"It's the biggest song we’ve ever had... and it wasn’t even for sale": the story of Pearl Jam's unexpected smash hit Last Kiss

Pearl Jam in 1999
(Image credit: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

By the end of the 90s, Pearl Jam were not a band interested in hits. They didn’t have hits, they didn’t make hits, they wouldn’t have known what a hit was if it came up and “Hi, my name is Jeremy, do you remember me?”. They had moved on into what now looks like a rock solid move of future-proofing, still playing arenas but tweaking their sound and exploring new territory with every record. One tradition that the band had upheld since their early days at the other end of the decade, though, was an annual Christmas single released to their fan club, and it was one of these that gave them one of their biggest ever chart successes.

Pressed by their team to ready their Christmas collection in 1998, the Seattle rockers recorded a version of the 1961 Wayne Cochran song Last Kiss during a soundcheck at Washington’s Constitution Hall and it was duly sent out to fan club members backed with a take on the soul song Soldier Of Love. As far as Pearl Jam were concerned, that was that, but radio stations had other ideas.

By April 1999, Last Kiss begun to receive radio airplay in the US and by the summer, it was starting to creep up Billboard’s airplay charts, eventually entering the Billboard Hot 100 at the end of May. It would stay there for a further 21 weeks, with demand increasingly growing for a full-scale release of the track. That happened in June 1999, a full six months after Pearl Jam had issued it to fans. It also appeared on the Epic benefit record No Boundaries: A Benefit For The Kosovar Refugees.

By the end of June, the song leaped from number 49 in the Billboard chat to second position, the highest jump in more than 40 years and a move that gave Pearl Jam the biggest hit of their career. In Pearl Jam Twenty, the book documenting their career, Eddie Vedder looked back on the song’s surprise success. “I was on an island in Hawaii away from everything when Kelly Curtis called and asked if I’d heard what was happening with Last Kiss. It seemed surreal to me. Even crazier was that I turned on the radio, and it was playing first thing. It's the biggest song we’ve ever had on radio, and it wasn’t even for sale. That’s much more exciting and magical than accomplishing some successful marketing plan.”

“It just blew up,” remembered guitarist Mike McCready. “We had no idea. It just proves over and over again, when people try to figure out what a hit is, whether they’re in a band or they’re an A&R guy, nobody has a clue.” Summing up its status as an oddity in the Pearl Jam catalogue, Last Kiss went on to be the only track to appear on both their hits collection Rearviewmirror (Greatest Hits 1991-2003) and their rarities set Lost Dogs.

Niall Doherty

Niall Doherty is a writer and editor whose work can be found in Classic Rock, The Guardian, Music Week, FourFourTwo, on Apple Music and more. Formerly the Deputy Editor of Q magazine, he co-runs the music Substack letter The New Cue with fellow former Q colleagues Ted Kessler and Chris Catchpole. He is also Reviews Editor at Record Collector. Over the years, he's interviewed some of the world's biggest stars, including Elton John, Coldplay, Arctic Monkeys, Muse, Pearl Jam, Radiohead, Depeche Mode, Robert Plant and more. Radiohead was only for eight minutes but he still counts it.