Released on this day in 1991, debut Pearl Jam album Ten still hails as one of the top grunge-era rock albums of the decade, and is certainly worthy of its placement the upper echelon of debut albums from across the musical spectrum.
The album, released via Epic Records, is filled with songs that are now considered classics in rock circles, and many of them now transcend the grunge genre to be considered “classic rock”. The band injected a large amount of excitement and unpredictability to the world of rock and roll during the height of the highly-commercialized MTV era of American pop music, and acted as a bridge between the mainstream and Seattle’s blossoming alternative music scene at the time. After a decade’s worth of synths, drum machines, and digital studio effects throughout the 1980s, Pearl Jam was a well-received breath of fresh air when Ten was released in August 1991, and the album propelled Eddie Vedder and company towards being one of the biggest and most influential 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 at the time, and it was an exciting era to be a fan of underground rock, 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, however, 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-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 was would soon be on its own path to superstardom. 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 the late Chris 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 wowing his colleagues during the Temple of the Dog recording sessions, would stand front and center as the lead vocalist and frontman for the new project, bringing with him a wild attitude and an incredible ability to captivate his 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 culture. The band quickly renamed itself Pearl Jam, and went into the recording studio almost immediately to put together what would become the material featured on 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, where 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 more serious, real topics that were relatable to many younger rock fans around the world. Pearl Jam’s socially-conscious attitude certainly shined 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-f*ck attitude of punk, high-speed psychedelic guitar virtuosity, and Vedder’s truly distinct vocals to create an absolute powerhouse of a listening experience.
Ten was released in August of 1991 on the heels of the Temple of the Dog record, hitting the shelves one month before Nirvana‘s seminal Nevermind album 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, 1992, the album would reach number eight on the Billboard 200 chart in the United States. “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 Billboard sales charts in 1993, two years after its initial release, and even outsold Pearl Jam’s second studio album, 1993’s Vs. To date, Ten has sold 13 million copies, and remains Pearl Jam’s most successful studio album even as the band continues to tour the globe and release new music as one of America’s most popular rock bands.
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.
Pearl Jam – Ten
[Originally published 8/27/17]