pearl jam ten

‘Ten’ at 30: How Pearl Jam’s Iconic Debut Became a Massive Hit

Thirty years on, Pearl Jam’s debut album Ten feels more like a traditional classic rock album than many of its early 1990s peers.

Pearl Jam
27 August 1991

Pearl Jam were the right band at the right time, or, rather, one of several right bands at the right time. By the summer of 1991, North American audiences were starting to get tired of the dominant rock/hair metal of the 1980s. Van Halen, who were never really a hair metal band, started the summer off with “Poundcake”, the lead single from their album For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. That track has some kick, particularly with Eddie Van Halen occasionally playing his guitar with a power drill. However, its music video, featuring numerous scantily clad women and the band performing on a stage with thousands of bright lights in an otherwise empty space, definitely feels like a relic of the hair metal era.

Contrast that with Metallica‘s “Enter Sandman”, released at the end of July 1991. The song is loads fiercer than “Poundcake” due to its thundering drums and irresistible riff. Metallica had been an MTV staple in the late ’80s with their high concept video for “One”, but with a new album that merged their trademark heaviness with radio-friendly catchiness, the band essentially blew away the lingering vestiges of hair metal.

In this new environment, only a few hard rock bands from the ’80s could still thrive. Van Halen’s established brand kept them going strong, at least for that album cycle. Likewise, Guns N’ Roses—already grittier than their ’80s brethren—were about to unleash the massive Use Your Illusion records. Their single “You Could Be Mine” was tied to the biggest movie of the summer, Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Plus, Bon Jovi remarkably turned out to have the pop sensibilities necessary to transition from hair metal into a mainstream rock act.

MTV clearly knew they couldn’t just keep clinging to bands like Poison, Warrant, and Mötley Crüe in the middle of its sustained peak as a music tastemaker for the United States. (Nor could they rely on second and third-tier groups like Slaughter, Trixter, and Firehouse, none of whom had the songwriting chops to take up the mantle.) Although the network played the hell out of the “Enter Sandman” video, it needed other rock bands to fill the void. Luckily, alternative rock—just breaking out of its ’80’s moniker as “college rock”—was ready to take up the mantle. Specifically, Pearl Jam and Nirvana were there with new records, striking lead singles, and memorable videos for those singles.

The “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video premiered on 10 September, while Pearl Jam’s “Alive” clip came out the day before. Nirvana’s pieces had more of an immediate impact, but Pearl Jam were no slouches. “Alive” is shot in grainy black and white, and it features a concert performance of the track (there are apparent differences from the studio recording) in front of a rowdy crowd. It’s like the polar opposite of Van Halen’s “Poundcake” performance. Pearl Jam are onstage, sweating their asses off at a small club, with a simple curtain and rudimentary lights as the backdrop. There’s stage diving and crowd surfing and genuine enthusiasm from the audience. The video is full of grit and emotion, even though it’s a simple performance clip with no fundamental concept behind it.

“Alive” was technically released as a single in early July, nearly two months before Ten, the band’s debut album. However, it didn’t really take off on radio until MTV started showing the video. In retrospect, it’s a great first impression. The song itself is long for radio (lasting over five-and-a-half minutes), but it’s a compelling track. It grows and recedes multiple times, and its anthemic chorus packs instant sing-along appeal. Lead guitarist Mike McCready’s closing extended solo is intense and nearly as enthralling as the chorus. Plus, Eddie Vedder’s lyrics tell an unsettling story about lies, recrimination, and guilt, yet it’s the kind of narrative that may take the casual listener half a dozen times to understand. These are all elements that made people want to hear the song again and again.

The second single, “Even Flow”, was a more upbeat track despite its lyrics about a homeless person struggling to survive. It didn’t have quite the cultural impact of “Alive”, but the song reached number three on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart and ensured that Ten sold copies well into 1992. The video was also shot by “Alive” director Josh Taft, and it once again featured dynamic concert footage. This time, though, the film is in color, and the song recording is a studio version done in 1992 with drummer Dave Abbruzzese (the band was not entirely happy with the version that made it onto the album).

In August 1992—nearly a full year after the album release—“Jeremy” was released as a radio single and a music video. The band’s first concept video dramatizes the lyrics about a student who commits suicide in school in front of his classmates. Footage of Vedder singing intensely alternates with shots of a shirtless boy running through the woods, written and typed words on backgrounds, and still, collage-like images. The video matches the intensity of the track, and it was huge on MTV, going on to win their Video Music Award for Video of the Year in 1993.

