August 27 is a big day for Pearl Jam and their fans. It marks 30 years (!) since the release of their debut album, the earth-shaking Ten, and it is also the 25th anniversary of their fourth album, No Code. The former started an immediate love affair between radio and the band, the latter saw that relationship ending. We assembled a roundtable of DJs from the Beasley media family to discuss both albums, as well as the band’s ongoing legacy. Adam 12 from Boston’s Rock 92.9, Marija from 96K-ROCK in Ft. Myers, Jeff Zito from 98.7 The Shark in Tampa, Donielle Flynn from WCSX in Detroit, Matt Cord from WMGK in Philadelphia and Nick McIlwain from Philly’s WMMR came together to talk about one of the most enduring rock bands of the past three decades.
When did you first hear Pearl Jam? Were you working in radio?
Donielle: I had just started in radio in 1991. I was working at a Top 40 station and “Jeremy” was the first song that really hit me. it was so raw and it told a story of pain, rejection and misplaced frustration. Who didn’t hear that song for the first time and think, “Did he just say, ‘Bit the recess lady’s breast?'” Those lyrics were very unexpected and emotionally powerful. Even though Jeremy had done something bad, you had sympathy for him.
Matt: I loved Ten from day one. I was a rock guy working at alternative station WDRE in the early ’90s when The Cure and New Order were our core artists. It was refreshing.
Adam 12 : I was a freshman in high school when Ten came out. It was all over Boston radio, as well as MTV. True story: I bought both Ten and Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger on cassette on the same day with my paper route money. I decided to pop Badmotorfinger in first. It was almost a month before I got around to Ten!
Marija: I don’t remember exactly how old I was; I was six when Ten was released. But I remember when my brother and I used to sneak down to watch MTV at night, because we weren’t allowed to watch MTV. I remember being so scared after watching the video for “Jeremy.” I knew then why my parents didn’t want us watching that channel…but it didn’t stop us! My parents didn’t know where I was hearing this music and why I was so interested in getting my hands on it.
Jeff: I was in the 10th grade. I skipped school to go over to my friend’s house, who had an apartment near school. I listened to that album start to finish almost every day.
Nick: It was 1992 and I was in high school when I first heard and subsequently fell in love with them. I remember vividly hearing them for the first time. I was in the back seat of my friend Chris’s Subaru Wagon, driving up and down Route 476 outside Philly, and we listened to Ten on cassette, over and over and over. We were all about 16 years old, and had gained the freedom of being able to drive, and Pearl Jam was quite literally the soundtrack of those early teenage adventures in a car.
What was their impact on radio?
Donielle: Pearl Jam came out at around the same time as a lot of other “alternative” bands. The others had a hit or two on their albums, but they also had songs that were more fringe… or just not radio-friendly. Ten had one anthemic rock song after another and the album had balance. There were heavier hitters like “Even Flow” and then a ballad like “Black.” Pearl Jam’s sound is much more easily comparable to the likes of Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith. You’re not likely to hear anyone say that about Nine Inch Nails or Nirvana.
Did any of you see them in concert during the Ten era?
Matt: I saw them at Lollapalooza in 1992. Ten had been out for a year but they still had no traction. They were going on stage at 3 pm, before the Jesus & Mary Chain. But you could tell the buzz was growing, Eddie was still diving into the pit multiple times.
Jeff: I saw them in Orlando, on the Lollapalooza tour. It was the first day of school, and I skipped it. They were the second band after Lush. There were maybe 500 people watching them.
I tried to see them at Lollapalooza at Jones Beach in New York… and after Lush there was a huge storm, and the show was canceled.
Matt: I was doing Middays at WDRE in Long Island when Ten came out. I actually interviewed Eddie over the phone at that show! Tom Calderone, my Program Director, handed Ed the phone to talk to me over the air.
Adam 12: I didn’t get to see them until the Vs. tour. April of ‘94 at Boston Garden. The infamous show, it was days after Kurt Cobain was found dead. Eddie smashed a hole in the stage with the base of his mic stand and crawled down into it. It was intense.
Marija: I still haven’t seen Pearl Jam, but on my bucket list is seeing them at Wrigley Field.
