August 27th, 1991, Pearl Jam released their debut album, Ten, on Epic Records. Released just weeks before Nirvana’s Nevermind and Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger, Pearl Jam’s Ten was a lightning bolt of cathartic energy. Polar opposite in both feel and tone to either Nevermind or Badmotorfinger (which themselves were the antithesis of each other), Ten’s sound and very existence felt like a triumph, even to those who knew nothing of the tragic circumstances Pearl Jam was forged from. The album felt euphoric.
In Eddie Vedder, the band found a frontman with an entirely different presence than anything that came before. His wild abandon on stage, highly emotional vocal delivery and profound lyrical imagery set pulses racing. Ten-era Pearl Jam played as if their lives depended on it. And, at that time, for some in the band, rock n roll had become a matter of life and death.
Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament had brought their previous band, Mother Love Bone, to the edge of success only for it to be snapped away by the tragic death of frontman Andrew Wood mere days before the scheduled release of Mother Love Bone’s debut album.
After the grief and shock of Woods passing, the road forward was anything but straightforward. Only after Gossard jammed with an old friend, ex-Shadow guitarist Mike McCready, did the idea of something new seem tangible. Ament soon joined the fold, and the search was on to find a singer, which surely felt daunting considering the enormous shadow cast by Jeff and Stone’s previous frontman, Andrew Wood.
Skipping back in time to late ’80s San Diego, California. A young music-obsessed surfer named Eddie Vedder worked part-time as a night attendant at a local gas station. Vedder met former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Jack Irons through his involvement in the Southern California music scene. They became fast friends, bonding over music and games of basketball.
In the fall of 1990, Irons gave Vedder a demo tape of a Seattle band looking for a singer. Irons also knew the Mother Love Bone guys, who were reaching far beyond the Pacific Northwest region in a desperate attempt to find a frontman. Vedder listened to the tape over and over. While surfing, lyrics began to come to him. He recorded vocals for three songs and mailed the demo tape back to Seattle. Those three songs were “Dollar Short” (which Vedder renamed “Alive”), “Agytian Crave” (renamed “Once”), and “Footsteps” (which became a B-side to 1992’s “Jeremy” single).
When the tape returned to Seattle, Gossard, Ament, and McCready knew instantly that Vedder’s vocal and lyrical magic enhanced their compositions. They had found their ideal singer. And with the addition of drummer Dave Krusen, the band was complete.
Pearl Jam, in every respect, took off like a rocket ship. Once Vedder arrived in Seattle, with nothing but the shirt on his back, they quickly got to work. While Vedder travelled light, his mind was anything but. His hyperactive creativity was matched by the band playing with searing passion. Songs flowed like water. Things were moving so fast the band played their first show one week after Vedder arrived in Seattle.
On booking the show at Seattle’s Off Ramp Café for October 22nd 1990. Stone Gossard remembers, “My first instinct was to say, “This is insane, we can’t play a show after a week!” I remember that at the end of the night, (Soundgarden guitarist) Kim Thayil said that he loved the song “Evening Flow” (Even Flow). That’s what he thought it was called, like, “Oh, I thought it was about how the evening just sort of… flows along when everybody’s having a good time…” Stuck for a band name on short notice, they hastily called themselves Mookie Blaylock, after the basketball legend.
There was a clear understanding that what was happening was special. Ament recalls, “We were in the mode of “Well, we’ve got to write a bunch of songs”. Not long after, we got a tour with Alice In Chains. It was kind of how we wanted it to be; we didn’t want to fuck around. I think Stone and I knew the potential he and I had together, but we needed to get out, play, and get better. Ed was couch surfing between the practice place and my apartment and Kelly, our manager’s house….”
The recording of Ten took place at London Bridge Studios in Seattle with producer Rick Parashar. “There were two sessions at London Bridge in Seattle,” recalls Ament. “Probably of a day or two each, and after that, we went in to record the record proper because we had four or five new songs. “Deep”, “Jeremy”, and “Porch” were probably the last three we recorded. We went in in March or April of 1991. Ed had moved up here (Seattle) in November of 1990. It happened quickly. I remember there being a lot of snow on the ground, which is rare for Seattle. We were stuck in the city, stuck in our basement….”
