Forget Nirvana, Pearl Jam Was the Most Influential Band of the 90s
Nirvana is the band we say changed rock, but we know deep down Eddie Vedder's voice captured the 90s.
A few years ago, I interviewed Tom Delonge at an Angels & Airwaves show. He made sure to tell me about how he has always drawn his influence from the 70s’ mod scene, the band The Jam, and the esoteric symbolism surrounding the occult. He really said this. It took everything I had in me to not reply, “Um, no. You’re the dick-joke guy in blink-182, BRO. You grew up listening to NOFX, and we all watched you do it.”
Tom clearly just wanted to sound cooler than his influences. Which is fine. I want to sound cool in interviews, too. And he wanted to sound like he was born cool, which is understandable. But I’ve been around enough newborn babies to know that everyone is born gross and lame and it takes a lot of time to become cool. There’s no shame in not being born cool, right? Right. So let me cut to the chase here. Forget about Tom Delonge and esoteric symbolism for a second, and let me ask you a real question about musical influence: Who is a more important band, galactically: Pearl Jam or Nirvana?
If you’re like pretty much everyone on earth, you’re chuckling at how dumb this question is because obviously Pearl Jam is fine music for uncles to pack bowls to, but Nirvana were THE SAVIORS OF ROCK AND ROLL, man. However, I don’t think it’s that simple. I think there’s an unturned truth to be revealed in the cultural tension that exists between Nevermind and Ten, and I’m fixing to uncover it.
Though they were both seminal records, you’d be hard pressed to find a journalist or music critic who would argue that Ten wielded nearly the influence of Nevermind, which, as the story we’ve been fed goes, finally killed the hedonist sunset-strip-lite-metal of the 80s and made rock acceptable again. Well, I’ve recently found myself at parties arguing that Nirvana has been getting all the credit even though Pearl Jam did all the work. But hey, I’ve been wrong before, so I decided to sit down and look at the sales and figures and raw data, and examine this issue with something approaching journalistic integrity (fart), and make an informed, completely objective, correct ruling on this all important question that’s been plaguing middle-aged dudes who wake up their babies and piss off their wives by ripping guitar solos in the basement after 8 PM, once and for all.
I headed to Wikipedia and Billboard.com to lazily conduct what passes for research in 2015, sure that the numbers would back up my bullshit gut reaction: that Pearl Jam is the band that really wielded the influence, and were it not for the tragic and poetic death of Kurt Cobain (and subsequent mythologizing and conspiracy theories), that Pearl Jam would now be seen as the band that ousted hair metal and forever changed radio, whereas Nirvana would be seen (rightly) as a vastly cooler, but significantly less culturally important act.
Now, full disclosure, I think Pearl Jam and Nirvana are both fine, but I’m not a huge fan of either band. I can sing along to “In Bloom” or “Black” with the best of 'em, but I’ve never owned an album by either band, and I don’t plan on buying one any time soon. So, as I settled down to conduct my research, I thought back to my high school years, and recalled the ubiquity of Pearl Jam vs. the somewhat outlier status of Nirvana. I’d go to Billboard, where the numbers would clearly show that Pearl Jam was a more popular band right out of the gate and BOOM! I’d stuff this article right up music-journalism-at-large’s ass, where it belongs, and be done with it. Well, not so fast, Billy Ray.
Both records came out around when the 1991-92 school year kicked off, and neither were exactly immediate rockets to Mars. Nothing much happened until 1992, when Nevermind unseated an at-the-time-unknown R&B singer named Michael Jackson to become the number one album on Billboard. Throughout ‘92, Nevermind would lose and reclaim the top spot several times based on the success of its many hit singles, including “Smells Like Teen Something,” “Lithium,” “In Bloom” (which I can sing along to, remember!) and um… oh right, “Come As You Are.” Nevermind didn’t sit in that number one spot in ‘92 as much as Garth Brooks’ Ropin’ the Wind did, but it held its own pretty well. Nevermind went on to go diamond (10 MILLION COPIES SOLD!) in 1999, “change the world” and, of course, it became the number one go-to for legally purchasing a picture of a three-month-old naked penis.
