Pearl Jam's Era-Defining Debut Album 'Ten' Turns 25 Years Old
The Seattle band's opening statement set the stage for a musical movement and a decades-long alt-rock dynasty.
In late 1991, two albums arrived to change music forever: Nirvana's Nevermind and Pearl Jam's Ten. Together, the two Seattle bands ended an era of hair metal and introduced their decidedly different brands of grunge music to the mainstream. Nirvana did so with punk ethos, Beatles-esque pop smarts, and Kurt Cobain's poetic suffering; Pearl Jam with arena-sized riffs and choruses, dark textures, and Eddie Vedder's impressionistic wails. One band burned out in a few years. The other built a rock empire stretching 25 years and beyond. Ten, which came out 25 years ago today on Aug. 27, 1991, is the beginning of the latter tale.
In retrospect, it's easy to claim that Nevermind, the critical favorite, was the more culturally influential LP. But Ten had as much, if not more, cache in building the grunge scene and shaping alternative music to date. Nirvana's sound was original, authentic. Pearl Jam's moody tunes were more easily photocopied, and influenced scores of artists -- for better (Stone Temple Pilots) or worse (Creed) -- for years to come.
Pearl Jam itself came together by chance in the vibrant early '90s Seattle music scene. Guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament joined forces in Mother Love Bone in 1988 after their previous band, Green River, called it a day. While preparing for the release of their 1990 debut, Apple, singer Andrew Wood died of a heroin overdose in March of that year. With the band abruptly over, they both retreated to reflect and write. Soon, the duo hooked up with another Seattle axe-slinger, Mike McCready, whose band Shadow had also recently disbanded. Together, the trio -- calling themselves Mookie Blaylock, after the basketball star -- recorded a five-song demo and began the search for a singer and drummer. Meanwhile, Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell, a close friend and roommate of Wood's, recruited the former Mother Love Bone members to record songs he'd written in tribute to his fallen friend. Along with Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron, the quintet gathered to rehearse -- and Temple of the Dog was born.
That September, on the opposite end of the West Coast in San Diego, surfer, artist, and musician Eddie Vedder got his hands on that Mookie demo via former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Jack Irons. EdVed overdubbed his vocals, sent it back to Ament, Gossard, and McCready in Seattle, and was soon invited to fly north for an audition. When he arrived in the Emerald City, he found Cornell with Temple of the Dog in London Bridge Studios, and soon jumped in to add vocals on Temple of the Dog hit "Hunger Strike." Once sessions for Temple were done, Cornell and Cameron returned to Soundgarden, and the newly formed Mookie Blaylock, along with drummer Dave Krusen, entered the same Seattle studio with the same producer (Rick Parashar) to begin Ten. The band soon changed its name due to Epic Records' legal concerns, but ultimately titled the LP for Blaylock's jersey number.
The jokes stopped there. Unlike much of the ironic '90s, Ten is dead serious. The band crafted dark and textured tracks with layers of guitar hero riffs, sing-along choruses, and drum breaks. EdVed played the mysterious frontman, singing about depression, suicide, loneliness, mental health, homelessness, and murder. The album produced three monster hits: "Alive" (about a boy learning that his father is actually his stepfather, inspired by Vedder's real life); "Even Flow" (about an illiterate homeless man and panhandler who sleeps "on a pillow made of concrete"); and "Jeremy" (about an outcast high school student who shot himself in front of his class). All three had hit music videos on MTV; the "Jeremy" clip was particularly moving, showing an artistic account of the student and his suicide, with close ups of a mesmerized Vedder as narrator, his eyes broiling with intensity. It won four MTV Video Music Awards in '93, including Best Video of the Year, Best Group Video, Best Metal/Hard Rock Video, and Best Direction.
Ten is far deeper than its singles. Others tracks hinted at the band's more nuanced future, especially "Black," a tale of a heartbroken man seeing his ex all around him; the soulful jam "Release"; and "Oceans," a tribute to Vedder's beloved surfing that carries perhaps the most spine-tingling moments on the whole album. Though not on the LP, Ten also yielded the Hendrix-esque b-side "Yellow Ledbetter," one of the first tunes the group wrote together, which has become a live favorite. These formed the template of many a PJ song to come, threading the line between delicate and bombastic.
Pearl Jam themselves have long discounted the mixing of Ten, and even released a remixed LP for its 20th anniversary, courtesy of longtime PJ producer Brendan O'Brien. But the original is decidedly 1991, inspired by what came before it: Green River, Mother Love Bone, Shadow, and the many other bands that influenced its members, from classic rockers to local peers (and there were many). The album's murky, reverb-drenched sound is part of what makes Pearl Jam, Pearl Jam, and Ten, Ten. And the numbers speak for themselves: Ten initially sold slowly, but by late 1992, it hit Gold. A year post release, Ten reached No. 2 on the Billboard 200 album chart. As of Aug. 2016, Ten has sold more than 10 million copies in the U.S., per Nielsen Music, and it remains the band's best-selling album to date. It also launched a trifecta -- the band's first three albums, including '93's Vs. and '94's Vitalogy, all reached multi-platinum status.
Ten is of another time: Think Seattle, Sub Pop, Singles, Doc Martens, flannel shirts, Reservoir Dogs, long hair, MTV host Kennedy, distorted/sludgy guitar riffs, saxophone Bill Clinton, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, and oh so much more. But, remember, it's these guys -- the same guys -- that are still around, playing sold-out shows and releasing new albums, alive as ever.