The primordial ooze that eventually evolved into Pearl Jam was a Seattle based rock band named Green River. Green River was started in part by bassist Jeff Ament.
Ament was from Montana and was studying graphic design at the University of Montana, where he also was playing college basketball. He left college after the University cancelled the graphic design program.
He was playing with a band named Deranged Diction. After he dropped out of college, he and the band decided to move to Seattle. While playing around the city, he became acquainted with fellow musicians Mark Arm, Steve Turner, and Alex Vincent. Ament joined them to form Green River in early 1984.
Mark Arm was handling vocals and playing guitar, but he wanted to focus more on vocals. They needed a guitarist to take his place. Turner had been in a band called The Ducky Boys with an old schoolmate that was a great guitarist, named Stone Gossard.
Green River became one of the first ‘grunge’ rock bands and they played alongside other Seattle area bands such as Soundgarden, Malfunkshun, and The Melvins. All four of those bands appeared on the now legendary 1986 Deep Six compilation album, which was the announcement of this new rock sound out of Seattle.
Green River released a few EPs and were gaining a reputation on the underground, but a rift began within the band as Ament and Gossard wanted to get a major label deal, while Arm wanted to stay an underground band. The rift caused the band to break up after recording their first LP in 1987.
Ament and Gossard joined with the lead singer of Malfunkshun, Andrew Wood, to form a new band, Mother Love Bone.
After playing around Seattle for about a year the band signed to Polygram Records and quickly released an EP, Shine.
Shine was the first major label release by any of the bands from the Seattle grunge rock scene. After touring for the next year, the band went into the studio to record their debut LP. The album would be titled Apple.
There was a lot of advance hype by the music press and already people were saying this band would change music.
It is a very good album and Wood was a great frontman, sounding similar to both Robert Plant and Axl Rose at times. I have no doubt, that the band would have been huge, had circumstance not gotten in their way.
The album’s release date was scheduled for March of 1990. However, just a few days before the album was to be released, lead singer Wood overdosed on heroin and passed away a few days later. The album’s release was pushed back until Summer of 1990. While the delay curbed some of the hype about the album, the main issue was that the band had lost both their friend and lead singer. The remaining members decided to go their separate ways.
After the death of Wood, Gossard spent a few months away from music. Once he started feeling like playing again, he called an old high school buddy, Mike McCready, to jam with him.
McCready encouraged Gossard to get back in touch with Ament. The trio had just started to play together for fun, when they were contacted by Soundgarden’s frontman Chris Cornell.
Cornell had been Andrew Wood’s close friend and roommate, and he was wanting to put together a tribute band in honor of their departed friend. He asked Soundgarden’s drummer Matt Cameron to join them. They named the band Temple of the Dog, after a Mother Love Bone lyric, and went into the studio to record the songs that Cornell had written about Wood during Soundgarden’s last tour. They released their self titled album in April 1991.
It is a very good album, too, though I don’t hear much of what would become Pearl Jam in there, as it sounds no different really than Soundgarden. But Soundgarden is great, so that is not a problem.
The band was never intended to be more than a one time thing and Gossard and Ament were already putting together a new band while the Temple of the Dog recording was going on. McCready joined as lead guitarist. Ament would be on bass and Gossard on rhythm guitar. They went looking for a drummer and a lead singer.
They had put together a three song demo tape to send out to possible lead singers and drummers. They began bringing in drummers during late 1990, settling on a veteran of several Seattle-area bands, Dave Krusen. One tape wound up in the hands of former Red Hot Chili Peppers’ drummer, Jack Irons. He was living in San Diego and regularly played pick up basketball with another musician named Eddie Vedder.
Vedder had just left the band Bad Radio and was looking to join up with a new band. Vedder listened to the instrumental demo tracks and wrote lyrics and recorded himself singing with the music on the demos and sent the tape back to Ament. After hearing the tape, Ament and Gossard invited Vedder to move to Seattle to join their band.
