Musical words…. A Top Ten Music Book List

Alrighty, lets see about combing the two usual focuses of this blog into one post –  music and books, books about music.

A good book about music or musicians isn’t as common as you’d think. There are shit loads of duffers out there – poorly researched and badly written fluff pieces. Some musicians who you’d expect a really good book out of tend to spend more time talking about their model railway collection than about the making of After The Gold Rush and some make it a little too obvious that they have an ulterior motive in a book release other than just a memoir – Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band, for example.

But, there are some bloody belters out there and there’s a reason that a good chunk of my library is given over to a ‘music’ section. I’m sticking close to this blog’s wheelhouse here, obviously, but honourable mentions should go to The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century by Alex Ross and Peter Doggett’s There’s a Riot Going on: Revolutionaries, Rock Stars, and the Rise and Fall of 60s Counter-culture.

In no particular order, then, are my ten favourite music biogs / auto-biogs / books etc…

Pearl Jam – Twenty

Put out as part of the celebrations surrounding the band’s twentieth anniversary – the clue is in the title – which included a Cameron Crowe helmed documentary, CD, live album, two-day festival and short tour… Pearl Jam Twenty is a year-by-year oral history of the band’s career. Stuffed to the bindings with imagery and photos, this is as intimate and candid as you’ll get for Pearl Jam, notoriously shy of publicity and exceedingly unlikely to offer anything resembling an official biography. There’s a wealth of humour and details in here given the format and it’s fuelled many a post on this blog and every time I open it up to refresh my memory I end up absorbed again.

Keith Richards – Life

Did you know Mick Jagger started an autobiography? Sometime in the 80’s – presumably during the lull in Stones activity, he got quite far with his book but promptly forgot about it – when he was later approached by a publisher he could neither remember writing it or let it be published. Somehow, Keith Richards remembered even more and not only finished but published his autobiography, Life. Could have been something to do with the publisher giving an advance of $7m based on a short extract, but Life is an essential read for even a minor Stones fan like me. Yes there’s the thrills and vicarious spirit of rock ‘n’ roll excess – but it’s his honesty and unflinching and everlasting love for music that really comes across, you understand how he became known as the human riff. Worth following up with the Netflix doc on Keith too if you’re in the mood.

Mark Yarm – Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge

This book is, frankly, immense. In its scope, its telling and impact. Just reading it you can feel how much work and love has gone into this telling of the Seattle music scene – from its origins to its current status. The highs (both natural and chemical) and lows – some of which are pretty fucking dark and were a real discovery for me – are all covered in a forthright manner that manages to remain factual and detailed while also a clearly affectionate chronicle, sometimes gossipy, often hilarious and regularly revealing. It can’t be easy to build a narrative from so many and often conflicting memories (The Melvins’ Buzz Osborne comes across as a bit of a contrary prick) but Yarm has created what can only be described as the Bible of the scene here.

Bob Dylan – Chronicles Vol. One

“I’d been on an eighteen month tour with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. It would be my last. I had no connection to any kind of inspiration. Whatever was there to begin with had all vanished and shrunk. Tom was at the top of his game and I was at the bottom of mine.”

Wait, what? Nobody was expecting it, but Bob Dylan’s Chronicles Volume One appeared like a revelatory bolt from the blue in 2004 after he got ‘carried away’ writing linear notes for planned reissues of Bob DylanNew Morning and Oh Mercy. The memoir – apparently the first of three (who know when) – is a detailed and candid insight into Dylan’s life, thinking and writing at the time of those three albums. The dejection and lack of direction he felt for his career while on tour with Petty is pre- Oh Mercy which, it turns out, came about thanks to Bono, an obscure singer with a little-known Irish band called U2* who, for some reason, Dylan showed the songs he’d started putting together and, while old Bob thought about burning them, suggested he call Daniel Lanois instead…

There’s a lot to discover in these three ‘vignettes’ considering the brevity of the periods covered and it’s a vital read for any Dylan fan. For a less personal and fuller Dylan read, Howard Sounes’ Down The Highway does a comprehensive and enjoyable job of telling Dylan’s story while keeping clear of the myth(s).

Speaking of stripping away the myth..

Peter Guralnick – Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of AND Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley 

This isn’t a double-header, I’m not sneaking two books into one slot, both deserve a spot on this list but as you just can’t read one and not the other I’ll cover both in one go. I bought these books a long time before I got to reading them. I’m not a big fan of Elvis, I can quite quickly name a Top Ten but I don’t go deep with the King. These books do and I’d mark them as essential.

Last Train to Memphis does a magnificent job in detailing – and I mean detailing – the rise of Elvis Presley right up to the point where he’s shipped out to Germany in 1958. Where he’s from, who he was as a person, his love for music, getting started, this book is rich in detail and interview and a real eye-opener. Guralnick finds the truth behind what has become a much retold and embellished story that’s become so familiar that the truth of a poor young truck driver who loved nothing above his mother and music and came out of nowhere to become the biggest thing the world had seen is far too often forgotten. Take, as an example, the words of Marion Keisker, the secretary at Sun records who recognised something special in the polite teenager’s voice, words on the enigma surrounding Elvis: “He was like a mirror in a way: whatever you were looking for, you were going to find in him. It was not in him to say anything malicious. He had all the intricacy of the very simple.”

The degree to which Last Train to Memphis manages to deliver the real Elvis Presley makes Careless Love all the more affecting. Once again – the demise of Elvis’ career and the man himself are too often mistold and the stock of parody: fat Elvis dying on the throne trying to take a dump surrounded by hamburgers and tv sets….

