By Spencer. I’ve often wondered what it would be like to meet Billy Corgan, the man who almost single-handedly provided the soundtrack to my teenage years. The songs that bury themselves inside you at that age – the ones you listened to in your bedroom, over and over and over, until you didn’t even need to hear them anymore because you could play them note-for-note in your mind; the ones you blasted from the stereo of your first car; the ones that made you play air guitar when nobody was looking; the ones that still recall the faces of once-perfect girls and broken hearts and the first desperate fumblings of love – those are the songs that never leave you. Even now, in my early thirties, I can still listen to Smashing Pumpkins (and yes, in my mind, they will always be Smashing Pumpkins; forget the extraneous “the” they added to their name in later years) and instantly feel that sublime twinge of pain and comfort called nostalgia, and know that nothing in my life from here on out will ever mean as much to me as the music of those years.
Would I tell Billy all of this if I ever met him? As an artist, would he see this as the ultimate compliment? Would he really understand the lifelong effect his songs have had on me and accept that role with the awesome grace that it demands? Something tells me he wouldn’t, because I get the impression that Billy Corgan is kind of a dick. Sure, the Billy Corgan of 1994 might have gotten it – the Billy who gave countless interviews paying homage to his own teenage influences, bands like Thin Lizzy and Black Sabbath and Blondie and Zeppelin and The Cure, and spoke of them with the religious reverence of a kid who might still have their posters on his bedroom wall. That was before “Zero” Billy took over. You know the one. The Billy who started wearing that black-and-silver t-shirt in all his public appearances, like some kind of superhero. The Billy who shaved his head and, with it, seemed to shed whatever sense of humility he once had. The one who, for a couple of brief years, was the biggest rock star in the world and who, unfortunately, knew it.
Smashing Pumpkins still put out some of their best and, to me, most meaningful music in those later years. But I’ll get to that later. Right now, I want to focus on their first three albums – Gish, Siamese Dream, and Pisces Iscariot – because that’s where the Pumpkins redefined the way a guitar should sound and rewrote the rules of what a great rock album should be. And for this particular teenager who was just beginning to realize the central place that music would hold in his life, that’s where Smashing Pumpkins claimed their status as the greatest fucking band in the world.
Gish was supposed to be the one that did it. Released in May 1991, Gish was going to introduce Smashing Pumpkins to the world as the “next big thing.” Then a little album called Nevermind dropped in September. Butch Vig produced them both, and given the way Nirvana’s breakout album so completely eclipsed the Pumpkins’ debut, it’s kind of amazing that Corgan ever forgave Vig for undercutting his career. It turned out not to be such a big deal, because Vig would return to the helm two years later for Siamese Dream.But in retrospect, the far more interesting question is, would Nevermind have been such a groundbreaking success if not for the creative cross-pollination between Corgan and Vig that immediately preceded it? Put another way, did Kurt Cobain owe it all to Billy Corgan?
You can hear the seeds of Nevermind, and indeed the entire 90s alternative movement, in the production on Gish. The dense layering of guitar tracks, the focus on a thicker sound and a fuller dynamic palette, begins there. Listen to the power-ballad “Rhinoceros” and the jarring shift from soft to loud between verse and chorus. Cobain would patent that trick on “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and every band for the next ten years would shamelessly rip it off.
But whereas the Seattle grunge bands stuck to simpler pop arrangements, the song structures on Gish owe much more to 70s prog rock. “Snail” begins soft and sweet then crescendos through a couple of verses, pulls off the throttle for a moment, and finally floors it with a crashing finale of machine-gun drum fills and shredding guitar solos that just about rips itself apart. It dares for a sense of scale and grandeur that the Mudhoneys and Screaming Trees and Pavements of the day could never aspire to, hardwired as they were in the minimalist mindset of punk and garage rock.
For my money, the best three moments on Gish are also the first three songs. “I Am One” introduces you to the band, one-by-one: a pounding, unconventional drum beat from Jimmy Chamberlain, then D’Arcy Wretzky’s bass groove kicking in, and then a twin body slam of guitars courtesy of Billy and James Iha. You instantly feel the meatiness of their riffs; it makes pre-’91 guitars sound weak and diluted by comparison.