Ten is deeply invested in the cathartic possibilities of punk and classic rock. The music Pearl Jam presented on the album is a form of self-therapy. The band is wide open musically and emotionally. What Pearl Jam represented as a unit was a far cry from the cock-rock hedonism of the arena rock that preceded them. Pearl Jam was a powerfully sincere band. One that knew how to throw every fiber of their being into a song and catapult the listener skyward through sheer force of will.
The album opens with an eerie ambient piece, similar to the one Mother Love Bone used at the beginning of their only album, Apple. In this case, Jeff Ament’s fretless bass plays a hypnotic, looping pattern enhanced by clipped percussion, ambient drones, and Vedder’s free-form vocal phrasing. After 40 seconds, Stone Gossard’s guitar cuts into the mix, introducing “Once.”
“Once” is a cannon shot. The band plays an aggressive eastern-tinged riff with a tight groove. Stone and Mike’s guitars weave in, out, and slightly behind the powerful rhythm section of Ament and Krusen. Vedder enters with a barely contained maniacal vigour. Delivering his words through clenched teeth. The band open up and lock in for the pre-chorus, Vedder’s protestations becoming more urgent and insistent. The chorus arrives as an immense release, Vedder singing, “Once upon a time I could control myself, Once upon a time I could lose myself..”
“Even Flow” is an all-time Pearl Jam classic. A hook-laden euphoric blast. Released as the second single from Ten in early 1992. The song helped solidify Pearl Jam’s status as the leading light of the new guard of Alternative Rock. In later years, Vedder would explain the song’s lyrical inspiration. When hanging around Pearl Jam’s rehearsal warehouse in the early days of the band’s formation, he met a homeless vet named Eddie.
Vedder would buy Eddie the same sandwich he bought for himself daily, when Pearl Jam returned from their first European tour, which stretched from mid-February 1992 to mid-March 1992. The man wasn’t at the rehearsal space anymore. Eventually, Vedder found out Eddie was living under the Viaduct, which was a relief. “I thought we had lost him.” he said. Not long after, word came through that the Vet had died.
“Alive” was the first single released from Ten. It was the world’s first introduction to Pearl Jam. Released in July of 1991 as a precursor to the album. It became an instant classic. A stellar loose groove from Krusen and Ament augments Stone Gossard’s unusual, snaking guitar riff. Vedder’s exhilarating, elated chorus refrain elevates the song skyward. Mike McCready’s spine-tingling, iridescent outro guitar solo is incendiary and announced a new guitar hero’s arrival on the scene.
“Why Go” opens with Krusen’s powerful drum groove followed by Ament’s bass. Stone and Mike pile in with wah drenched guitar before locking into a tight verse groove. The choruses soar with venom. The song’s outro is wildly intense, exploding in a chaotic frenzy, giving way to another Pearl Jam classic, “Black”
Like Mother Love Bone before them, Pearl Jam valiantly wrestled the much-maligned “rock ballad” from the clutches of the hair metal mob of the late ’80s. Mother Love Bone’s “Chloe Dancer/Crown Of Thorns,” “Man Of Golden Words,” “Bone China,” and “Gentle Groove” all dispelled the gauche, saccharine power ballad and replaced it with a far more earthy, emotional approach. “Black” further pushed that narrative. In doing so, upping the relatability and visceral nature of the subject matter. “Black” is as powerful and “heavy” as anything on Ten. A true ’90s classic.
“Jeremy” was Ten’s third single, written by Jeff Ament with Eddie Vedder’s potent lyrics. Based on two different true stories. The song is mainly inspired by a newspaper article about a 15-year-old boy named Jeremy Wade-Delle from Richardson, Texas, who shot himself in front of his teacher and his second-period English class of 30 students on the morning of January 8th, 1991. Delle walked to the front of the classroom, announced, “Miss, I got what I really went for,” put the firearm barrel in his mouth, and pulled the trigger before his teacher or classmates could react.