Careless Love gets underway with Elvis’ time in the army in ’58 and chronicles the gradual unravelling of the dream that had burnt so bright in Last Train To Memphis and details in disturbing detail the complex playing-out of Elvis’s relationship with his plotting, money-grabbing and manipulative manager, Colonel Tom Parker. The lying Dutchman’s desperate attempts to stop Elvis returning to the road after his comeback special (he’d have less control of him on the road), his continual pushing of terrible movie after terrible movie, the appalling contract and commission he took which fuelled his greed…. it wasn’t drugs that did for Elvis if you ask me. Written with a grace and affection for its subject, Careless Love is the real deal, a true insight into the end of one of the biggest and misunderstood figures of the 20th century.

While neither made me run out and buy anything beyond the couple of compilations that sit on my shelves, both of these books changed how I thought about Elvis.

Oddly, looking back as I write this, it’s not an Elvis song that comes to mind here:

George Harrison – I, Me, Mine

My love for this book isn’t so much down to what’s revealed or any ‘shocking truths’ – this aren’t necessary really. Though apparently John Lennon was pissed off (it came out a few months before he was murdered) and claimed to be hurt as the book doesn’t refer to Lennon as being a musical influence. What I love is the warmth and feel of I, Me, Mine. My version is that which was published in 2002, not long after Harrison had passed, with a new forward from his wife Olivia.  The autobiography itself isn’t essentially long or detailed but it’s everything else about this book I love – the bounty of photos and the song lyrics- copies of handwritten lyrics included – with details on the writing of each: “‘What is Life’ was written for Billy Preston in 1969. I wrote it very quickly, fifteen minutes or half an hour maybe…. it seemed too difficult to go in there and say ‘Hey I wrote this catch pop sing; while Billy was playing his funky stuff. I did it myself later on All Things Must Pass.”

 

Aerosmith – Walk This Way

My first taste of musical bios is a pretty extreme one. I bought this when it came out (first edition hardback still sitting on my shelves looking rather well read) and I was really starting to get into Aerosmith. Written by Stephen Davis and the band, Walk This Way was the first official telling of the Aerosmith story, from the band members’ origins and the formation of the group through to its early rise and debauchery to its drug-fuelled collapse and nadir before being reborn via sobriety in the mid-80s – much is given over to this process and the resentment Tyler felt at the time, Perry being involved in the intervention while still using etc and the troubles that nearly caused another break up prior to Nine Lives.

Since publication three of members have written their own memoirs (oddly I’ve only read Steven Tyler’s) and have suggested that Walk This Way is perhaps a little… sanitised and glosses over a few things. Odd considering just how shocking some of what this covers …

Mark Blake – Pigs Might Fly: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd

I mentioned this one recently and I still believe it deserves a place in my Top 10. While there’s never likely to be as complete and comprehensive a Pink Floyd autobiography as desired – Nick Mason’s Inside Out comes close but is obviously his own story – as a) Gilmour and Waters don’t really get on and b) Syd Barrett and Richard Wright are no longer with us… Pigs Might Fly is a thoroughly detailed and researched ‘as close as you’ll ever get’.

Bruce Springsteen – Born To Run

Of course this is bloody well going to be on here. This is pretty much top of the list and sets a new benchmark for how autobiographies should be written. I wasn’t expecting this one to be written so well or so candidly. In my original review for this, which was extensive so I won’t go overboard here, I said: It is an absolute blast to read. Written completely solo and without the assistance of a ghost-writer, the voice is clearly that of Bruce – at times cuttingly honest, at others poetic and then written as though delivering a sermon from the stage on the LIFE SAVING POWERS OF ROCK AND ROLL!!! (yes, the caps-lock button is Bruce’s friend). Contained within its five hundred or so pages is the story of how a young man from a poor, working class family in the town of Freehold, New Jersey, fell in love with music, got a guitar, learned how to make it talk, refined his craft and cracked the code. It’s fascinating and joyous stuff.

 

*If there isn’t a tribute band called ‘Not You Too’ then I’ll bloody well start one.

Least to Most: Pearl Jam – Let the Records Play

Here we are at the end of another (my third to date) Least to Most series.

What’s been learned:

That when I tackle this series on an album by album basis this is a pretty consuming mission when combined with that other thing called ‘life’. And yet I already find myself looking at my shelves and wondering who’s next (it’s not Bob Dylan, that’s for sure).

Pearl Jam are fucking awesome. But then that shouldn’t be a lesson to anyone.

For my money, these blokes were at their finest between 1993-1998.

I still think they have at least one great album in them despite recent evidence.

For those playing along at home, the Least to Most favourite list broke down like this:

10. Backspacer
9. Binaural
8. Lightning Bolt
7. Riot Act
6. Pearl Jam
5. Ten
4. Yield
3. No Code
2. Vs.
1. Vitalogy

That’s today. Well, that’s how I eventually settled the list (after five drafts). Ask me again in a few months that might change. Ask me again when the next studio album eventually drops and it may be all change again.

For my money, if you want a good single, cover-all bases Pearl Jam album you’ll struggle with just one disc but if you get your hands on the Vs. & Vitalogy re-release box you’ll get two of their best and Live at the Orhpeum Theatre which is a fierce, powerful live disc that captured the band live between the two albums and is packed with cuts from Ten and a few rarities too.

