Calling Pearl Jam’s sophomore album “hotly anticipated” would have severely understated the case. In the two years since the release of Ten, their 1991 debut, the band had vaulted from obscurity to the forefront of the rock mainstream on the strength of visceral singles like “Alive,” “Jeremy” and “Even Flow,” and high-intensity live performances in which frontman Eddie Vedder often risked life and limb in his quest to win over audiences.
So when Vs., released on October 19th, 1993, set an industry record by selling more than 950,000 copies in its first five days on the shelves — outperforming all other entries in that week’s Billboard Top 10 combined — it wasn’t a particularly huge surprise for anyone who’d been following Pearl Jam’s rapid rise. Far more remarkable, in retrospect, was that the band didn’t completely implode under pressure during the album’s recording.
Deeply uncomfortable with the demands of stardom, yet also accused of being “sellouts” by many musicians, fans and critics from the alternative-music world (especially in the Seattle scene that spawned them), Pearl Jam were caught in a classic damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don’t conundrum before they’d even recorded a note of their second LP. Making things more difficult was the fact that the band was recording for the first time with both drummer Dave Abbruzzese, who’d replaced Dave Krusen shortly before the release of Ten, and producer Brendan O’Brien.
“It was a little bit like we were making our first record all over again,” bassist Jeff Ament told Rolling Stone in 2017, “because it was with a different drummer and a new producer. And Dave had really different strengths as a drummer than Dave Krusen. The groove shifted on the second record.”
Though the recording sessions weren’t easy — personality conflicts abounded, and Vedder was particularly unhappy with the studio that had been chosen for the project — Pearl Jam emerged victorious with Vs., an album that still stands as one of the strongest records of their long and storied career. Looser, heavier and angrier than their debut, Vs. found the band exploring new sounds and dynamics, resulting in acoustic-driven highlights like “Daughter” and “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town,” and the funkier feel of tracks such as “Rats” and “Animal.” “Few American bands have arrived more clearly talented than this one did with Ten,” raved Paul Evans in Rolling Stone, “and Vs. tops even that debut.”
In honor of the 25th anniversary of Vs., here are 10 things you might not know about the album.
1. The band played softball every day before rolling the tape.
A talented musician in his own right, O’Brien instinctively understood that the band needed to be distracted from the immense expectations being heaped upon it by fans and the record company. “We all kind of hit at the same time,” he told Rolling Stone in 2013. “They had just blown up with popularity out of nowhere. So I think that my role at the time was really getting those guys in a room and getting them in a head space to record and make records.”
During Vs. sessions at the Site, a residential studio in Northern California’s Marin County, O’Brien and the band loosened up for each day of recording by playing softball. “I encouraged us to meet every morning,”O’Brien told Cameron Crowe in an interview for the Pearl Jam Twenty documentary. “It was like, ‘OK. Tomorrow, 9:30, pep talk in the kitchen, and then we’re going to play softball.’ We did that for quite a while. It was a way to get us all together to have fun.”
2. The band recorded the album one song at a time.
While it was typical for Nineties rock artists to record their albums in phases, finalizing the rhythm tracks for all the songs before layering other instruments and vocals on top of them, O’Brien and Pearl Jam kept the intensity intact by completing one song before moving on to the next.
“My job was to try and keep everyone feeling as creative as possible,” he recalled to Crowe. “The idea was to camp out at the Site, work the songs up and record them one at a time so, that way, we wouldn’t get too far ahead of ourselves.”
“That was a great way to do things,” Abbruzzese told Modern Drummer in December 1993, “because in a typical way of recording, you lay down your rhythm tracks, then the guitar tracks, and then the vocals. . . . By the time it gets to vocals, the drummer’s sick of sitting around listening to the same track over and over again, and you can get burned out on it. So the ability to have the whole band involved from start to finish was a great thing, and it kept it fresh for everybody. A lot of bands miss out on that.”
