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(Credit: Pearl Jam)

Music

How Pearl Jam kickstarted the grunge explosion with 'Ten'

@TylerGolsen

An explosion was about to happen in the American Northwest. It was imminent, and the palpable excitement surrounding the new bands headlining clubs like the OK Hotel and the Re-Bar was about to expand to a worldwide audience. ‘Grunge’, a term that nobody in Seattle seemed to like and even fewer used to describe their own bands, was about to hit the mainstream, making flannel shirts and guttural vocals en vogue next to glitzy MTV stars like… En Vogue. 

But you wouldn’t know at the tail end of summer 1991 when Pearl Jam released their debut LP Ten. Despite being one of the numerous Seattle bands to be snatched up by a major label, Pearl Jam didn’t sell very many copies of Ten upon its initial release at the end of August. As would be the case for Pearl Jam’s entire career, the trick would not be hitting biggest, but lasting the longest. 

Guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCreedy had cut their teeth in the underground Seattle rock scene with bands like Green River, Mother Love Bone, and Shadow. The two shared similar tastes in music, and they decided to form a group. Gossard tapped his former partner in crime in both Green River and Mother Love Bone, bassist Jeff Ament, to join the project. They shipped around a demo tape that eventually found its way to San Diego singer Eddie Vedder. With Vedder on board, the band auditioned drummer Greg Krusen after Soundgarden’s Matt Cameron declined the job (Cameron would later join the band in 1998 and remains behind the kit to this day).

The stereotypical elements of the grunge sound that were copied by legions of imitators in the years to come actually didn’t have very much to do with the original wave of Seattle bands. The stripped-back sensibilities of Nirvana were what translated, but very few other bands went for the “four-chord rock with pop melodies and distortion pedals” sound. Alice in Chains channelled their hair metal roots into a sludgier sound, Soundgarden were Sabbath and Zeppelin diehards, and bands like Mudhoney and Melvins didn’t even attempt to produce soft-loud dynamics.

Pearl Jam was no different. The five-piece held an affinity for classic rock like The Who, Jimi Hendrix and Neil Young, and it was reflected in both their twin-guitar arrangement and their lack of reliance on the soft-loud dynamic that is so readily associated with the Seattle sound. On Ten, tracks like ‘Even Flow’ and ‘Porch’ are full-throttle rockers from start to finish, while ‘Black’ and ‘Jeremy’ rely on emotional flux rather than explicit dynamic changes. 

In a move that was widely derided at the time, the band also were given a production gloss that was heavily indebted to seventies rock. Dave Krusen’s drums are positively stadium-ready, while Eddie Vedder’s vocals are kept straight down the middle, the same way that classic pop songs are mixed. The overall atmosphere doesn’t feel like a band selling themselves out for radio play, but rather it feels like the band just wanted to make the biggest and best-sounding record they could. That meant acoustic guitars, and timpanis, and twelve-string basses, equipment that has aged far better than Rat distortion pedals and cheap Fender knockoffs. 

There are unexpected elements of Ten that still feel surprising, even 30 years later: The frantic final notes of ‘Why Go’ dropping into the mellow strums of ‘Black’. The elastic and almost jazz-like bass runs of ‘Oceans’. The entire three-song ending run of ‘Garden’, ‘Deep’, and ‘Release’. Ten is frontloaded with some of Pearl Jam’s most identifiable songs, which leads the back half primed for rediscovery. Ten is remarkably cohesive and self-assured for a group of musicians with less than six months of shared unity under them.

Gossard was the leader of the band at this point in time, retaining music writing credits for eight of the eleven songs on the album, four of which he retains sole credit, including hits ‘Even Flow’, ‘Alive’ and ‘Black’. Vedder is the sole lyric writer, and his meditations on broken family relations and personal demons would be the major connective tissue that critics would use to keep Pearl Jam in the grunge genre. Vedder’s voice was also the major connector, so much so that just about everyone had an impression of his unique baritone bray. When bands like Bush and Stone Temple Pilots were accused of imitating the grunge sound, it was primarily because of the similarities between the singing voices.

But all of that would have to wait because Ten didn’t have the widespread ubiquity that it would eventually attain when its original August 27 release date came around. The band would have to make their bones by bringing the songs directly to the people, but that would come with its own complications: the day before the band played their first show on the Ten Tour, Nirvana released grunge’s magnum opus, NevermindNevermind had something more akin to immediate success, and the long shadow it cast would be oppressive for years.

Still, the intensity of Pearl Jam’s live shows built their reputation and solidified their place as the world’s second-favourite grunge band. There wasn’t really a rivalry between the two (both were successful, and Kurt Cobain was relatively dismissive of Pearl Jam’s arena-adjacent scope), but Pearl Jam drew out the success of Ten for longer. By the end of 1992, Ten had reached number two on the Billboard 200, and by 1993, it was selling better than Nevermind. Nirvana were kings of the Seattle Battle, but Pearl Jam was winning the grunge war.

With time, Ten has wound up becoming the biggest anomaly in Pearl Jam’s now-extensive discography. Immediately following its success, the band adopted a rawer and less produced sound, alienating some of the more casual rock fans who would skip ‘Territorial Pissings’ and ‘Face Pollution’ when listening to their grunge mixes. 

The criticism levelled at Ten is all true: it is stadium rock, it is glossy, it does have a ton of reverb. But at its core, the songs on Ten continue to transcend the initial grunge explosion that birthed them. Pearl Jam could occasionally be the punching bag of the Seattle scene, but they remain the last true survivors of that era. More than anything else, Ten is a testament to Pearl Jam’s longevity, and they prove its worth every time they play ‘Porch’ live, even if Vedder isn’t risking his life by climbing the scaffolding anymore.