Pearl Jam: The Making of Vitalogy
On today’s episode of Rock N’ Roll True Stories they take a look at the Pearl Jam album that almost destroyed the band. Check it out below!
The band Pearl Jam was without a doubt one of the biggest rock bands of the early to mid 90s and following the huge success of their first two albums, 1991 10, and 1993 Vs. They didn’t take a second to breathe as they immediately started work on their third record Vitalogy. While on the road to promote Vs with bassist Jeff Ament remembering, “It’s kind of amazing when you look back, we really didn’t have more than a couple weeks off for the first four or five years of the band.” But success aside the band nearly collapsed during the recording of their third album, Pearl Jam from Eddie Vedder became disillusioned with the appropriation of so called grunge with one of the best examples being fashion brands selling grunge wear for exorbitant prices as shown here.
“We’re seeing like some catalogs and I was like the grunge look, like check this out. It’s like 80 bucks for like a flannel shirt that you get it like Chevy and Cubbies for like five bucks.” “I think after Nirvana broke, most people obviously try to avoid wearing flannel, which is kind of unnatural, like consciously trying not to wear pants.”
On top of that, even Vedder tried to inspire pop culture with the TV show General Hospital loosely basing a character on him, that’d be played by pop icon Ricky Martin, add to the mix of the members, each handle fame differently. It was no wonder that the band almost collapsed.
On one hand Vedder seemed to struggle with his newfound fame while guitarist Mike McCready was struggling with substance abuse issues and drummer Dave Abbruzzese seemed to love the rockstar life. Thrown into this powder keg was the fact that the band was feuding with mega giant Ticketmaster over the box office giants price gouging fans on the band’s tickets, eventually Ticketmaster would win the battle with Pearl Jam, and as Pearl Jam stock started to rise they started to scale back. They weren’t shooting music videos anymore and they were not giving as many press interviews as well. And this is just a brief overview of what happened during this time in the band’s history. So now I want to take a deeper look into some of these topics I briefly mentioned.
So first let’s take a deeper look at the drama surrounding the band. So regarding the banned substance abuse issues, guitarist Mike McCready looked back at this point of the band’s existence saying, “I was drunk making a jerk out of myself. I didn’t know how to relate to Eddie and after the band really took off I went off in my own world.” McCready would enter treatment to save his future in the band with guitar Stone Gossard claiming, “Mike’s a pretty awful drunk, not that he gets malicious or mean openly to people, but he will get out of control consistently. It was a difficult situation where you could find yourself blaming Mike for a lot of your own frustrations within the band, when he was really fuded up or couldn’t come to practice, and we’re used to loving Mike and knowing how much fun and how talented he is. I got upset that he might throw away a great opportunity to be in a cool band and work it out, you decided to go into treatment and everyone was thrilled. How could you not be, here was Mike taking responsibility for himself and his own happiness, going to a new level.” And while one band member was ensuring his place in the band, another was soon on his way out. The drummer Dave Abbruzzese feuding with the group. During the recording of Vitalogy the drummer had to have his tonsils removed and the band managed to record the song Satan’s Bed with his drum tech Jimmy Shoaf. Months later personality differences between Dave and the band led him to leave the group.
Gossard remembered, “It was the nature of how the politics worked in our band, it was up to me to say hey, we tried to start working time move on, on a superficial level, it was a political struggle, and for whatever reason his ability to communicate with Ed and Jeff was very stifled, I certainly don’t think it was all Dave’s fault that it was stifled.”
Ironically the band would enlist the help of drummer Jack Irons, who had initially recommended Eddie Vedder to Pearl Jam, to help complete the album with Gossard remembering, “If we didn’t find a drummer that everyone felt good about it would have been difficult to keep moving forward, and Jack’s just a very generous and wise drummer, he concentrates on the groove of a song and that allows everybody’s heart to have a place to sit and yet be part of the whole. He’s very conscious of what everybody’s playing, he’s working to balance out all the elements of a band.”
Now let’s talk more about Eddie’s growing control over the band. So adding to the tension was Vedder’s intention to exert more creative control over the group, especially when he started to learn how to play guitar and in the band’s early years Stone Gossard was thought to be the creative force in the group, but he slowly took a backseat his Vedder himself wanted to write more songs in isolation, rather than with the band members, and the band’s producer at the time Brendan O’Brien recalled the tension, saying “it wasn’t an easy transition, how do you squeeze everybody in, Vedder would tell the director and close personal friend Cameron Crowe that it wasn’t a hostile takeover. “To be honest, I think that I felt that anything we put out was highly representative of me, because I was kind of becoming the most recognizable guy in the group. And if that meant me creating the songs that were going to accomplish that, then I had to do it.”
Stone Gossard was able to further explain Eddie’s transition to take a bigger role in the band, and according to Gossard, Vedder becoming the band’s leader was a gradual process, he explained “There’s no getting around the fact that Eddie is the man. As far as emotional, spiritual energy goes he is the leader of the band, but Eddie does not make all the decisions, Eddie can listen to reason, and he can be swayed or talked in and out of certain things and Eddie allows people to lead in this band and have certain roles that are very fundamental to the decision making process, Eddie’s a natural leader, Jeff and I have been very much in control of previous bands we’ve worked in, but the way it grew into being the leader of this band was the most gradual slow and respectful process that I’ve ever been involved in. That’s not to say that he’s never done anything malicious but he never grabbed power for powers sake,” Gossard would remember.
