Formed in 1990, Pearl Jam is one of the most influential bands of the grunge era. The group helped popularize grunge music in the early 1990s, and they continued to be a respected alternative rock band in the 21st century. Pearl Jam isn’t the type of band that fell victim to the music industry’s accepted conventions. They separated themselves from the typical grunge bands with their surprisingly varied sonic palette and lyrics filled with political awareness. The band also often shunned popular industry practices like giving interviews or making music videos. But despite these things, their uniqueness and authenticity made them one of the most influential bands of the 90s.
Formation and Early History
Pearl Jam was founded in Seattle in 1990 when Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament from the glam-influenced rock band Mother Love Bone decided to form a new band. In July 1990, four months after the release of Mother Love Bone’s debut album, vocalist Andrew Wood died, resulting in the band’s demise. Devastated from the death of bandmate, Gossard ended up spending his time writing material that was harder-edged than what he has been previously doing. Later on, Gossard practiced with fellow Seattle guitarist Mike McCready, from a previously broken-up band Shadow. McCready encouraged Gossard to reconnect with Ament. Soon after, the trio was practicing together and sent out a five-track demo tape to find a singer and a drummer.
The demo tape reached singer Eddie Vedder, a vocalist for a San Diego band Bad Radio. The trio was impressed, and within a week, Vedder joined the band. They added Dave Krusen as the drummer.
They named themselves Mookie Blaylock, in reference to a then-active basketball player. Soon, the band signed to Epic Records and renamed themselves Pearl Jam. Vedder shared that the name was a reference to his great-grandmother Pearl, who had a special recipe for peyote-laced jam. However, in a 2006 interview, Vedder admitted that his original story was “total bullshit,” but he did have a great-grandma named Pearl. They explained that Ament came up with “pearl,” and the “jam” was added after attending a Neil Young concert, in which he “spread out” his songs as improvisations of 15-20 minutes long.
In May 1991, Krusen left the band and was replaced by Matt Chamberlain. But after playing only a handful of shows, Chamberlain left to join the Saturday Night Live band. Chamberlain brought Dave Abbruzzese as a replacement, and the latter joined the group.
Pearl Jam started recording their debut album in August 1991, entitled Ten, naming it after Mookie Blaylock’s jersey number. It was released in August that year, and it contained tracks dealing with dark subjects like suicide, murder, depression, and loneliness. It was slow to sell, but by the second half of 1992, the album became a breakthrough success. It easily certified gold and reached the #2 spot on the Billboard charts. It produced hit singles “Jeremy,” “Alive,” and “Even Flow.” Ten stayed on the Billboard charts for almost five years and became one of the best-selling rock records ever. It even went 13x platinum.
Ten’s success made Pearl Jam a significant part of the Seattle grunge explosion, along with Nirvana, Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden. The band toured relentlessly in support of the album.
Dealing with Fame
Pearl Jam grew uncomfortable with success, with much of the burden falling on frontman Vedder. While they received four awards at the MTV Video Music Awards in 1993 for the “Jeremy” video, the band refused to make another video for “Black,” despite pressure from the label. This began a trend of the group refusing to make videos for their songs. They felt that the concept of music videos robbed listeners from making their own interpretations of the songs.
The band’s second album Vs. was released in 1993, selling almost 1 million copies in the first week of release. The album outperformed all other entries in the Billboard Top Ten of that week combined. After the release of Vs., the band decided to scale back its commercial efforts. They declined to make any more music videos and went for fewer TV appearances and interviews.
In 1994, Pearl Jam was outraged with Ticketmaster after discovering that the ticket vendor added service charge to the tickets. The band was committed to keeping their concert ticket prices low, but Ticketmaster CEO Fred Rosen refused to waive service charges. Because of that, the group opted to perform in outdoor stadiums in rural areas in order to avoid Ticketmaster. The failure of the band to organize tours without the ticket giant was evidence of Ticketmaster’s monopoly. The DOJ investigated the ticket giant’s company practices and involved the band in the investigation. The Congress recognized it as a national issue, and Pearl Jam canceled its 1994 tour in protest. The band continued to boycott Ticketmaster and refused to play in venues with contracts with the company.
While touring for Vs., tensions within the band increased due to some political differences between Abbruzzese and other band members. He was later fired and was replaced by Jack Irons from Red Hot Chili Peppers.
