It’s always been one of the great quirks of recent rock history that the most influential and enduring voice of the early 90s Seattle grunge sound was a surfer dude from San Diego who happened upon a brilliant demo by former Northwest punkers who had no idea the legend they were about to create. Eddie Vedder overdubbed vocals and original lyrics to the rough tunes he heard from bassist Jeff Ament and guitarist Stone Gossard (who had recorded it with lead guitarist Mike McReady and Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron). Still reeling from the heroin overdose death of Andrew Wood, lead singer for their Mother Love Bone unit, Ament and Gossard—originally members of the Seattle punk band Green River, formed in 1984--asked Vedder up for form the group that would become Pearl Jam.
The band became one of the biggest selling of the decade, and by the late 90s, bootlegging both Stateside and in Europe had become such a problem that Pearl Jam decided upon an ingenious solution: recording each concert in full and releasing for retail a total of 72 double CD sets, each featuring a complete concert. Pearl Jam put these out throughout 2000-2001 and in 2003, pausing in 2002 to record the commercially and critically acclaimed Riot Act, which some saw as a comeback recording after the mediocre response to 2000’s Binaural. Binaural’s inability to catch fire was surprising because it followed up “Last Kiss,” a fluke success that became the band’s biggest radio hit in 1999. Some attributed the success of Riot Act to the emergence of “third generation” imitators like Creed and Nickelback.
But back to that demo tape for a second. Gossard, Ament and McReady gave it to Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Jack Irons, who surfed with Vedder, who was singing in a San Diego band. By the fall of 1990, joined by drummer Dave Krusen, the new ensemble had played their first gig in Seattle under the name Mookie Blaylock (after a basketball player), recorded a new demo and completed a West Coast tour opening for Alice in Chains.
After rechristening themselves Pearl Jam, they recorded their debut Ten in early 1991 for an August release. That spring, Ament, Gossard, Vedder and Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell appeared on the Wood tribute Temple of the Dog, and Pearl Jam prepped fans for their emergence with a promotional single that included the Beatles’ “I Got a Feeling.” Fellow grunge pioneers Nirvana’s success at radio helped open the doors for alt rockers to go mainstream, and soon PJ was actually outselling Kurt Cobain and company. The band’s mix of post punk rage, heavy stadium friendly riffs and undeniably attractive choruses made monstrous hits out of songs like “Jeremy,” “Evenflow” and “Alive,” all of which were huge on radio and MTV. Ten hit #2 a year after its release.
Grunge was now the rage and Pearl Jam was everywhere, from Saturday Night Live to headlining Lollapalooza II as well as its own tours. Without any music videos to promote it, their 1993 follow-up Vs. entered the Top 200 album chart at #1 with first week sales of close to a million. On the strength of these two megahit albums, Pearl Jam—trying to keep ticket prices down, and frustrated at Ticketmaster’s monopoly over the system—took on the corporate giant, filing a memo with the U.S. Justice Department’s anti-trust division. Ament and Gossard spoke at Congressional meetings, but a subsequent investigation was dropped.
1994's Vitalogy was a slight departure, moving away from rock formulas in favor of more sparse arrangements, but the hits just kept on coming; the album debuted at #1 and radio ate up songs like “Nothingman” and “Better Man.” However, having to cancel tour dates and once again failing to make videos would ultimately hurt their future bankability. After taking a break in 1995 to back up the “godfather of grunge” Neil Young on his Mirror Ball album, Pearl Jam (working with Irons) recorded their least commercial effort to date, 1996’s experimental, world beat flavored No Code. It was critically acclaimed, but fell quickly from its #1 debut position. No doubt concerned about falling from favor completely, the band returned to its rock roots for 1998’s Yield, and even did a video for “Do the Evolution.”
The album did a similar quick fade, but Pearl Jam never lost its footing as a huge arena attraction which they began chronicling on Live On Two Legs in 1998.