Smashing Pumpkins – “I Am One”
“Siva” doubles down on that, but finds extra power in the middle by pulling back almost to a whisper, lulling you into a false sense of calm … and then pummeling you with a complete onslaught of glorious noise. “Rhinoceros” slows it down and drenches you with atmosphere – before, again, blasting your eardrums in its second half.
Going back and listening to these songs now, 20 years later, the use of dynamic contrast is that much more striking to ears that are now accustomed to the more restrained volume of today’s indie bands. Aside from a few exceptions like The Joy Formidable and Cloud Nothings and Japandroids, few bands deal in this kind of bombast anymore. And as I’ve hinted many times on this blog, I have to say I miss it.
I probably risk heresy by saying that the remainder of Gish, with the exception of “Snail,” doesn’t do quite as much for me. Corgan has said that Gish was an instrumental album that just happened to have lyrics, and because of that, it hits stretches of dullness. “Tristessa” sounds like a band trying to imitate the Pumpkins and only halfway succeeding. “Window Paine” puts me to sleep. And “Daydream,” though pretty, starts an unfortunate Pumpkins tradition of allowing the other band members a chance at lead vocals – a tradition that becomes grating by Mellon Collie.
That said, Gish’s worst moments are still better than most bands’ masterpieces. It’s a glimpse at greatness in progress. And that progress pays off with Siamese Dream.
It kicks off with a snare drum roll, as if to announce the coming of royalty. A lone guitar, playing sharp slices of octave chords, follows. The drums interject, robotic and precise like a marching band. The bass rumbles in. And then it hits like an atom bomb – that wall of Big Muff distortion, fat and lumbering and fuzzy like velvet. It was the guitar sound that defined the Pumpkins. And that first moment you hear it during the intro of “Cherub Rock,” you know you’re dealing with something bigger than rock.
Smashing Pumpkins – “Cherub Rock”
That guitar tone is probably half the reason I fell in love with Smashing Pumpkins, and it’s a constant presence on Siamese Dream. It’s the thread that ties together these thirteen tracks, ranging from pop to metal to power ballad to mini-symphony. Without it, this would only be a collection of songs, like Gish was. But because of it, Siamese Dream is an album.
People often think of “Today” as the quintessential Smashing Pumpkins single, and it is. Alternating soft verses and overdrive-laden choruses. Breathy vocals. Lyrics so overstated they border on cliché (“Today was the greatest day I’ve ever known / Can’t wait for tomorrow, I might not have that long” ). It was probably the song most responsible for making Billy Corgan a rock star. But it’s also, in some ways, the least representative song on Siamese Dream, because of its straight-laced simplicity. It lacks the almost manic ambition that dominates songs like “Soma” and “Hummer” and “Geek USA” and “Silverfuck.”
“Hummer” is a personal favorite, reversing the typical trend of rock epics by carrying on loudly for the first four minutes then dropping to a quiet hush in the finale, closing with an intricate guitar solo that jumps about delicately as if tiptoeing on water. It shows a man who almost worships his influences, and yet is willing to break every rule he can in order to create something new.
Case in point, “Disarm” – built almost entirely upon strings, chimes, and timpani – is clearly Corgan’s effort at an “Eleanor Rigby,” and it doesn’t apologize for its imitation. But of course it lacks McCartney’s sense of English restraint; Corgan can’t hold back his flair for the overdramatic and his vocals bleed with an urgency to be heard. Later, on Mellon Collie, that tendency would become almost comical, but here, it’s perfection.
Or take “Soma.” It’s a blatant “Stairway To Heaven” ripoff, but who’s going to complain about it when that shredding, chaotic guitar solo takes over at the midpoint, refusing to cede ground even to the vocals for the last chorus? The song reportedly had over forty guitar tracks, and you can feel every one of them in its sheer density. That attention to detail rewards you upon multiple listens; two decades later, I can still listen to “Soma” with headphones on and discover tiny nuances I’ve missed before.
Such perfectionism came with a price. The band nearly broke up during the Siamese Dream sessions, and Corgan, never satisfied with the work of Iha or Wretzky, famously re-recorded all the guitar and bass parts himself. Knowing this, the most surprising thing about Siamese Dream is its brightness. On later albums, Corgan can’t seem to stop wallowing in the darkness, and yet much of Siamese Dream is steeped in boyish optimism.
