There were several reasons why Neil Young got the moniker “Godfather of Grunge.”
His 1979 album, Rust Never Sleeps, featured a highly distorted guitar sound that proved to be very influential with several major grunge musicians, including Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder.
Young would become a close collaborator and mentor to Pearl Jam, performing, working and touring together throughout the 90s and 00s. Young even helped inspire the name “Pearl Jam.” According to Rolling Stone, guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament were already considering using the word “Pearl” in their band’s name, and after attending a Young show in 1991 that featured several long instrumental jams, something clicked.
But it wasn’t just his music that was inspirational. Long known as an artist who refused to play by anyone else’s rules, Young was famous, or perhaps infamous, for making music for artistic reasons without regard for commercial success. In fact, his label once pressured Young for a rock album and he delivered a collection of rockabilly songs (they didn’t specify what kind of rock they wanted). His label then sued him for making music that was “not commercial” and “musically uncharacteristic” of his previous recordings.
Pearl Jam would take a page from Young’s book for its fourth album, 1996’s No Code. The more experimental, less mainstream and barely promoted album ended their run of commercial dominance and abruptly halted their seemingly inevitable march towards becoming the biggest band in the world. However, it may have also saved them.
Wait. Pearl Jam? A band that still regularly sells out arenas and has a large legion of devoted fans (myself included — I’ve seen them in concert several times and own almost all of their albums). A band that celebrated its twentieth anniversary by commissioning its own theatrical film directed by Cameron Crowe, the guy that all bands go to when they want to look cool? How could they have killed their careers when it looks like they’re still doing pretty well?
That’s because, in the early 90s, they were on track to eclipse the likes of U2 and become the Led Zeppelin of their era. Looking back, it’s staggering to think just how big they were at the time. Their first album, Ten, is one of the best-selling debut records of all time in the U.S. Their second album, 1993’s Vs., set a record for highest first-week sales with 950,000 — a mark that would stand for five years. That same year, they became one of the few musicians to ever grace the cover of Time. The following year, with record players more or less obsolete, they made the surprising decision to release their third album, Vitalogy, on vinyl two weeks before CDs and cassettes would hit the stores. The vinyl version ended up selling so well, it actually charted on the Billboard 200 and would hold the record for first-week vinyl sales until 2014. Few artists ever get so big that they almost single-handedly revive a dying form of media because people couldn’t wait two weeks to hear their music.
But behind the scenes, Pearl Jam were on the verge of implosion.
Tensions had reached their peak during the Vitalogy sessions. Band members weren’t getting along and Vedder was starting to assert control over the creative process, something that didn’t sit well with Gossard, who had been in charge up to that point. Lead guitarist Mike McCready was drinking heavily and would eventually go into rehab. The band also engaged in what turned out to be a fruitless antitrust battle with Ticketmaster that had the effect of taking them off the road or forcing them to play small, remote venues. Towards the end of the Vitalogy sessions, they made the decision to sack drummer Dave Abbruzzese (reportedly, Abbruzzese didn’t get along with Vedder and disagreed with the band taking a lower-profile and fighting Ticketmaster, among other things). And when the band started work on No Code, they didn’t even bother telling Ament until a few days into the sessions — something that nearly caused the bassist to quit.
Meanwhile, Vedder was becoming disenchanted with fame. He had always seemed uncomfortable in the spotlight and the band’s rapid ascent only compounded that. Plenty have wondered how much of that was authentic and how much was an act — an obligatory show of anti-commercialism that all Seattle bands seemingly had to display.
However, by 1995-96, he had a very real and serious problem on his hands due to his fame. A woman who believed he was Jesus reincarnated and the father of two of her children began stalking him and even crashed her car into the side of his house. It got so bad that he had to have round-the-clock security at his house and eventually relocated to somewhere else in Seattle. Vedder’s stalker problem severely limited his participation in the band’s 1995 album and tour with Neil Young, an experience the others found fulfilling and reinvigorating.
He wasn’t the only one who found the harsh glare of celebrity unforgiving. Gossard and Ament, who had been criticized for being “careerist” back during their time with pioneering Seattle band Green River and then again with Mother Love Bone, had come around after seeing Pearl Jam’s sudden ascent.
The decision to pull back and to not do videos and to slow down interviews, it was all about Jeff and Stone and Ed thinking it was necessary. And Ed was getting way more scrutiny than anybody. It was probably overwhelming for him. It was for all of us at the time. But I remember not wanting to pull back, saying: “This is what we’ve wanted since we were kids. Let’s keep doing this. Let’s do videos, let’s keep going, let’s embrace this.” But they weren’t into it. They said: “No, we’ve got to, because this is all gonna fall apart if we don’t.”Mike McCready, interview with Loudersound, 2021.
The only problem with that was their albums and singles were still selling well, guaranteeing that the media attention and fame weren’t going to dissipate anytime soon. Vs. had been more raw than Ten, but was still an album with mass appeal that was boosted by several killer singles. Half of Vitalogy was highly experimental and border-line avant garde (and unlistenable), but the other half consisted of fantastic songs tailor-made for stadiums.
So for No Code, Pearl Jam set about making a less commercial album. And to make sure, they did virtually no promotion for it — and neither did their label. Unlike other albums, where there were months of anticipation and buildup before the release date, No Code just kind of appeared in stores. And if you didn’t look closely, you wouldn’t even know it was a Pearl Jam album, since the Achtung Baby-style cover didn’t even have the band’s name on it.
