In the late 1980s, a movement was beginning to rumble underneath the fall of the glam metal bands that had ruled the rock world in the years prior. This new movement was darker, moodier, and sounded like it could be metal, but also sounded kind of ‘rocky’ and ‘punkish’, while also really stripped back. It documented itself as grunge, a kind of rock music genre that became known more for the aesthetic of its subculture than its actual sound. And in 1991 two new pioneers entered the game. Nirvana, with its poetic and anti-fame Kurt Cobain, who would tragically burn out a few years later but live out a legacy of cool; and Pearl Jam, with the edgy growl and attitude of Eddie Vedder, who would continue to impact music for years to come.
Right Place, Right Time
Pearl Jam’s beginnings derived from a broken band, a demo tape, and just a whole lot of ‘right place, right time’ luck. As the story goes, after Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament’s frontman died from a heroin overdose in 1990, they were in need of someone to save their band. After finding guitarist Mike McCready, the three sent out demo instrumentals in search of a lead singer. California surfer and singer Eddie Vedder got hold of them, recorded the vocals for ‘Alive,’ ‘Once’ and ‘Footsteps’, aka his ‘mini-opera’, sent back the tape, and the rest is history.
In 1991, a mere few weeks before Nirvana’s Nevermind, Pearl Jam dropped their debut album Ten. It was an incredibly dark album with elements of depression, suicide, murder and even a mother falling in love with her son because he resembles his late father (‘Alive’). While it was originally slow to sell, it helped mark the commercial success that was grunge and by 1992, Pearl Jam were everywhere. Teenagers who labelled themselves as outsiders started replicating Vedder’s long hair and knee-shorts with chunky boots. They reveled in the angry guitars and relatable messages and just couldn’t get enough of that trademark growl.
It seemed that although Nirvana (technically more alternative but still in the grunge race) were cooler, everybody was adopting Pearl Jam (and mostly Vedder’s) aesthetic. A year after Ten, grunge up-and-comer Stone Temple Pilots released their debut album Core and adopted Pearl Jam’s rock swagger. Their hit single ‘Sex Type Thing’ saw lead singer Scott Weiland channeling his best Vedder growl with disturbing lyrics, in typical Pearl Jam fashion, about rape. But while Nirvana definitely had their fair share of shocking listeners with in-your-face themes, it was the added elements of edgy guitars and a growling voice that really seemed to stick to the grunge web.
And it wasn’t just STP – more and more bands were crawling out of the woodwork to jump onto the commercial success of grunge, and they were leaning more towards Vedder’s aesthetic than Cobain’s. Although releasing three albums prior, Soundgarden didn’t achieve mainstream success until their breakthrough with their fourth Superunknown, which included the grungy hits ‘Black Hole Sun’ and ‘The Day I Tried To Live.’ Not only was Chris Cornell’s voice shockingly similar to Vedder’s, but the two shared a striking resemblance to one another that is now considered the ‘look’ of grunge. Not to mention they had worked together previously on Cornell’s one-off project Temple of the Dog, a tribute to his friend Andrew Wood, the same frontman of Gossard and Ament’s band who had sadly overdosed. Temple of the Dog held the bones of the entire Pearl Jam band, before they were Pearl Jam, and saw Vedder and Cornell share vocals. They released their only album in 1991, a few months before Ten, and Cornell and Vedder’s duet ‘Hunger Strike’ became Temple of the Dog’s most popular song. It also formed the bond between two of grunge’s biggest forces, one that would last for years to come.
The Pioneer of Grunge
After the death of Kurt Cobain in 1994, Pearl Jam were down a competitor and were moving up quickly to become the biggest movement of grunge. They had been floating on years of success since their debut and everyone couldn’t get enough of Eddie Vedder’s charm. From swinging off stage lights and stage diving, Vedder’s live antics became reason in itself to see Pearl Jam live. The band followed a no-show-the-same policy, changing up their set each night and providing once-in-a-lifetime performances that ensured you had to keep going to each gig. It was this approach to music that fans resonated with most, seeing their favourite tracks being brought to life and a crazy frontman who would do just about anything for entertainment. Pearl Jam encouraged fans to join in, record each show, and fully engage. They wanted a thousand Vedder mini-me’s and their live gigs to be the best at the time. Pearl Jam wanted their name in lights, and they got it.
It was around this time, in the late 90s, that bands started to adopt Vedder’s philosophy but change it to suit themselves. The post-grunge movement officially began after record labels started signing bands that emulated the core grunge sound, trying to keep up the commercial success of it all. The plaid aesthetic of the early 90s was beginning to fade (even Pearl Jam started to change their sound) and rock music was again shifting its tone. But one thing seemed to stick and that was the iconic Vedder growl. Florida rock band Creed started to murmur in 1997 and their frontman Scott Stapp sounded so much like Vedder that they were given a reputation for being a Pearl Jam imitation band. Soon followed Canadian rock band Nickelback who started off with heavier rock beats, before falling into their soft-rock radio hits that would lead to them being mocked for all of eternity. But one thing was becoming clear and that was Pearl Jam’s, or more importantly – Eddie Vedder’s – influence.
Unlike the first-generation of grunge, this new wave was bringing a softer edge with romance and heartbreak and aspects of pop. Which was, ironically, exactly what grunge was against. With Creed and Nickelback as the new pioneers, more bands like 3 Doors Down, Seether, Puddle of Mudd and Matchbox Twenty were starting to emerge. And they all had one thing in common: they had all adopted the Vedder growl. It seemed that you couldn’t make a rock song without channeling your inner Vedder and pairing it with some sludgy guitars. And while fans believed that this new movement was tasteless and ripping off grunge, it showed just how influential Pearl Jam had been. More than a decade after their debut, the band were still everywhere you went.
And it didn’t just stop at rock music. Vedder’s soul and voice started popping up in country tracks, his growl hitting the same register as a whiskey-soaked drawl. (Bradley Cooper would later cite Vedder as his influence for his character in A Star Is Born). His stage antics were adopted by rappers and new punk artists, their desire to rebel in terms of entertainment seeing Vedder to be a prime influence. The way Pearl Jam engaged with their fans, encouraging recordings and keeping ticket prices low to respect their loyalty became a philosophy of new artists and the way Vedder bared his soul in a shockingly raw way would change music forever, with no subject off the table.
In more ways than one, Vedder changed the game. He charged at a movement with full force and landed exactly where he needed to ride the wave as far as it would take him. It’s hard to see how things would’ve ended up if he hadn’t emerged. Maybe another grunge artist would’ve taken his place, but there’s just something about Vedder himself that can’t be truly replicated. The world had never heard a voice like his before and it never will again. But that doesn’t mean people won’t ever stop trying.
Listen to Pearl Jam’s latest album Gigaton below.