Still, for more of what I’d recommend, and as a tip of the hat to Jim over at Music Enthusiast whose playlists are the stuff of curator envy, here’s my Pearl Jam ‘essentials’ playlist wherein I try and cherry pick the best of the band’s ten studio (and one rarities) albums and still end up with sixty tunes. Play in order or play in random but, hopefully, enjoy:

Least to Most: Pearl Jam – Vitalogy

“This song is about… uh… people who don’t have taste but they like us anyway. It’s called ‘Not For You'”

If Vs. was the sound of Pearl Jam taking control, Vitalogy, released just a year later, is the sound of the band giving a big middle finger to anyone who hand’t got the message yet. Rougher, rawer and more eclectic than anything they’d either released to date or since with songs born out of jam sessions as the communication between band members started to falter, with “eighty percent of the songs were written 20 minutes before they were recorded” according to Stone Gossard. It’s stripped down, it’s lean and uncompromising and marks the first time Pearl Jam would really start to experiment. It’s rife with hostility and tension aimed both outward and inward as, three albums in, cracks began to show within relationships to the point that, while Gossard thought of quitting, drummer Dave Abbruzzese would actually be let go as sessions wound down.

Again – it shouldn’t be good. It shouldn’t be cohesive but it’s not only good: it’s their finest album yet – in my opinion and this is my Least to Most after all. As 1993 tumbled into 1994, Pearl Jam were hitting their songwriting peak and the songs on Vitalogy bristle with an energy that wouldn’t be matched again for a while and certainly not with the level of consistency found here.

The songs here form the template for all Pearl Jam songs to come – there’s the balls-out angry and heavy, there’s the flexing of creative / experimental muscle, the achingly poignant and the perfect mid-tempo. All summised in one rough-hewn gem of an album.

So – you want the balls-out angry and fast? Take that opening volley of songs:’Last Exit’, ‘Spin the Black Circle’ and ‘Not For You’:

As middle fingers to the label go, Pearl Jam chose ‘Spin the Black Circle’, much to Epic’s dismay, as the first single from Vitalogy. “See this needle, Oh see my hand, Drop, drop, dropping it down, oh so gently, here it comes, touch the flame, turn me up, won’t turn you away” is an homage to vinyl and was supposed to sound completely different – it’s a Stone Gossard riff that Vedder first heard at the wrong pitch: “I had come up with something in my truck with the tape player in my hand, but then I realized it was playing at a superhigh pitch. I turned it down, and it was really slow. I was like ‘Oh, fuck.”

‘Not for You’, meanwhile is as openly blunt and angry about the co-opting of the alternative scene as the band would be – save for the time Jeff Ament spotted Marc Jacobs and Anna Sui (who had released a ‘grunge’ line of clothes) and “I went down and did a fake fashion twirl and went ‘Hey Marc, what do you think of this for the next line?’ ” It’s hard to comprehend now in a way but I guess when Ricky Martin is cast on General Hospital as a clone of you – you’re gonna get pissed off. It also burns through ‘Corduroy’ (perfect mid-tempo) with it’s line “they can buy but can’t put on my clothes”:

Both ‘Not for You’ and ‘Corduroy’ are sole Vedder compositions. Vitalogy – dipping back to those inner band tensions mentioned – marked the first Pearl Jam album where Vedder’s songs would by far outweigh those of the other members. Half of the songs here (you can’t really count ‘Aye Davanita’ or ‘Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me’ as songs) are marked as Vedder / Vedder on the lyrics / music front.

Vedder’s “it wasn’t a hostile takeover” caused issues in the group. Stone Gossard was said to have considered leaving as he was no longer the guy who made the final decisions on tunes and vacated his role as mediator within the group (something which Dave Abbruzzese has credited to his departure). With hindsight Jeff Ament has stated that it was simply a case that Vedder was working harder at writing songs than the rest of the band – McCready would enter rehab to receive treatment for alcohol and cocaine abuse during sessions too. “I still don’t know if he was consciously exerting wanting to take over the band or take the reins or the the power. I think it was more like, ‘Hey, man, I’ve got seven complete songs here. What do you guys have?’ and we only had little riffs or two-parter things.”

Of those Vedder / Vedder songs are the achingly poignant Immortality and, of course, one of the band’s most well known:

I’ve probably heard this song live on the numerous shows I have in my iTunes. These days when it’s played live it’s not really the same song but the original is still an out and out classic especially considering its troubled and lengthy gestation as a Pearl Jam studio song. Vedder, fearing it was too raw and direct in terms of emotion, was never happy with how it had been recorded (the band had first tried getting it on tape for Vs.) and, at one point, came close to giving it to Chrissie Hynde to record instead. As it is he changed the final mix for ‘Betterman’ right at the last.

The creative: perhaps too wary of releasing quite so many obviously strong and high-pedigree songs on one album, Pearl Jam used Vitalogy to drop some of their, frankly, weirdest shit to date too. So, following up the beautiful Ament / Vedder collab, ‘Nothingman’…

… is ‘Pry To’

While what could have been a one-two-punch knockout of ‘Betterman’ and ‘Immortality’ is softened by the slotting of ‘Aye Davanita’ between them – it’s “just screwing around” with chanted non-lyrics that O’Brien looped. Then again, there’s something charming about ‘Bugs’ which Vedder, suffering from poison at the time, plays an off-tune accordion.

Then again, perhaps I’m overthinking it. Maybe they really just did like those interludes. But let’s look at it this way: if Vitalogy had been stripped of those and released as a ten track album comprising of songs like ‘Corduroy’, ‘Betterman’, ‘Nothingman’, ‘Last Exit’, ‘Spin the Black Circle’ etc… even with the lean produciton behind them, there’d have been no real way for them to get away from it or say no so easily.

As it is, glorious rough-hewn warts and all, Vitalogy is my favourite Pearl Jam album.

Least to Most: Pearl Jam – VS

It wasn’t intended or planned but  – Pearl Jam’s Vs. was actually released 25 years ago today on October 19th, 1993. Crikey.

Back in 1993 in those wonderful days when a certain orange idiot was merely an occasional media presence and music news came periodically rather than by-the-second with inside access and selfies and… yep, I’m coming up on a birthday too so am feeling a sense of reminisce for those days of my youth when this was what new music sounded like.

