Riot Act, Pearl Jam's latest CD.
Pearl Jam was one of the biggest-selling rock bands of the last decade, and one of the few bands to survive the Seattle grunge scene. Pearl Jam's success comes from its powerful, melodic rock and its intense, charismatic lead singer, Eddie Vedder. On Morning Edition, NPR's Elizabeth Blair profiles the band, now on a major U.S. tour.
Musicians Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard had initial troubles getting the band off the ground. Their first group, Green River, didn't click. Their second band, Mother Love Bone, dissolved when lead singer Andy Wood died of a heroin overdose. So in 1990, they started over. They wrote and recorded music for a handful of new songs and sent a cassette copy to a guy they had heard about in San Diego, named Eddie Vedder.
"Vedder was a busy guy, working as a night watchman at a petroleum plant, singing in local bands, and surfing," Blair reports.
Vedder says Gossard and Ament's music had a groove he liked. "It had a lot of pushes and pulls, and what excites me most about music, my favorite music has momentum. So it had momentum in this different kind of way, smoky vibe to it."
Vedder wrote lyrics to three of the instrumentals, recorded his voice in his apartment and sent the cassette back to Seattle. After hearing the tape, bassist Jeff Ament remembers thinking, "'OK, I would go see that band.' And so that was the first time I was in a band that I would actually go see."
Vedder moved to Seattle. The band became Pearl Jam and its first album, Ten — with inescapable hits including "Jeremy", "Alive" and "Even Flow" — sold nearly nine million copies. The music, says David Fricke of Rolling Stone magazine, was fueled by anger that a lot of young people felt at the time.
"Vedder's songs are individual stories about heavy topics — teen suicide, parental neglect, an over-zealous media, and gun control," Blair says. "Many of his songs are about what it means to have a life and what it means to be stuck, in a job, in a place, or in a relationship."
Over the years, Pearl Jam has built an audience by touring constantly, sometimes performing five nights a week. But the band has struggled with the business of rock 'n' roll.
In 1994, at the height of its success, Pearl Jam shocked the music industry by taking on Ticketmaster, the ticket distribution giant, in an effort to make its concerts more affordable to young fans. The band cancelled its summer tour, and members of the band testified before Congress, saying that Ticketmaster had a virtual monopoly. But a year later the Justice Department ended its investigation, saying "...there were new enterprises coming into the arena."
Discouraged, the band took some time off to regroup but eventually resumed touring, including shows at Ticketmaster-operated venues. Members of its fan club are guaranteed tickets to Pearl Jam concerts and they don't have to go through Ticketmaster to buy them.
"For years Pearl Jam has stayed away from the rock-star hype, and it hasn't hurt them," Blair reports. "By the end of this summer, nearly a million people will have seen them on tour."