In 1994, Vitalogy was released. The CD album became the second-fastest selling in history, with more than 877,000 copies sold in the first week. Much of the songs reflect the pressures of fame. The hit “Spin the Black Circle” won a Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance in 1996. “Better Man” reached #1 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart and spent eight weeks on the top spot.
Late 90s Career
After touring for Vitalogy, the band started recording its follow-up album, No Code. Released in 1996, the album was a deliberate break from the band’s sound, favoring experimental ballads and noisy rockers. The lyrics dealt with self-examination issues, and the music displayed a wider range of instrumentation than any previous Pearl Jam album. It included singles such as “Who You Are,” “Hail, Hail,” and “Off He Goes.” Little touring was done to promote the album because of Pearl Jam’s refusal to perform in Ticketmaster venue areas.
In 1998, Pearl Jam released its fifth album, Yield, which was cited as a return to its straightforward rock sound. It debuted as #2 on the Billboard Charts, with included singles like “Wishlist” and “Given to Fly.”
In 1998, Pearl Jam changed drummers again after Jack Irons left the band after dissatisfaction with touring. He was replaced with former Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron as a temporary drummer, but he became a permanent member of the band.
Their anti-trust lawsuit against Ticketmaster was proven unsuccessful, and it hindered many live tours. Many fans complained about how difficult it is to get their tickets and to use non-Ticketmaster venues. For the Yield Tour and future tours, the band used Ticketmaster again to accommodate concertgoers better.
In 2000, the band worked on its sixth studio album, Binaural. The title is about the binaural recording techniques used on several tracks. The album reflected Pearl Jam’s willingness to be experimental, and it had darker lyrics than the previous album. Binaural included singles such as “Nothing as It Seems” and “Light Years.” It sold only more than 700,000 copies and was the band’s first studio album that did not reach platinum status.
Every show on the 2000 Binaural Tour was recorded, after noting the fans’ desire to own copies of the shows they attended. In the past, the band allowed fans to make amateur recordings, and these official bootlegs were permitted to provide a more affordable and better-quality product for fans. Pearl Jam released 72 live albums from 2000 to 2001.
Pearl Jam took a year-long break after the Binaural tour and worked on a new album. In November 2002, the band released their seventh album Riot Act, which included singles “Save You” and “I am Mine.” This politically-charged record had a more folk-based and experimental sound, making it a solid rock album.
The group’s eighth studio album, Pearl Jam, was released in May 2006. It was a return to the arena-rock sound of Vs., with singles like “World Wide Suicide,” recalling the urgency and anger of “Jeremy.” The “World Wide Suicide,” a song that criticized the Iraq War and the US foreign policy, topped the Billboard Modern Rock chart. The album also included singles like “Gone” and “Life Wasted.” In support of Pearl Jam, the group embarked on a world tour.
In 2009, Pearl Jam reissued four editions of Ten, featuring a remastering and remixing of the entire album by Brendan O’Brien. In 2011, Vs. and Vitalogy were both reissued in deluxe form.
The band released its ninth studio album Backspacer in 2009. It was a fun album that featured sounds influenced by pop and new wave. This album is one of the first releases to take advantage of Apple’s iTunes LP format. This software platform is designed to closely replicate a physical album’s experience by offering lyric sheets, liner notes, and photographs of the band.
The band released a live album in 2011 entitled Live on Ten Legs, featuring a compilation of live tracks from their world tours from 2003 to 2010.
In 2013, Pearl Jam released their tenth studio album, Lightning Bolt. The band played a two-leg tour in North America, followed by a festival in Australia and New Zealand. The album sold 166,000 copies in the first week, and it easily became the band’s fifth album to reach #1 on the Billboard 200.
In 2017, Pearl Jam was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by comedian David Letterman. That same year, the band released a live album and concert film Let’s Play Two, from the band’s shows at the Wrigley Field the previous year.
After seven years, the band released their latest studio album – the 11th one – entitled Gigaton on March 2020. The band announced tour dates in North America for March and April 2020, but it was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Pearl Jam is an iconic rock band that became popular during the grunge era but remained relevant throughout the years. Here are some of the best songs they released from their 30-year career:
- Jeremy (1992)
- Alive (1992)
- Even Flow (1992)
- Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town (1993)
- State of Love and Trust (1991)
- Yellow Ledbetter (1992)
- Rearviewmirror (1993)
- Better Man (1994)
- Given to Fly (1998)
- Black (1991)
- Go (1993)
- Who You Are (1996)
- Hail, Hail (1996)
- World Wide Suicide (2006)