Pearl Jam were one of the forerunners of the Seattle grunge explosion, joining contemporaries Nirvana and Alice in Chains in pioneering the rough, pared-down sound and emotionally barren, or alternatively anguished lyrics, that defined Generation X and proved pervasive through the next decade of alternative rock.
Though initially criticized for being "too mainstream," Pearl Jam continues 20 years later, to demonstrate an indie spirit and adherence to ethics that many of their predecessors began and many of their cohorts proved unable to sustain. More than many others, Pearl Jam has demonstrated their devotion to their fans.
They sued Ticketmaster in the mid-1990's for service fees imposed on each ticket which the members of the band viewed as exorbitant, ultimately conceding to the music promotion monolith. Yet it was creative thinking that lead to the founding the Ten Club, Pearl Jam's fee-based ($20 USD/year) club that provides members with printed newsletters, exclusive releases, and early access to the best seats at their shows.
Similarly, the socially cognizant band has played numerous benefit shows for causes as varied as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti to Neil Young's annual Bridge School Benefit. Individual members' commitment to activism is evident with The West Memphis Three, Gulf restoration initiatives, environmental conservancy, and voter registration, to name a few causes. There is an "activism" tab on the band's website to inspire fans to move towards social awareness.
However all this follows the formation of Pearl Jam, created in 1990 from the remains of Mother Love Bone following the heroin overdose of lead singer Andrew Wood. Rhythm guitarist Stone Gossard (b. 1966) and bassist Jeff Ament (b. 1963) joined Mike McCready (b. 1966 lead guitar) in creating a demo tape. At a loss for a singer but with a five song demo, they sent the tape to Jack Irons, drummer for the Red Hot Chili Peppers who passed it on to a Southern California surfer and poet he knew named Eddie Vedder. According to an interview Cameron Crowe did for Rolling Stone Magazine, Vedder listened to the tape and went surfing, where the lyrics immediately came to him. He recorded the vocal tracks and returned the tape to Godssard, Ament, and McCready and they were impressed enough to fly him to Seattle for a jam session. The three had recently added drummer Dave Krusen, and within a week Vedder (b.1964) was on board to round out the group.
During the recording of their debut release Ten, the drummer changed twice; from Krusen to Matt Chamberlain and subsequently to Dave Abbruzzese. Ten album was released in 1991 and was a slow burn that eventually caught on like wildfire. It is considered a totemic album of the grunge era and the "Seattle sound."
Recorded at Seattle's London Bridge Studios, Ten was filled with guitar-driven classic rock; harmonic guitars and uber-catchy melodies urged forward by heavy percussive elements and a fearless front man. Vedder's unique vocal delivery made for the kind of record with which everyone could sing along. The topics on Ten were undeniably dark and in contrast to the anthemic song structure and unabashed vocals. Topics ranged from suicide to loneliness and depression and seemed to strike a chord with many listeners. The album has gone 13-times platinum. In 2009 Pearl Jam released a Legacy Edition of Ten, featuring both original and remastered versions of the album.
Many bands whose first albums are hugely successful experience unattainable expectations with their second release. And after the success of singles "Jeremy," "Alive," and "Evenflow," the band's sophomore effort was eagerly anticipated. The follow up to Ten was released in 1993 and called Vs. The band, responding to criticism about their perceived commercialism, scaled down their promotional efforts in support of the album.
Shying away from media appearances, interviews, and the creation of music videos to tell their story, the band instead relied upon a heavy touring schedule to bring the music to their fans. It wasn't long before, offended by what they saw as corporate greed, they took exception to the costly service charges applied by Ticketmaster to ticket sales. They attempted to boycott Ticketmaster-aligned events or venues, but quickly realized the inefficiency of trying to simultaneously play music for a living, yet avoiding venues with contracts with the world's largest concert promoter and venue owner. For nearly three years they fought Ticketmaster, eventually testifying before Department of Justice subcommittee hearing.
By the release of third album Vitalogy in 1994 yet another drummer was replaced as Abbruzzese continued to disagree with the promotional policy. Jack Irons (formerly of Red Hot Chili Peppers) was brought in to fill the void.
No Code was a change of direction for the band, as they moved towards more ballads and, at times, a more stripped back feeling. This period allowed them to work on their songcraft so that by the time Yield was released in 1998, a returned to their earlier sound was evident. But a lack of touring and promotional efforts had taken their toll and Yield failed to reach the success of their first album. Drummer Irons was replaced by Soundgarden stickman Matt Cameron (b. 1962) and a new Pearl Jam finally relented on their Ticketmaster boycott in favor of touring.
Pearl Jam's first studio album with Cameron was 2000's Binaural and they toured widely behind it. Unfortunately at the 2000 Roskilde Festival in Denmark there was a fatal accident in which nine fans were crushed in a stampede. This was incredibly traumatic for the band and they contemplated disbanding, but ultimately they decided to keep the band together and press on.
When Riot Act was released in 2002 it sold poorly. The album was gentler and softer than previous records and fans weren't sure what to make of this new direction, especially given the addition of B3 organ player Boom Gaspar. There followed a period during which Pearl Jam released 'Best of' and b-sides compilations, but the next studio album didn't arrive until 2006. The self-titled Pearl Jam was hailed as a return to the grungy sound and solid rockmanship for which Pearl Jam was known. The band toured extensively behind the album, which was acclaimed by both critics and fans alike.
In late 2009 Pearl Jam released Backspacer on J Records. The day after its release they hit the road on a tour. The album featured both rock numbers and quieter Vedder songs, some with a small string quartet. It marked a maturity within the band and their sound.