To say I love Vs. would be a solid bet. It’s at number 2 on this list, today. Tomorrow it could be number 1. So here are lot of reasons why I think Vs is just the mutt’s nuts.

It was huge but in the lexicon of Pearl Jam’s discography and longevity is now something of a forgotten album, falling between the cracks between Ten and the shift in gears and stepping back from the spotlight that Vitalogy (yes, spoiler alert, more on which to follow) and wars with Ticketmaster would herald. At the time of release it set a new record for most copies of an album sold in its first week (950,378) and would hold that for five years*.

Dave Abbruzzesse is all over this album. Dave Abbruzzesse was an odd fit in terms of personality but an unimpeachable drummer for Pearl Jam. At a time when Eddie was struggling with the onslaught of fame and trying to step back and the band seemed at their most painfully angsty/earnest, Dave Abbruzzesse just wanted to enjoy the success. A Rolling Stone profile written that year, the drummer would point out that “when I was younger and I heard about a band selling a million records, I thought the band would get together and jump up and down for at least a minute,” he says with a wide-open East Texas laugh, “and just go, ‘Wow, I can’t believe it.’ But it doesn’t happen that way [in this band]. Me, I flip out. I jump up and down by myself.”

At the time this wasn’t where messrs Vedder, Ament, Gossard and McCready were. Well, definitely no Ed Vedd who was painfully serious at the time. It’s hard to judge, of course, because I’ve never written an album that sells millions of copies within a year, but I think the judgement of peers for doing so (Fugazi, Cobain** etc) perhaps made the band afraid of lightening up and desperate to appear more serious. For my money, Abbruzzesse’s inability to not smile and appear an amiable chap in band photos stopped the band disappearing up it’s own bum at the time.

As a drummer he was an immense tour de force and his drumming is what pushes Vs. along and is missing from these songs when performed live. Oh, and he also wrote the music for ‘Go’:

Go is about Eddie’s truck – well, apparently. While it sounds like it’s probably about something more serious, the lyrics were apparently written about Vedder’s truck – the band were making serious money but not spending or living like ‘rock stars’ – which he would often sleep in an effort to stay feeling ‘hungry’ and would often stall and threaten to quit.

Vs. is one of their most on target / consistent albums to date. The aforementioned Rolling Stone article, written before the album’s name was decided, stated that “Pearl Jam is the band’s turf statement, a personal declaration of the importance of music over idolatry.” Vs feels like a mission statement. It’s the most straight-ahead and consistent of tone album in their catalogue, rivaled, oddly enough, only by Pearl Jam. From the opener ‘Go’ via ‘Animal’, ‘Blood’ and ‘Leash’ to the closing ‘Inidfference’, there’s little deviance in style and minimal experimentation, a lot of fierce rockers and aggression thrown in. And every song is strong.

There’s barely a break in pace between the opening salvo of ‘Go’ and ‘Animal’ – save for the acoustic driven ‘Daughter’ which is hardly a slow song, and ‘Elderly Woman Behind the Counter In A Small Town’ (the very title of which is an outright joke at the band’s own habit of one-word song titles) – which makes ‘Indifference’ so much more of a powerful closer.

It was the beginning of saying “no” for part of Pearl Jam’s mission statement and way of coping with the assault of getting so big so fast was to push back. They began to saying no and taking control in an effort to prolong the band’s lifespan. The video for ‘Jeremy’ had become so ubiquitous at the time that the band, particularly Ament, were fighting hard against their songs being remembered only as a video. Having drawn the line at allowing a video for ‘Black’, they  started realising they could say no to requests. Requests like ‘can you raise Eddie’s vocals?’, ‘can you choose a director for a video?’ ‘can we schedule an interview with…?’ would be met with ‘no’s and ‘not really’s from here on in and Vs. feels like an aggressive stab at forging a new path.

Collaboration rules, or at least it did at the time of Vs. Only two of the twelve cuts on Vs. are sole Vedder compositions. Much like Ten before it, most of Vs was written as a collaborative effort with Vedder providing the lyrics. Perhaps this is why so many of the songs are as strong as they are: tighter than a duck’s arse after touring behind Ten and brimming with ideas, most of the songs on the album were born out of jam sessions with as much recorded live as possible. As Stone Gossard pointed out:  “I think we allowed things to develop in a more natural, band-oriented sort of way, rather than me bringing in a bunch of stuff that was already arranged.” It feels organic and it feels like a real band album and benefits from a lot more involvement in songwriting from Mike McCready too, take ‘Glorified G’:

‘Glorified G’ is a direct mocking of Dave Abbruzzesse but he dominates it nonetheless. ‘Glorified G’ – based on a McCready riff – was another song born out of a collaborative jam session but it’s anti-gun stance was born out of Vedder’s reaction to Dave’s ownership: “I was at a band rehearsal and just started writing down these things the guys were talking about. The band were having this conversation and I just took down the dialogue. One of the band members had just bought a gun. It was the drummer, actually. Ask him about it.”

So, if you asked Dave he’d have said: “I told our manager that I just bought a coupla guns and he told Jeff, and at rehearsal Jeff kinda blurted it out. And Eddie went, ‘Whaaaat, you bought a GUN?’ And I said, ‘In fact, I bought two,’ which ended up as the opening line of the song. I think it’s fair to say Eddie was pretty outraged.”

The odd thing is that this song rocks because of Abbruzzesse’s power. Even live – check out the performance on the Live at the Orpheum that accompanied the rerelease of this album and Vitalogy – he’s ON. Whether Vedder’s angered swipe at him either motivated him to play harder out of ‘fuck you too’ or he was just too easy going to really give a fuck we’ll never really know.

