Pearl Jam‘s Ten is one of the best rock albums of all time, and is certainly in the upper echelon of debut records from across the musical spectrum. The album is filled songs that are now considered classics, and many of them now transcend the grunge genre and can be considered “classic rock”. The band injected a large amount of excitement and unpredictability to the world of rock and roll, and acted as a bridge between the mainstream and Seattle’s blossoming alternative music scene. After ten years of 80’s drum machines and digital studio effects, Pearl Jam and Ten were a breath of fresh air in 1991, and the album propelled Pearl Jam towards being one of the biggest and most important bands of their generation.
In late 1988, a band called Mother Love Bone ruled Seattle’s underground music scene. The music being played was in stark contrast to what was currently popular on the radio, and it was an exciting time to say the least. After two years of gigging locally, MLB was ready to release their debut album and tour the country. After recording their first record, Apple, the band sensed its pending success. Unfortunately, tragedy struck, and unique and energetic frontman Andrew Wood overdosed on heroin, passing away at the young age of 24.
The band members were stunned, and Mother Love Bone was no more. Bassist Jeff Ament and guitarist Stone Gossard were beside themselves, and they took several months off to grieve. After the month’s long decompression, it became clear that the duo wanted to continue making music. They quickly teamed up with local guitarist Mike McCready as well as Soundgarden members Chris Cornell and Matt Cameron to form Temple of the Dog, but that was never going to last as Soundgarden had its own life to live, its own music to record, and its own shows to play. Temple of the Dog released their sole, self-titled record to critical acclaim in April of 1991, and it featured an as-yet-unknown singer named Eddie Vedder on backup vocals on several tracks, including a memorable duet with Cornell on the hit single “Hunger Strike”.
Knowing that Temple of the Dog was temporary at best, a reinvigorated Ament and Gossard formed a new band with McCready that they were called “Mookie Blaylock”. Vedder, who had passed his test with the musicians by killing it during the Temple of the Dog recording sessions, would stand front and center as the lead vocalist and front man, bringing with him a wild attitude and an incredible ability to captivate an audience. Vedder proved to be an electric addition to the group, adding poetic, introspective lyrics reminiscent of Neil Young, and he showcased a unique singing style that came to define the entire grunge genre. The band, which quickly renamed itself Pearl Jam, went into the studio almost immediately to put together what would become Ten.
Most of the songs heard on Ten were demoed in March 1991 at London Bridge Studios in Seattle. Ament and Gossard took the lead and recorded several instrumentals during this session; the music for “Porch”, “Deep”, “Why Go”, and “Garden” were all recorded during this time, with “Alive” joining the bunch from a previous session back in January. When the full band hit the studio in May 1991 to finish the instrumentals Ament and Gossard had recorded, Vedder added his contemplative lyrics, touching on issues such as homelessness (“Even Flow”), psychiatric hospitals (“Why Go”), and an intense tale about bullying (“Jeremy”). Even “Alive”, a seemingly uplifting song with soaring guitar solos, is about the painful late-in-life realization that Vedder’s father was actually his stepfather. The album touched on many more serious, real topics that were relatable to many listeners around the world. Pearl Jam’s socially conscious attitude certainly shines through on their debut record and has remained a hallmark of their career to this day.
While the lyrics touched on a variety of important topics, the music on Ten is groundbreaking. It combines the excitement of classic arena rock, the what-the-fuck attitude of punk rock, high-speed psychedelic guitar virtuosity, and Vedder’s truly distinct vocals to create an absolute powerhouse of an album.
Ten was released in August of 1991, just on the heels of the Temple of the Dog record, hitting the shelves one month before Nirvana‘s seminal record Nevermind was released. While it took a year for the album to really reach audiences–aided by the super success of Nevermind—Ten became a huge hit, and by May 30th of 1992, the album would reach number eight on the Billboard 200. “Alive”, “Even Flow”, and “Jeremy” all charted as hit singles, and “Even Flow” and “Jeremy” proved to be pop-culture phenomena. “Jeremy”, specifically, would be a smash for the band, with the all-too-real music video providing the band with critical acclaim, as well as a healthy dose of controversy that later led them to forego the music video process altogether.
Ten would continue to sell well throughout the early 90s. It came in at number eight on the sales charts in 1993, two years after its initial release, and even outsold Pearl Jam’s second record Vs. To date, Ten has sold 13 Million copies, and remains Pearl Jam’s most successful record, even as the band continues to tour the globe as one of America’s greatest rock bands.
Ten was released on this date in 1991, so today marks the anniversary of Pearl Jam! Happy birthday to the band that almost never was, and thanks for a quarter century of true rock and roll!
Listen to Ten in its entirety below.