By the end of 1994 Pearl Jam was ready to release Vitalogy with the album first being released on Final on November 22, it would sell 34,000, copies in its first week which was the biggest opening week for vinyl records, until 2014 when Jack White Slash Serato album sold more, following the vinyl release the CD version of the album came out two weeks later on December 6, and it sold an incredible 877,000, copies in its first week out, which made the second fastest selling album in the history of music, which ironically would be beaten by the band’s previous effort Vs.
Now on the eve of the album’s release the album would kick things into high gear with the fast rocker Spin the Black Circle, which would be issued in early November with Vedder telling Rolling Stone, “I remember wanting everything to be faster, Stone gave me this riff I had a speed control machine, I speeded it up, came back and said, Can we do it this way, that approach, only further despite the disagreements in the band. As basses Jeff Ament told Enemy, “I was like, I can’t play the entire Dead Kennedys back catalogue, I didn’t really want to make music like that at the time. On guitarist Mike McCready told Guitar School that, the song was one of the more challenging songs he had to learn to play live saying, “I actually overdub those leads, when I do it live that riff is so hectic and frantic, I have to be warmed up or it sounds really crappy.
Now Spin the Black Circle would be the only single from the record to chart in the Billboard Top 40, peaking at number 18, and the song would also win a Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance in 1996, something that was unusual about Spin the Black Circle single, is that it had a B side called Tremor Christ, that also charted peaking at number 16 on the mainstream rock charts and on the modern rock track charts as well.
Now Pearl Jam’s next single would be Not for You, which would be written by Vedder about music itself saying to an interviewer, “These attitudes out there that it’s the industry’s music, and it’s not, it’s mine and it’s yours, whoever’s listening to it, it’s mine and it’s yours and everybody in between and they’re the distributors. I think that something like a music channel can be very powerful. Sometimes they think they’re the ones who decide what’s heard, I think that’s a dangerous situation. And I think what’s more dangerous is that they think it belongs to them. That’s probably what Not for You is about Vedder would say.”
The song has proved to be a special one for guitarist Mike McCready who recorded the song using a 12 string Rickenbacker that legendary rocker Tom Petty had gifted him saying, “It was the first time I used it it was like a Christmas present. One day showed up at my door and I called him up referring to Tom Petty and thanked him.”
The song would chart and number 12 on the mainstream rock charts and Vitalogy his final single will be the dark and somber track and Mortality, and some fans in the media believe the song was about Nirvana’s frontman and Kurt Cobain who passed away this spring before Vitalogy came out, but Vedder would rebuke these comparisons telling the Los Angeles Times, “That was written while we were on tour in Atlanta, it’s not about Kurt, nothing on the album was written directly about Kurt and I don’t feel like talking about him because it might be seen as exploitation. But I think there might be some things in the lyrics that you could read into and maybe will answer some questions, or help you understand the pressures on someone who is on a parallel train.”
Now what’s ironic is that Vitalogy his biggest song was never released as a single, and that would be the song Better Man, which reached number one in the mainstream rock track charts and peaked at number two on the modern rock track charts. The song would also be a live staple of the band’s shows. And what’s funny is that the song predated Pearl Jam with Vedder originally penning the track and almost giving it away to a Greenpeace benefit record but producer Brendan O’Brien revealed the Spin Magazine, that he knew the song was a hit you saying, “I remember saying to the engineer Nick, this is one of their best songs and they’re going to give it away. That can’t happen. And we went to record it and I’m not going to say we didn’t try very hard but it didn’t end up sounding very good. I may have even sabotaged that version but I won’t admit to that. It took us the next record recording it two more times before he became comfortable with it because it was such a blatantly great pop song.”
Now, apart from the singles Vitalogy also produced several other popular tracks within the band’s illustrious catalogue, including Corduroy, which saw the band pointing out the appropriation of their image and look Vedder would tell AV Club that song was based on a remake of a brown corduroy jacket that I wore. I think I got mine for 12 bucks, it was being sold for $650. He will go on to say the ultimate one was as far as being co-opted was that there was a guy on TV predictively patterned, I guess after the way I was looking those days with long hair and an army t-shirt, they put his character on the soap opera so there was this guy more handsome than I parading around in the General Hospital and the funny thing was like I was Ricky Martin.
Now when it came time for the band to support the record. Things proved to be quite challenging as a group was locked in a battle with Ticketmaster over their high service charges. The band tried to find alternative ways to tour without Ticketmasters involvement and the struggle to do so. Also not helping was I know other bands jumped to Pearl Jam’s defense with Vedder telling Spin, “We don’t want to exclude anybody from the experience, the experience of a father taking his son to a concert even though he works at a gas station, or even being able to afford a T-shirt. What music can do to your life when one night of live music, if all the elements are in place, how it can affect your life, it might make this kid pick up a guitar, who knows what it will do”.
Now bassist Jeff Ament would add, “we were so hard headed about the 1995 tour had to prove we could tour on our own and it pretty much killed us and killed our career.” Now, internal tensions and touring troubles aside Vitalogy just debuted at number one and would be certified five times platinum. Vitalogy would earn the Best Rock Album and Album of the Year nominations at the Grammy Awards.
So that does it for today’s video guys. Thanks for watching, be sure to like the button and subscribe. And as always, let me know which stories like to see me cover on future episodes of my channel. Take care.