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Monday, May 23, 2005
Weekly Artist Overview: Smashing Pumpkins
Smashing Pumpkins were one of the most prominant of the 1990's alternative rock bands. Their sound was instantly recognizable, from Billy Corgan's nasal voice that ranged between a sneer and a tremble to Corgan's and James Iha's warped, buzzing, distorted, orverlaid guitars to D'Arcy's (and Corgan's) heavy bass and Jimmy Chamberlin's busy drums. They straddled many genres convincingly, from hard-rock to prog-rock to dream pop to noise pop, with a little psychedelia and goth thrown in. Their sound was layered, textured, fairly sophisticated and intricate, but capable of reaching the central nervous system. Corgan's lyrics were angst-ridden almost to the point of ridiculous; this was actually a drawing card. Unlike most alternative-rock groups, they played the larger-than-life role of rock stars; they never came across as anti-hero in the Kurt Cobain sense.
Also unlike their alternative rock contemporaries, they didn't seem to have much indie influence; if one were to deconstruct their sound, touchstones like Blue Oyster Cult, Queen, T. Rex, Cheap Trick, and maybe even Styx come to mind, rather than the underground punk and metal that informed the grunge bands and other 90's alt-rockers. The members of Smashing Pumpkins grew up listening to mainstream rock, and traces of it are audible in their music. However, their modern 90's updating and recontextualizing of these influences was new and radical in its own way; it was a sound that was appreciated by the young alt-rock crowd, and the older 70's rock listeners. Which gave them fairly broad support early on in their career. They became alt-rock leaders by default; Nirvana crashed and burned, and Pearl Jam didn't want to lead anything.
Yet, although their music was "alternative" by early 1990's standards, their approach to the music business was shrewd and aggressive; it also worked.
Billy Corgan, born March 17, 1967, grew up in the suburb of Elk Grove, IL, not far from Chicago. His father, Bill Corgan Sr., was a jazz guitarist, and young Billy gained his first exposure to music from an early age. However, his parents divorced while he was still a child, and he spent the next few years shuttling between relatives' homes. Like many kids in similar circumstances, he became obsessed with rock 'n' roll, listening to bands like the power-pop Cheap Trick and the arena metal of Van Halen. He learned guitar as a teen, absorbing much from both bands, and formed his first real band at the age of 18, in 1985. The Marked was a goth metal group featuring Billy Corgan on guitar, Ron Roesing on drums, and Dale Meiners on bass. The name was chosen for pronounced birthmarks on both Corgan and Roesing. After gigging around Chicago, they decided to relocate to St. Petersburg, FL, seeking a wider audience.
The Marked got some gigs in 1986-1987 the St. Petersburg area, but didn't seem to be getting anywhere, and Meiners left the band. Corgan and Roesing returned to Chicago, where Corgan landed a job at a record store to pay the bills. Within a year, he had met guitarist James Iha, who briefly became a member of the Marked, and then bassist D'Arcy Wretzky. In 1988 a trio of Corgan-Iha-D'Arcy began playing in clubs around Chicago, often with a drum machine. They renamed the band Smashing Pumpkins.
Catching their show one night was drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, himself the son of jazz musicians, who had been taught how to play by Yanni drummer Charles Adams at the tender age of nine. During his teen years, he absorbed a variety of jazz styles from big band to Latin. Also catching the show was the owner of Cabaret Metro, another club in town; he offered the band a gig if they got a live drummer. Through a friend, they invited Chamberlin; Smashing Pumpkins made its debut as a quartet on October 5, 1988.
After a little more than a year of gigging, the band released their first single in 1990, "I Am One" on Limited Potential records, a Chicago imprint. It quickly sold out its pressing, and their next single, "Tristessa" was released on Seattle's Sub Pop records, which was growing fast due to the success of their grunge acts. Sub Pop was attracting interest from major labels for almost any band on its roster in those days, and a bidding war for Smashing Pumpkins broke out. Virgin ultimately signed them, but kept the deal quiet; it was decided that their first release would be on the subsidiary label Caroline, giving the impression that they were recording for an indie label, thus helping them retain street cred.