Contrast this with Ten, which never made it to number one at all, settling (as Pearl Jam would) for being the lame-ass number two of grunge. Even though looking back it seems like every song on Ten was a single, in reality, only “Alive,” “Jeremy,” and “Even Flow” were hits. Did Ten go diamond? Sure, but not until the very recent (and pathetic) 2013. Number of child penis photographs on Ten: zero. Instead, an end-of-the-century America had to settle for a bunch of goofy dipshits high-fiving in silly shoes in front of a wood cutout of the words “Pearl Jam,” making it a lamer and less creepy album cover than Nevermind by all accounts. In terms of sheer numbers, things started looking pretty game-set-and match for our boys from Aberdeen in this head-to-head matchup.
Have you listened to any rock radio in the past 24 years? Have you? Have you listened to country radio at all in that time? Because if you have, then you hear, and probably cringe, at the undeniable influence of Pearl Jam. As a boy, I remember seeing the video for Pearl Jam’s “Alive,” being specifically interested in Eddie Vedder’s vocal style and saying “Holy shit! I have never heard anyone sing like this before!” By September of 1992, a mere 13 months after Ten was released, Stone Temple Pilots would drop Core and the accompanying single “Sex Type Thing,” which managed to go platinum, based in no small part on vocalist Scott Weiland’s shameless “interpretation” of Vedder’s trademark dick-thumpy snarling croon. And it wasn’t just STP, though they were the most high profile act to "borrow” the style that Eddie invented, or at least popularized. Virtually every rock radio band, from Collective Soul to Nickelback to already established acts like METALLICA FOR FUCKSSAKES(!) would wear the flannel stain of Eddie Vedder’s influence until the present day. Here in 2015, Vedder’s voice and influence have transcended style and become the default sound of radio butt-rock. That’s quite a legacy for a band that seemed to have pretty decent intentions and have managed to maintain a surprising level of dignity and fan support, despite the foul garbage they unwittingly spawned.
But who sounds like Kurt? The answer is “pretty much nobody.” The truth is, Nirvana, overall, was too weird of a band to imitate well or even properly draw influence from. Sure, people say that Nirvana was an influence, but that’s because they want to look cool. But the facts speak for themselves. Famed Nirvana impersonators Bush tried desperately hard to follow in Cobain’s Bleachy footsteps and ended up sounding like… well, Bush. Gavin Rossdale’s throat doesn’t make the broken, cracked, somehow impossibly soulful sounds Kurt’s did. In fact, as hard as he attempted to ape Cobain, he ended up sounding a lot more like another grunge singer from Nirvana’s era—rocking a deep, bellowing, highly affected timbre that’s at its best when it’s going “yeeeeaaaaaaah.” If Nirvana is your cited influence, but no one else can tell, you’re just lying to yourself to feel cooler, Gavin. Like everyone else, you tried to be influenced by Nirvana, then realized that doing Pearl Jam was just way easier. You’re not alone.
Eddie Vedder’s gotta fucking love this. He truly brought something to the table. He took Buzzo from the Melvins’ growl and twisted it into something commercial and new (The Melvins, it should be noted, were one of Kurt Cobain’s favorite bands), and in the process, changed the sound of modern… ahem, “unpretentious” rock and roll, for better or worse (and let’s be honest… it ain’t pretty out there). Cobain played tortured, limping, deformed highly aggressive pop that resonated with the world, and with good reason, but he was kind of the only guy who’s been able to do it like that, or even properly try.
Pearl Jam won’t exactly get thrown under the cultural bus for all eternity. They still to this day get to tour the world, playing to huge crowds which Eddie periodically hurls his scruffy, ruggedly handsome ass into. But Nirvana will likely go down in rock history as the Official Cool Band of the 90s, and we all helped them get there. You bought Nevermind because you knew in your soul that it was cool and important. But your classic-rock-loving uncle’s blood Even Flows through your veins, too, and until that horrible day in April of 1994, you know you secretly liked Pearl Jam more. And you tried to sing like Eddie Vedder when you were alone. Yes you did, you fucking liar.
Brendan Kelly plays in The Lawrence Arms, a band which takes its influence from Temple of the Dog. Follow him on Twitter - @badsandwich