It is rammed with some of their best and most well-loved songs. Seriously, take a look at that track list and see how well received songs like ‘Go’, ‘Animal,’ ‘Blood,’ ‘Immortality’ are when they’re played live and you’ll see that the songs on Vs. are many a fan’s favourite. I just wish they’d bust out ‘Leash’ more.

‘Rearviewmirror’ – every single second of it. Live, now, it’s become something else and verses are often missed but ‘Rearviewmirror’ is one of Pearl Jam’s finest songs. Ridiculously catchy for a song supposedly about suicide it’s driven along by a hugely proppulsive riff from Vedder and, again Abbruzzesse’s drumming. Plus, as an added bonus you can hear Dave throwing his sticks against the wall at the end of the song as he grew increasingly frustrated by producer Brendan O’Brien’s (this was his first time producing a Pearl Jam record) constant pressure on him. There’s also a story that he ended up punching a hole in his snare drum and throwing it off a cliff. It’s worth it, though:

There’s a lot to love about Vs. and I can’t find anything to fault it on. If you’re nitpicking you might, in the same way as you would with Pearl Jam,  bemoan the lack of experimentation or single-focus on this one but the songs here are just so tight, confident and strong that you could only really do so for as long as it takes for ‘Go’ to give way to ‘Animal’.

*Technically it still holds that record as from 1998 (when it was broken by Garth Brooks) SoundScan started counting first week sales as opposed to first five days but that’s a technicality.

**Yes, Nirvana sold a tonne of records too but he famously decried Pearl Jam’s music as commercial / jock music

 

Least to Most: Pearl Jam – Yield

“There was probably a middle period where we didn’t write so much. The middle records. Maybe the third record, I think I was just writing a bunch of songs on guitar myself. But now it’s, like, a total collective. It’s all of us in there with our hammers and claws, banging it out.”
Eddie Vedder

There’s so much to love about Pearl Jam’s fifth studio album, Yield. As Vedder was keen to point out at the time of the album’s release – it marked a return to a more collaborative approach to songwriting that had been missing (though not perhaps to the degree as that opening quote suggests) from the band’s previous two albums. In fact, Yield features only two songs solely written by Vedder, making it their most collaborative effort since Vs and one that would only later be matched by Pearl Jam.

So what changed? “I remember there being a stressful conversation, bordering on an argument…. we had to tun a corner on people relating to whatever they wrote as being a song, and not just a riff. It had to have space. It had to have to allow another part, which might potentially be an important part.” It took a while, from Vedder’s point of view, but by the time of Yield, drummer Jack Irons noticed a a movement toward having everybody participate more.” Ed’s call for more complete ideas to be bought to the table – I’m guessing that penning a fifth album in six years was starting to feel daunting- meant that for the first time on a Pearl Jam album (with the exception of No Code‘s ‘Mankind’) the “all lyrics by Eddie Vedder” label was missing: Gossard and Amend both contributed two songs apiece with music and lyrics, including one of my favourite Pearl Jam songs, ‘Low Light’ – a Jeff Ament composition:

All this means that the album has a real blend of styles yet remains one of their most cohesive and accessible albums. Partly, if not totally looking at the couple that followed sound-wise, to the decision to ultimately get Brendan O’Brien involved again. Well… turns out it wasn’t their decision and that’s something else I love about this album.

When they wound down touring behind No Code and began writing the material for their next album (they’d still not mastered taking a break) the guys knew they wanted the album to be more accessible but wanted to produce it themselves. Turned out O’Brien wasn’t impressed – “I remember getting on a conference call… they said they were going to make the next record a little more listener friendly. But then they said ‘We want to try it on our own and maybe bring you in at the end to help us finish it am mix it’. And I said ‘What?! Listen! I helped you on this last record. I went through all that with you guys to get to this. And now you’re telling me you want to make a more commercial-sounding record without my help? You’re out of your mind!”

So enraged was O’Brien that he demanded they tell him in person why they thought it was a good idea to go it alone, got on a plane to Seattle the next day. They sat round a kitchen table, talked it out and then started working. He wouldn’t go home for a few weeks. Perhaps like that it sounds a bit arrogant but there’s no denying the band had done their best work with O’Brien and he deserved a shot, not only that but the band were also glad of his involvement: “I’m very glad Brendan flew up. I’m glad we didn’t produce Yield ourselves… to have someone you respect that has equal or better ears than you. I don’t know if we would have had that perspective at the time,” Mike McCready would later recall.

For his involvement – McCready’s songs on Yield included one of Pearl Jam’s finest moments, a tune that the album almost centres around:

Coming out of a dark time in his life and, feeling that it was behind him, was penning tunes that “were kind of celebratory. ‘Given to Fly’ musically was kind of that statement. That’s why there’s all the peaks and valleys in it.” It, and Vedder’s ‘Wishlist’ is one of the band’s most beloved songs. It’s also one that I would sing as a lullaby to my son when he was just a baby – the fact that he’s at school now as I write this makes me treasure this song all the more and only highlights how personal my connection to this batch of songs is. It’s a funny old thing, music, and how much it can tie itself to your memories.

Back to the ‘so many things to love’ – for some reason the birth of this song itself makes me smile: McCready had some studio time booked with a mutual friend and invited Vedder to join (“It looked like a boring ‘Hard Copy’ that night, so I dediced to go in the studio”) and ‘Wishlisht’ “popped out” – originally twice as long with a lot more ‘wishes’ but it’s a real example of the organic way in which so much of Yield seems to have come about.

