Smashing Pumpkins

  • Smashing Pumpkins
  • Gish (Caroline) 1991  (Virgin) 1994 
  • Lull EP (Caroline) 1991 
  • Peel Sessions EP (UK Strange Fruit / Hut) 1992 
  • Siamese Dream (Virgin) 1993 
  • Disarm EP (Hol. Hut) 1994 
  • Pisces Iscariot (Virgin) 1994 
  • Siamese Singles (UK Virgin) 1994 
  • Today EP (Japan. Virgin) 1994 
  • Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (Virgin) 1995 
  • 1979 EP (Virgin) 1996 
  • The Aeroplane Flies High (Virgin) 1996 
  • Thirty-Three EP (Virgin) 1996 
  • Tonight Tonight EP (Virgin) 1996 
  • Adore (Virgin) 1998 
  • MACHINA / The Machines of God (Virgin) 2000 
  • Machina II / The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music (online) 2000 
  • {Rotten Apples} The Smashing Pumpkins Greatest Hits (Virgin) 2001 
  • Earphoria (Virgin) 2002 
  • Zwan
  • Mary Star of the Sea (Reprise) 2003 
  • James Iha
  • Let It Come Down (Virgin) 1998 

Perfectionists haven’t had it easy in the indie-rock era — just ask Billy Corgan, the much-maligned, megalomaniacal leader of Smashing Pumpkins. In a lo-fi age, Corgan feels limited by a 72-track mixing board; from a world bounded by platinum-selling regular joes and fundamentalists who coin label names like Kill Rock Stars, he seeks old-school rock stardom of the highest degree. In short, he blurs the line between genius and jerk with more enthusiasm than just about anybody.

Corgan has never made it easy on himself. Barely out of his teens in Chicago, the diehard, Cure-worshiping goth (an influence that can still be heard in the Pumpkins’ deceptively spry angst narratives) packed up his black duds and white makeup for a move to sunny Florida — hardly the place to maintain that coveted pallor. He led a band called the Marked — named in deference to the large strawberry birthmarks shared by Corgan and the band’s drummer — but soon returned to Chicago, where he formed the blueprint for the Pumpkins and then the band itself, most certainly in that order.

After a couple of indie singles — and an infrequent- but-prestigious gigging schedule that leaned heavily on management’s control of the Windy City’s bigger alt-rock cabarets — the Pumpkins began attracting national attention. Corgan, who admitted (and later denied) that he’d assembled the lineup of Asian androgyne James Iha (guitar), bottle-blonde ice queen D’Arcy Wretzky (bass) and all-American boy Jimmy Chamberlin (drums) for “maximum visual impact,” never allowed the other members to play on Pumpkins demos — a decision that seemed wise, given the unevenness of early shows. Before long, however, Corgan’s vision proved prescient — the group’s glimmering grunge alternative seemed to touch a note in kids who wanted to worship at the altar of Big Rock with only the mildest of assurances that they were existing on the same plane as the band.

Co-produced by Corgan and Butch Vig, the defiantly old- fashioned Gish propelled the Pumpkins to demi-star status. Buoyed as it is by Corgan’s conspicuous displays of virtuosity and quasi-mystical crooning, the album has an undeniable, womb-like appeal: as layer after layer of dark, warm sound wafts down upon the listener, there seems to be little choice but to lie there and be enveloped. If you can fight off the lassitude Corgan tries so hard to impart, it’s easy to discern that all Gish‘s sound and fury signify nothing more than an attempt to prove punk never happened. The ostentatious riffing and glistening structures of songs like “Rhinoceros” and “Suffer” are easily traced back to ’70s pomp-rock forefathers like Rush and ELP — with Chamberlin’s skittery new romantic underpinnings the only concession to modernity. Corgan’s neo-classicist bent is evident in details like the modal intro to the opener, “I Am One” (not to mention its patchouli-laden lyrical gyrations), while his familiarity with the Beatles’ songbook reveals itself in “Siva” (a blatant “Helter Skelter” rewrite). By disc’s end, you’re left with the feeling that the only reason the name of the London Symphony Orchestra doesn’t appear on Gish is that Corgan didn’t have enough time to learn the bassoon player’s parts — you know, just in case.

The Lull EP leads off with the album version of “Rhinoceros,” appending two LP outtakes (“Blue” and the unusually aggressive “Slunk”) and a two-year-old demo of Corgan in a solo acoustic performance (“Bye June”) that’s understated and actually quite lovely.

After months in the studio — a good portion of that time sans band — Corgan at last produced what he referred to as the first full-blown Smashing Pumpkins album, Siamese Dream. The mood is promptly set by the opener, “Cherub Rock,” a pseudo-anthem that wastes plenty of energy mocking and upbraiding an indie-rock scene that Corgan could buy and sell without overdrawing his checking account. The complaints are mostly disingenuous — after all, the band had worked to garner a veneer of street cred — but it’s unlikely the kids who willingly climbed between the sometimes leaden strata of mellotron and tubular bells that make up “Soma” and “Mayonaise” could care: Corgan’s free-floating discontent is ambiguous enough to touch something in most everyone with a gripe. While it’d be wrong to be too hard on Corgan for borrowing from his influences — who doesn’t? — you’d think that all those hours of studio time would cultivate more inspired plunderings than the “American Woman” cop that provides the intro for “Hummer” or the “Immigrant Song”- derived rhythmic fusillade that props up “Geek U.S.A.” Who says the me generation is dead?