There are some songs on the album that sound like they could have been on a prior record, such as second single “Hail Hail,” which is probably the most conventional Pearl Jam song, and the plaintive ballad “Off He Goes.”
But by and large, the album is quite experimental. A big reason why is Abbruzzese’s replacement: Jack Irons. Formerly of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Irons had long been a friend of the band’s — he had declined Goddard’s and Ament’s invitation to be their original drummer but had set things in motion by putting them in contact with Vedder.
Irons brings a funkier, more varied style than the aggressive and hard-rocking Abbruzzese. “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 the band,” Gossard said.
Irons’s presence allows the band to experiment, and they take full advantage on lead single “Who You Are.” Built around Irons’s polyrhythmic drumming and Vedder’s sitar, the song is unlike anything the band had ever recorded, giving this experimental piece an African or Middle Eastern vibe. It was an unconventional choice for lead single (something I say a lot) — but don’t take it from me. “‘Who You Are’ was the band’s hand-picked choice for the first radio track from No Code, an obviously difficult song that garnered little enthusiasm at radio and set the table for No Code‘s subpar commercial performance,” Craig Marks wrote in Spin. “Vedder admits that the band’s selection of ‘Who You Are’ was a ‘conscious decision’ made partly to keep the size of their audience, and hence their lives, manageable, and that’s consistent with the album’s musical experiments.”
Irons also shines on “In My Tree,” a similarly complex song built around a frenetic tribal-sounding drum melody. It’s become so indelibly identified with him that when the band plays it now with his successor, Matt Cameron (an excellent drummer in his own right), it doesn’t sound quite as good.
There’s plenty of experimentation outside of the Irons-dominated songs. On “Mankind,” Gossard takes lead vocals for the first time on a Pearl Jam recording, and he’s not half bad. I actually quite like the song — it’s easily one of the catchiest on the record. Turns out Gossard says he was just messing around and trying to see if he could write a pop song. Guess what? He can.
Meanwhile, on “Smile,” they do their best to create a Neil Young-style song (complete with harmonica and fuzzy guitars), which makes sense since they had just come from working with him. There’s also a spoken word interlude (“I’m Open”). I’ve never been a fan of these types of “songs” and this one is no different. “Lukin” might as well be one, as Vedder more or less shouts his way through the song, venting his frustration at his stalker situation. “Some fucking freak who claims I fathered, by rape, her own son/ I find my wife, I call the cops, this days work’s never done/ The last I heard that freak was purchasing a fucking gun.” No wonder he stopped doing a lot of press.
Other songs hint at the tension in the band at the time. “Habit” was written about McCready’s drinking and features lines like “See it happen to a couple of friends/ Seen it happen and the message it sends/ Taking off for what’s an obvious fall/ Just to see what all the fuss is about.” “Off He Goes” was written by Vedder about how he knows he can be difficult to deal with. “The song ‘Off He Goes’ is really about me being a shit friend. I’ll show up and everything’s great and then all of the sudden I’m outta there,” Vedder told Spin.
Perhaps the song that best sums up the album (and the band’s entire approach at the time) was “Present Tense.” A song that’s become a favorite of Pearl Jam fans, the lyrics advises listeners to live in the present and not to worry about things that might or might not happen in the future. Recently, “Present Tense” was used in ESPN’s 10-part documentary on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls (appropriate considering how Dennis Rodman is friends with the band and is in one of the pictures that make up the cover design for No Code). The song kicks in right when a commentator starts talking about how Jordan has a gift for always living in the present. “Why would I think about missing a shot I haven’t taken yet?” he imagines Jordan asking.
Indeed, that seems to be the tack Pearl Jam took on this album. Essentially, this album, and everything going on behind the scenes within the band, is all about living in the present and not worrying about the future — if there was one. After all, there’s a reason why they used “no code,” which is medical jargon for “do not resuscitate.” If the band dies (and this album is the thing that kills it), then let it go.
As such, they didn’t seem too bothered by the moribund reception to No Code, which failed to come close to matching sales of their prior albums. The album debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200, shipping 366,500 copies during its first week, but that fell short of industry projections, which had predicted anywhere between 535,000 and 650,000. Ultimately, the album did go platinum, but that was a huge drop-off from Ten, which sold 13 million, or Vs. and Vitalogy, which went 7x and 5x platinum, respectively. The band would never again be certified multi-platinum by the RIAA, although plenty of releases, including 1998’s Yield (my personal favorite PJ record), 1998’s Live on Two Legs and 2004’s greatest hits compilation would attain platinum status.
And that was just fine for Pearl Jam. While problems within the band persisted — for instance, the supporting tour was hampered by the continuing Ticketmaster boycott, an experience Gossard recalled was extremely stressful and one that made it “more and more difficult to be excited about being part of the band.” Additionally, tensions between band members remained high. It wouldn’t be until the following album, Yield, when band members started having fun making music again.
But the band survived and persevered. Looking back, it’s clear that No Code was not an act of career suicide but a vetting tool to see which of their fans would follow them into the next phase of their career and which ones would jump off the bandwagon. O’Brien called No Code a “transitional” record, and that’s the perfect definition. By walking away from superstardom, and all of the pressure and scrutiny that came with it, Pearl Jam gave themselves a chance to continue into the next couple of decades and beyond. They have a large and loyal fan base that will always go to their shows and buy their albums and merchandise. They may not have become Led Zeppelin, but considering they’ve now lasted twice as long, maybe they knew what they were doing.
And hey, at least Pearl Jam never did a rockabilly album. Yet…