December 1991 delivered a true “Christmas Single” to Pearl Jam fans complete with a Christmas Song, “Let Me Sleep (Christmas Time)”. With a Pearl Jam membership, the item continued delivering year after year morphing into the “Holiday Single”.
In recent years, however, the delivery date around Christmas – how to say … – has “fluctuated”. Through some two-way ribbing and acknowledgement between fans and the Ten Club, the “Holiday” in “Holiday Single” is now generally interpreted as “the day the Holiday Single arrives is the Holiday”
In that spirit, Happy Holiday! In this article, we’ll take a look at Fan Club Single #5 – “Olympic Platinum” / “Smile” (Live).
The Starting Line
The revelation of “Olympic Platinum” as a song is fascinating as it was one of the first examples both from Pearl Jam’s and fans’ perspective of the viral awareness the still nascent Internet made possible.
On July 21, 1996, a fan posted on the newsgroup alt.music.pearl-jam that a new song “Olympic Platinum” was played on Atlanta radio station 99X. With fandom still at a fever-pitch prior to the release of the fan-filtering No Code, fans did their best to circulate a copy. On August 8, 1996, Issue #18 of the Pearl Jam Rumor Pit even fielded some Q&A on the song:
Q-Where can I hear Pearl Jam’s song, “Olympic Platinum” that was played on Atlanta radio during the Olympics?
A-Find someone who taped it.
Give Pearl Jam fans a challenge and they’ll succeed. Eventually this song did make the rounds through tape-trading and early file-sharing systems, but then the official Fan Club release of “Olympic Platinum” with B-side “Smile”, Live from Barcelona Nov 21 1996 started to arrive in early January 1997.
The blue sleeve reeks of the gimmicky sleeves of vinyl’s retro past, featuring “Pearl Jam” with the slogan “Plays and Sings!”. Surrounded by a border of stars, a striated gray “Olympic Platinum” sits adjacent to a trophy where the trophy figure seems to be avoiding getting hit by a bus as opposed to participating in any particular sport. With a track length of 3 minutes 50 seconds, the label at the bottom lives up to its word: “Almost four minutes of SOLID PLATINUM“.
The back sleeve features a collage of black-and-white Olympic sports photos with the faces of Pearl Jam members overlaying the original athletes.
Clockwise from Top Left: Jack Irons (Hockey), Jeff Ament (2-man bobsled), Ed Vedder (skiing), Mike McCready (Tennis), Stone Gossard (Track)
Stone’s “999″ shirt number looks fabricated, possibly a simple node to an upside down “666″ (Kathy’s note: Stone does like to ‘run with the devil’ from time to time) or back to the Andrew Wood “Love Rock” era of “333″.
And, oh yes, Eddie Vedder’s number is 23 on his ski outfit.
The smell of victory, land of the free
Although it’s a Pearl Jam release, it’s tough to label “Olympic Platinum” as an original or a cover, but it is officially listed as a cover (editor: how about a “Coveriginal”?). With music and lyrics by Engineer Nick Didia, the performance credits are listed on the insert as:
- Music and lyrics Nick Didia
- Eddie (Vedder) on vocals
- Brendan (O’Brien) on Bass
- Stone (Gossard) on drums
- Nick (Didia) on keyboard
- Mike (McCready) on the phone (?)
Recording credits reveal the sessions were done at Studio Litho and Engineered by Matt Bayles. Matt Bayles was an Assistant Engineer to Nick Didia on 1996′s No Code and later given full Engineer credits for Yield and Binaural. After recording sessions in Chicago and New Orleans in 1995 for No Code, this song was recorded at some point in early 1996.
To understand the lyrics of “Olympic Platinum”, one first needs to understand the atmosphere in the United States surrounding the Olympics in the ’80s and ’90s. To add to the competitive Olympic relationship with the Soviet Union in the 1970s, the Cold War between the two nations disrupted the Games in 1980 and 1984. First, the United States boycotted the 1980 Moscow Summer Games in protest over the Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan, then the Soviet Union boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games. Each host country ultimately dominated the competition in their respective countries, thus bringing the idea of a “globally fair playing field” into question.
