1992 was the year of the grunge explosion. Most of the significant releases, like Nirvana’s Nevermind, Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger, and Temple of the Dog’s self-titled album, were released the year prior. Still, mainstream recognition came as the second year of the ’90s took hold. Flannel was everywhere, Seattle was the centre of the musical universe, and every comedian in the world had an Eddie Vedder impression ready to go.
Pearl Jam were in an unenviable position during this explosion. Sure, they were a huge band, but they were perennial bridesmaids to Nirvana, especially as Kurt Cobain took joy in slagging them off in public: “They’re obviously just corporate puppets that are just trying to jump on the alternative bandwagon – and we are being lumped into that category.” Cobain took umbrage with the band’s musical roots, which included a notable adjacency to the now-despised glam metal scene and was miles away from the punk-inspired fuzz of his own liking.
Since “grunge” is an ambiguous umbrella term, it’s pretty easy to see how Pearl Jam doesn’t quite fit into the typical sound of the time. For one, they retained the colossal stadium-ready sound of classic rock rather than the take-no-prisoners DIY ethos of underground bands like Sonic Youth and Melvins. Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Who, and Neil Young are the essential blocks that built the house of Pearl Jam, not Pixies or The Raincoats.
In his fantastic book, Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me, writer Steven Hyden positions Pearl Jam – and Eddie Vedder – as being deferential while Cobain retained a passive indifference. Even as they met and Cobain’s animosity towards them softened, he never actually seemed to like Pearl Jam all that much, and in turn, Pearl Jam could never entirely leave Nirvana in the rearview mirror – OK, I’ll stop shoehorning these song titles in now.
When Pearl Jam arrived at the icy recesses of the BBC Studios in February of 1992, you could practically smell the classic rock on them. Stone Gossard and Mike McCready employ the two guitars that are most synonymous with ’70s rock: a Gibson Les Paul and a Fender Stratocaster, respectively. Jeff Ament utilises a fat bass tone and rocks a sweet fuzzy hat. They all pulsate to the rhythms, but never thrash. Their song of choice, ‘Alive’, plays with a giant sing-along chorus, even as the verses spell out a family tragedy. It’s not hard to see why – warranted or not – that some would take issue with the band representing the subterranean underbelly of Seattle.
Pearl Jam would survive the detractors calling them “fake grunge” and wound up being by far the most interesting and versatile band to come out of the Seattle scene. Through a more stripped back and raw production style on albums like Vitalogy, a battle with Ticketmaster which ended in a moral but ultimately pyrrhic victory for the band, and a team-up with Neil Young at the halfway point of the ’90s, Pearl Jam began to earn the respect that had eluded them initially. Now the lone survivors of the initial first wave of grunge, Pearl Jam don’t need anybody’s blessing or admiration anymore.
Check out the band’s performance of ‘Alive’ at the BBC down below.