When Vedder got to Seattle, they were in the middle of recording Temple of the Dog, and they asked Vedder to sing backing vocals on the album. Cornell liked his voice and musical acumen, and so he asked Eddie to duet with him on one of the album’s best songs, “Hunger Strike.”
Once the Temple of the Dog recordings were finished, the unnamed band of Gossard, Ament, McCready, Krusen, and Vedder started writing songs together, preparing to play on the Seattle club circuit. The five guys got together to come up with a name for the band. They were all big basketball fans and they named themselves after one of their favorite basketball players, Mookie Blaylock.
Mookie Blaylock played their first concert in November of 1990, and due to the recognition the members already had from Mother Love Bone and Temple of the Dog, they were quickly signed by Epic Records.
It was suggested by the label that they change the name of the band to avoid any copyright issues that might arise from the real Mookie Blaylock (who, it should be said, has stated that he is a big fan of the band.) Ament mentioned that the name “Pearl” would make a good band name, the rest of the band thought it needed something more. Vedder had recently gone to a Neil Young concert and saw Neil jamming with his band on a bunch of over 15 minute-long songs, which caused the word “jam” to pop in this head. The band liked the way the words went together, and they would now be known as Pearl Jam.
The band would begin recording their debut album Ten in early 1991.
I will not go into too much detail about Ten as I will get to it with entry #208.
Needless to say, Ten was gigantic success, becoming one of the biggest selling albums of all time and for a time it made Pearl Jam the biggest band in the world.
They became one of the of the most popular touring bands and they were being called the “voice of Generation X” by the press. Other Seattle bands started hitting it big at the same time such as Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Alice In Chains. These ‘grunge’ bands were now dominating both MTV and album sales with Pearl Jam and Nirvana vying for the top spot.
Krusen had left the band after the recording of Ten and was replaced by Matt Chamberlain for a brief time. As the band was about to go on tour to support Ten, Chamberlain had a chance to join the Saturday Night Live band, and to not to leave the band in the lurch, he contacted an old friend from Texas that he felt could replace him on drums in the band. The friend, Dave Abbruzzese, thought he would just be there to do the tour, but the band asked him to join full-time. Despite his initial reluctance, he agreed.
The band returned to the studio in 1993 to record their follow-up to Ten. Released in October of 1993, their sophomore effort, Vs. was the most anticipated album in many years.
The album set the record for the biggest opening week sales in history, selling 950,378 copies, more than every other album in the top ten that week combined.
Vs. is an amazing album that should have been included on the Rolling Stone 500. It is such a perfect mixture of rock and experimentation, mixed with a pop sensibility. It has a lot of power on tracks such as “Go,” has great pop sensibility on something like “Daughter,” and experimentation with “W.M.A.” and its use of African percussion. In my opinion, it should be remembered on the same level as Ten nowadays.
The band wanted to show that they were not out to just take money from their fans, but were trying to make art. They refused to make any more music videos and decided to cap the prices of their tickets on the Vs. Tour.
The cap on ticket prices idea ended up being a bigger deal than they imagined. After playing a concert in Chicago, they found out that the lower ticket prices they demanded did not matter since the ticket seller, Ticketmaster, added so many service charges that it was not saving their fans any money. The band asked Ticketmaster to drop the service charges, and they refused. The band said they would no longer perform any venues that used Ticketmaster as a ticket seller. They did not realize that Ticketmaster had a virtual monopoly on all the venues and had to resort to going to suburban concert halls and even setting up their own outdoor venues to perform for their fans.
Little did the band know that the Department of Justice was already investigating Ticketmaster over antitrust issues. Members of the band were asked to testify in front of a House subcommittee concerning the case.
They eventually just stopped their tour. The Department of Justice eventually dropped their case. The band continued to boycott any venues that had a contract with Ticketmaster, despite the Department of Justice’s decision to no longer pursue antitrust issues.
