Part Two: Versus The World

Benin City


Following on from last week’s article on Nirvana and In Utero, the second of a three part series see’s John Howell looking back on the Pearl Jam’s sophomore effort, Vs., and its place in music twenty years on from its release on October 19, 1993.

Coming a little over a month after In Utero, the story of Vs. parallels the former in more ways than one. The release of both cemented alternative rock as the defining genre of the early nineties. The diversity of the music each band championed with their respective works had set both free from the grunge tag, and gave new found freedom to artists of the same stigma to branch out into new musical territory.

Part Two: Versus the World

In its first week, Vs. sold 950,378 copies. It was a record that the album would go on to hold into the millennium.

Within ten days 1.3 million copies had been sold.

Upon reflection, it’s clear to see the hysteria surrounding the albums impending release was one of the most significant in modern music history. In many fans minds, Pearl Jam were the only competition to Nirvana when it came to claiming the title of the biggest band in the world.

Released in August 1991, the band’s debut album, Ten, became a sleeper hit once Nirvana’s Nevermind had broken into the mainstream in December 1991, nearly three months after it went on sale. Ten slowly crept up the charts and almost a year on from found itself in the Billboard top 10 and UK top 20. The band were tagged as crashing the party by the initially sceptical press and criticised by Kurt Cobain himself, who said he  had “always hated their band” and that they were “corporate alternative rock”. Over time Cobain and Nirvana grew to become friends with their Seattle counterparts, but the feeling that Pearl Jam had jumped onto the gravy train grunge fad was at the time a constant and untrue haunt for the band.

Ten has stood the test of time. Their most consistent and easily their most cited album, its strength lay in both lead singer Eddie Vedder’s distinct voice and lyrics linking seamlessly together with Jeff Ament’s bass, Stone Gossard’s rhythm, and Mike McCready’s lead guitar to create one of the most cohesive alternative rock albums of the decade. In the wake of Ten, Pearl Jam went onto perform MTV Unplugged and toured aggressively worldwide to burgeon an already growing fan base.

By the time a follow up had come around, the band and Vedder in particular had grown tired at the intense and unwavering media spotlight that followed them. All five members made a conscious decision to scale back on promoting the album and declined to produce music videos. Considering at the time MTV still had the ability to make or break a band, the move was virtually unheard of. Even the packaging of the album, a lone sheep with its nose pressed up to a wire fence was a message to both press and public, and the album’s title Vs. relaying the bands stance at the time: ‘Us against the world’.

Lyrically, Vedder had moved past the deeply personal material presented in Ten and into new territory. With the ability to reach a worldwide audience, Vedder took a more responsible and political stance with songs like Glorified G; “Got a gun, fact I got two! Thats OK man, ‘cause I love God!”, and W.M.A (White Middle American) taking a swipe at the institutionalised racism of the United States police force, “Trained like dogs colour and smell, walks by me to get to him, police man”.

Yet despite its edgier content, the album features two of Pearl Jam’s most enduring songs in the form of two ballads. Daughter explores themes of child abuse and disability, whilst Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town told the heart breaking story of small town lost love. The songs were the sound of a band that had moved on from simply being an alternative rock or ‘grunge’ act; a maturing group unafraid to present music to a fan base that expected nothing less than the former.

When it came time to release the first single, a decision had to be made. Drummer Dave Abbruzzese suggested the softer Daughter. The band ultimately disagreed and went with the albums opening track, Go. Daughter would however end up becoming the second single release and the most successful out of three.  Go was released first to appease a certain section of their fan base who wanted another hard rock anthem akin to Alive.

Upon release, Vs. propelled the band into super stardom and asserted alternative rock as the most commercially viable genre of music at the time. Over the next six months Pearl Jam played 52 live dates to hundreds of thousands American fans coast to coast.

The diversity of the album surprised fans and the band were applauded for daring to depart from the successful sound of its predecessor.  The quality of Abbruzzese’s drumming is cited as being the most distinct and inventive percussion play of the Pearl Jam catalogue. Along with this, the counter balance of Vedder’s song writing took many by surprise.  Balladry has become a staple of the band now, but upon its release, the mix of both hostile and soft tracks showed a fearless side of the five members, again something that is now a common description of the band.

Behind the bright lights and cameras however, some suffered. Vedder became bogged down and disillusioned with what fame had brought him, especially after the death of Kurt Cobain in April 1994. McCready had began what would become a long battle with both substance and alcohol abuse.  Abbruzzese happily adopted a rock star image with fast cars, excessive partying and women, something that eventually lead to his dismissal.

When the tour had ended, the band entered into a drawn out dispute with Ticketmaster over its surplus charges and inevitably spelled the end for the group touring wise. Forced to build venues from the ground up and with fraudulent ticketing rife, Pearl Jam had to cancel their summer 1994 tour, but still boycotted the ticket supplier.

Their next album, Vitalogy, released in November 1994, sold 877,000 copies in its first week. It was the second fastest selling record of all time. Although the follow up No Code (1996) was a number one record, it was not as warmly received and marked the end of their spell as a the biggest band on the planet.

Vs. had set the unreachable bench mark for all music with its sales and gave a platform for Pearl Jam to become more than an alternative rock band, they were a part of history.