This feature was originally published in 2014.
Two decades ago, The Smashing Pumpkins sat on the iron throne of the alternative nation. While their roost was short lived, the music they released during that time left an indelible mark on the mainstream consciousness. Frontman Billy Corgan became an enigma while his Chicago troupe would receive praise for their broad dynamic vision.
Corgan’s six-string wizardry coupled with the percussive talents of Jimmy Chamberlin produced complex masterpieces: from complicated punk rock to delicate alternative, progressive goth metal to everything in-between. And that voice. Such a nasal rasp would go on to guide a legion of outcasts.
It wasn’t all appels and oranjes, though. The ’90s music scene was plagued by incessant self-righteousness, and the Pumpkins suffered from the get-go — especially towards the media. Bitter fights, drug abuse, and creative control would ultimately lead to their initial downfall, though their music was never compromised. This week’s reissue of 1998’s troubled gem, Adore, proves as much.
In light of the release, we’ve compiled a career-spanning ‘Best of’ list to help re-acquaint you to Corgan & co. Don’t worry: It’s not too comprehensive and far less time consuming than watching a free-form synth re-interpretation of Siddhartha. If anything, it’ll get you amped for the band’s followup to 2012’s rather-excellent Oceania.
If 1991’s Gish is the promising child and 1995’s Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is the ambitious wunderkind, then Siamese Dream remains the idiot savant in the middle with all the answers. But really, it does. At a little over an hour, the album’s 13 tracks perfectly frame exactly who and what The Smashing Pumpkins were and what they would come to be: a glamorous rock ‘n’ roll band with a horrific case of claustrophobia. It’s the band’s purest form of identification, and probably their sharpest snapshot to date (if ever).
In under a minute, “Cherub Rock” solidified Corgan and Chamberlin as the strongest guitarist and drummer, respectively, amongst their peers, while also wrapping duct tape around the mouths of any rockists looking to snub alternative. From there, it’s 12 exercises in rock ‘n’ roll, from pop rock (“Today”, “Mayonaise”), to ballads (“Disarm”, “Spaceboy”), to shoegaze (“Quiet”, “Hummer”), to speed metal (“Silverfuck”, “Geek U.S.A.”), and even psychedelia (“Soma”, “Rocket”). Never once does a track feel out of place, an attribute perhaps best aligned to Alan Moulder’s 36 days of mixing.
But what also makes Siamese Dream their best work is how tortured it sounds. Based on the stories, it’s unreal that producer Butch Vig didn’t burn down Triclops Studios in Marietta, GA. “D’arcy [Wretzky] would lock herself in the bathroom, James [Iha] wouldn’t say anything, or Billy would lock himself in the control room,” he later explained to Rolling Stone. Though, such reclusive and tumultuous affairs, the likes of which had a physically crushing effect on Chamberlin, produced an album that breathes and screams and punches over two decades later. –Michael Roffman
Surprised? Probably not. Charts aside, there’s a reason “1979” remains the Pumpkins’ most popular track and it’s all in the weight of the song. The Grammy-nominated single off 1995’s Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness stocks so much musically and thematically that it hits your mind, soul, and heart.
Produced by Flood, Alan Moulder, and Corgan, the four-and-a-half-minute song is lyrically the most evocative in the Pumpkins catalogue, chock full of lines that slice right into the pensive nerve (“forgotten and absolved/ to the earth below”) and radiate in the memory banks forever (“faster than we thought we’d go/ beneath the sound of hope”).
It’s also quite timeless, penned for the lapse between one’s adolescence and adulthood, as the lyrics glaze over restlessness and hopeful uncertainty. Those themes come alive with the use of light electronic textures and subtle harmonies, qualities that separated the uptempo ballad from anything else of its time.
“1979” captured the wavelike nature of youthful optimism being swallowed by the passage of time. From start to finish, Corgan frames the brevity of those years, while also noting youth’s indifference. It’s a universal feeling through and through, and something they’ve few artists have ever captured since.
Best Music Video
Smashing Pumpkins videos (heck, even the Pumpkins themselves) often felt like a tightrope act between spectacle and sentimentality (as evidenced, respectively, by the Nosferatu scene-shifting of “Ava Adore” and the deliriously nostalgic “1979”). No video rode the middle ground between those two more successfully, though, than that for “Tonight, Tonight”. Full of wonderful practical effects, intricately designed sets, and expressive performances, the video captures the timeless nature of the lyrics, as well as Corgan’s insistence that “the impossible is possible tonight.”
An homage to the silent film A Trip to the Moon (Georges Méliès’ 1902 masterpiece, often considered the first science fiction film), the video stars comedy power couple Tom Kenny and Jill Talley (of Mr. Show and Spongebob Squarepants fame) journeying to the moon on a zeppelin, encountering aliens, and taking in a performance by an octopus and some mermaids. The reverence for the source material is palpable, and Corgan’s theatrical arm waves in that pale suit and top hat provide a warm counterpoint to his leather-clad intensity elsewhere. In the end, the visual of Billy, Jimmy, James, and D’Arcy floating amongst the stars in the fluttering moonlight is the way I’d like to remember the Smashing Pumpkins — costumed and melodramatic, sure, but also romantic, grand, and thrilling. –Adam Kivel