In a way, Yield is an album of ends and beginnings. This was the band’s last album of the 90’s and feels like it contains some of the last vestiges of their earlier ‘rough / raw’ edges like the tough ‘Brain of J’ and ‘Pilate’ and the blistering ‘Do The Evolution’ that marked the band’s return to offering a music video for the first time since a clip had been made for ‘Oceans’ – Jeff Ament had said at the time “Ten years from now, I don’t want people to remember our songs as videos.” That being said, the band themselves didn’t appear in the video:

‘Do The Evolution’ came about in the same way as ‘Wishlist’ – though with guitarist Stone Gossard finding Vedder in the studio with no weekend plans and wanting something on the album that was a little more rock other than ‘Brain of J’ – itself a holdover from 1995.

It was also the band’s last album with Brendan O’Brien for a while – he wouldn’t get the call to sit behind the big desk for another ten years – and the last with drummer Jack Irons. Having quietly battled a bipolar condition since his midtwenties, the drummer had since said good bye to his medications and found that touring wasn’t going to work with his approach to getting healthy naturally after suffering through a ‘major manic episode’ during the Australian tour to promote Yield: “I stuck to my guns, but, unfortunately, that meant not being in Pearl Jam anymore. It wasn’t that simple. I was really not well.”

So, some seven / eight years after drumming on the demo tape that was sent to Vedder and a little under a year since Soundgarden split, Matt Cameron got asked “what are you doing this summer?”, learnt 80 songs in under two weeks and took up residence on Pearl Jam’s drum seat.

I think Jack Irons is an often underrated drummer for Pearl Jam. Perhaps overlooked as a place-holder between their BIG TWO: Dave Abbruzzese and Matt Cameron. Not only was he an amazing referral service in slipping Vedder the original demo tape but he had a real propulsive drum sound as well as a real interest in experimenting and pushing the envelope – what he would call his ‘weird suff’. But check out the drums throughout No Code and Yield and there’s a very distinct difference in styles that drives those tunes on in a different direction:

The somewhat reluctant return to the music video format that ‘Do The Evolution’ marked and the determined embrace of a more accessible sound seemed to look like some of the angst that the band had carried with them since their initial era was beginning to thaw and so, Yield also feels like the ushering in of the new ‘mature’ Pearl Jam that we know today. Hell, tired of the slog that was the No Code tour the promotion of Yield would mark the band’s return to full scale touring and use of Ticketmaster. It was as though the band had started to feel more like reaching out after spending so long saying ‘no’.

It worked: ‘Given To Fly’ was a prominent feature on the radio (it topped what those crazy Americans call the ‘Mainstream Rock Charts’ for six weeks) with second single ‘Wishlist’ faring strong too. Yield tore up the charts when it was released and while it didn’t hit the top spot it beat No Code in first-week sales and the subsequent tour was such a success that the band capture it on their first – and still finest – live album Live On Two Legs.

There’s nothing to find fault in on Yield – although I don’t have as much fondness for ‘Red Dot’ and ‘Push Me / Pull Me’ as I do the rest of the album. I also love the fact that, having seemed to push the bulk of their Ten audience away for so long, that by the time the band finally released the commercial sounding album that audience had been waiting for,  it had stopped listening. This was one for those that had stayed in touch. Here they sound free – as though for the first time they’ve shaken off the cloud of trying not to make an album that sounds like Ten 2.

Why is this number four and not number one? We’re now at the point where there’s really nothing between these albums and, on any given day, I could just as easily proclaim Yield Pearl Jam’s finest album – especially if I’d just listened to it. But, when I drew up the list for this series, it sits here and that feels pretty ok still.

Highlights – All of it.

Least to Most: Pearl Jam – Ten

“It all just fell together. No one really compromised toward each other at all. It was kind of a phenomenon, in a way. We’d all played music for six, seven, eight years and been in different bands, and we were feeling something that we’d never really felt before, with all the honesty and the way it was all coming out.”

Here we go then – the one where it all started. It would be somewhat redundant to try and offer one of my semi-reviews of such a well known and covered album so this one’s more about my relationship with Ten.

First, though; a quick, potted history on how Pearl Jam and Ten came to be…. On March 16th 1989 Andrew Wood was found in a comatose state by his girlfriend after od’ing on heroin. A prominent figure on the nascent Seattle music scene, Wood was the lead singer of Mother Love Bone a band which he’d formed with a drummer called Regan Hagar and two other blokes called Jeff Amend and Stone Gossard – both already established figures on the ‘scene’ thanks to their former band Green River, a band that could quite credibly claim to be the first ‘grunge’ band. Mother Love Bone had earlier signed to PolyGram and were awaiting the release of their album Apple. Three days after Wood’s overdose he was removed from life support and was shortly pronounced dead.

Wood’s death was a blow to the scene. In a way it was the first turning point and the wake up call to the reality of drug abuse that it hadn’t yet experienced -but that’s a different post. Gossard and Ament were devastated. Stone ducked out of sight and began writing harder edged music and began jamming with local guitarist Mike McCready who, in turn, realised they were on to something and encouraged Stone to reconnect with Jeff Ament. The three put together an eight song instrumental demo tape – with McCready’s former bandmate Chris Friel drumming on a couple and Matt Cameron, in a strange twist of fate, on the rest – to send out to find a permanent drummer and singer.

In the late summer of 1990, Ament and Gossard travelled to LA and gave a copy of their demo to Jack Irons hoping the former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer would join their band. Irons couldn’t – he’d just signed up to a tour with another band in the name of guaranteed income for his just-about-to-start family but agreed to pass it on to any singers he knew. Turns out he knew a guy called Eddie Vedder who could hold a note…

Ten and Nevermind (released a month after Pearl Jam’s debut) became cultural phenomenons and ushered in a wave of commercial success and radio airplay that had been hitherto unknown to alternative rock and represented the breaking of the damn for the ‘grunge’ scene. It’s sold more than 13 million copies and remains the band’s calling card – their most commercially successful album and, in many case, the only album by the band that some people own.