Because of these boycotts, the “struggles” of these amateur athletes were depicted in the media in histrionic fashion, as the stories behind these Olympians were often presented more prominently than the competitions themselves. Prime-time Olympic TV became a mix of tape-delayed coverage of U.S. successes, mixed in with over-produced profiles of Olympic athletes who “struggled” and were “sad” after the two boycotted Olympics spurned many in their prime.
Fast-forward to 1996 in Atlanta, which is generally accepted as the most commercialized Olympics to date. Nick Didia, who worked/works closely with Brendan O’Brien at Atlanta’s Southern Tracks Recording Studio, must have been influenced by the Olympic mania in the city, creating lyrics dripping with sarcasm, commercialism, vanity and false pride as many viewed the Summer Olympic Games held in Atlanta, 1996.
What’s bigger than big? The biggest! What’s greater than Bronze, Silver or even Gold? PLATINUM!
The musical performance includes an airy, reverb-soaked piano, synthesizer and bass landscape with Stone providing light drumming. Lazy falsetto background vocals accompany the song throughout, as well as a deep droning bass vocal. Mike’s credit is listed as “on the phone”, but we can’t pinpoint that role, unless it’s an additional background vocal or the crackling laugh at the end of the track.
The vocal performance taps into Ed’s dramatic side, as one can envision Ed delivering the verses with simulated integrity and a wry smile. Ironically, this song features some of Ed’s strongest vocals with his soaring delivery of “I’m living my liiiiiiiife for Olympic platinum”.
With this background in mind, check out the lyrics while you listen. Next we’ll dig deeper into the name-checks and events.
Olympic dream, Olympic dream …
If I could reach to the sky and touch it for my country
Get some on my finger and take in its smell
The smell of victory, land of the free
Olympic dream, Olympic dream
Olympic theme, my Olympic dream
My promotion scheme
How hard can it be?
How high can I jump?
How high can I throw?
How high can I run (I’m running very fast)?
How long can I hold my breath and stay underwater and wave my legs around in perfect unison with my partner who doesn’t really understand me or my olympic dream, my olympic dream
I’ll be like Dwight Stone, I’ll be like Bruce Jenner
I’ll be like that girl who trained all her life as a distance runner and then tripped with a quarter mile to go
But I…I will get up and I will run
I will run with the Georgia peach breeze and I … I will win
I will win my … My olympic dream, my olympic dream
The Gold’s just not good enough and I don’t even think of the bronze
I’m living my life for Olympic platinum
Olympic dream, my olympic theme
I’ll sing like Whitney (sing like Whitney)
My Olympic dream
The lyrics are full of tongue-and-cheek overdramatization (“Get some on my finger and take in its smell”) and winning at all costs (“The Gold’s (first place) just not good enough and I don’t even think of the bronze (third place)”) and references to Atlanta (“Georgia Peach breeze” = Atlanta is located in Georgia, “The Peach State”).
Here are explanations of some interesting references:
“How long can I hold my breath and stay underwater and wave my legs around in perfect unison with my partner who doesn’t really understand me or my olympic dream, my Olympic dream”
Synchronized-swimming became an official Olympic sport at the 1984 Summer games in Los Angeles. The event, where female swim teams performed underwater “moves” to music, was often seen as the dilution of athletic competition, since many found it difficult to label it as a “sport”. Here’s a link. Have fun.
“I’ll be like Dwight Stone (sic), I’ll be like Bruce Jenner”
Although Ed sang “Dwight Stone”, Dwight Stones won Bronze in ’72 and ’76 in the High Jump. Thwarted in his attempt for better results with the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow Summer Games, Stones failed to medal in Los Angeles in 1984, finishing 4th.
“I’ll be like Bruce Jenner”
Although many now know him as the stepfather of the Kardashians (sorry, we’re not justifying it with a link), Bruce Jenner achieved enormous celebrity status in the late 1970s after his dramatic Gold Medal victory in the Decathalon at the 1976 Montreal Summer games.
Adorning one of the most famous covers of Sports Illustrated ever, his symbol of victory propelled him to be named the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year in 1976. He capitalized on many commercial and endorsement opportunities, and anyone who ate a box of Wheaties in the late 1970s surely remembers Bruce Jenner.
