When the good folks at Triumph Books asked me to write about Pearl Jam as part of their "100 Things" series - i.e., 100 Things Pearl Jam Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die - I couldn't say yes fast enough. After all, Pearl Jam have been a favorite band of mine - and one that I have studied (remember Grunge Is Dead?) - for decades. Like past entries in the series, the book is comprised of facts, trivia, lists, and places to visit - all pertaining to Pearl Jam and its members, past and present. And here is a sample (entry #27 in the book), which delves deep into the topic of "Pearl Jam Clones."
Like any musical movement, there are the originators... and then there are the copycats. And the great grunge uprising of the early '90s was no different. Seemingly overnight, bands that just a few months (weeks? days?) earlier were probably sporting spandex and mile-high hair were suddenly wearing Doc Martens and flannels, and trading their Floyd Rose tremolo-equipped pointy guitars for well-weathered instruments. One of the most copied groups of the era was Pearl Jam, and the imitators didn't stop at just their music; they also often attempted to copy Eddie Vedder's unmistakable baritone.
The most obvious copycat of that era was Creed. Although beefcake singer Scott Stapp's Christian-esque lyrics differed greatly from Vedder's, there was no denying that Stapp was well versed in vocal Vedder-isms—the most obvious example found on Creed's popular 1997 tune, "My Own Prison." And while it's hard to single out the most preposterous statement in the history of rock 'n' roll, my vote would confidently go to Creed bassist Brian Marshall, who offered up the following humdinger during a radio interview in 2000 (on KNDD, a Seattle station, no less): "Eddie Vedder wishes he could write like Scott Stapp."
Other bands whose singers felt better with a little bit of Vedder were Seven Mary Three (1995's "Cumbersome"), the Nixons (1996's "Sister"), Tantric (2000's "Breakdown"), Fuel (2000's "Hemorrhage (In My Hands)"), Nickelback (specifically 2002's "Hero," which was credited to Nickelback's Chad Kroeger and Saliva's Josey Scott), and, if you position your ears at a certain angle, bits of Collective Soul (specifically the "Yeah!" right before the chorus of their 1994 hit, "Shine").
One group that for some reason nobody seems to think owes a debt to PJ is Hootie & the Blowfish. Don't believe me? Give another listen (if you're brave enough) to their mega-selling 1994 debut, Cracked Rear View, and specifically such light pop rock as "Hold My Hand," "Let Her Cry," and "Only Wanna Be with You," and you will definitely hear some Vedder-esque vocals from Darius Rucker. This point was even referenced in the 2012 comedy film, Ted, when the main character (a teddy bear, voiced by Seth MacFarlane) sings "Only Wanna Be with You" karaoke-style at a party and observes, "This is how everybody sang in the '90s" and "You can do any '90s song with just vowels."
Not all bands that contained similarities to PJ and Vedder were one-trick ponies, however. Case in point, Stone Temple Pilots. First bursting onto the scene in 1992 with their hit debut album Core, the press dismissed the band as a PJ clone early on, not without reason to: not only was singer Scott Weiland's voice on the MTV/radio smash "Plush" very Vedder, but in the song's accompanying video (which was directed by Josh Taft, who also directed the PJ videos "Alive," "Even Flow," and "Oceans"), Weiland even contorts his face and moves a bit like Vedder.
However, much to their credit, STP's PJ approximation was short-lived, as they soon took on a variety of different musical styles and proved to be expert songwriters - just give a listen to any of their other albums for proof, specifically such classics as 1994's Purple and 1996's Tiny Music... Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop. And one last morsel about "Plush": Weiland and guitarist Dean DeLeo performed an acoustic version of the song on MTV's Headbangers Ball back in 1992, on which Weiland sang the tune in a more natural voice. As a result, that rendition is arguably better than the well-known studio version (and can also be heard on STP's 2003 hits compilation, Thank You) - which makes you wonder why he didn't sing it that way the first time around.
What was most problematic about the bands that shamelessly stole from Pearl Jam was they were completely missing the point about what made grunge special, important, and enduring in the first place - the originators were putting their own unique spin on rock music, trying different approaches, and injecting their personalities into their work.
When I interviewed Vedder for Grunge Is Dead, he discussed this topic, and his oft-copied vocal style: "It took me a while to figure out how to really sing - or not push it. I was a horse being let out of the gate - I was pent up. That first record, it's really 'throaty' [laughs]. It didn't mean to be, but it became a vocal style that became co-opted by certain bands that I feel made really shitty music. And they weren't making those records until we were on like our third record - or even fourth. And what's funny - the bridge would sound like Layne [Staley], the verse would sound like me, and the chorus would sound like Kurt [Cobain]. Or they'd look like me and sound like Kurt, or look like Kurt and sound like me [laughs]. All this weird amalgamation stuff.
"But the bummer was, if you listen to surf music, everybody sounded like the Beach Boys. If you get the Rhino Cowabunga! box set, there's all these bands you've never heard of. It all sounded like the Beach Boys, with harmonies, guitars, and "Wipe Out" drum sounds. But it was all kind of good. For me what was weird - I was just like, 'God, I would never listen to this [grunge-copycat] music. This is not good.' And it felt like they were co-opting the angst from whatever I'd been through. I don't know anything about these people, but I didn't feel like they'd lived through it. It wasn't like they were co-opting what we were doing - it was like, the first record. Or those two songs."
This is an extract from 100 Things Pearl Jam Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die, published by Triumph Books on May 1, 2018.
Here's Greg's interview with Scott Weiland.