none of these guys would have imagined as the corporatization became apparent and everyone would latch on to whatever they could manage to label as Grunge for a profit.

However, before they became the world’s biggest rock band, they were still just five guys looking to form a band and put together songs that they’d been chasing for a few years in the hopes of finally getting them nailed down in a studio and shared with the public. What started out as demos from their original incarnation as Mother Love Bone would soon take shape with the assistance of Eddie Vedder on vocals and a permanent (well, minus the drummer) line-up that would allow them to unfurl the ideas of what mainstream rock could look like in the final decade of the millennium and beyond. A demo tape made by Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament would somehow make its way from Seattle to San Diego where it would land in the hands of a surfer by the name of Eddie Vedder. Many of the tracks were mostly instrumentals that were waiting for lyrics and Vedder’s themes surrounding homelessness, depression, suicide, and recovery would help bring on fans who were looking for hope and answers. He would soon become the voice of a generation. 

The tracks on Ten channel the soaring guitar solos of Jimi Hendrix and Zeppelin, but they never imitate, but rather innovate, bringing an updated feel to the power rock dynamics. Sure, Vedder’s vocals have a slight Jim Morrison echo, but his skills overcome any direct comparisons or rip off suggestions and really fly high. His range and tones are a hallmark of the album and in combination with his stage antics, set the band on a course towards the top. Between the wilding solos of Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, the rumbling bass lines of Jeff Ament, and the vocal prowess of Vedder, the band was able to expertly volley the talents amongst its members so that no one would ever take the spotlight and always have the assistance of others ready to set them into place, spiking with power at just the right moment. Trying to pick just one moment where Eddie’s words and delivery shine brightest is an incredible challenge and every time I think I’ve nailed it, another moment captures my attention and blows my mind.

The entire first side of the record (tracks 1-6 for the non-vinyl folks) is as perfect as it gets and up there as one of the all time best sides to any album ever. Every song is an outright blockbuster and could be the biggest song on any other band’s album. The simple, yet elegant transition from “Why Go” into “Black” almost sounds serendipitous, but is really a remarkable stroke of riffs that brilliantly meld the songs together. Just as “Jeremy” closes out the first side, “Release” brings the whole thing to a dramatic and exquisite finish. At over nine minutes, it’s not only the longest song on the album, it also has such range and dimension that it proved they could write epics as well and not just radio-friendly bangers.

They’d also take on an intellectual component that many other rock bands were lacking and use their talents to bring a voice to the underserved. Instead of being a hard rock band that was singing about sex and drugs, Pearl Jam built a platform to speak for social justice and change. “Jeremy” took a look at youth violence and in particular school shootings, something that was so far off the path from other big name rock bands and “Even Flow” spoke to homelessness that was sweeping the nation.

For those who only know Pearl Jam as a legacy act that is now more likened to “dad-rock” than to Grunge, it may be hard to comprehend just how game-changing the band was at the time and just how integral their voice was to a conversation about bringing justice to rock and roll. Sure, now they have pretty standard haircuts and play concerts in polo shirts, but any footage of them in their hey-day will immediately bring back the warranted justification of how they’re almost a bigger part of the Grunge conversation than Nirvana. Pearl Jam were forced to grow and maintain a career that aged just like they did and while they may have lost their way after the ‘90s, their spirit and significance is not something to be erased.

Ten set the sonic template for what hard rock would come to sound like in the ‘90s and it’s hard to imagine records from Stone Temple Pilots, Bush, and Live all existing without Ten paving the way. Where Nirvana took things on through the lens of punk, Pearl Jam’s more straightforward approach would also see them get name checked by plenty of bands who would tarnish their reputation (although not to the extent of Faith No More), but the foundation of ‘90s Alternative Radio would look radically different without Pearl Jam’s opus of a debut.

As the decade would carry on, they would become the most watched band on the planet and one that would set new standards for what a big name rock band could do. They never accepted the terms of others and would continue to push forward their own agenda, looking to make the music scene better for musicians and fans and less advantageous for record labels looking to make a massive profit. In its wake, Vs. would become one of the most anticipated albums of ‘93 and Vitalogy would follow in ‘94, capping off an incredible arc that would put them atop festival posters for the remainder of their career. As their fanbase would grow in size, it never impacted the band’s own trajectory and desire. And it all started with Ten

Nirvana may be considered the band that brought punk into the mainstream of the ‘90s, but Pearl Jam owned their sound and remained unscathed in their quest for dominance. Ten would eventually surpass Nevermind in sales and in turn set Pearl Jam on their course to becoming the biggest band in the world.