And… I can’t blame those people for whom Ten represents the sole Pearl Jam marker in their collection. I mean – take a look at that mid-section: ‘Even Flow’, ‘Alive’, ‘Why Go’, Black’, ‘Jeremy’, ‘Oceans’ in one six-song burst. As debuts go, Ten is up there with the finest.

It’s one of hell of an addictive entry drug. I vividly remember my first taste in what was either late ’98 or early ’99. I’d tried to buy Yield not long after it came out based on a shite load of good reviews I’d read but the shop didn’t have the actual CD in – this was one of those places that displayed the cases which you’d take to the till and pay for before they pulled the disc from a little cardboard sleeve behind the counter in an effort to reduce theft – and bought OK Computer instead and had that avenue of sound opened up instead. But, sometime later, during my first year at Uni I dropped into a now long gone local independent called Ricard’s Records and picked up Ten and Live on Two Legs (again based on reviews). Both would serve as great entry drugs but it was Ten I first slipped into my car’s CD player that day and sat there hooked as the brief interlude of ‘Master/Slave’ gave way to the force of ‘Once’. That power, the dynamics and then Vedder’s voice! By the time I got to Pearl Jam I’d already had the misfortune to hear all the imitators before hearing the dude that stated that way of singing. And what was he singing? ‘I admit it’? ‘I am livid’? The inlay offered no real help.

I listened to it three times before letting it move on to the next tune and already knew I had a new favourite song. I’d later discover that ‘Once’ formed part of the Momma-Son trilogy with ‘Footsteps’ and ‘Alive’ – the three songs that Vedder put lyrics and vocals to from Jeff and Stone’s demo and that it, the middle of the trilogy, was about a man’s descent into madness and becoming a serial killer. All I knew then was that it fucking rocked my speakers out and I had it cranked up enough to pick up the “You think I got my eyes closed but I’m lookin’ at you the whole fuckin’ time…” mumble in the break down.  Then there’s ‘Even Flow’… I mean yeah sure now I’ve heard it more times than I care to but hearing that for the first time.. and ‘Jeremy’, I mean, shit; this is the good stuff:

Not to mention ‘Black’ – the ballad that every ballad they’d later put out would be benchmarked against. I remember hearing that and just… you know it all connects. Yes there’s a degree of angst/cliche to all that early Pearl Jam and Seattle stuff that doesn’t necessarily age well but then, just seven years or so removed from its release, it still sounded fresh and genuine. It’s one of those things that warmed Kurt Cobain to them, eventually; Vedder really fucking means it. He’s not going through the motions.

But beyond those clutch of songs that everyone knows and still receive regular radio play closing on three decades on – the deep cuts on Ten are the best – ‘Oceans’, ‘Garden’ and ‘Release’ are what sealed the deal for me. The whole father-son thing was a big thing for Vedder in those early Pearl Jam records and it was all over this one: “Oh dear Dad, can you see me now?  I am myself, like you somehow. I’ll wait up in the dark, for you to speak to me. I’ll open up.. Release Meeee… Release meeeeeee” I mean yeah you could eat the angst with a spoon but – again – the force in that performance.

I fell headlong into consuming as much of this new-to-me band as I could and it all starts with Ten.  So…. why is it not at number one for me or higher up this list? Essentially: I don’t think Ten is representative of the band. The diversity and experimentation that would be the highlights of their studio albums hadn’t yet really began and while they’d played a fair few shows by the point they recorded the dynamic and tightness of the band wasn’t 100% there.

Not only that but I think the production and mix of Ten robs the songs of a lot of their punch. It’s all sort of lost in a kind of wash. In my digital ‘shelves’ I’ve got a boot labelled “First Week Rehearsal Demos” and, accuracy of the label aside, the versions of the same songs on that are a lot rawer and more powerful. Even Eddie’s vocals sound a little odd on the finished Ten compared to both demos and early live shows… even compared to his tracks on Temple of the Dog‘s ‘Hunger Strike’.

The band themselves obviously weren’t that keen on the final sound – they wouldn’t work with Rick Parashar on their next album and their next, long term producer Brendan O’Brien would be pestered by Jeff Ament to remix Ten for years before finally doing so in 2009, as Jeff stated: “somewhere in the late nineties, I found a rough mix tape of Ten. I played it on cassette and that’s when I started saying, ‘we have to remix Ten.’ It would usually happen after we’d been in a club or something, and we’d hear a song from it. It was like “Ugh! This is killing me!” At one point, I told Brendan I’d pay him to just do a version for me so if I had to listen to a song to relearn it or whatever, I’d hear the proper version.”

Essentially, very soon after recording, the songs from Ten took on a new harder, faster sound than what was captured and it very soon ceased to be a reflection of the band Pearl Jam were on their way to becoming. So, as much as I love Ten as the entry point into a long-lasting love of the band and the songs on it are faultless – it’s the live versions of those songs and O’Brien’s remix that I reach for more than my battered cd of the original studio album.

Least to Most: Pearl Jam – “I’m already cut up and half dead”

Ok – I’m halfway through my run down of Pearl Jam’s ten studio albums so this feels like a suitable place to take a knee and have a look at those albums that bear the band’s name but wouldn’t feature in the list: the live and compilation volumes.