Regardless, their debut album for the label, Gish, was one of the earliest shots of alternative rock in the modern sense to hit the public. Released in 1991, the album was produced by Butch Vig shortly before he'd produce Nirvana's Nevermind, and deserves recognition as perhaps the first alternative-rock album in the 1990's sense of the word. The album goes a long way in establishing what Smashing Pumpkins were all about; art rock and heavy metal on an arena rock scale, cut with a power pop perkiness. Corgan's lyrics were confessional, and bordered on obsessive. The arrangements are the first thing that strike the listener; ornate, textured, and layered, it recalled Brian May's work with Queen. While the album is an inconsistent listen, its best moments were standouts in that pre-alternative universe. "Siva" is an immediate grabber; "Rhinocerous" veers into lush dream-pop territory, "I Am One" is a brutal quasi-Black Sabbath riff fest. The album only made a token appearance on the album charts at #195, but was #6 on the Heatseekers chart; if Gish really was a major label release in disguise, the plan seemed to go off without a hitch.
There was a minor backlash; once the Caroline Records ruse was pieced together, indie purists accused them of being phonies. However, these charges failed to stick in the face of such good music; as formerly indie bands signed with major labels right and left, the very notion of "indie rock" was in tremendous flux. It was this redefinition of indie rock, by Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana at the forefront, that led to the coinage of the phrase "alternative rock" to describe the phenomenon.
The band spent nearly a year on the road in support of Gish, and landed opening spots for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam over the course of the year. While the band was gaining notoriety and praise, internally things were in grave danger of imploding; D'Arcy and Iha ended a romantic liason that had gone on for years, putting tension into the band dynamics. Chamberlin began using hard drugs, including heroin. Corgan was clinically depressed much of the time. It was in this mindset that the band entered the studio to record Siamese Dream, their sophomore effort.
Corgan's depression led him to take a non-stop workaholic approach to Siamese Dream. He played many of the instruments himself, painstakingly overdubbing them, with Chamberlin providing the percussion. Butch Vig again produced, and gave the band his by-then trademark crystalline sound. The album displays all the tendencies Gish demonstrated, but pushed them to the edge. Kicking off with "Cerub Rock", a riff-driven hard rocker embedded in a multi-layered guitar wall-of-sound, the album is arresting right from the start. "Today" is a cross between dream pop and Black Sabbath, a place even fools would fear to tread; Smashing Pumpkins pulls it off and makes it a trademark sound. "Disarm" is symphonic rock bordering on art-rock, "Soma" and "Rocket" are early masterpieces of a new kind of grandiose hard rock, "Luna" and "Spaceboy" are lulls in the storm. In many respects, it's a nearly flawless album. It peaked at #10 on Billboard in 1993 and achieved heavy airplay; in retrospect, Siamese Dream is one on a short-list of the most influential and important albums of the 1990's; it's also one of the best.
The band continued to tour incessently, visiting Europe and Japan, and were greeted enthusiastically. In 1994 they were Lollapalooza headliners. They made the covers of magazines, and for much of the year they were the biggest band in America, especially after Nirvana's sudden demise. They re-entered the studio to record an ambitious 2-disc followup. In the interim, a collection of singles, B-sides and rarities was released in October as Pisces Iscariot. Despite the hodgepodge nature of the album, it is actually an excellent collection, and holds up nearly as well as Siamese Dream. A touchingly nervous Fleetwood Mac cover, "Landslide", was a radio hit; the album peaked at #4.
Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, when it appeared in 1995, was a tough swallow at first. It was long, at two discs and 28 cuts, and displays some of the same indulgency and excess as Corgan's 70's heroes had been capable of. Yet, after the first listen, it is an album that reveals its charms with each subsequent listen. The album benefits from the full band's involvement in the recording, giving the songs a beefier, more organic sound, as on "Zero" and "Jellybelly". On other cuts, the sound is tender and fragile, as on "1979". Between the hard and soft is a remarkable array of styles and influences, neither aped nor copied, but integrated into an overall Pumpkins sound. There are also huge epic-sounding numbers like the irresistable "Tonight Tonight". Flood and Alan Moulder replace Butch Vig as producer, which gives this album a more ethereal vibe than Vig gave them, for better and worse. But overall, the album is excellent and challenging; it never fails to engage on one level or another, and displays a growing range of avenues for the band to follow. The album went to #1 and spawned four top-40 singles; it made them stadium headliners as well. It represented the peak of the band's career; the rest of the story gets a little more muddled.
Disaster struck on July 12, 1996 in New York City, prior to a two show engagement at Madison Square Garden. After a night of shooting up in a hotel room, drummer Jimmy Chamberlin and touring keyboard player Jonathan Melvoin overdosed on heroin. Hours later, Chamberlin came to again; Melvoin was dead. Chamberlin was summarily fired, and the band spent two months in limbo until a new drummer was found. Matt Walker of Filter filled in for the rest of the tour.