The second story the song is based on involves a student that Vedder knew from junior high school in San Diego, California, who committed a school shooting. He elaborated further in a 1991 interview: “I actually knew somebody in junior high school, in San Diego, California, that did the same thing, just about, didn’t take his life but ended up shooting up an oceanography room. I remember being in the halls and hearing it, and I had actually had altercations with this kid in the past. I was kind of a rebellious fifth-grader, and we got into fights and stuff. So it’s a bit about this kid named Jeremy, and it’s also a bit about a kid named Brian that I knew. And I don’t know, I guess the song… I think it says a lot. I think it goes somewhere … and a lot of people interpret it in different ways, and it’s just been recently that I’ve been talking about the true meaning behind it, and believe me, I think of Jeremy when I sing it….”
“Oceans” glides like the surf on an exotic beach. Panoramic in feel, it’s a beautiful counterpoint to the heavier fare. Vedder sings, “You don’t have to stray, The oceans away, Waves roll in my thoughts, Hold tight the ring, The sea will rise, Please stand by the shore..” “Porch” is a barrelling ripper, imbued with a chaotic punk energy and a soaring emotive middle eighth, which was used on subsequent tours as the moment where Vedder would scale the balconies, stage rigging, lighting rigs and speaker stacks of venues across the world.
“Garden” might be considered a deep cut on an album that has no deep cuts. It stands toe to toe with any of the heavy-hitting singles. A gorgeous modal, finger-picked arpeggio from Stone Gossard opens the song. The band chimes in with a slowly pulsating rhythm, perfectly weighted and with deft of touch. The chorus raises the roof, Jeff Ament’s fretless bass adding to the air of mystery and atmosphere. “Deep” is heavy, dark and ominous. Stone Gossard’s glacial slide guitar riff and Vedder’s larynx-shredding vocal propel the story of various protagonists contemplating their existence. “On the edge, A windowsill, Ponders his maker, Ponders his will, To the street below, He just ain’t nothin’, But he’s got a great view, And he sinks the needle deep, Can’t touch the bottom, In too deep…”
“Release” ends the album on a sombre but powerful note—another earthy, soaring ballad. “Release” was one of the first songs Eddie wrote with the band, which helped them find common ground. “We were strangers, but we were coming from a similar place,” said Vedder. Lyrically, it’s a sister song to “Alive.” It was more or less improvised at an early jam session. Vedder took to the mic as the band played and came up with the lyrics on the spot. Like “Alive,” Vedder was thinking about the pain and loss he had been through when he found out as a teenager that the man he thought was his father was his stepfather, and his real father died before they could connect. Eddie realized that the song had a similar meaning for his bandmates, who were still dealing with the death of Andrew Wood.
It’s easy to run out of superlatives when describing Ten and its impact. It’s an undeniable rock masterpiece and one of the most perfect debut albums in rock history. Like all great masterworks, it challenged us all to aim higher. It resonated deeply with the masses, with its lyrical examinations of the complexities of life and searingly beautiful music. The speed with which Pearl Jam hit their stride was remarkable. By the time Ten was released in August of 1991, they had been a band for 9 months.
The success of a genuinely flawless debut album is something to be heralded. Ten was a magnificent first effort and propelled the band to stardom. Its depth and realness amazed audiences and shocked the world out of its musical stupor.
Even though the band members had toiled away in the music scene of the Pacific Northwest for years before the formation of the band, the lightning-quick emergence of Pearl Jam, brandishing such a devastatingly mature debut album, left people wondering, “Where on earth did this come from?”.
Many will argue Pearl Jam never came close to Ten’s brilliance again. They did create many, many moments of profound resplendence on subsequent releases. But maybe Ten is the only truly all-killer, no filler effort from the band. Right out of the gate, they set the bar so high for themselves and their contemporaries it proved impossible to match. Pearl Jam is a gifted band and a band we should cherish. As one of the last survivors of a time in music, we all love and adore.