The band had worked on writing songs for their next album during their down time on the Vs. Tour. During a break on the tour in October 1993, the band recorded a few songs at Kingsway Studio in New Orleans with the same producer that worked on Vs., Brendan O’Brian. One track was recorded in Atlanta, Georgia and the rest was recorded at Bad Animals Studio in Seattle.
Tensions had begun to mount during this time of recording. Vedder had taken over as the band’s leader, making most of the band’s final decisions. Gossard had at one point decided to leave the band as he felt Vedder was not communicating with him and Ament. McCready left during the recording to enter drug and alcohol rehab, and Abbruzzese was replaced on drums on two tracks. All of this flowed into the recording and made the band sound different, more experimental than they had been.
They had the album completed by early 1994, but the issues with Ticketmaster caused the label to push back the release date indefinitely. Epic finally released the album, titled Vitalogy, on vinyl in November of 1994 and on CD and cassette in December of 1994.
The Album Cover:
This is the first “novelty” album cover I have encountered doing these reviews.
The band has said that they had decided after Vs. that they wanted to do something different when packaging their albums to make them stand out more and add a little more creativity to their art.
Vedder had bought an old-timey medical book at a yard sale and had brought it in to the studio to show the rest of the band some of the old-fashioned medical practices that were pictured in it. Ament looked at the book, leather-bound with gold lettering, titled Vitalogy (meaning “the study of life,”) and said that it would be cool if they could package their next album in something like that book.
Vedder loved the idea and wanted to use the book idea, but wanted to title the album Life, which is what advance press releases advertised the album as. After working on putting the package together, the band decided the book’s name, Vitalogy, was a much better title for their album.
I have both the vinyl and CD versions of the album. The Vinyl packaging is essentially the CD package, just bigger. The CD is packaged in a cardboard digipack which is painted to look like a leather-bound book with only the title embossed in gold on the front. The vinyl edition cover is actual textured faux-leather rather than cardboard.
The back cover is mostly blank. All that is on it is a small gold picture of an angel, with the track listing and the record company logos.
When the CD is opened, you get a reproduction, in part, of the medical book. The table of contents page is now the album’s track listing.
Each page of the book is a reproduction of pictures and text from the medical book, mixed with typed and handwritten lyrics along with weird pictures that the band added in.
The vinyl has the same pictures from the 36 page CD book, it just combines four pages of the CD’s booklet into one large 8 page book.
The CD is just harbored in a cardboard sleeve attached to the back of the case. The vinyl is a double LP and it has a gatefold picture of the band lounging around. Perhaps before a concert? The picture appears on one of the pages of the CD booklet, though in a very small form.
The middle pages of the CD booklet are presented as a separate insert with the LP, showing only pictures of doors and windows, supposedly from around Italy. One of which is the Pope’s window and another has “Bush Boia” (Boia, meaning executioner in Italian.) There is no explanation why this is included as a separate insert, or even what it’s supposed to mean.
I am reviewing the vinyl double LP release of Vitalogy released on Epic in 1994, but I will listen to the CD version to listen for any differences.
(Note: All song titles are linked to Youtube clips of the songs. As always, I most recommend buying the vinyl version for best listening experience.)
Side One (or Division One as the album lists it, I guess that makes this the “Duke Blue Devils” side) opens with “Last Exit.” Which is a hard-driving, rock song. It’s classic Pearl Jam. Just great drumming from whomever is playing on this track. Awesome opening track streak continues!
“Spin The Black Circle” was the first single off the album. It has an almost hardcore punk sound, taking me back to my Hüsker Dü review. Great guitar work here. The lyrics seem kind of not much, it is just an ode to playing a vinyl record, but who cares, it’s hard rock. Okay, I guess it’s a little dumb, but I like it.
“Not For You” reminds me a lot of one of their major influences, Neil Young. It’s completely a Vedder song, he wrote a lot more stuff solo on this album than the previous two. Good stuff so far.
