(Credit: Ana Viotti)

From Tom Petty to Talking Heads: Pearl Jam's 10 best covers of all time

Few acts have been as consistently sensational as Pearl Jam over the last 30 years. They have remained principled in their output despite the fame. Refusing to compromise themselves in the pursuit of success, becoming alt-rock legends without ever losing sight of what made people fall in love with Pearl Jam in the first place.

They are led by the vivacious vocalist, Eddie Vedder who has hand-crafted the blueprint for what the archetypal rock frontman should be, and many others have attempted to replicate it since. However, Pearl Jam have had their fair share of inspirations and put their spin on numerous tracks from artists they admire.

Their covers see the band pay homage to their heroes by moulding their sound into the universe of Pearl Jam. They add that delightful pinch of Seattle-grunge to each song and explain why Pearl Jam are the kings of the cover. Vedder pours his heart and soul into every single cover and explains why he is one of rock’s greatest frontmen.

The list of covers also provides an insight into who his favourite bands that Pearl Jam bond over, and it’s an eclectic mix, which features their takes on classics by a wide range of rock royalty. Check out the list below.

Pearl Jam’s 10 best covers

David Bowie – ‘Rebel Rebel’

Vedder and Co put their spin on Bowie’s number for the first time in their long career, and it was chosen to open the band’s second encore of the evening. The track, released in 1974 as a single from the album Bowie Diamond Dogs, has been widely credited as the most covered song of Bowie’s extensive back catalogue.

“The lyrics of ‘Rebel Rebel’ revisit familiar Bowie territory, featuring ‘a hot young tramp worrying his or her parents with his or her sexy nihilism,” biographer Marc Spitz explained. The themes of Bowie’s song are best represented by the specific moment when he sings: “You got a few lines and a handful of ‘ludes’.”

This emphatic performance is from the first of a two-night residency at Chicago’s Wigley Field baseball stadium, an emotional set of shows for Vedder, a die-hard fan of the Cubs.

Talking Heads – ‘Love → Building on Fire’

Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder is a self-professed Talking Heads obsessive and, while there seemingly isn’t a wealth of correlation between his work and that of the new wave icons, the fierce cover of their track ‘Love → Building on Fire’ is nothing short of sublime.

‘Love → Building on Fire’ is one for loyal Talking Heads fans. The 1977 stand-alone single was the first to track the band released after signing to Sire records and was one of the first bricks put down in the wall by the New York new-wave outfit to create their legacy.

It says something about the strength of their debut album, Talking Heads: 77, that they could afford to leave a track off the album that oozes as much class as this but, if there was one thing that Talking Heads never lacked, it was artistic courage.

The Who – ‘Baba O’Riley’

The anthem, released in 1971, features a combination of a few bits of songs that The Who’s Pete Townshend had hanging around and sewed together to form a classic. The track was written for the Lifehouse project and has since become a vital piece of its live show.

The guitarist wrote the song in response to the Isle of Wight Festival and “the absolute desolation of teenagers at Woodstock, where audience members were strung out on acid, and 20 people had brain damage. The irony was that some listeners took the song to be a teenage celebration: ‘Teenage Wasteland, yes! We’re all wasted!'”

That line has continued to resonate with generation after generation, ironically or unironically. Pearl Jam’s barnstorming cover of the thunderous effort is a rendition that even The Who would approve of.

Tom Petty – ‘I Won’t Back Down’

‘I Won’t Back Down’ is Petty’s most personal hour, and he manages to convey a depth of emotion through his immaculate and piercing vocals. Before Petty went into the studio to record 1989’s Full Moon Fever, his house was viciously burnt to ashes by an unknown arsonist.

At the time, Petty was home with his family, and they, fortunately, managed to escape, but the magnitude of that night’s event scarred him for a long time. The fire left a lasting impact on the musician and made him reevaluate his life. However, he also had this renewed sense of gratuity for living that came from surviving this attack.

That same lust for life that Petty channels into the original exist on Pearl Jam’s ferocious cover of the track, delivered with all the same energy that Petty intended. Pearl Jam have covered the song countless times, but Vedder’s acoustic solo version at one of their concerts feels extra special.

