Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Pearl Jam

Sound Familiar?

“Jeremy,” “Even Flow,” “Better Man”

Who Are They?

Arguably the most successful (and radio-friendly) band of the Big Four Grunge Acts©.

It all started with Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament, and a little band called Green River in the mid-‘80s. When that project disbanded, Stone and Jeff teamed up with Andrew Wood to form another little band called Mother Love Bone. After Andrew’s unfortunate death in 1990, Mother Love Bone called it quits and Stone and Jeff began jamming with prospective Pearl Jammer Mike McCready. Then they realized that not having a drummer or a singer was kind of counterproductive.

Cue gas station employee Eddie Vedder. Eddie was already the lead vocalist for a local band called Bad Radio when he received a demo tape from Stone and the gang. He recorded vocals for three songs (including a little ditty called “Alive”) and sent the tape back. Stone, Jeff, and Mike’s collective eargasm resulted in Eddie's being flown to Seattle, where he auditioned (was there really any need for an audition?) and joined the band within a week.

Before Pearl Jam took off, Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell approached Stone and Jeff with the intention of collaborating on a few tribute songs for Andrew Wood. This project ended up as the short-lived band Temple of the Dog. Eddie and Soundgarden/future Pearl Jam drummer Matt Cameron also joined in. So before we had Pearl Jam, we had a pretty rad supergroup (which I guess wasn’t really a supergroup at the time because nobody had any idea who Eddie Vedder was).

But back to the Pearl Jam chronicles. When the boys finally settled on Dave Krusen as their drummer, they needed a name. Mookie Blaylock, anyone? No? Well, that was their first choice. Unfortunately, the name was trademarked (by a basketball team, if you’ll believe it), so Pearl Jam was used instead.

As the band began to record their landmark debut Ten in 1991, Dave decided to check into rehab. Matt Chamberlain replaced him, but ended up leaving after only a handful of shows to join the Saturday Night Live band. Dave Abbruzzese stepped in as a replacement for the rest of the tour.

When Ten was released (the same month as Nirvana’s Nevermind), sales were slow, but eventually exploded by the second half of 1992. The album stayed on the Billboard charts for more than two years and success came in wave after luxurious wave.

But Pearl Jam began to grow uncomfortable with all the popularity, especially Eddie. Tensions between the band and their label mounted when the boys refused to make a video for “Black.” When Cameron Crowe asked them why for his Rolling Stone article, Jeff explained, “Ten years from now, I don’t want people to remember our songs as videos.” (This is kind of ironic considering the band’s biggest single, “Jeremy,” spawned an intensely controversial music video).

Eddie and the gang continued to stick it to the man when they boycotted Ticketmaster for adding a service charge to tickets for their shows. They refused to be seen as a commercial product, so they stopped making music videos and releasing singles.

But not everyone in the group agreed with all this boycotting business. Dave was wary of the Ticketmaster nonsense, so he was promptly dismissed from the band after Vitalogy was recorded. Former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Jack Irons replaced him.

The Vitalogy tour ended being a disaster because of the Ticketmaster fiasco. Surprisingly (or maybe not), no other bands joined Pearl Jam in the boycott, and they were forced to play shows outside of the US for the next three years. Apparently Ticketmaster is a sponsor for virtually every venue in America. Weird, right?

No Code and Yield did not come even remotely close to the success of Ten or Vs., although the single “Do the Evolution” from Yield was accompanied by the band’s first music video since 1992.

As the ‘90s came to a close, Jack ditched Pearl Jam and was replaced by Matt Cameron (who was initially temporary, but became a permanent member because, hey, what else are you gonna do when a band like Soundgarden breaks up?)

Where Are They Now?

Still fighting the good fight and selling out stadiums (even the ones affiliated with Ticketmaster).

In 2000, Pearl Jam released Binaural, an experimental effort with some pretty dark lyrics. The somber aura surrounding the album came to a head when nine fans were crushed underfoot and suffocated to death at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark.

That same year, the band celebrated their tenth anniversary with a three-hour set at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. After ten years together, it was time for a break.

Fast-forward one year. Pearl Jam went back to the studio to record Riot Act and also released a few b-sides for use in movies like Big Fish.

Fed up with their previous label’s shenanigans, the band made the decision to move to J Records to release their self-titled album in 2006. During the tour in support of Pearl Jam, the boys headlined both Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo. That’s right. Two major festivals. In the same year.

Their latest album, Backspacer, was released in 2009, along with a video for the album’s first single “The Fixer,” directed by Cameron Crowe. (Note to journalists: If you write a story about Pearl Jam for a major music magazine, you will be able to direct one of their music videos. This may or may not be true.)

But Why Pearl Jam?

Eddie and the boys are celebrating their 20th anniversary this year with a Labor Day festival (might I suggest the name Pearl Jamapalooza 2011?). It will also feature Queens of the Stone Age, Mudhoney, and various other acts. Oh, and there’s talk of a new album soon. But we’ll just concentrate on the present (even though you’re probably all giddy with excitement about new Pearl Jam material now).

What Does Sam Think?

To be honest, I just consider myself a casual Pearl Jam fan. That is slightly problematic when it comes to seeing this band live (which I did).

You can’t be a casual fan at one of these concerts. Why? Because Pearl Jam plays for the die-hards, something most bands don’t really consider. Say you’re in a fairly successful band. You’ve had a few hits that earned some heavy airplay. You’re going to play those hits at each show because that’s what your fans want to hear. And everyone is happy because they know a couple songs during your set.

This is not what Pearl Jam does. Pearl Jam plays the deepest cuts imaginable and discards most of their biggest hits. You may still hear “Alive” and “Black,” but forget about “Jeremy.” That may never see the light of day again, outside of your iTunes library.

That being said, I can’t judge Pearl Jam too harshly since I’m not a die-hard fan. I do enjoy Ten, though (who doesn’t?). But if I had to rank the Big Four Grunge Acts© by how obsessed I am with them, Pearl Jam is at the bottom. That isn’t because I dislike the band. They do make great music. I’ve just kind of overlooked them because they didn’t jump out at me.

I can hear people calling blasphemy right now. I know critics pretty much fawn over Pearl Jam (kind of like Radiohead, but slightly more subdued), and they probably have good reason. I will admit that certain songs (“Better Man”) have successfully won me over, but Pearl Jam’s catalogue as a whole is kind of lukewarm to me.

Now feel free to pelt me with rocks and copies of Vs.

--Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.

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