Pisces Iscariot is a typical odds’n’sods collection (mostly British B-sides) in that it’s easy to see why the majority of the tracks — particularly the never-before-released trifles “Whir” and “Spaced” — didn’t make the cut the first time around. Although the album starts on a deceptively intimate note with “Soothe” (a gentle track Corgan allegedly recorded alone in his bedroom), it doesn’t take long for the band’s typical bluster to kick in on hot-air balloons such as “Starla” and the paradigmatically crabby “Pissant.” Most artists use collections like this as an opportunity to let their hair down and have some fun — especially when given the chance to pay tribute to spiritual forefathers on the obligatory array of covers. Corgan manages to savor just such a moment during a BBC-radio version of the Animals’ “Girl Named Sandoz” (also on the three-song Peel Sessions EP), although his hipoisie-defying rendition of Stevie Nicks’ Fleetwood Mac superfluity “Landslide” is just plain pointless.

After a successful stint headlining Lollapalooza, the band—all of them this time—entered the studio for a protracted stay, and it wasn’t long before a trickle of advance intelligence began suggesting that the project in progress would make Siamese Dream sound like Half Japanese. Corgan threw down the gauntlet long before the set’s completion, confessing it would be a two-record concept album, one disc of “day,” one of “night.” And darned if he wasn’t serious: Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (which clocks in at over 140 minutes, split evenly between Dawn to Dusk and Twilight to Starlight) is dauntingly ostentatious—it begins with a Keith Emerson-styled piano instrumental and employs a full string section—but Corgan’s vision, while still overwhelmingly inward-directed, has begun to come into focus. Alternating between polished ballads (the creamy “Tonight, Tonight,” the breathily insinuating “Thirty-Three”) and harsh, genuinely tortured expressions of angst (“Jellybelly” finds him musing “living makes me sick, so sick I wish I’d die”), he frames a sweeping story that’s reminiscent of nothing so much as Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway—but in Corgan’s world, no one is innocent.

Much of the album’s immediacy springs from the pared- down guitar sound. The overall tone is lush and textured, but Iha and Corgan have learned the power of positive skronk (“Where Boys Fear to Tread”) and the joys of a simple fuzztone (showcased in “Bullet With Butterfly Wings”). Although Corgan is a bit more sympathetic this time around, it’s still difficult to like a guy who’ll throw a tantrum as mindless as “Fuck You (An Ode to No One)” and compound that by deadpanning lines as treacly as “Cupid hath pulled back his sweetheart’s bow / To cast divine arrows into her soul” (from “Cupid de Locke”). On the surface, Corgan seems to be on a never-ending quest to play all of rock’s archetypal roles at once—angst- ridden naïf and swaggering guitar hero, geeky outsider and king snake, yin and yang. But often as not, he simply ends up hiding behind his wall of machinery, hoping never to be revealed as post-modernism’s very own Wizard of Oz.

Jimmy Chamberlin was sacked after his longtime drug addiction became public in the wake of tour keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin’s fatal heroin overdose in a New York hotel room in July 1996. The band quickly replaced the drummer with Matt Walker of Filter (temporarily, as it turned out, as Chamberlain rejoined for the band’s final chapter as well as its aftermath).

Following the grand excesses of Mellon Collie and a contemporaneous box set of singles, The Aeroplane Flies High, there was nowhere for the Pumpkins to go but down. Adore suffers not so much from Chamberlin’s departure but from a lack of memorable songs. Mired in keyboards—a function, perhaps, of Corgan’s ELO fixation finally coming to the fore—the tracks are bland and surprisingly timid. On what is easily the spottiest of the Pumpkins albums, only the sweeping grandeur of “Ava Adore” is any good; the rest of it is lost amid a sea of bleeps and blips. Although it sounded trendy in 1998 (amid a plethora of faceless electronica acts), the album made it look as if Billy and the band had overstayed their welcome.

But that wasn’t all they wrote. Machina is a vast improvement over Adore‘s sulky sameness. Instead, heaviness abounds, from the stuttering, distorted riff of “The Everlasting Gaze” to the ragged opening chords of “The Imploding Voice.” Yet even the Sabbath-y start of “Heavy Metal Machine” gives way to Corgan gently cooing “Let me go, rock and roll.” These dreamily resigned Pumpkins share more sonic ground with Yo La Tengo than any fist-pumping arena rock bands. That Machina‘s mature mood suits the band wonderfully either means that Corgan was growing up or, more likely, that the Pumpkins were breaking up. Either way, Machina is one of the band’s best efforts. (An Internet-only companion, Machina II/The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music, was released in September of 2000. Many of its 25 tracks are alternate versions of Machina items.)

The predictable Greatest Hits offers a fairly even set of singles from the band’s entire career plus two previously unreleased numbers. Fine for the neophyte (what greatest hits package isn’t?), it suffers not because the Pumpkins weren’t a decent singles band, but because touting them as only a singles band misses out on Corgan’s dedication to big album themes and ’70s conceptual grandiosity. (Early pressings contained a bonus disc titled {Judas Ø}: A Collection of B-Sides and Rarities.)

After the Pumpkins disbanded, Corgan took some time off, then collaborated, and toured with, one of his major influences, New Order (Billy-boy contributed the only truly weak track, “Turn My Way,” to New Order’s otherwise brilliant 2001 album, Get Ready).

Corgan then formed a decidedly more upbeat supergroup, Zwan. With Chamberlin back in the fold and guitarists (Matt Sweeney, David Pajo, Billy Burke) with resumes including Tortoise, Slint, Chavez and Skunk on hand, Mary Star of the Sea continues the sunnier path Corgan first explored on Machina. “Lyric,” “Heartsong” and the super-catchy single “Honestly” don’t reveal a true group aesthetic—Corgan still wrote most of the material—than but benefit from the ease that comes from working with seasoned musicians. Nonetheless, Corgan announced the breakup of Zwan in September of 2003.

[Deborah Sprague / Jason Reeher]

See also: Chavez