3. Eddie Vedder often prepared for recording the album’s vocals by sleeping in his truck.
Years later, Vedder would recall Vs. as “the [album] I enjoyed making the least,” in part because the Site, the secluded and lavishly appointed studio that Pearl Jam were working in, felt so removed from what he was trying to tap into with his lyrics. “I fucking hate it here,” he told Rolling Stone during the recording sessions. “How do you make a rock record here? Maybe the old rockers, maybe they love this. Maybe they need the comfort and the relaxation. Maybe they need it to make dinner music.”
In order to get himself into a lyric-writing head space, Vedder would occasionally leave the studio and drive to nearby San Francisco, where he would spend several nights in his truck before returning to the sessions refreshed and inspired.
“I don’t think anybody anticipated that Eddie wasn’t going to relate to [the Site] very well,” O’Brien told Crowe. “He didn’t like that Stone [Gossard] would show up in a robe and slippers to rock. So there came a point about halfway through where there was a group of songs for which he had no lyrics, and he let me know he had to go off and disappear for a while.”
4. “Go” began life as a campfire jam.
While Abbruzzese’s tenure in Pearl Jam was ultimately short-lived — the band would fire him in August 1994, due to a variety of musical and personal conflicts — the drummer made some crucial contributions to the cause, including planting the musical seeds for “Go,” which kicked Vs. off in a bracing fashion.
One night while the bandmates were hanging around a campfire at the site, Abbruzzese had started messing around with a riff on an acoustic guitar, and the rest of the group immediately latched onto it. “I just happened to pick up the guitar at the right moment,” he told Modern Drummer. “Stone asked what I was playing and started playing it, then Jeff stared playing it, and Eddie started singing with it, and it turned into a song.”
“It was odd to have a drummer playing guitar,” guitarist Mike McCready told Rolling Stone. “But also to have such a cool riff. We worked on it a little bit that night, and the next day we finished it in the studio.”
5. “Glorified G” was inspired by Dave Abbruzzese’s guns.
As someone who thoroughly enjoyed the trappings of rock stardom, Abbruzzese was always on a markedly different page than Vedder. But the gulf between the drummer and the singer widened even further during the early stages of the Vs. sessions, when Ament mentioned to Vedder that Abbruzzese had recently acquired a gun.
“You bought a gun?” cried Vedder, obviously dismayed. “In fact, I bought two,” the drummer blurted, before backpedaling slightly with the claim that “they’re glorified pellet guns.” The explanation failed to mollify Vedder, who quickly penned the mocking lines “Got a gun, fact I got two/That’s OK, man, ’cause I love God/Glorified version of a pellet gun/Feels so manly, when armed.” Vedder laid the lyrics over a jam concocted by Ament, Gossard and McCready, and “Glorified G” grew from there.
6. “W.M.A.” was inspired by police harassment.
In the Vs. liner notes, the lyric page for “W.M.A.” included a clipping of a news story about Malice Green, an African-American man who died following a struggle with Detroit police in November 1992. But according to Vedder, the song was actually inspired by an incident of police harassment that he’d witnessed first-hand.
“I think I’d probably stayed at the rehearsal studio the night before and it had been a couple of days since I had a shower and I’ve got my old shoes on and I don’t look too great, a little grunge on my teeth or whatever,” he told Melody Maker in 1994. “And I’m sitting there with this guy who’s of a darker color than me, and along come these cops, they run around with their bikes trying to look cool. So here they come, they’re heading straight for us. And they just ignored me and [started] hassling him. . . .
“Compared to me, this guy looks as respectable as fuck,” he continued. “But they started hassling him, and that just blew me the fuck away. So I started hassling them. . . . And one thing led to another. . . . I had all this fucking energy rushing through me. I was mad. Really fucking angry. I got back to the studio and the guys had been working on this thing and I just went straight in and did the vocals, and that was the song.”
7. “Better Man” was rejected for inclusion on the album because it sounded like a hit.
Most bands would never think of rejecting a song for having too much hit potential, but Pearl Jam circa 1993 weren’t most bands. Stung by criticisms of “selling out” with their first record, and already feeling trapped in the bubble of fame, they were extremely leery about recording anything that sounded too obviously commercial. So when O’Brien, upon hearing them play “Better Man” during a preproduction rehearsal, raved that it sounded like a hit, his enthusiasm for the song actually dampened theirs.
