Breakdown As Art: Gish Turns 30

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The Smashing Pumpkins – Gish

Released May 28th, 1991 on Caroline Records

Produced by Butch Vig and Billy Corgan

Peaked at #195 U.S.

Singles:

Tristessa

I Am One” (#73 U.K.)

Siva

The Smashing Pumpkins formed as an airy synth-goth band. This sounds like one of those rumours kids used to pass around about famous rock bands, but you’ll note it is the only way the presence of James Iha and D’arcy Wretsky makes sense. It wasn’t until they added Jimmy Chamberlain in 1988 that the band morphed into what they’re known for now. Chamberlain came in with a muscular drum presence. He was a heavy metal drummer with deep roots in jazz: altogether too busy for the sound they had been pursuing beforehand (also, he didn’t know any of the bands they were claiming as influences). As such, they began pushing more toward a heavier, harder rock sound, which suited Billy Corgan’s guitar abilities better anyway. The first fruit of this newer, rockier band was Gish, named after a silent film actress and filled with headbanger riffs and squalling, post-Hendrix lead guitar.

Gish came out before Nevermind by four months; in the tussle between Sunset Strip hair metal and Pacific Northwest grunge, it seems to settle on both and neither. It is infinitely less boneheaded and vapid than a Ratt record, or even Dr. Feelgood. It is much less punk-oriented than Nevermind or even Badmotorfinger, though. Its intricacies are reminiscent of Ten in a way, but there is something altogether less overtly masculine going on in the songs on Gish. It’s Seventies-indebted hard rock played by an unabashed romantic, ELO if Hendrix were playing guitar for them. Every note is set deliberately in place; Corgan and producer/Garbage mastermind Butch Vig drove themselves nuts making sure every piece was placed perfectly, and with the maximum level of sound that could be wrought from it. It’s an indie record that sounds major label, no mean feat on a budget of $20,000. They did it all themselves, too; Iha is barely present on the recordings and aside from a vocal line on the closing dream pop number “Daydream”, Wretsky is nowhere to be found. Corgan played all the bass lines himself, and he would do so on subsequent albums as well.

The album got them some underground buzz and even managed to crack (barely) the Billboard mainstream chart. The local Chicago press heaped them with praise and the fans they managed to develop across the United States put them in a good position for the next album, which would drive them into the rock ‘n’ roll stratosphere and nearly kill Corgan in the process. Gish often gets forgotten by casual fans, since none of the band’s big singles are on it; the biggest song on the record, “I Am One”, hit the top 100 in Britain in 1992 (after grunge began to pick up major steam) but failed to appear in U.S. sales charts. The whole thing is a trip, though, from the menacing drum work that kicks off the album to the tongue-in-cheek hidden track “I’m Going Crazy” that comes after the end of “Daydream.” Considering how the “band” has ended up these days, it’s good to remember when they weren’t just a vehicle for Corgan to try to recapture aspects of his youth.

Catch up with the rest of the band’s discography here.

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