For those who have been playing along at home, those studio albums covered thus far:

10. Backspacer
9. Binaural
8. Lightning Bolt
7. Riot Act
6. Pearl Jam

Compilations

Now in terms of ‘Best Of’s and ‘Greatest Hits’ type releases this is going to be a real quick and succinct round up: there’s only one. Rearviewmirror (Greatest Hits 1991–2003) is a two-disc, contractual requirement, set that splits the band’s output into ‘Up’ and ‘Down’ volumes. I’m not too sure what the criteria for each of these is though as I would’ve pegged ‘Given To Fly’ and ‘Breath’ as being every bit as ‘up’ as ‘Corduroy’ but hey ho. As an introduction to Pearl Jam and for a good go-to in the car it’s pretty ideal and, in amongst the more well known songs are a few surprised inclusions while the presence of ‘Man of the Hour’ and ‘Yellow Ledbetter’ make for a solid compilation. It’s perhaps telling though that the vast bulk of this compilation (all but 5 of the 33 ) – . What’s more of note is that in the 15 years since the period this compilation covers there’s been just 3 studio albums  vs the 7 released in the 12 years it covers. Bloody slackers.

Live

Still, while we, as Pearl Jam fans, are in a relatively barren period for new studio material the band has become one the best live acts still regularly hitting the road and manages near-Springsteen length sets of ever-changing set lists. In the nearly three decades that separate their current tour and their first show at Seattle’s Off Ramp on October 22, 1990 their show has evolved from tight, intense performances to marathon like sets that run the gamut of tempos and mood with surprises and deep cuts thrown in among those ‘classic’ songs that were once the only songs they had in their repertoire.

So – does one of the most incredible live acts still in the game have a the appropriate incredible live album? Well, no, not really. Since their decision* to put out ‘Official Bootlegs’ of every show since 2000** there are approximately 18,000 live Pearl Jam albums out there….. not quite but almost. The bootlegs are perhaps the only way to get a real, highs, lows, warts and all document of a Pearl Jam show but unless you want to get lost in among them all there’s no real way to identify what will make one better than the other. For my money you can take you pick from any of the band’s 2006 tour and you’ll be hitting gold – peak performance and sets mixed with then-new material, classics and deep cuts.

However, in terms of the general, non-self released  front there’s still a good choice out there. Live on Two Legs was the band’s first such album and captured them on their 1998 tour in support of Yield – it’s probably the best one out there if you’re looking for a single-disc intro to the band I’d recommend it over the Rearviewmirror greatest hits set: there’s no ‘Alive’ or ‘Jeremy’ but you’ll get ‘Red Mosquito’, ‘Untitled’ and a ripping take on Neil Young’s ‘Fuckin’ Up’.

As part of their PJ20 celebrations, the band tried to recapture the success of their first live disc with another general-release live album – Live On Ten Legs. A little less tightly focused, this one compiles performances from their 2003–2010 world tours and, while the band are still undeniably tight and in charge, there’s a little more of a grab-bag feel to this one. The same could also be said of last year’s Let’s Play Two. Released as a ‘live’ album to coincide with the DVD of the same name, this one feels like a real missed opportunity – the band’s shows at Wrigley Field in 2016 had some really strong setlists but here Danny Clinch (who helmed the DVD) seems to have selected the weaker cuts and has structured it in such a way as to lose any real sense of flow or continuity. Still – there’s a great take on ‘Release’ and any show that opens with ‘Low Light’ gets a thumbs up from me.

Of course, if you want to go the full Live/1975–85  route then Live at the Gorge 05/06 – it’s a seven-disc document of the band’s three shows at the venue in 2005 and 2006. There’s a few repeats, of course, but there’s a lot of solid gold here and plenty of deep cuts.

If you want to get a good feel for Pearl Jam live – it’s got to be Live On Two Legs. However – if you’ve  got a little bit more time then you can’t go wrong with Live at Benaroya Hall. This two-disc set was recorded at the end of 2003 is a predominantly acoustic set (though Mike McCready often forgets that) which captures the band in a beautifully intimate setting and is packed with great takes on the well known, the lesser known and a few then-unreleased takes.

Odds and Sods

Pearl Jam’s b-sides were the stuff of legend. I remember, when I first got into the band, discussing songs like ‘Footsteps’ and ‘Hard to Imagine’ like they were lost gems. The band’s b-sides and rarities compilation Lost Dogs dropped in 2003 contains is a pretty decent collection of these. There’s the older classics already mentioned along with ‘Wash’ and ‘Alone’ along with newer cuts saved from the studio floor like ‘Down’ and ‘Otherside’. Those newer cuts – ‘Fatal’ is highlighted as producer Tchad Blake’s favourite from the Binaural sessions – serve more like the missing pieces that could have turned luke-warm albums into scorchers while some – ‘Sweet Lew’ and ‘Gremmie Out of Control’ – feel like padding and are really only for completists. As much as I give this one a regular spin, there’s a single disc’s worth of pure gold here amongst some ‘meh’.

But I’m omitting one thing. For the best of all of these – live cuts, studio solidity and rare deep stuff, one compilation is worth investment: Pearl Jam Twenty. Essentially a soundtrack to the Cameron Crowe film of the same name, Pearl Jam Twenty is a great listen. Predominantly a collection of live tunes, it combines more recent recordings with a take on ‘Alive’ from a show in 1990 when the band were still called Mookie Blaylock, a scorching ‘Blood’ from ’95 and early demos for tunes like ‘Nothing as it Seems’ and ‘Given to Fly’ to give a really strong, full-picture document of the band as it rounded off it’s second decade in business and remains on heavy rotation.

*An attempt to provide fans with a lower-priced, higher-quality recording of a show compared to the many bootlegs that were doing the rounds may not sound like the most business-savvy idea but they’ve shifted about 4 million of the things since 2000 – which is about 4 million copies shifted than Riot Act,

**Notable exceptions to the rule include the Roskilde Festival in which nine fans lost their lives.