Ten Out of Ten: Revisiting Pearl Jam’s Classic Debut

When an album has moved as many people as Pearl Jam’s Ten, it’s near-impossible to tell the whole story. After all, you probably had your life changed by some of these songs; you went through some of the crises and triumphs that Eddie Vedder sings about; you rocked out with the guitar solos and cried with the heavier moments. And now, we hope, you’re about to have a whole lot of fun with it; since Ten hits today as a full-album download for Rock Band. If you were too young to be there first time around, a quick look back to the life and times of Ten:

From the start, Pearl Jam seemed like a band destined to happen: Eddie Vedder was working in a gas station when he was passed a demo cassette by a band that lacked a singer. He left work, went surfing and got inspired; when he came back he’d written lyrics for “Alive,” "Once” and “Footsteps.” That earned him a trip to Seattle and a quickie audition.

When they began recording the album, Pearl Jam wasn’t even Pearl Jam: They were still known around Seattle as Mookie Blaylock, a name that was destined to bite the dust as soon as the real-life New Jersey Net Mookie found out about it. According to legend, the new name was decided on while the band members were watching an early-’91 performance by one of their heroes, Neil Young: During a particularly intense guitar solo, bassist Jeff Ament turned to guitarist Stone Gossard and said, “How about Pearl Jam?” In one of those perfect coincidences, the band would do a collaborative album with Young, Mirror Ball, just four years later.

It’s hard to think of Ten without using that g-word, but there was no mass-culture movement around Seattle when Pearl Jam started out. Sure, there had been a handful of Seattle bands who liked it loud and dirty: The Melvins helped get the ball rolling; so did Alice in Chains and Mother Love Bone, the band where Gossard and Ament first played together. Soundgarden too were becoming cult heroes; and Mudhoney were apparently the first to proudly describe themselves as “grunge.” Yet none of those bands stood a chance of breaking through to the mainstream—at least not yet. It took two bands and two albums to turn Seattle from a city full of weird bands into a full-blown phenomenon. Those two albums came out in August and September of 1991—and Ten got there first, beating Nirvana's Nevermind by four weeks. The Northwest hype was now on.

There were other differences, of course: Where Nirvana were hip and cynical, Pearl Jam risked being too emotional for their own good. When they wrote about misfits, it was dramatic and sympathetic: One listen to “Jeremy” or “Even Flow” and it’s clear that Eddie Vedder feels your pain. Vedder’s own personal shakeups went into the songs as well, with “Alive” famously drawing from his reaction at learning that his dad was really his stepfather (The band released this as its first-ever single, deliberately choosing a song less commercial than some of the other album tracks). At the same time, the band had a flair for larger-than-life, arena-rock gestures: That Eastern guitar riff that opens “Once” was enough to let classic-rock fans know they were in good hands; as were the monster solos that Mike McCready played throughout.

Pearl Jam was known for some death-defying live shows at the time of Ten’s release, and we mean that literally. The most legendary show happened in Seattle a week before Ten’s release: Clearly feeling the spirit, Eddie Vedder climbed atop the PA system, which wasn’t weighted down too well in the first place. The towers started wobbling, Vedder started surfing, a bunch of nervous roadies formed a human net underneath…and amazingly, nothing happened, except that Vedder made it back to the stage for the next song. The first time they toured America, Pearl Jam was still the opening act: They played arenas with Smashing Pumpkins and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. But Boston got them a few months earlier, where they opened for local heroes Buffalo Tom and the Lemonheads. The radio station that sponsored that one is still bragging about it.

In some ways, Ten was the most between-the-eyes, radio-ready album Pearl Jam would ever make. Stung by criticism that they were too mainstream, the band would make its share of non-commercial moves: First they’d refuse to make videos, then they’d go to battle with Ticketmaster. On disc they’d start getting experimental, on idiosyncratic albums like Vitalogy and No Code. And before too long, one of the world’s most committed bands was one of its most popular as well.

Rediscover Ten for yourself: Not only is the classic album now a Rock Band download, it gets the deluxe reissue treatment this week. Hear Ten in a brand-new mix that brings out the band's original intention...Or spring for the deluxe version, complete with a copy of Eddie Vedder's original cassette! For more info on the reissues released today visit here.