How Pearl Jam’s ‘No Code’ Killed Grunge


Edited by Brett Buchanan

Pearl Jam are celebrating the 20th anniversary of their fourth album No Code with a number of vinyl reissues. No Code, along with their fifth album Yield, and the 5 singles that stem from those albums, will have a vinyl-only release.  It’s been 20 years, but Pearl Jam fans have not forgotten when the legendary Seattle band lopped off grunge’s head by producing the anti-grunge No Code.

Pearl Jam, as the figurehead of grunge, were the leaders of the “say no” revolution. On August 26, 1996, the band’s release of No Code was not only an emotional release, but also a release from the term “grunge”. As the most relevant band in the world, they laid their grunge in a guillotine and let the blade drop.  Pearl Jam bowed out as the kings of grunge.

“He’s been taking too much on, there he goes in his perfectly unkempt clothes”

Fans who just experienced the transitional 1995 single “I Got I.D.”/”Long Road” figured the former song – a grunge classic – would be the path they chose to continue down… maybe Pearl Jam could provide another grunge classic? No, once again Pearl Jam steered us to the road less traveled; in this case, the quiet calm of the Neil Young collaboration B-side “Long Road”… it would have been interesting to have been a reporter back then and interview them.

-Hey Pearl Jam, how ‘bout some music videos you’re your nameless 1993 album?

Nah, we’re not into music videos. MTV overplayed them-it’s about the audio, not the visual. Music should not have the restriction of a name.

-Hey Pearl Jam, how about releasing your album Vitalogy on CD in a CD case like everyone else?

No, we miss vinyl so we’ll release it on vinyl first and then from now on, we’ll make sure our CD’s have vinyl-style book packaging.

-Hey Pearl Jam, you’re using Ticketmaster for this 1996 tour correct?

No, it doesn’t feel right.

Leaders of the “it’s okay to say no” revolution, Pearl Jam tackled philosophical revelations of No Code, an album that felt like they would rather heal the wounds of the 90’s with soothing music than delve into further pits of grungy darkness in a rage.

“Seen it happen and the message it sends”

“I think we all agreed that it had gotten insane, that it was no longer about the music,” says Eddie Vedder in a 1997 Spin piece.

Grunge fans had been severely wounded by the deaths of major alt. rock stars Brad Nowell and Shannon Hoon, along with grunge’s greatest figure Kurt Cobain. Alternative rock was never about parties and happiness, but by 1996, the quirky sense of humor found in bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Nirvana was long gone, and just the hangover remained.  Alt. rock bands were appearing everywhere, and the gloom and doom felt less sincere.

“I learned to, what’s that martial arts phrase, Jeet Kune Do,” says Vedder to Spin in 1997. “You know, where someone comes at you with a whole bunch of energy and you just use that energy to let that thing knock itself down. Don’t get in there and try to wrestle those things that are so much bigger than you; just divert that whole energy and let that thing trip over itself.”  As a fanbase, Pearl Jam expected us to learn from recent tragedies, and enjoy new perspectives on life by seeing who we truly are and embracing it.

“Come to send/not condescend…Seen it all, not at all”

No Code reveals more color and texture; the eye-opening opening tracks on a Pearl Jam album no longer blast out of the speakers in fury, but lay themselves on your couch to meditate.

The band venture east for truth and self-wisdom in songs like the uplifting parade march of the sitar-laden “Who You Are”, with its Himalaya Mountain-climbing Jeff Ament bass lines and the team vocal unity on its chorus, or the meditative “In My Tree”, whose Eastern mystic-inspired organ lifts you up to Vedder’s peaceful treehouse . The Neil Young-inspired “Smile” smiles with a bright earthy sound at a fond memory despite the ‘three crooked hearts that swirl all around’. Vedder and Ament’s work with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan for the “Dead Man Walking” soundtrack was a big influence as well.

“Singing with Nusrat was pretty heavy,” says Vedder. “There was definitely a spiritual element. I saw him warm up once, and I walked out of the room and just broke down. I mean, God, what amazing power and energy.”

“And we learned so much from Neil,” says Mike McCready.

“Had my eyes peeled both wide open, and I got a glimpse of my innocence”

As fans, we should open up to communication like the message of “I’m Open” encourages us to, and embrace love like when Eddie Vedder sings “hail hail the lucky ones, I refer to those in love” during the rare exciting rocker “Hail Hail”. In an interview with Spin magazine, Vedder half-joked, “I don’t want to be known as a bemoaner.”

“Present Tense” feels like the heart of the album with inspiring lines like “leaning out to catch the sun’s rays-a lesson to be applied” and “you’re the only one who can forgive yourself/makes much more sense to live in the present tense.”

“Come to send/not condescend…Seen it all, not at all”

Eddie provides God like stimulation in the meditative “Sometimes”, and shares a recollection of the Lord’s message through belly-ache, in the beautiful “Red Mosquito”. Stone Gossard excuses us for our love of a newer corporate grunge on “Mankind”- “it’s all just inadvertent stimulation/a pattern in all mankind/what’s got the whole world faking it?” Even the additional tracks recorded at the time like “Black, Red, Yellow” and “Don’t Gimme No Lip” were more like nostalgia throwbacks to 50’s and 60’s rock than raw attacks.

“I guess we’re constantly trying to find a balance,” says Ament.

When hearing the tranquility of No Code, the serenity of the lyrics, we find this band, the head of grunge in the 90’s, in a guillotine.   They shone a flashlight and flashed a mirror to a grunge scene that was becoming a blurry reflection entrenched in deep darkness.

“Making No Code,” concludes Vedder, “was all about gaining perspective.”

September 2nd Pearl Jam Vinyl Releases:

No Code


Who You Are/Habit

Hail Hail/Black, Red, Yellow

Off He Goes/Dead Man

Given to Fly/Pilate/Leatherman

Wishlist/Brain of J.

Note: Pearl Jam’s quotes come from their interview in the February 1997 issue of Spin magazine.

On October 17, 2014 in Moline, Illinois, Pearl Jam performed a once in a generation show including the only full performance of No Code: check out the full No Code portion of the show here:


Spin Magazine 2/97

The Road Less Traveled
 by Craig Marks