This is captured nowhere better than on my favorite track – and probably my favorite Pumpkins song of all time – “Mayonaise.” No one but Billy Corgan would think to put so much noise into a ballad, the guitars so thick you could get lost in them, the chorus interrupted repeatedly by burning slashes of feedback. To my mind, it’s the most beautiful thing he has created, and the most distinctively Corgan-esque.
The same can be said, on a larger scale, of Siamese Dream as a whole. It’s a nearly flawless album, and the fact that it still speaks to me so strongly after so much time can’t be chalked up to mere nostalgia. Its greatness lies in its sense of effortlessness. It was an album painstakingly put together, layer by layer by layer, by an artist of unabashed ambition, and every single note of it sounds like it was put there with knowing purpose. Yet somehow it all seems so easy. So unforced. So self-assured.
Billy Corgan’s insecurities would later lead him into self-parody. But for this one moment in time, he knew exactly what he wanted to achieve, and he did it with a casual arrogance that could never quite be replicated again – even by him.
If Gish was just a collection of songs, and Siamese Dream was an album, Pisces Iscariot somehow managed to be both. It was a B-sides collection pieced together from leftover tracks recorded during the first few years of the Pumpkins’ career. And yet it doesn’t sound that way. The songs flow together with a cohesion that sounds intentional, even if it was just dumb luck.
Some of it is that trademark guitar sound I’ve already discussed. It’s all over Pisces too, in tracks like “Frail And Bedazzled,” “Plume,” “Blew Away,” “La Dolly Vita,” and best of all, “Starla,” giving these songs power and texture and that same brightness that permeates Siamese Dream.
But it’s also that Corgan, at this point of his career, was just at the top of his songwriting game – so much so that even his throwaways were gems. “Obscured” is layered with so much psychedelic beauty, you feel like you’re floating. “Frail And Bedazzled” roars with teenage vitality. “Soothe” is heartbreaking in its simplicity, just an acoustic guitar recorded in Corgan’s apartment, while he sings regretfully, “Hold me / Hold me again.” Across all of these songs, it doesn’t really sound like Corgan is trying very hard – and that’s exactly why they work. This is what Corgan sounds like when he’s not shooting for the stars, when he’s just having fun.
Pisces was also a more democratic effort. It’s not just the inclusion of a James Iha-penned track, “Blew Away” – actually one of the highlights of the album, marrying country-influenced steel guitar with alternative fuzzbox. It’s also the fact that the band genuinely seem to be enjoying playing with each other (something you don’t get to hear on Siamese Dream, when Corgan kicked the rest of the band out of the studio). Take “Starla.” It’s a 10-minute epic of noise, building and building and building on the same five chords. Most songs with this kind of repetition would become tedious, but here, the pure energy of the band is infectious, and you never really want the song to end. “Hello Kitty Kat” was also recorded live, garage-style, and the band feeds off each other almost manically.
But if there’s a song that brings together all of the disparate elements of this album into one track, it’s “Whir.” It has a breeziness that seems to capture this particular moment in Corgan’s life vividly – the point where you realize you’re actually living your dream, and you can’t quite believe it’s true. If that’s the case, then the change to minor chords at the end of the song is all the more appropriate, as if to signify the recognition that darker times are inevitably coming, that this moment of satisfaction can’t possibly last.
Smashing Pumpkins – “Whir”
Gish, Siamese Dream, and Pisces Iscariot are in many ways a trilogy. There’s a common sonic thread between them that encapsulates what we would later recognize as the early-era Smashing Pumpkins. From here on forward, the band’s aspirations would spin out of control, with results that varied between groundbreaking and farcical. No matter how impressive the work they would later put together on Mellon Collie and beyond, I will always come back to these first three albums with a particular fondness. They speak with the drive and unquestioning confidence of youth. And it was with that same youth that I first heard and fell in love with them.
Life would soon get a little more complicated – for Smashing Pumpkins, and for myself. That comes inevitably with adulthood. But that’s the beautiful thing about music. It’s a snapshot of a point in life, for both the artist and the listener. Through music, we never really have to grow up.
[Editor’s Note: This piece originally ran as part of a series on After The Radio (http://aftertheradio.wordpress.com). Since I never got to complete the series there, we’re re-running Vol. 1 & 2 here on S&N in preparation for Vol. 3 and 4 — coming soon!]