What are your favorite songs from Ten?
Jeff: Other than the ones on the radio, I’d say “Once,” “Porch” and “Release.” Ten is a great album for sure. Those songs bring me back to that time in my life. Very vivid memories.
Marija: My favorite is “Porch” but the radio singles all hold up.
Adam 12: “Oceans” for sure, it’s my favorite song on the album. It’s ethereal. And “State of Love and Trust,” which should have been on the album! It was relegated to the Singles soundtrack. Pity.
They did play it on MTV Unplugged though, which was a huge moment for them.
Marija: I love that “Black” is a song that gets covered a lot to this day.
Jeff : “Black” was the soundtrack to the first time I almost “scored.” The garage door opened and stepdad got home early. It ruined the moment!
Nick: There’s not a bad song on the record, but there are two that stand out to me and rank (slightly) above the others: First, “Alive.” The song has evolved over the years. Its original meaning has changed; it was a protest against Eddie’s youth and his relationship with his mother and step-dad and father. But now, it’s an affirmation of life and of what’s good in this world. Now when he sings it, it’s about: we’re literally all still alive and life is worth living. “Release” is my favorite song by my favorite band. It’s emotionally deep and often devastating and the perfect ending to a perfect album.
So, as Ten got massively huge, the band (and especially Eddie) seemed uncomfortable with their level of fame: of course, they had their battle with Ticketmaster, but they also seemed to try to establish a kind of “indie cred” by making less commercial sounding albums. What was your take on that era and how Pearl Jam handled it?
Matt: I think they got too famous too fast, and they weren’t ready for it.
Jeff: They were young. Everyone wants to stay cool. It was the same thing with Nirvana when frat boys started showing up to their shows. But I’m sure Pearl Jam’s perspective has changed.
Adam 12 I feel like with the first two, or even three, albums being as big as they were, Pearl Jam were playing with house money from there on out. They endeared themselves to the fans and I think they could get away with being more experimental when it came to the music because their fans were loyal and passionate in a way that fans of other bands aren’t.
As young fans were you annoyed that you wouldn’t be able to see them live, due to the Ticketmaster fight, couldn’t see them on MTV because they stopped making videos and couldn’t really read about them because they weren’t doing interviews?
Adam 12: Not really. There was such an onslaught of incredible rock music at that time that I was forever floating from band to band. Pearl Jam was always part of my mix though, even when they were working through all of that.
Jeff: For me, there were so many great bands at that time, they just fell off my radar.
It’s interesting that you guys have answers that are similar (there were so many great bands) but you reacted differently to their behavior. In retrospect, do you guys think that they did they do the right thing by essentially pulling away from having radio hits, from making videos, from doing interviews?
Nick: In retrospect, they absolutely made the right decisions. But when they were in the middle of it, as a fan, it was hard to accept. I just wanted to go see this band perform at a show, but their battle with Ticketmaster made it difficult to do so. Still, the other Seattle bands of the early ’90s all imploded or suffered terrible fates. Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden are gone and yet, Pearl Jam continues to be relevant and continues to tour and sell out arenas. It seems that in the long run, the way they avoided the spotlight, ignored MTV, shunned fame and avoided exploitation has worked in maintaining their longevity. Integrity has always mattered more to them than exposure or fame or record sales.
Jeff: I guess they did make the right decisions. None of those great bands back then are half as big today as Pearl Jam is. And, they kept credibility with their fanbase.
Adam 12: I think they did, yes. Look at how many bands didn’t make it out of that era alive. I feel like Pearl Jam figured out early on that if they played by the industry rules, they’d have a shelf life. So they played by their own rules.
Marija: Obviously, it didn’t hurt them. Maybe it did at the time, but they’ve stood the test of time.
Ten was a radio smash, but No Code was a tough sell. How did you guys feel about No Code?
Nick: I think it had less to do with the music and more to do with the atmosphere surrounding pop and rock music at the time. By the time No Code was released, the backlash against the band’s popularity had formed its own momentum. Pearl Jam was no longer the darling band that would get featured on the cover of Rolling Stone and to many in the industry, they were no longer the story, or the cool “it” band. But that record has some great and powerful rock songs.
