How Pearl Jam Overcame Every Obstacle to Complete Their Watershed Debut ‘Ten’
Although Pearl Jam’s global popularity wouldn’t achieve critical mass for a year, it had been set in motion all the way back on Aug. 27, 1991 with the release of the Seattle-based quintet’s watershed debut, Ten. By every measure, Ten was an unqualified triumph, eventually climbing to No. 2 on the U.S. charts and shifting some 13 million copies around the world. But it was spawned under modest expectations and out of deep tragedy.
Just one year earlier, future Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament were reeling, both emotionally and professionally. Their previous group, Mother Love Bone, had recently disintegrated when their singer, Andrew Wood, died from an accidental heroin overdose mere weeks before the release of their first album, Apple. The traumatic experience put Gossard and Ament -- whose resumes included another seminal '80s Seattle band, Green River -- back at square one.
It also tainted the songs Gossard wrote in the ensuing months with darker intentions than Mother Love Bone’s often funky alternative metal; songs that were duly demoed with Ament, lead guitarist Mike McCready, drummer Chris Fiel, and Soundgarden’s Matt Cameron, pitching in. But the band that would be Pearl Jam still needed a lead singer and they would have to look all the way down the West Coast, to San Diego resident Eddie Vedder, for the final ingredient for their musical recipe.
As the oft-told story goes, Vedder was given a copy of the demos by former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Jack Irons, went surfing, and then wrote lyrics for the instrumental recordings. These lyrics and overdubbed vocals so impressed Gossard that Vedder was flown up to Seattle for some joint writing sessions in the fall of 1990, resulting in more promising demos. And, just like that, the new group – provisionally named Mookie Blaylock, after the diminutive but feisty professional basketball player – found themselves signed to Epic Records.
By March, Vedder, Gossard, Ament, McCready and drummer Dave Krusen were ensconced inside Seattle’s London Bridge Studios, recording an album with producer Rick Parashar (who’d worked on the Andrew Wood tribute project, Temple of the Dog). By May, sessions had wrapped and Krusen was in rehab, replaced by Dave Abbruzzese; but there were still no evident signs that anything special was about to happen to the newly baptized Pearl Jam when Ten arrived in stores that August.
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At this particular point in time, the grunge movement that would so dominate popular culture in the next years, had yet to materialize. Seattle was just Seattle -- not the center of the musical universe. Of the bands that would soon constitute grunge’s “Big Four,” Alice in Chains had debuted with Facelift the previous year but were still seen as a metal band, Nirvana were one month away from changing the world with the catalytic Nevermind and Soundgarden’s breakthrough third album, Badmotorfinger, wouldn’t see the light of day until October.
Ten was met with generally solid reviews that, once backed by the growing mainstream success of first singles “Alive” and “Even Flow” gradually helped the band capture the alternative rock zeitgeist being foisted upon them in the wake of Nirvana’s game-changing success. The fact that Ten’s third single, “Jeremy,” took over radio and MTV in September of 1992, just as grunge mania was achieving complete hysteria, just proves how much timing plays a role in rock stardom or failure.
Had the grunge marketing phenomenon never happened, critics and fans would have never draped flannel shirts all over Ten’s eclectic and, thanks to Vedder’s poetic introspection, wonderfully lucid, if often somber track-listing. Its songs ranged from the riffing hard rock of “Once,” “Why Go” and “Porch,” to the deliberate, almost religious majesty of “Black,” “Oceans,” “Garden” and “Release,” and all of it was sprinkled with countless classic rock elements (not least of which the abundant psychedelics most evident on “Alive” and “Deep”).
Still, even though it took a while for Ten to gain commercial momentum, Pearl Jam found themselves uncomfortable with their newfound fame. They'd spend the next few years refusing to shoot videos for MTV, trying to take on Ticketmaster and generally eschewing all associations with the musical “mainstream” before finally coming to terms with their well-deserved popularity.
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