Hail, Hail: 10 Things You Should Know About Pearl Jam
Amongst all the Nevermind love running rampant this week, people seem to forget that Nirvana contemporaries Pearl Jam are also celebrating their 20th anniversary this year. Obviously the Nirvana tributes are different since one member is not living and the weight that Nevermind still carries two decades later is undeniable.
Mark C. Austin Pearl Jam at ACL '09
What's interesting about Pearl Jam - Eddie Vedder, Jeff Ament, Stone Gossard and Mike McCready - is their staying power, and their steadfast hold on their own career. The things they turned down in the '90s actually helped them last as long as they have: The fights with TicketMaster, the refusal to make obsessive amounts of music videos and media appearances, pushing albums instead of singles, all those things went against the music industry they came up in - foolishly, many said at the time.
Today though, their stubborn resolve is looked on with reverence.
Even their deal with Target to release 2009's Backspacer wasn't nearly scrutinized as the pacts that AC/DC and the Eagles had made with Walmart for their recent albums, because it was Pearl Jam doing it.
The band stopped being a "grunge" act long ago and began to settle in a sturdy classic-rock template around the turn of the century. Looking back, they were in fact the most throwback, old-school group to come out of the grunge movement, or whatever you want to call it. They were schooled more in acts like The Who, Led Zeppelin, and Neil Young than the punk pioneers the other grungers were repping. Same goes for Soundgarden.
Pearl Jam's catalog is not the most consistent, with a few stinkers (Riot Act) next to oddball fan favorites (No Code), and a few of those "return to form" albums that break them into a new audience (2006's Pearl Jam), but their live show - especially Vedder's manic persona - has always sold even the most questionable cuts in their canon.
For the Pearl Jam novice, it goes like this: you begin with August 1991's Ten, full of radio singles like "Jeremy" and "Black," more than 12 million copies sold. We make a right turn at 1993's Vs., which was our first indication that the band wouldn't play by the rules, but still wanted to be accessible.
1994's Vitalogy was the band's grand, winning experiment, recorded on tour, and a buffet of weirdness. 1996's No Code had religion on it's mind, never specified, and meandered from standard PJ anthems like "Hail, Hail" to the Neil Young-influenced jangle of "Off He Goes."
By 1998's Yield, Pearl Jam was working without a net, and watched from the sidelines as modern-rock bands like Creed stole page after page from their playbook, to less than stellar results. Even so, Yield was a solid outing, and still gets plays around Rocks Off's house.
2000's Binaural had great songs but no audience, and 2002's Riot Act was the sound of a band gasping for air under the weight of post-9/11 angst and Bush-bashing, completely forgetting to have fun while Vedder was preaching.
For their 2006 self-titled album, Pearl Jam realized they were now elder statesmen and wielded a heavier stick, on "Life Wasted" and "World Wide Suicide" especially, while still righteously angry with Dubya but now turning to Middle America for character studies. 2009's Backspacer actually came with a music for "The Fixer" and saw the band being downright chatty in public. Most saw it as the band waking up to the fact that their aging audience needed to be reminded they even existed, since they had been relatively under the pop radar since Vitalogy.
Any partial telling of the PJ story has to include a word on their live albums, official bootlegs, and the amount of live material available online. You can't really get the full PJ picture without hearing a few live bootlegs. Be sure to also stop by 1995's Merkin Ball, a two-song EP with Neil Young.
Making the theater rounds right now is Cameron Crowe's Pearl Jam Twenty, a documentary on the life of the band directed by one of their most vocal fans (next to Dennis Rodman). Crowe has been a longtime band cheerleader and friend of Vedder's.
Here are 10 facts about Pearl Jam, from recording nuggets, the genesis of their songs, to the meaning of the weird tattoo on Vedder's leg.