Adam 12: I think that they tested the limits with No Code. They saw that commercial radio wouldn’t necessarily play everything they released in heavy rotation, so they came back with some tighter friendlier songs on Yield.
Marija: No Code is an album that some of my friends who are major Pearl Jam fans say is their favorite and that’s exactly why.
Adam 12: I remember hearing “Who You Are” on the radio in Boston and saying “What is this hippie s—?” I was like 19 and they’d lost me.
Marija: That’s a good point! I don’t think I listened to the album for years. That could be because I was young and was still kind of discovering music, and without a radio single/music video there was really no other way for me to be exposed to it.
Jeff: I was in radio when No Code came out, and it was a “stiff.”
Nick: When that record came out, I was studying abroad in France. To put it mildly, French radio sucked. My brother mailed me a copy of No Code and it’s safe to say that the record saved my life because I finally had something to listen to that I enjoyed! At some point that fall, they did a live show in Berlin and they broadcast the concert. The band performed a lot of the songs from that record, so I recorded that show and listened to it over and over, too. I was a fan of those songs back then and I’m still a fan today.
Matt: That album was them stating, “We’re going to be different now, we’re going to make a left turn.” By the way, No Code is my favorite record. And if you saw the Michael Jordan documentary, The Last Dance, the last song that aired on the last episode is “Present Tense” from No Code.
I was starting in the music industry when No Code came out, and I was shocked by “Who You Are.” I thought, “They’re seriously trying to piss off radio.” But I felt like there were a lot of better songs on the album, and still feel that way. I love No Code.
Adam 12: Looking back on it now, though, it’s such an important album in their discography because of all the reasons we’ve mentioned: it was a boundary-pushing record that set up the next two albums. It’s an album that hardcore fans gravitate toward.
That’s so true. So, how do you guys feel about Pearl Jam today? If they do a tour, would you want to go?
Jeff: I would see them for sure, but honestly I’d prefer to see them do a Ten anniversary show with those songs. I’d say that Ten defines them. It’s one of the greatest albums of all time, period.
Marija: Oh man, a Ten anniversary show would be killer!
I agree to some extent, Jeff that Ten defines them, but they’ve managed to put out enough great stuff over the decades that they don’t have to be anchored to the album. If they did two or three songs from the album — any two or three songs – their fans would be happy. That’s a huge feat to not be tied down to such a defining album.
Adam 12: I love them. They’re the survivors: they figured out early on what they needed to do to make music on their terms, and they did it. They’re a healthy band. Not a lot of the bands from their era are. I don’t have the same passion I did for them as I did 20 or 30 years ago, but I still check out every album they put out and I always make it a point to see them live. I think I’ve seen them around a dozen times over the last 25+ years.
I’ve seen them more than 20 times, from when they were playing clubs in 1992 (I saw them at the Limelight in New York City) to Fenway Park in 2018. I’m seeing them at Sea Hear Now in a few weeks. They are still one of the very best live bands I’ve ever seen.
Adam 12: Same here. They’re always good live and they always seem to craft a setlist that gives you a bit of everything.
I agree, and that’s another exciting thing about them. I might be a bigger Soundgarden fan, but they mostly stuck with a setlist on their tours. Where Pearl Jam might not repeat any songs if you see them two nights in a row, which is pretty amazing. not many bands at that level would even try that. Springsteen does it, sort of, but very few others would try that.
Adam 12: Totally. I was at two of the three Boston shows in 2003 where they played their entire catalog to date spread over three nights. People still talk about it.
Marija: Now that’s cool!
I think they had to open for their opening band because they realized they wouldn’t fit everything in without adding in an extra set.
Adam 12: That’s right! They did an acoustic set on night three.
When did you last see them perform?
Nick: On April 29, 2016, in Philadelphia, and they began that show by performing Ten in its entirety. It was WMMR’s birthday, Eddie gave a shout out to Pierre Robert and Matt Cord and me and the radio station and it was just an epic evening. As you can probably tell, I still love them to this day and love talking about them, too!