“Tremor Christ” sounds a lot like it could be a Beatles track with its marching beat. I thought that when first hearing it, then after reading other reviews of this album everyone picked up on that. Jon Pareles of The New York Times compared the song to “I Am the Walrus.” Vedder’s vocals are nothing like the Beatles, but they are good. Great track.
Everything on Division One was good, although I did not see that George Mason upset coming.
Division Two (The “Chico State Wildcats” side) opens with “Nothingman.” It’s a wonderful, slow tempo, beautiful track with great lyrics about isolation. One of Pearl Jam’s best songs ever.
The slower paced “Nothingman” is directly followed by a blast with “Whipping.” A hard-driving, punk sound, though it has soft breaks in the middle. Kind of a short track, not bad for what it is.
“Pry, To” is a weird interlude, of sorts, with Eddie spelling out the word ‘privacy.’ It only lasts a few seconds. Kind of the “Wild Honey Pie” of this album. See, I don’t mind interludes if they fit with the album.
“Corduroy” would fit right in with stuff off Ten or Vs. It is another great track. Instead of lyrics for this song, Vedder included an x-ray of his teeth in the booklet. He said it was because the song was about his feelings towards his fans and how he had spent so much time touring to perform for them that he hadn’t bothered taking care of himself by doing normal things like going to the dentist.
Well, LP One was pretty much all killer no filler let’s see how the second half plays out.
Division 3 (the “Amherst Minutemen” side) opens with one of the most derisive tracks Pearl Jam ever recorded, “Bugs.” A silly, novelty track with Vedder playing accordion. These type of songs can fall somewhere on the spectrum between the top of the spectrum (Captain Beefheart) to unlistenable. This is closer the the end of the spectrum. Ya know that “flow” thing I talk about, yeah this weird track interrupts that.
Things get back on track with “Satan’s Bed.” It has kind of a 70’s rock sound. He says “I’ll never suck Satan’s dick.” Good to know. It’s good, but not as great as anything on the first LP.
Next up is one of Pearl Jam’s most iconic songs, “Better Man.” A great song that was amazingly written by Vedder when he was a teenager. A fantastic song about male/female relationships. He had performed it with his earlier band Bad Radio and had offered it to be part of Vs. The band thought it was actually too good, and should be recorded by someone else that would have a hit on the pop charts with it. They finally relented, and recorded it for Vitalogy. One of the best things the band ever did.
“Aye Davanita” is basically just an instrumental track with some chanting over it. The lyric page has a short poem under the title and the phrase “The Song With No Words.” Not bad.
Division 4 (I guess that makes this the “NAIA” side) opens with “Immortality.” A song about death, possibly suicide. Many have felt that this was Eddie’s response to Kurt Cobain’s death, though he denies it. When you take into account the album’s nomenclature Vitalogy (the study of life) it makes perfect sense to end on a song about death. A great end to the album.
Wait, that’s not the end…the final track is called either “Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me” or “Stupid Mop.” The cover has the former name and the booklet has the latter name. This is their “Revolution #9” I guess. It’s looped recordings of people talking about a mop, taken at a mental hospital, supposedly, with a slowed down jam of the band playing with it. It’s quite unsettling, and it is like “Bugs” in that many Pearl Jam fans hate the track. I agree with some of the sentiment that I’ve read on the internet that this should have been a hidden track, because people would have just thought it was a “cool find” at the end of the album. But instead, it is the album’s closing track and just kind of wastes everybody’s time by trying to be obtuse and going on for over 7 minutes. It’s even more maddening when they had a perfect ending to the album with “Immortality.” That being said, I don’t hate it in and of itself, but I hate that it is here, because it screws up the high point that it could have ended on.
Every “real” song on this album is great and it is a very good album. However, the band I think tried a little too hard to be experimental, and failed on those tracks that strayed them too far away from what they were used to doing. Although, on the whole, it is still a solid album.
