The Smashing Pumpkins remain a household name and timeless pop tracks like “1979” still see heavy rotation both at home and even on mainstream radio.
If ever there were a rock star who earned the right to act like a stereotypical rock star, it’s Billy Corgan. The release of Gish in 1991 cemented the Smashing Pumpkins place as the freshest sound in the early 90s sea of grunge, punk and “alternative rock” before it became a misnomer. As is well recorded now in the history of popular music, Seattle, Washington was ground zero for a sea change in the attitude and approach of bands to rock and roll. Alice in Chains and Soundgarden were doing metal like we’d never heard before, and Screaming Trees and Mudhoney were approaching pop and punk with all the sensibilities of radio music but none of the smarm. The Smashing Pumpkins, however, focused on epic, dramatic, and melanchollie music which crossed genres across a single album. A slow growth from wall-of-noise guitar rock to more minimal pop ballads was already starting to occur on tracks like “Rhinoceros”. Its slow burning chamber music beginnings glide easily into grinding guitar drones and clash violently with Billy Corgan’s unmistakable and unique whine. Unfortunately, Gish flew under the radar, but the world caught on to their follow-up record Siamese Dream in 1993. Largely on the back of its most radio-friendly track, “Disarm,” the record propped the band up to superstar status and achieved accolades and levels of success most bands only dream of. This “alternative rock” band dominated critical charts and sales charts that year and set Siamese Dream up to be the kind of record that would be impossible to follow. As it turns out, the Smashing Pumpkins were just getting warmed up.
Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness doubled-down literally and figuratively on the formula for progression the band used from Gish to Siamese Dream. While the first single “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” was an even harder-rocking anthem than most of the tracks on Siamese Dream, it came as a shock to most that the double-album opened with a minimal instrumental title track consisting of piano, strings and keyboard. It’s a beautiful and complicated melody which accurately set the tone for the rest of the listening experience.
It’s not a slow ramp-up either. The album jumps around from its emotional opening to the more theatrical but still easy-listening anthem “Tonight, Tonight” which seems to come out of nowhere with its perfect production, anthemic strings, and unusually strong melody. It sounds immediately like a song you’ve known all your life and remains as fresh today as it did on the day of its release. Much of the first disc is extended emotional missives, the strongest of which is “Porcelina of the Vast Oceans”. It’s worth noting that the album is rich (or poor?) with Billy Corgan’s hyper-poetic lyrical style, referencing characters seemingly plucked from bedtime stories in a far away land which itself only exists in a lullaby.
The second disc makes things a lot harder. “Bodies” is an all-out mayhem of buzzing guitars amid a flurry of drums. Billy Corgan cracks his voice against the wall with repeating lines like “Love is suicide! / Love is suicide!.” While the longevity of Billy Corgan’s vocal style is certainly up for debate, there is no doubt that the way it’s put to use on this album helps create a collection of tracks which will only ever sound right when sung by Billy Corgan. This threading of the needle through songs hard and soft continues through “Thirty-Three” and “Stumbleine,” but the most notable track on the second disc was instantly “1979,” which would go on to sell the double-album to a whole new audience on its merits alone. It was an even bigger hit than Siamese Dream’s “Disarm” and arguably pushed Billy over the edge into that dark place from where rock stars rarely return – self-indulgence.
In many ways it was like looking at multiple personalities of the same band but those personalities didn’t seem confined to one disc or the other. There wasn’t, for example, a fast record or a slow record. Both disc bounced back and forth between the two and sometimes a track would do both at the same time. 20 years after its release, Mellon Collie holds up from the standpoint of an iconic rock album which not only marked but helped shape and inspire the music that came after it.
The streak would end here as the follow-up Adore would know chart success but not necessarily critical acclaim or longevity. Every subsequent album seemed to lose some element of what made the first three so special. They may all be great albums in their own right, but it might as well have been a different band given the cool reception. Rumours of Billy Corgan being a “tyrant,” as well as the overdose and firing of Jimmy Chamberlin didn’t help matters. The absolutely necessary element of complex drumming was deemed unnecessary and replaced largely by electronica styles on Adore. It was a polarizing record and arguably fractured the fickle but usually loyal following the band had earned up to that point.
A playlist which randomizes through the entire collection of the Smashing Pumpkins from Gish through 2014’s Monuments to an Elegy would be a fine playlist indeed. It would consist largely of hit singles, memorable melodies and hard rock music which bubbles with the hormones and angst of youthful rebellion and regret. Many of those tracks appeared on Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, and end-to-end it’s as solid a listening experience as it ever was. If you were to skip that playlist entirely and focus specifically on this single record, you would have a complete summary of the evolution and history of the band at their best and worst. The production was so well executed that it stands up to modern records of similar styles. If you played it for a new audience today, they’d likely have no idea it’s a 20 year old record. You’re not likely to find such an audience, however, because for most of us who were teens during the ’90s, the Smashing Pumpkins remain a household name and timeless pop tracks like “1979” still see heavy rotation both at home and even on mainstream radio. Walk into a drug store and you’re likely to hear “1979” playing you down the cosmetics aisle – a rather sad outcome for such an iconic album, but a fitting plateau for a band having peaked and testament to the fact that nothing has sounded quite like it since.