Pink Floyd – ‘Comfortably Numb’

Covering a track with the legacy and iconic status of ‘Comfortably Numb’ is a daunting task that most bands would run a mile away from, but not Pearl Jam. Eddie Vedder’s rapturous vocals add a layer of grit to the song, which blends these two titans of rock.

While Vedder had previously performed it live with Roger Waters in 2012, Pearl Jam didn’t unleash their take on ‘Comfortably Numb’ until 2015, and it remained a stalwart in their set for their next tour.

‘Comfortably Numb’ firmly sits in the pantheon among Pink Floyd’s greatest songs, and the backstory for the track is almost as remarkable as the magic that the band concocted when they wrote it. Somewhat fittingly, given the band’s history, the now-iconic song was born out of a huge argument between the group’s two driving forces, Waters and Gilmour, which epitomises the dysfunctionality of the group in one instance.

Bob Dylan – ‘Masters of War’

Vedder first covered the track with his Pearl Jam bandmate, Mike McCready, at Bobfest, which was an event at Madison Square Garden in 1992 to celebrate the 30 years of Bob Dylan as a recording artist.

This performance from Letterman in 2004 from Pearl Jam is spine-tingling when you consider the anti-war message of the track and the vehement anger exploding out of Vedder as he performs ‘Masters of War’ in the wake of the Iraq War.

Daniel Johnston – ‘Walking The Cow’

The late, great Daniel Johnston is your favourite musician’s favourite musician. Constant mental health struggles held back the singer’s life, and although he never reached chart-topping fame, he remains undoubtedly one of the most influential artists of his generation.

Following Kurt Cobain, a huge fan of Johnston, launching his career by wearing his ‘Hi, How Are You’ t-shirt in 1993, there was interest in his art from the mainstream for the first time. The following year, Pearl Jam then covered his track, ‘Walking The Cow’, during their set at Neil Young’s Bridge School Concert and is an effortlessly gorgeous take on the original.

Otis Redding – ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock of The Bay’

‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay’ is the definitive Otis Redding song. It’s highly regarded and steeped in legendary mystique because he co-wrote it with the esteemed soul guitarist Steve Cropper. The duo wrote the effort just a matter of days before the iconic soul singer lost his life in a devastating plane crash.

It remains a crying shame that Redding wasn’t alive to witness his song topping the charts a month after his death, with it becoming the first posthumous number-one single in U.S. chart history. The album The Dock of the Bay also became the first posthumous album to reach the UK Albums Chart’s top spot.

Pearl Jam’s cover on the track shows that a great song is a great song and can flow between genres, with Vedder guiding ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay’ to a location that fuses soul and grunge, which seems an implausible task. The cover’s solo is divine, and their version pays homage to both Cropper and Redding beautifully.

The Beatles – ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’

Eddie Vedder is a bonafide Beatles superfan; throughout his career with and without Pearl Jam, he has covered nine different Beatles songs. These range from a classic like ‘Blackbird’ to deep cuts like ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’, all of which speaks to a man completely captivated by The Beatles’ songwriting.

Vedder once selected their album With The Beatles as one of his favourites of all time, noting: “This is almost a textbook for someone born in 1964.”

“I had a tape that was called ‘Revolver White Album.’ I didn’t find out they were two separate albums until years later. The White Album has songs that appeal to little kids, like ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,’ Then, if you get into it, you’re listening to ‘Revolution 9.’ I mean, that stuff opens you up. It’s where you first get comfortable with ‘difficult’ listening.”

Neil Young – ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’

Pearl Jam have performed the track over 100 times during their live shows, and without the Godfather of Grunge, who knows whether they’d have become the behemoth of rock they are today.

When inducting Young into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Vedder said of the singer: “He’s taught us a lot as a band about dignity and commitment and playing in the moment and when I hear, you know, the speeches and inducting Janis Joplin and Frank Zappa, I get, uh, I’m just really glad he’s still here. And I’m gonna (audience applauds; Eddie rolls his eyes, smiles and clutches his hand to his heart)… yeah!!

“And I think I’m gonna have to say that I don’t know if there’s been another artist that has been inducted into the Rock’ n’ Roll Hall of Fame to commemorate a career that is still as vital as he is today. Some of his best songs were on his last record.”


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