The release of Vitalogy was much-anticipated. Despite being pushed back for months by the label, it’s heat didn’t cool. It became the second fastest selling CD in history behind Vs. and debuted at #1 on the Billboard Album chart. Eventually, it was certified quintuple platinum.
The album got somewhat positive reviews, but much of the opinions by critics were similar to mine in that they felt that the experimentation was not too good while the rest was as good as anything they had done on their first two albums. They won their first Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance and the album was nominated for Album of the Year.
The band toured in promotion for the album, continuing to refuse to play any Ticketmaster venues, which made it twice as hard for them to find places to perform. Vedder became ill during the tour after contracting food poisoning and they cancelled much of it, alienating many of their fans. Ament has said that the tour killed their skyrocketing career.
Their follow-up to Vitalogy was titled No Code. It was released in 1996.
I was not well received by critics or their fans, who felt it was too experimental and too much jamming. It still sold well its first week and went platinum, but the fans felt it was mostly unsuccessful and it fell down the chart quickly.
Their fifth album Yield, released in 1998, was more successful.
The band relented and decided to do music videos again, hiring comic book artist Todd Macfarlane to animate a video for “Do The Evolution.” They also dropped their boycott of Ticketmaster after fans complained that using other ticket companies was far too inconvenient.
Abbruzzese had left the band after Vitalogy and was replaced on drums by Vedder’s old friend, Jack Irons. Irons left after Yield and was replaced by former Soundgarden and Temple of the Dog drummer Matt Cameron.
They recorded a cover of 1960’s hit “Last Kiss” for the benefit album No Boundaries: A Benefit for the Kosovar. The song began getting a lot of radio play on Top 40 radio and it became their biggest pop hit, reaching #2 on the Billboard Chart.
During their Binaural Tour in 2000, the band had every concert recorded so that the attendees could own a copy of the performance. The record company wouldn’t let them do it, so they decided to release them as official releases. This means that the band released 72 albums between 2000 and 2001, one for each live performance they did.
The albums that the band has released during the 2000’s have had mixed to somewhat negative reviews for the most part. They have continued to tour to this day, with all of the original members, of course with the exception of the drummer. Their most recent studio album, Backspacer, was released in 2009 to mostly positive reviews.
My take on Rolling Stone’s Take:
RS: “Their previous album, Vs., made Pearl Jam the most successful band in the world. They celebrated by suing Ticketmaster and making Vitalogy, where their mastery of rock’s past and future became complete. Soulful ballads like “Nothingman” are matched by hardcore-influenced rockers such as “Spin the Black Circle.”
So much of this album is really great, actually all of the real music is great. It’s just those silly experiments that bring it down to, well, good, not great, territory. Really, the Pearl Jam album that should be in this spot is Vs. I am really amazed that it didn’t make the list, as it is far more important than Vitalogy. Still this album is worth listening to. If I didn’t believe in the integrity of keeping art the way it is I’d say download the MP3s, and burn the album without “Bugs” or the last track and you’d have damn near a 5 star album. But that is not what I am about.
4 Stars out of 5, recommended
My ranking of the Rolling Stone 500 that I’ve reviewed thus far:
1. The Stone Roses- The Stone Roses
2. Wilco- Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
3. KISS- Destroyer
4. Herbie Hancock- Head Hunters
5. ZZ Top- Tres Hombres
6. Bonnie Raitt- Give It Up
7. Outkast- Aquemini
8. Earth, Wind & Fire– That’s The Way Of The World
9. Hüsker Dü- New Day Rising
10. Albert King- Born Under A Bad Sign
11. Pearl Jam- Vitalogy
12. Boz Scaggs- Boz Scaggs
13. Public Enemy- Yo! Bum Rush The Show
14. Cyndi Lauper- She’s So Unusual
15. Ian Dury- New Boots and Panties!!
16. B.B. King- Live in Cook County Jail
17. Eurythmics- Touch