“After they finished, I was like, ‘Awesome! That’s a hit! That’s fabulous,’ ” he recalled to Crowe. “They all just looked straight down, and the whole room was deflated. I knew I’d said the wrong thing.” Though O’Brien was eventually able to convince the band to record the song during the Vs. sessions, no one was happy with the outcome. Vedder briefly considered giving Chrissie Hynde the song for a Greenpeace charity album, until O’Brien and the rest of the band protested. A rerecorded version of the song would finally appear on 1994’s Vitalogy. “It took us to the next record, recording it two more times, before [Eddie] became comfortable with it, because it was such a blatantly great pop song,” O’Brien told Spin in 2001.
8. The album was supposed to be called Five Against One.
“One, two, three, four, five against one,” sang Vedder on “Animal,” a Vs. song that has been variously interpreted as being about everything from media persecution to gang rape. Regardless of the song’s meaning, the line “five against one” stuck out to Gossard, who suggested it as a potential title for the new album.
“For me, that title represented a lot of struggles that you go through trying to make a record,” he told Rolling Stone, right as Pearl Jam were putting the finishing touches on the LP. “Your own independence — your own soul — versus everybody else’s. In this band, and I think in rock in general, the art of compromise is almost as important as the art of individual expression. You might have five great artists in the band, but if they can’t compromise and work together, you don’t have a great band. It might mean something completely different to Eddie. But when I heard that lyric, it made a lot of sense to me.”
For reasons that remain unclear to this day, the album title was changed at the last minute to the more oblique (yet still contentious-sounding) Vs. The new title was submitted so late in the game that the first several cassette pressings were released with the title Five Against One printed on the tape enclosures.
9. The sheep on the cover symbolized how the band felt at the time.
After the dramatic band portrait on the cover of Ten, Pearl Jam went in a different direction with the Vs. artwork, which featured a sheep trying to stick its face through a wire fence. Though some Pearl Jam fans have interpreted the combination of the album’s image and title as a statement on the band’s rejection of sheeplike followers, Ament has always insisted that the image was actually a reflection of the group’s state of mind during the making of the album.
“The picture of the sheep on the cover of Vs. was from a farmer down by Hamilton, Montana,” Ament told Spin in 2001. “That picture at least semi-represented how we felt at the time. As Prince would put it, we were slaves.”
10. The album produced six singles — and the band refused to do videos for any of them.
Much like Prince, Pearl Jam felt antagonized and misunderstood by their record company. Epic Records, their label, asked for Vedder’s vocals to be higher in the mix on Vs. — a request that the band quickly denied — and wanted the bandmates to make a video for “Go,” the album’s first single. While MTV would have gladly put any new Pearl Jam clip into regular rotation, they refused. They would also refuse to do videos for “Daughter,” “Animal,” “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town,” “Dissident” and “Glorified G,” all of which would be released as singles before the album’s promotional cycle was finished. In fact, Pearl Jam wouldn’t make another video until 2006’s “Life Wasted.”
According to Ament, the group’s anti-video stance stemmed from an encounter with American Music Club leader Mark Eitzel, who told him that he loved “Jeremy,” but that the song’s video ruined his vision of it. “Ten years from now, I don’t want people to remember our songs as videos,” Ament remarked to Rolling Stone in 1993.
While not everyone in Pearl Jam was happy about the “no videos” edict, the decision to step away from the MTV world eventually proved a healthy one. “When we pulled back, I was like, ‘Aw, man,’ ” McCready told Rolling Stone in 2006. “I was a bit bummed out, because I wanted to keep doing it, keep doing videos. We had this chance, let’s take it, you know? Let’s not blow it. Luckily, it turned out we didn’t blow it, because we’re still around. And maybe we had alienated some fans throughout the years, which I feel bad for. But it made us survive as a band.”
“In retrospect, it was brilliant,” Gossard agreed in the same interview. “It was what we had to do. . . . If we had followed the advice of everyone in the industry, or our own egos, we would’ve gone for it until it went down the drain.”