“I’ll be like that girl who trained all her life as a distance runner and then tripped with a quarter mile to go
But I…I will get up and I will run
I will run with the Georgia peach breeze and I … I will win
I will win my … My Olympic dream, my Olympic dream”
Mary Decker became a symbol of U.S. entitlement in 1984 when she fell after making contact with Zola Budd during the 3000-meters final. After success earlier in her career riddled with injuries, she never won an Olympic Medal and initially didn’t apologize for her harsh criticism of Budd, feeling she was “robbed” of the Gold medal.
“I’ll sing like Whitney! (Sing like Whitney)”
For better or for worse, it was hard to escape the popularity of Whitney Houston in the 1980s and early 1990s. Known for her powerful singing and wide range, her 1991 performance of The Star-Spangled Banner at the Super Bowl (note, not the Olympics) is viewed as one of the most emotional and patriotic performance of the Anthem ever. Ed even goes falsetto in an upper-scale run during the “-ey” of “Sings like Whitney”.
Don’t It Make You Smile
With the timing of this single now known, it’s interesting to see how quickly it was turned into reality. With the performance on November 21, 1996, and the tour ending soon afterwards on November 25, the track was pulled, mixed and turned into vinyl grooves in presumably a few short weeks before it shipped and arrived on doorsteps in early January 1997.
Although we like to avoid opinion and interpretation in our articles, it’s tough to argue that “Smile” is not a genuine “fan favorite”. It may not be the most musically challenging song, and it was never a radio-friendly single, but nested in between “In My Tree” and “Off He Goes” on No Code, it serves as one of the few “happy” songs in Pearl Jam’s then-developing catalog.
Not only do the fans smile, given the opportunity to sing along in full voice, but the band smiles as well when Jeff takes on a gritty Guitar role while Stone loosely grooves on the Bass.
A year after 1995′s patchwork Australian and U.S. tours, it’s safe to say that 1996′s non-ticketmaster U.S. Tour and European Tour were populated with fans that had to work hard to be there. And once the effort of ticket-buying and waiting were over, the release at a show allowed “Smile” to shine live just like the facial gesture portrays.
The only problem for fans that saw the U.S. shows that year is that they didn’t play it. It was sound-checked Sept 22 in Toledo but its debut was saved for the European fans a month later.
Lastly, the song’s intro gave an early hint to Ed’s endearing approach to addressing international audiences by introducing “Smile” in Barcelona’s native Spanish by saying “Como se dice ‘Smile’?” which means “How do you say ‘Smile’?”
After debuting at Wembley Arena on October 25 at the start of the tour, “Smile” in Barcelona is their tenth performance but sounds like their hundredth, with a tight rhythm and terrific vocal delivery.
Although it’s tracked early on No Code, “Smile” has only appeared live during an encore, and with its placement late in the show serves as the denouement of any set with the chorus “I miss you al-readdddy” used effectively as a way for both Pearl Jam and its fans to smile and say a collective “Thank You”.
During Pearl Jam mania of the early 1990s, this message was often hard to discern, but “Smile” on this Holiday single made it official.
Check out this live version of “Smile”, its second live performance on October 29, 1996, London, UK
Side A, Side B … both are Winners!
Few fans will classify “Olympic Platinum” as a “serious” Pearl Jam composition. If you look at it that way, this Fan Club single reverses the roles of Sides A and B by putting a Ramblings-type track as Side A. A snapshot of an artist’s mood and approach at a given time is often extracted from their albums or live material from that time period. With Pearl Jam’s holiday singles, we get extra insight because they know that their message is being delivered directly to their fans.
With No Code in the can, this single represents the “things will be different” and “sponsored by no one” labels that the band rightly received, admitting later in their history that this time period’s material was meant to pare down their fan base. “Olympic Platinum” is not meant to be criticized for its lack of “hit single quality” but appreciated for its biting sarcasm and loose delivery. And if you want, you can even learn to play it on guitar.
Naturally, then, both songs made fans “smile” by showing their “fun” side, and continuing their encore heroics with songs that pull you onto the concert stage so that we can all sing along together.
- PJCollectors.com for the single artwork scans
- FiveHorizons.com for their awesomeness and reference coverage
- alt.music.pearl-jam NewsGroup for endless nostalgic fun
Check out our Artifactors on preceding Fan Club Singles: