There’s a documentary floating about that follows Sonic Youth on their 1991 European tour. It features, amongst other bands, Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr., Babes In Toyland, and The Ramones. It’s called 1991: The Year Punk Broke, and there’s a lot of truth to that title. The Nineties were, if nothing else, a massive reset to the rock and roll mythos, a rejection of the template that had been hammered home continuously since the twin Zeppelin albums of 1969. The joke, at least by 1996, was this: How many hair metal bands did “Smells Like Teen Spirit” kill off? All of them.
It’s nigh on impossible to imagine a single song having such a universal generational impact in the fractured music scene of 2016, but there it was. On one side of the divide, the mainstream music culture was listening to Guns ‘n’ Roses, Warrant, Motley Crue, Bulletboyz, et al, while a whole host of college rock heroes were toiling away behind the scenes. On the other side, punk rock suddenly became mainstream culture. Nirvana was surreptiously introducing a cohort of suburban teenagers to Black Flag, and while there was more than a whiff of metal to contemporary bands like Soundgarden and Alice In Chains, it was a much darker, heavier metal than people were used to seeing on MTV. Gone were ubiquitous power ballads and raunchy pop songs dressed up with wild hair and shred guitar. Suddenly being dour, hopeless, and ironic was in. As the decade wore on, punk became even more obviously mainstream. Green Day, Rancid, and the Offspring broke in 1994; suddenly even kids in rural Ontario were blasting the latest offerings from Eptiaph Records in their pickups on the way to a mud run or motocross. Fifteen years prior, to paraphrase Social Distortion’s Mike Ness, if you showed your face in normal society with blue hair, or a mohawk, or piercings, you would get your ass kicked by frat boys, or the local football team. By 1996, the frat boys and the football team would be joining in, going to Warped Tour, sporting mohawks, and chanting along with NOFX.
Still, there was something to be said for the classic rock icons that the Alternative Revolution had cast aside. Underneath the heavy layers of cheese, the attractive qualities of the Sunset Strip template remained, cribbed from Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Blue Oyster Cult, Styx, and the rest. Big drums, big guitars, searing lead guitar solos, thumping basslines – these were all components that remained seductive long after the grind of four power chords in three minutes lost its novelty. Given the proper treatment, and a reverence for the right icons of the past, it was inevitable that someone would try to rearrange the pieces to fit the new Alternative Era. Enter The Smashing Pumpkins.
The Pumpkins begins and ends with it’s founder, and currently its last remaining original member, William Patrick “Billy” Corgan Jr. Billy Corgan’s father was a Chicago blues guitarist; despite this, he had to teach himself to play the guitar (his family dynamics were troubled) and to do so he studied the Classic Rock Canon: Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Queen, Boston, ELO, Rush, and Black Sabbath. Later in high school he got into gothic underground rock, namely Bauhaus and The Cure. This combination should sound familiar to you – it’s pretty much the basis of his band’s first three albums. At any rate, after high school he tried forming a band in Chicago, didn’t find anyone to his liking, and moved out to St. Petersburg, FL, to form a goth-rock band called The Marked. There are demos available for that band on YouTube, but they’re largely inessential. From 1985 to 1988 The Marked played small shows in and around St. Petersburg, and then disbanded. Corgan returned to Chicago in 1988, played briefly with Wayne Static in Deep Blue Dream before Static left for California and Static-X, and was then on his own.
Corgan got a job at a record store and met James Iha. The two of them began recording little goth-pop demos with a drum machine. After doing a few of these, they met waitress/bassist/tragically doomed D’Arcy Wretzky outside of a Dan Reed Network show. This trio began playing shows with a drum machine at various Chicago clubs, calling themselves The Smashing Pumpkins. The actual Smashing Pumpkins, the band whose sound would become iconic, wouldn’t truly be formed until October of 1988, when they recruited a drummer named Jimmy Chamberlin in order to get a show at the Cabaret Metro. While they went into practice with Chamberlin as a brittle goth-pop band, they soon realized that A): Chamberlin had never heard of any of the bands they were into, and B): They sounded way cooler as a heavy rock and roll band with Chamberlin pounding the skins in a serious way. With their new sound catching their interest, they released the singles “I Am One” and “Tristessa”. These caught on with the rock fans of Chicagoland and Caroline Records signed them to a deal in 1991.
Released May 28th, 1991 on Caroline Records
Peaked at #195 US
“Rhinoceros” (#27 US Modern Rock)
“I Am One” (#73 UK)
The first full length Pumpkins recording kicks off with Jimmy Chamberlin laying down a serious hard rock groove; contrary to the popular wave at the time, “I Am One” showed a band that was ready to admit to its love of classic rock. From there, the band walks a tightrope between massive dream pop, psychedelic post-Hendrix guitar work, and hazy, shoegaze-esque sequences. “I Am One” and “Siva” are a gigantic one-two punch of hard rock, but not hard rock as the kids of 1991 knew it. In a time of transition between Motley Crue and Nirvana, the Smashing Pumpkins went in neither direction, preferring instead to dial rock ‘n’ roll back to the late 1970s. Holed up in Butch Vig’s studio in Madison, WI, Corgan and Vig played off of each other and drove each other to more intense heights. The drums had to be tuned just so, and had to be recorded unprocessed; the guitars were dialed to what would become Corgan’s signature tone; the overdubs had to be layered in the fashion of ELO and Queen. Neither Iha nor Wretzky played much on Gish, a fact that caused heavy resentment from both – resentment that would not abate as the years went on. At least Iha went on to write some songs on future Pumpkins albums; after her winsome vocals on “Daydream”, D’Arcy Wretzky would largely disappear from studio Pumpkins work.
Regardless of who played what, the album made a name for them. It became a local favourite of the Chicago press and earned them scattered fans across the United States. While most wouldn’t catch on to the album until the band’s big success a couple of years later, those that were listening dubbed it “The Next Jane’s Addiction”. Certainly there are similarities – Jane’s Addiction was mining the more out-there aspects of Led Zeppelin to create a Big Alternative Rock statement, and the Smashing Pumpkins were doing the same but with ELO, Black Sabbath, and Jimi Hendrix. The point, however, must be made that Hendrix is in that latter mix. Dave Navarro and Billy Corgan were playing in the same league, but Corgan was more willing to fill in the quiet moments with slippery riffs, and to reach for a twisted lysergic heaven in a split-second switch.
Released July 27th, 1993 on Virgin Records
Peaked at #4 UK, #10 US
“Cherub Rock” (#31 UK, #7 US Modern Rock)
“Today” (#44 UK, #56 US (#4 Modern Rock))
“Disarm” (#11 UK, #48 US (#8 Modern Rock))
Those drum rolls that open “Cherub Rock”, and thus The Smashing Pumpkins’ sophomore album, are iconic, of both the band and the era. They also very nearly didn’t happen. The pummeling drum work on that song, especially, were part of an intense recording session where Corgan made Chamberlin play and replay the track until his hands bled. The story of why is just one part of the circus of problems that surrounded the recording of Siamese Dream.
Following the immediate release of Gish in 1991, the press outlets that reviewed it compared it to Jane’s Addiction. By the time 1992 rolled around, of course, Nirvana had opened the floodgates of the Alternative Revolution, and one of the bands caught up in the rising tide was The Smashing Pumpkins. The appearance of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the radio changed the landscape entirely, and the band went from being tipped as “the next Jane’s Addiction” to being “the next Nirvana”, a label that put everyone involved under incredible pressure to succeed. Chamberlin responded by getting hooked on heroin. Iha and Wretzky responded by breaking up their romantic relationship. Corgan became depressed, put on weight, developed writer’s block, and eventually suffered a nervous breakdown.
When the time came to record, the band fled to Georgia, in part to avoid the distractions of familiar faces and places, and in part to try to cut off Chamberlin from his heroin contacts. Anyone who knows an addict, of course, knows that new contacts are always going to be found unless you decamp to rehab (and even then it’s not a sure thing). Thus, for much of the recording process you had the following scene: Wretzky locked in the bathroom not speaking, Iha moping around the studio not speaking, Chamberlin missing for days at a time on heroin jags, and Corgan in the studio with Butch Vig trying to put a major label breakthrough album together with his bare hands. He ended up recording all of the guitar and bass parts himself, since the others could rarely perform at a level he was comfortable with. During this time Corgan began to fantasize about suicide, planning out his funeral in his head. “Today” is about this time, outlining the moment after he’d actually decided to kill himself; ironically, it was a self-recorded demo of this song that convinced a troubled Virgin Records that there was nothing to the rumours of band dysfunction and that everything was going according to plan.
The guitar and bass parts – as well as the fantastical amount of overdubs of those same parts (“Soma” has 40 overdubbed guitars) – were one thing, but Corgan eventually had to put his foot down with Chamberlin. He forced Chamberlin to record the parts on “Cherub Rock” until his hands bled, and then convinced him to check into rehab. When the whole thing was finished, it was $250,000 over budget and shockingly late. This would have normally posed a problem for such a relatively unknown band, but it shot up the charts immediately upon release and peaked at #10 on the Billboard 200 (#4 in the UK), eventually being certified quadruple-platinum. Before Siamese Dream, they were a band on the verge of implosion; after, they were superstars.
And why not, really? Siamese Dream is easily one of the ten best records of the 1990s, a tour de force that brings together everything the band had attempted on Gish and makes it succeed. The guitar pyrotechnics of “Cherub Rock”, “Today”, “Quiet”, “Hummer”, “Rocket”, “Silverfuck”, and esepcially the barnburning motherfucker “Geek U.S.A.” brought in the fans of the post-Hendrixian work Corgan had displayed on Gish, but it is in the quieter moments that Siamese Dream really leaps forward. “Disarm” is the track that everyone remembers, with it’s strident acoustic strumming and it’s bells, but it’s the most obvious and least interesting quiet part on the album. The first half of “Soma” feels like a dream sequence, as though the listener is adrift in a sea slowly going night-black. The intro and outro of “Mayonaise” features odd tuning and graceful, clean guitar lines; the acoustic pleading of “Spaceboy”, a song written for Corgan’s autistic half-brother, hits more emotional levels than anything else on the album. The closing track, “Luna”, is the most unabashedly romantic song they’d done to date, a declartion of love for Corgan’s girlfriend and future wife Christine Fabian, featuring soft guitar, softer Mellotron, and an abundance of earnestness in a self-consciously ironic era.
Released October 4th, 1994 on Virgin Records
Peaked at #4 US
“Landslide” (#3 US Modern Rock)
Two albums into their career, the band had enough B-sides and one-offs to gather together an entire album, and had an audience hungry enough for new Pumpkins material that the album went to #4. Unlike a lot of B-side material, there’s little here separating these songs from their album-included big brothers, rendering Pisces Iscariot an honest-to-god professional album in its own right, albeit one of reprints. “Frail and Bedazzled” would have fit right in on Gish, “Obscured”, “Whir”, and “La Dolly Vita” would blend in well both on Siamese Dream and the later Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness. “Starla” was an epic rock and roll guitar jam that should have shut up any of Corgan’s naysayers, but of course didn’t. Two covers were included. One, The Animal’s “Girl Named Sandoz”, was an interesting psychedelic nugget. The other, Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide”, became one of the most cherished moments for the band and a track that radio would eventually latch on to.
Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness
Released October 24th, 1995 on Virgin Records
Peaked at #4 UK, #1 US
“Bullet With Butterfly Wings” (#22 US (#2 US Modern Rock))
“1979” (#16 UK, #12 US)
“Tonight, Tonight” (#7 UK, #36 US (#5 US Modern Rock))
“Zero” (#46 US (#9 US Modern Rock))
“Thirty-Three” (#21 UK, #39 US (#2 US Modern Rock))
“Muzzle” (#8 US Modern Rock)
The most ridiculously ambitious moment of the band’s career was plotted out as the apex of their musical arc. Corgan would later call it “the last manouvre of that high-flying psychedelic rock band, the Smashing Pumpkins”, but at the time he described it in interviews as “The Wall for Generation X”. While the overarching conceptual work that Pink Floyd created in 1979 would not be exactly like what Mellon Collie achieved, in terms of musical reach and sprawling epicness it’s a close cousin. That said, of course, the overall theme of both albums is largely the same: youth, and the wearing nature of stardom. What Mellon Collie has (and what dour Roger Waters lacked) was an enduring belief in the power of love. Mellon Collie is studded with songs that are just as – if not more – earnestly romantic as “Luna”, from Siamese Dream. “Tonight, Tonight” is the one everyone could probably name, a power ballad from outer space driven by strings, punk-esque guitar strums, and those heavy hard-charging drums. “Love” was a stylish, pulsing number that suggest the emotion boiled down to “who you know”; “Cupid de Locke” skipped in a foppish manner while “Galapagos” ruminated in a slower, more gentle fashion. “Porcelina of the Vast Oceans” was the epic love guitar jam, plucking out a long, spacey section of lush opiate dreams before getting crunchy and squealy. “Thirty-Three” touched on getting older, while “Thru The Eyes of Ruby” is as fine a ballad to both getting married and to everlasting youth that I can name. For that matter, everything that comes after “X.Y.U.” on the second disc is light, gentle, and full of love.
This was only half of this sprawling album, of course. In fact, with a bit of creative reshuffling, you could easily make two separate albums out of this 28-track set. The first would be the yearning songs of love and youth (of which “1979” would be the centerpiece). The second, of course, would the really loud, really bombastic, near-metal songs – “Jellybelly”, “Here Is No Why”, “Zero”, “Bullet With Butterfly Wings”, “Fuck You (An Ode To No One)”, “Muzzle”, “Where Boys Fear To Tread”, “Bodies”, “Tales Of A Scorched Earth”, and “X.Y.U.”. This collection is as heavy as the Pumpkins ever got; Corgan’s first attempt at a comeback in 2007 would try for this vein of songwriting but fail to strike at exactly how it came out so well here. Part of the reason, perhaps, is that new producer Flood took one look at how the initial recording process was coming about and put a stop to it. Butch Vig had allowed Corgan to rule everything; Flood made sure that the band turned out a bit more democratically. James Iha and D’Arcy Wretzky were allowed much more input than they had been previously; Iha actually has songs with both credit and co-credit here, and they show him to be a gentle, hushed songwriter.
Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness was my first rock n roll lover. Before it, I was a kid who was sort of into the singles I heard on the radio, which in Seaforth, Ontario, meant things like “Lightning Crashes”, “Big Bang Baby”, and “Woman From Tokyo”. After getting into “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” in a big way, I borrowed the album from a friend and engaged in some of that home taping that was once fingered to be killing music. The tape – which I still have – obviously couldn’t hold the whole album; on side one it went from the title track to just before the big dynamic shift in “Porcelina Of The Vast Oceans”, and on side two it went from “Where Boys Fear To Tread” to the first piano notes of “Beautiful”. I listened to that album so much I would be surprised if it still worked, over and over until I could literally recite the entire album. It spoke to me like no other album could, and I felt as though I were kin with it: both of us were angry and enamoured with big guitars and apocalyptic death rock, but we were both willing to give everything over for the youth-singularity of eternal love. In a way it’s quite painful to listen to, since it’s bound up in my mind with people, places, and events that are long since consigned to the winds, but which I remember with a desperate longing.
The Aeroplane Flies High
Released November 26th, 1996 on Virgin Records
Peaked at #42 US
In the wake of the two-disc insanity of Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness and the lengthy tour that accompanied it, the band issued a sort of stop-gap box set that proved that the only person more prolific than Billy Corgan in the Nineties was Robert Pollard. The Aeroplane Flies High is five discs, each one headed up by one of the singles from Mellon Collie: “Bullet With Butterfly Wings”, “1979”, “Zero”, “Tonight, Tonight”, and “Thirty-Three”. The rest of the discs are B-sides from the original singles, as well as covers of songs from Corgan’s New Wave youth. As a compilation of non-album tracks, Pisces Iscariot is better, but Aeroplane is still a worthy addition to anyone’s Pumpkins collection. Be aware, however: the original box set is long enough, but the 2013 reissue adds in a series of demos and live tracks that caused even this old Corgan fanatic to go into Pumpkins shock and reach for some Sonic Youth.
Released June 2nd, 1998 on Virgin Records
Peaked at #5 UK, #2 US
“Ava Adore” (#11 UK, #42 US)
“Perfect” (#24 UK, #42 US (#3 US Modern Rock))
Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness was an ending of the first phase of the Smashing Pumpkins in a number of ways, but the central ending event happened during the band’s massive world tour. On July 11th, 1996, in New York City, Jimmy Chamberlin and touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin were shooting up heroin in a hotel room when Melvoin overdosed. Despite the efforts of both Chamberlin and emergency attendents, Melvoin died. Fed up with Chamberlin’s drug-addled antics, Corgan fired him; the incident would later prompt Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes to call Corgan “the most corporate man in rock and roll”. In conjunction with the loss of the greatest drummer of his generation, the band intimated in interviews that they were growing bored with rock music as the band’s sole genre; Iha went so far as to say that the future was in electronic music. On a personal level, Corgan’s mother died, and he went through a divorce from his wife, Chris Fabian.
Before release of their fourth album, the band released a pair of high profile soundtrack songs: “Eye“, on David Lynch’s weirdo opus Lost Highway, and “The End Is The Beginning Is The End” on the regrettable Batman & Robin. Of the two, “Eye” would be the most telling; with it’s electro beat and it’s gothic atmosphere, it was a solid harbinger of what was to come. Devoid of Chamberlin’s services, the band – who am I kidding, Billy Corgan – opted to go with drum machines and studio drummers to fill the gap. Given that Chamberlin was the impetus behind their beefy hard rock sound in the first place, the band reset back to their brittle gothic pop origins. Gone were the metallic rumblings, the squealing post-Hendrix guitar solos, and the black leather rock n roll rush. Adore presented instead acoustic songs of loss, reflection, and love, garnished with electronic influences and anchored by mechanical beats. Mellon Collie used piano with pomp, but Adore used piano as a central element, as integral as Corgan’s guitar and considerably more used.
Adore was in a way akin to an album released six years prior – R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People. Both are albums created by bands looking to hit the reset button after a contentious rise to the top; both trade loud bombast for quiet acoustic contemplation. Neither band would reclaim the heights they once held, although R.E.M.’s reset would at least garner both sales and accolades. The critics loved Adore but the public slept on it; the radio didn’t keep anything beyond “Ava Adore” in rotation for very long, since by 1998 it had moved towards ska, R&B, and teen pop. Still, there are a number of truly great tracks found within. “To Sheila”, “Crestfallen”, and “Once Upon A Time” are all heartbreakers, although “heart-shatter-ers” would be closer to the mark. “For Martha” and “Tear” bring a breathtaking sense of minimalism to a band that had been known for being thick and anthemic; “Pug” and “The Tale Of Dusty And Pistol Pete” channel the pop hopefulness that ran through “Thirty-Three” but manage to elevate it to a more adult level. It’s a shame that sales were poor and it remains a largely ignored piece of the Pumpkins catalog, because it proves something that became somewhat dubious in the following years: that Billy Corgan could write great, mature songs with or without his signature searing electric guitar lines.
MACHINA/The Machines of God
Released February 29th, 2000 on Virgin Records
Peaked at #7 UK, #3 US
“The Everlasting Gaze” (#4 US Modern Rock)
“Stand Inside Your Love” (#23 UK, #2 US Modern Rock)
“Try, Try, Try” (#73 UK)
By 1999 the band decided to part ways. Rather than simply break up, they reunited with Jimmy Chamberlin and plotted out one final blowout album to end everything on. It would be a big, loud concept album about the outsized attention towards a band of their level, a Bowie-esque rock opera about a rock star that hears the voice of God and embarks on a radical transformation and ascendency. Partway through the recording process they embarked on a small tour to celebrate their reunion with Chamberlin, but when the tour ended D’Arcy Wretzky chose to quit. Corgan took back the reins and reworked the album, consciously choosing to strike a balance between pop sensibilities and art rock.
The problem with “pop sensibilities” – and MACHINA itself – was that by 2000 its rock ‘n’ roll associations were with the likes of Matchbox 20. Thus the production has a sheen that sounds uncomfortably like the guitars are drowning in flanger and U2-esque delay. “The Everlasting Gaze”, “Heavy Metal Machine”, and parts of “Stand Inside Your Love” attempt a return to the heavy psych that marked their most successful albums, but the results are mixed. “Heavy Metal Machine” plods on for far too long, and “Stand Inside Your Love” tries to stretch out into being an anthem and falls awkwardly short of the goal. “Raindrops + Sunshowers” marries a fairly pedestrian lyric to a bad pastiche of Millenium arena-rock tropes: guitar processed to the point of being unrecognizable from keyboards, too many effects on everything, and a drum loop that may as well have been copy-pasted from a free sample disc. “I Of The Mourning”, “The Sacred And Profane”, and “This Time” suffer from the same problem, falling into the self-created trap that Corgan must have had wherein he felt that the part of Smashing Pumpkins fans most identified with were his alien voice and his lyrics. “Glass And The Ghost Children”, a central piece of the concept (apparently), shows some of the old Mellon Collie level of experimentation with form and structure, and tracks like “Try Try Try”, “The Imploding Voice”, and “With Every Light” are among the more effective songs he’s ever written. “The Crying Tree Of Mercury” and “Blue Skies Bring Tears” add some nice Cure-esque pomp to the end of the album, but it’s not enough to save the ship from sinking. As a supposed “final statement” from the band, it wasn’t exactly going out on a high note, but it was, at the very least, a decent enough effort.
MACHINA II/ The Friends & Enemies Of Modern Music
Released September 5th, 2000 on Constantinople Records
MACHINA, their planned valedictorian effort, was originally supposed to be a sprawling double album that summed up everything that was great about Smashing Pumpkins. Once Adore plummeted off of the charts in rapid fashion, however, Virgin Records told Billy Corgan that he could take his grand ambitions and shove them, because they weren’t paying for it. So instead of that mythical second Mellon Collie, we got a half-baked album of overproduced schlock that approached the melodic brilliance Corgan was rightfully known for but had none of the raw verve or high-flying hijinks that informed their best work.
Billy Corgan, meanwhile, has never been the sort of person to accept being told where his ambitions are supposed to end. So the band returned to the studio after MACHINA to record the rest of their material, or at least as much as their limited budget would allow. The results were put together with 3 EPs of outtakes and B-sides and released – sort of. In terms of physical release, only 25 copies were actually made of the album (as Corgan called it, “a final fuck you” to Virgin Records). This “fuck you” was furthered by the note included with each of the copies, exhorting the owner to freely disseminate the music on the Internet. These owners ended up being high-ranking fans on various Pumpkins forums – let it never be said that Billy Corgan doesn’t care about his fans.
MACHINA II, as it turns out, is much, much better than its predecessor, and part of the reason lies in the relatively unprofessional nature of the production. That irritating glossy sheen that covered every last inch of MACHINA is gone, replaced with that raw guitar sound that the band had been using since Gish. “Ghost And The Glass Children” would have been much more palatable with “Glass’ Theme” to leaven it; the inclusion of tracks like “Cash Car Star”, “Speed Kills But Beauty Lives Forever”, and “Dross” would have made the slower parts of MACHINA (all of it, basically) much better. Cut out “I Of The Mourning” and “The Sacred And The Profane” and replace them with “Real Love” and “Saturnine” and suddenly you’re approaching classic status. The alternate takes of “Try, Try, Try” and “Heavy Metal Machine” do nothing to improve upon or redeem the originals, respectively, but the “heavy” mix of “Blue Skies Bring Tears” makes the song leaps and bounds more acceptable. Including “Let Me Give The World To You” and “Here’s To The Atom Bomb” honesty might have saved MACHINA from being a dud in terms of sales, as they’re two of the biggest hits the band never released to radio.
Still, it was a thank you to the fans, and the band was done. Sort of.
Released July 10th, 2007 on Reprise Records
Peaked at #4 UK, #2 US
“Tarantula” (#59 UK, #54 US (#2 US Modern Rock))
“That’s The Way (My Love Is)” (#94 UK, #23 US Modern Rock)
In the wake of the demise of the Smashing Pumpkins, the bands members kept busy in their own various ways. James Iha joined Maynard James Keenan’s project A Perfect Circle, a gig he maintains to this day; he also released some solo work and formed a label, Scratchie Records, whose signings included Fountains Of Wayne and Albert Hammond, Jr. of The Strokes. Jimmy Chamberlin formed an alt-jazz group, The Jimmy Chamberlin Complex. Before that, however, he and Billy Corgan formed Zwan, who released Mary Star Of The Sea before Corgan pulled the plug, alleging sex, drugs, and bad behavior regarding other members of the band (David Pajo from Slint, incidentally). D’Arcy Wretzky was arrested for possession of crack cocaine shortly after the band broke up; although she was eventually cleared of these charges, she has largely disappeared, showing up only twice since 2000. The first was for a bizarre impromptu radio interview in 2009 where she explained that she was living on a farm and that her fiancee had died at some point in the past. The second was online in 2014 in a series of postings that seemed to express concern for Billy Corgan and questioned his whereabouts; while there was no resolution to any of whatever she was talking about, she also posted some pictures of herself that seem to show that she had taken up an interest in amateur botox injections. Corgan has mentioned in the past that after the success of Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness Wretzky descended into “insanity and/or drugs (take your pick)”.
At any rate, following the debacle of Zwan and the middling response to a solo album (2005’s TheFutureEmbrace), Billy Corgan took out a full page ad in the Chicago Tribune to announce that he was putting The Smashing Pumpkins back together. That is to say, he and Jimmy Chamberlin were confirmed to be getting back together to play music as The Smashing Pumpkins. After getting up to speed, they began playing shows in 2007 and then announced a new album, Zeitgeist.
Zeitgeist gets a somewhat unfair reputation. The album came out to rather negative reviews, but too many of those reviews focused on the idea that, because Iha and Wretzky weren’t participating in the reunion, it wasn’t really Smashing Pumpkins. Anyone who knows the history of the band knows how laughable this complaint is; Corgan and Chamberlin recorded the album pretty much themselves, and they noted as they did so that it was exactly what they used to do in “the old days”. They also pissed off the audio engineers they worked with and, to a lesser extent, the brass at their new home of Reprise Records. The engineers by 2007 were not used to recording a band that didn’t use a click track or do a lot of editing; Corgan and Chamberlin did neither, preferring to record live and leave it at that for the most part. Reprise suggested Rob Cavallo as producer; Cavallo had produced Green Day’s massive comeback American Idiot and they thought the same might come true for the Pumpkins. The band instead went with Roy Thomas Baker, an old hand who had produced The Cars among other great albums, and who (more importantly) was willing to record in analog rather than digital.
The results are pretty middling, although it’s definitely a Smashing Pumpkins album. The best moments: “Doomsday Clock”, “That’s The Way (My Love Is)”, “Tarantula”, and “Shades Of Black”, are all heavy, bombastic Pumpkins songs in the vein of Mellon Collie‘s “Bodies”, right down to the relentless rhythm. Other tracks recall less savoury memories: “United States” is as long as “Ghost And The Glass Children” (or “Porcelina Of The Vast Oceans”) but not even as interesting as the former; “Bleeding The Orchid” and “Bring The Light” recall the more mediocre parts of MACHINA; “Starz” feels like a Mellon Collie B-side and “Stellar” could have been an outtake from Pisces Iscariot, in that it would have originally been left on the floor altogether. “Death From Above” is oddly jaunty, though, and both “Ma Belle” and “For God And Country” recall the gentle, fragile melodies of Adore although with unfortunately more testosterone.
The real problem running through Zeitgeist is the lack of an integral part of the older albums: the “Pumpkins Reset”. For their best albums, the heavy metal barnburner tracks nearly always featured a dynamic reset that left the listener in freefall, accentuating the dream pop underpinnings that drove the band. “Geek U.S.A.” from Siamese Dream is the best example of this – a motherfucker of a riff mined for three minutes that leads up to a spacey section that feels exactly like gravity has cut out and your feet have left the ground. There is nothing like “Geek U.S.A.” on Zeitgeist; instead, as I noted above, there is a lot of stuff like “Bodies”, where the difference between the verse and the chorus is an extra layer of guitar and a vague sense that things are going faster. Part of this is the insistence on live-in-studio recording: “United States” could use some edits, and definitely a dynamic shift at some point, given that it’s ten minutes and the only real movement is relentlessly forward. Part of it, though, is the need to prove that the band was back, and to remind people of how powerful the band could be both in studio and live. I wasn’t completely convinced of the former, but I saw them live in 2008 and I was utterly convinced of the latter. Billy Corgan is a guitar god, maybe the best of his generation, Steve Lukather be damned.
Teargarden By Kaleidyscope
By 2009 Jimmy Chamberlin once again exited the band, and Billy Corgan linked up with a young drummer named Mike Byrne and decided that the future was not in album making. Instead, they planned out a collection of 44 songs that were to be released individually over the internet in intervals over several years. The original plan was the put the maximum amount of concentration into each song, in a process that Corgan likened to painting. The first track released in this project was “A Song For A Son“, on December 8th, 2009, followed shortly by a pair of EPs, and then two “albums within an album”, which will be dealt with in turn.
Volume 1: Songs for a Sailor
Released May 25th, 2010 on Martha’s Music/Rocket Science
Songs For A Sailor makes tentative strides towards the future for the Pumpkins. “A Song For A Son” is pretty good overall, although there’s more than a whiff of Led Zeppelin contained within. The same can be said for “Widow Make My Mind”, which is a good song that could have been made great with a bit more grit in the studio. “Astral Planes” is messy and frankly annoying, but “A Stitch In Time” is a classic Corgan acoustic song. On the whole the first EP strives for art and ends up somewhere in the higher end of the commercial section.
Volume 2: The Solstice Bare
Released November 23rd, 2010 on Martha’s Music/Rocket Science
“Freak” (#27 US Alternative Rock)
“The Fellowship”, which kicks off this second EP, is one of the best songs Corgan had written in a decade. “Freak”, which follows it up, trumps it by being the best song he’d written since Adore (or, if we’re comparing apples to apples, since Mellon Collie). If “Tom Tom” and “Spangled” seem disappointing in the aftermath, it’s only because of the preceding two tracks; “Tom Tom” would have been the best song on MACHINA and “Spangled” is a more electric take on a sort of “Sweet Sweet” type of song. A stellar effort, and one that showed that the band wasn’t quite out of contention.
Released June 19th, 2012 on EMI Records
Peaked at #19 UK, #4 US
“The Celestials” (#45 U.S. Rock)
Following the two EPs was the announcement of an “album within an album”, a full-length recording that would nonetheless be under the auspices of the Kaleidyscope project. How this reconciles with Corgan’s idea to spend a great deal of time on each song is anyone’s guess; certainly there is less painting going on here and more rock ‘n’ roll sketchcraft. The album kicks off with “Quasar”, and it’s a great way to open Oceania up: an acidic rock gallop reminiscent of the Siamese Dream sound, a nod to various gods, and then into it. The rest of the album never quite lives up to it but – importantly – it comes very close. Take a track like “My Love Is Winter”. It has the sort of cringe-inducing lyrics that Corgan has been trading in since MACHINA and at first it has the same boring arrangement that album would have presented as well. Then all of a sudden a strange little keyboard riff comes in, some dynamic shifts occur, a heartfelt guitar solo opens up a soaring final chorus, and at the end you realize that there’s an honest-to-God great song there, clunky wordplay be damned. The effect is such that when the weirdly out-of-place “One Diamond One Heart” comes on afterwards, with it’s bizarre mix of sub-chillwave and vaporwave sounds, you just roll with it, because you remember that this is what Billy Corgan does. He’s a psychedelic guitar god who actually really wants to be Dave Gahan and this odd duality sums up not only his career but the entirety of Oceania as well. “Pinwheels” is another great example of this: the acoustic sections are pure “Superboy” or “Disarm”, but there’s that galloping synth arpeggio, and that clean late-80s guitar line near the end, and a big thumping bass drum that manages to hold it all together.
Oceania is an album that finally gets Billy Corgan back into a proper songwriting groove. All of his work from MACHINA up to Oceania have been marred by his idea that he should be writing Smashing Pumpkins material and his seeming inability to do so. Oceania fixes that; these are undeniably songs from the same vein of material that informed his classic albums, although they don’t quite match the quality of those classics either. Still, it has high-flying rock ‘n’ roll moments, pretty chimey ballads, gothic synth lines, and enough guitar work to satisfy any curmudgeonly old grunge holdover.
Monuments To An Elegy
Released December 5th, 2014 on Martha’s Music/BMG
Peaked at #59 UK, #33 US
Another “album within an album” for Kaleidyscope, another lineup shuffle. Gone was drummer Mike Byrne and long-running bassist Nicole Fiorentino; staying was guitarist Jeffrey Schroeder and coming in as drum mercenary was Tommy Lee, best known for playing the skins with Motley Crue, his bizarre take on rap-metal with Methods of Mayhem, and fucking his then-wife Pamela Anderson on camera during their honeymoon. This wasn’t the oddest thing about the Smashing Pumpkins circa 2014, of course. By then, Billy Corgan’s increasingly whacked-out politics were becoming more open, bolstered by the growth of the alt-right movement that emerged from the utter failure of the American right to unseat President Obama in the 2012 election. A mere week after the release of Monuments To An Elegy he would go on Alex Jones’ batshit Infowars radio show to talk about how much he suffers as an artist especially at the hands of “dinosaur media” like Anderson Cooper and claim himself as “dangerous” due to his status as an “awake citizen”. Not content to rest on his laurels, he would go on the show again last April dressed as a homeless man and spouting off about the evils of “SJWs” in America and how people like him need to combat their “brainwashing”.
It’s sad if not uncommon to see rock ‘n’ roll artists descend into vacuum-sealed nuttery; Ted Nugent claimed he would be “dead or in jail” if Obama won the 2012 election (he’s neither, for the record), Gene Simmons advocated for the corporate takeover of America, and Dave Mustaine opined a few years ago that Obama staged the Aurora, CO cinema shooting as a move to ban guns in America. Unfortunately, much like the aforementioned three, the outing of their more obnoxious beliefs coincides with a decline in the quality of their output. Monuments To An Elegy is a definite decline in quality even when compared to its immediate predecessor. Oceania played with the conventions that Corgan had spent his career forging – metal barnburning, brittle goth synth lines, sweet acoustic balladry, post-Hendrix psychedelic guitar work, a healthy trust in the power of Eighties cheese. Monuments goes half-ass on all of these, putting up just over half an hour of compact, airless alt-rock that sounds professional as hell but utterly boring. Where “Pinwheels” succeeded as a ballsy sort of prog-ballad, “Run2Me” strips out all the grudgingly great parts and leaves the most godawful alt-ballad, the epitome of all the horrific possibilities to his songwriting that he began to reveal on MACHINA. “Being Beige” and “Drum + Fife” both run on autopilot, seemingly more meant to be filler tracks on alternative radio playlists than the sort of “every song is a painting” type of track that they are ostensibly supposed to be a part of. Tommy Lee does nothing to elevate these songs, either; where Jimmy Chamberlin would add in a nimble, hard-jazz inflection to give these tracks shape and character, Tommy Lee just bashes away in rhythm with Corgan’s dictates, as flat as the songwriting and just as disappointing.
To be fair, there are only a few key players from the Nineties that are still important and relevant today: Radiohead, Beck, Bjork, Sleater-Kinney, maybe the Melvins if you stretch the definitions of “important” and “relevant” a little. The problem here is that Corgan’s ego refuses to let him believe that he is no longer as important and relevant as he might once have been. The self-important art projects, the full-page ads to announce the return of his band, and the multiple appearances on nutjob media all point to it, and while the outbursts are understandable they are no less of a bummer, especially taken in context with the apparent decline in songwriting. For all of its many faults, at least Zeitgeist had some verve and life amongst the clunkery. Monuments To An Elegy has neither, preferring to live in a weird alt-rock half-life, neither alive nor truly dead.
Speedy Ortiz – Foil Deer
The Massachusetts indie rock band got a lot of listeners on the strength of their debut, 2013’s Major Arcana. Foil Deer doesn’t change the formula much, but in this case it’s definitely one of those “avoiding fixing if not broken” deals. As it was before, the band comes off on the surface like they’re another group dealing in crunchy 90s guitar nostalgia and recycled slacker ideology. Beneath that initial impression, however, Sadie Dupis’ lyrics reveal a depth of unease, sadness, and humor that a lot of the aforementioned 90s bands would have killed to possess. The first verse of the best track on here, “The Graduates”, bears this out: “We were the French club dropouts / But we never got excused from class / The secretary must have been high / To turn a blind eye on us sneaking out back / And we were pregnant on the balcony / And you caught me with a cigarette / I never put the thing on my lips / Just crushed it and spit on where I laid it to rest”. Don’t let the high school references fool you, though – “The Graduates” is a song about crushing on your friends in general, and was written specifically about Dupis’ now-boyfriend Dylan Baldi, he of Cloud Nothings fame.
The problem with basing interesting song writing around 90s alt-rock/grunge nostalgia, of course, is that it becomes hard to separate the tracks after a while, since they’re constructed out of the same distorted power chords and thundering drums we’ve been listening to since 1992. Given some time to pick it apart, however, Foil Deer reveals itself to be one of the better alt-rock retreads to come out recently. This sounds like a backhanded compliment, and it is.