Monday, December 3, 2007

Don't Tell Anyone You Don't Own:
The Smashing Pumpkins

Last night, December 2nd, marked the seventh anniversary of the Smashing Pumpkins' breakup, well, their first one anyway. The one that mattered. As far as I'm concerned, they're still broken up, but that's a different blog post altogether. What I want to do today is reflect on one of the more positive aspects that the band offered to the world: Great fucking music. And there's no better place to look than the band's halcyon days, starting with the release of Gish in 1991, and concluding with the B-Sides collection Pisces Iscariot in 1994.


(Caroline; 1991. Re: Virgin; 1994)

15-Year-Old SonicRyan's Grade: 89.0%

25-Year-Old SonicRyan's Grade: 78.0%

Though Gish does not hold up as well as it once did sixteen years ago, there's no denying that it is still a solid album, one that could have been much bigger had the band not been so young, fresh, and from the Midwest. Just listen to the album's opening track, "I Am One", and tell me it wouldn't have been huge in 1991 had the song been given the exposure it rightfully deserved. Though the fact that the Smashing Pumpkins were still relatively new to the scene (To be fair, Nirvana did have an album under their belt and the members of Pearl Jam had been gigging for years, notably in bands such as Green River and Mother Love Bone) and still discovering their sound was probably the biggest factor as to why the song, or the album, never broke big, the blueprint for their later albums is firmly intact. Gish does an admirable job of showcasing both the ball-busting rock side and the mellower, sentimental side that the band would later perfect. However, Gish also meanders a bit into trippy, psychedelic excursions that suggest the band was probably a bit too influenced by Jane's Addiction in the late 1980's (though to be fair again, the Smashing Pumpkins did open for Jane's when they were just young, impressionable pups).

As a whole, Gish may not be the band's high water mark, but despite its growing pains, Billy Corgan's talent as a song writer and the promise of a young band with a bright future shone through. Someone must have noticed too, because soon the band was opening for the Red Hot Chili Peppers on their Blood Sugar Sex Magik tour, and they later graduated from the Virgin Records imprint Caroline to Virgin itself.

Siamese Dream

(Virgin; 1993)

15-Year-Old SonicRyan's Grade: 1,000,000%

25-Year-Old SonicRyan's Grade: 98.0%

Though world domination would have to wait yet again thanks to albums like In Utero and Vs., Siamese Dream finally brought the Smashing Pumpkins up the Alternative Nation ladder. With the exception of a sitar in the album's closing track, the psychedelic sounds of Gish are mostly gone, replaced by overdubbed melody after overdubbed melody. Many a fan has pointed out that Siamese Dream sounds a bit like My Bloody Valentine's classic album Loveless, which at times is a fairly accurate comparison, especially on the one-two punch of "Hummer" and "Rocket", where the money spent on studio time to record the album's layered guitar parts proved to be well spent.

But Siamese Dream is not a great album solely because the guitars shimmer and shine. No, Siamese Dream stands out because the grandiose music is set to Billy's confessional, high school journal lyrics. Sure, Billy's reputation as a whiny bitch starts here, but it is on this album, and perhaps this album alone, where it succeeds. Billy needed an outlet to vent his frustrations, his anger, melancholy and his infinite sadness. The early 90's were rough on Corgan and the band. Most of the problems are well documented, and span from Corgan's severe depression, writer's block, and a marriage that would eventually crumble during the recording of the album, not to mention Jimmy Chamberlain's heroin addiction, James Iha and D'arcy's breakup, and Corgan's belief that the overall work ethic of the band was slacking. Throw in plenty of Billy's unresolved familial issues, and you've got Siamese Dream in a nutshell.

Despite the album's depressing tone, the album sold incredibly well, and influenced a whole generation of teens, including yours truly. Growing up as an only child, I never talked to many people about my problems, which, granted, were awfully petty in hindsight, but at thirteen your perspective is different. Listening to Siamese Dream gave me the sense that I was normal, that it was alright to feel down about parents and girls. My belief was that if Billy Corgan could suffer that much and still create the achingly beautiful piece of art that is Siamese Dream, well, why couldn't I? Soon, I was learning guitar, which in turn became my creative outlet to express myself. I know I'm not the only one either, I still hear their influence in other bands to this day, with no end in sight.

Pisces Iscariot

(Virgin; 1994)

15-Year-Old SonicRyan's Grade: 85.0%

25-Year-Old SonicRyan's Grade: 85.0%

I did not listen to Pisces Iscariot, the first Smashing Pumpkins B-Sides collection, until about a year after Mellon Collie was released. To be honest, I was a bit scared, knowing that these were the "rejected" songs from Siamese Dream, that this album might disappoint me. The only disappointment I faced was in myself when I realized I had put off listening to a great album for no good reason.

The more I listen to Pisces Iscariot, the more I enjoy it, and if it weren't for a few clunkers towards the end, I would probably enjoy it more than Siamese Dream. For one thing, it's an easier listen. Siamese Dream can get a bit heavy, especially when you're all grown up and in a healthy, steady relationship. Pisces, on the other hand, is a much lighter listen. Add the fact that most of the songs are incredible, album worthy songs in their own right, and you can understand why the band felt they needed to be collected onto a single disc rather than spread around a bunch of singles. Hell, Pisces Iscariot is worth the price alone for "Starla", one of the best songs in the Smashing Pumpkins catalog, and Billy's solo rendering of Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide" tops the original, if only for his voice, which often is ripe for ridicule, but bleeds with emotion and sincerity on this cover.

Its no secret that the Smashing Pumpkins were once a favorite of mine. I ate, drank, and bled this band during my teens. They inspired me to write and play guitar. They aided my studying and made for great late night soundtracks when my friends and I would sneak out of the house. I sang their hymns and cried at their second to last show in Chicago. But at the same time, the breakup of the Smashing Pumpkins forced me to grow up too. I explored other bands, other albums, and moved on and further away. Still, when the anniversary of their demise comes around every year, I can't help but get a little sentimental. The Smashing Pumpkins did change my life. Even if I have changed and changed again since, I will never forget that they were the ones that were there for me when I was a kid.

"I Am One"
(Both tracks from the Gish LP)

(Both tracks from the Siamese Dream LP)

(Both tracks from the Pisces Iscariot LP)

Music Video
The Smashing Pumpkins - "Rocket"


Femme Fatale said...

A loving homage. The 15- vs. 25-year-old rating scales was a nice touch.

I love Pisces Iscariot. Siamese Dream is a no brainer. Never really got into Gish, though I never gave it a fair shot. Maybe it's time to revisit that one.

The Moon said...

Unfortunately my hatred for Billy Corgan has over shadowed any goodness that I might have ever seen in the band. The sound of his voice, pretty much in any respect, makes me want to punch some one... preferably him. So I can't really a agree with the rankings but I have to say non the less that I really liked the review and the way that it shows how we all grow up and what happens to our idols as the years pass...