Following the completion of the tour, the band became absorbed in various side projects. Corgan did some music for the film Ransom. Iha and D'Arcy set up their own record label, Scratchie Records, distributed through Mercury. In 1997, Smashing Pumpkins recorded two songs for the soundtrack of the film, Batman and Robin. After this there was little action. Corgan obliquely referred to another Smashing Pumpkins album, but time passed without any appearing. James Iha released a solo album in 1998 called Let It Come Down, feuling speculation that the band was about to break up.
They didn't however, and finally delivered an album, Adore, in July 1998. Adore is a peculiar album on the surface until it has been carefully digested; then it makes perfect sense. The first thing that strikes the listener is its quiet, elegiac sound. Nearly gone are the supertextured guitars and Brian May style crunchers. Instead, it sounds like a continuation of the melancholy strains of "1979" and the artistic grandiosity of "Tonight Tonight". This came as a disappointment to many fans, who mourned the loss of the band's hard edge. However, it is not a bad album. Lacking Chamberlin, drum machines and guest drummers handle the beat, which gave Corgan an opportunity (or reason) to change the band's sound, bringing in synthesizers reminiscent of the Cure, and dubbing them over beds of acoustic guitars. In the end, it's a dream-pop art record; not what the fans wanted, perhaps, but perhaps what they should have expected. The long wait for the album helped it reach #2 on the charts, but it didn't show the staying power of previous releases, and failed to yield any hits.
The band kept a fairly low profile again in 1999; they busied themselves recording a follow-up. Jimmy Chamberlin returned to the band, which excited fans hoping for a return to hard rock. The new album appeared in 2000, with the bizarre title, MACHINA/The Machines of God.
The title is a giveaway; Corgan finally made good on what had always seemed likely to happen someday; he made a progressive rock album in the true 70's sense, with a vague, muddled plot, song fragments that fade into each other, with moments of bombast and head-scratching conceits. Unlike in the past, Corgan didn't mask his arty ambitions with a subversive veneer of hard rock, or lush layers of melancholy. Instead, he wears his ambition on his sleeve, which didn't result in the most becoming of albums. Chamberlin's return does indeed boost the hard rock factor; "The Everlasting Gaze" and "Heavy Metal Machine" have guts to them, but they're rendered almost impotent by the density of production. There is little sense of band cohesion again; most of the record sounds like Corgan's obsessive lone overdubbing again. D'Arcy left the band just prior to the album's release; it peaked at #4 but faded fast, once again yielding no hits.
Corgan then announced his intentions to end Smashing Pumpkins after a farewell tour. Hole bassist Melissa Auf Der Maur was enlisted to fill D'Arcy's spot. For the faithful, Corgan performed the unselfish gesture of releasing 25 tracks left over from the MACHINA sessions as Machina II: The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music free for download over the internet. Interestingly, MACHINA II is much superior to MACHINA, featuring some of the classic hard rock fans had thirsted for, as well as one of the most unlikely James Brown covers ever, "Soul Power". There are full band workouts, and Corgan studio constructions, plus a variety of appealing experiments. Not everything works, but the price was right, and it was the thought that counted. Bringing their career full circle, the band played its final show on December 2, 2000 at Cabaret Metro in Chicago, site of their first gig.
Corgan assembled a new band in 2001, Zwan, with Chamberlin, plus guitarist David Pajo (ex-Slint, ex-Tortoise), guitarist Matt Sweeney (ex-Chavez), and bassist Paz Lenchantin (ex-A Perfect Circle). Their debut, Mary Star Of The Sea, came out in January 2003 to generally positive reviews. If anything, this is the long-awaited real followup to Siamese Dream; it features Corgan's trademark layered guitars, and a solid, hard rock aesthetic, with shades of art rock. What is startling about the record is Corgan's demeanor; for the first time ever, he actually sounds like he's in a good mood. It also represents one of the best guitar albums of the early 00's, an unusually dry period for guitar albums. The album peaked at #3, and was a promising debut on all levels, but Corgan announced in September 2003 that he was breaking up the band.
Corgan toured solo in 2004 and 2005. His first solo album, TheFutureEmbrace is slated for release on June 21, 2005. More on Billy Corgan at Billy Corgan's website.
Listen to Smashing Pumpkins: Cherub Rock (1993)
Watch Smashing Pumpkins: Cherub Rock [SNL] (1994)
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