These three singles propelled Ten to being one of the biggest rock albums of the 1990s, eventually selling over 13 million copies in the United States alone. Of course, the other eight tracks on the album are worth discussing as well. Interestingly, Pearl Jam had a sound unique among its Seattle grunge brethren. Nirvana were influenced by punk rock and 1960s pop, Alice in Chains had more of a heavy metal background, and Soundgarden took from punk and metal. Pearl Jam’s sound, though, is much more in a lineage with 1970s rock. They tended to find strong rhythm section grooves, a catchy guitar riff, and feature emotional guitar solos that breathe and shift in the live setting. Vedder’s vocals are intense and throaty and in the baritone range, a world away from the operatic wail of hair metal singers that the band essentially replaced.

The record opens with a chilled-out bass and percussion groove, with Vedder adding wordless moans and stray guitar noises drifting through the background. After 40 seconds, a distorted guitar riff cuts through the mix, and “Once” begins with high speed and high energy. Just a few lines into the song, Vedder lays down the mood of the album: “Got a bomb in my temple and it’s gonna explode / Got a .16 gauge buried under my nose / I play”. There are going to be a lot of dark lyrics about mentally disturbed people having a bad time on this record, but Vedder consistently offers empathy and understanding for his characters.

That extends through “Even Flow” and “Alive”—the following two songs—and into “Why Go”, another barnburner of a track. A thumping kick drum from Dave Krusen sets the groove, complemented nicely by bassist Jeff Ament. Vedder sings about a woman who has been institutionalized for two years: “She seems to be stronger / But what they want her to be / Is weak.” The simple refrain, “Why go home / Why go home”, is accentuated by Vedder’s asides, “Why’d you put me here?” and “Don’t come visit!” This woman has massive disrespect for the doctors, but her genuine vitriol is reserved for her mother.

“Why Go” fades directly into the lonely, distant guitar opening of “Black”, possibly Ten‘s best song. This affecting power ballad was set to be yet another single until the band refused to film a video for it. Nevertheless, it still got a significant amount of radio play as radio stations searched for more Pearl Jam content. The song’s soaring chorus is peak emotional Vedder, who sings in a voice that at times trembles. The main guitar riff is often doubled on piano from producer Rick Parashar, and on the extended outro is also joined by Vedder singing it wordlessly in falsetto. Even Ament gets to participate, playing a sliding, skeletal version of the riff on his bass during the song’s last minute.

From there, it’s onto “Jeremy” and the back half of the album. The expansive bass and timpani-dominated “Oceans” was technically a single as well. However, in another preview of their upcoming battles with Epic Records, the band filmed a video but refused to release it in the US, apparently getting sick of their record and ready to move on to the follow-up album.

“Porch” is a high-energy rocker that features Vedder singing very fast. “There ain’t gonna be any middle anymore” is one of Ten’s most memorable lines because he of how sings it. The song also features a slow, jammy mid-song bridge that goes on for just long enough to make it work when the band launches back into the original speed for the big finish. “Garden” starts slow and contemplative, which guitars that chime during the verses. Of course, it has a big, distorted rock chorus, but the band nicely brings it back down to the contemplative mood. The second time they hit the chorus, though, it’s full-on rock for the rest of the song, and maybe one of the few times on the album where the guitar solos go on for too long.

The album closes with “Deep” and “Release”. The former has a bit of a funk groove to it, which gives it a different feel than the other rockers here. As for the latter, it goes on for a whopping nine minutes, but the track length is a bit of a misnomer. The song is slow and relatively light, both musically and lyrically, for this record. After all of the intensity, it’s a breath of fresh air and an excellent way to leave the listener on a brighter note. “Release” fades away after the five-minute mark, and around 30 seconds later, the groove from the very beginning of the album returns. This groove takes up the final three minutes of the record and leads right back into the intro. It’s the perfect reason for ’90s teens to leave their cd players on “repeat” and keep listening to Ten over and over again.

This record set Pearl Jam’s legacy (which was remarkably short as a radio force). Refusing to make videos sabotaged their MTV exposure for follow-up albums Vs. and Vitalogy. Still, each of those albums had strong enough radio singles to keep the band front and center in the public eye. What also kept the public’s attention on them was their very public battle against Ticketmaster, an attempt to sell concert tickets to their fans without the monopolistic broker’s egregious service charges. But by the time the band released their fourth album, No Code, in 1996, they had become more of an arena-filling cult band than a force in modern rock.

Thirty years on, Ten feels more like a traditional classic rock album than many of its early ’90s peers. Its songs are iconic and sturdy, if a bit messy. The band gradually came to regret the excessive amount of reverb in the mix and recruited producer Brendan O’Brien to remix the entire record for a 2009 reissue. O’Brien’s mix cleans up the sound a lot, but that original sloppiness probably helped sell the whole grunge image that Pearl Jam headed and contributed to their success.