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‘Billy Corgan wants to rule – and own, and be – the world,’ declared Spin in their 1995 review of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, the third studio album from the Smashing Pumpkins. A double record boasting a total of twenty-eight songs, with influences from various different eras and genres, Mellon Collie would become the crowning achievement in their long and illustrious career, spawning five singles, earning Platinum certification and gaining mostly positive reviews. And for a short time during the mid-1990s it almost seemed that the world was in Corgan’s grasp. But then internal conflicts, egos, drug abuse and a lack of support from record labels eventually caused the band to self-destruct by the end of the decade. Following Corgan’s short-lived Zwan, as well as the release of a solo album and a book of poetry, Corgan shocked fans when he decided to relaunch the band with drummer Jimmy Chamberlin.
Following an early attempt at launching a band with The Marked, Corgan and drummer Ron Roesing joined forces with guitarist James Iha to form an early incarnation of the Smashing Pumpkins, which would result in a demo entitled Nothing Ever Changes. After the departure of Roesing, Corgan met a young bassist called D’Arcy Wretzky outside a Dan Reed Network show and the trio began performing locally with the aid of a drum machine. Finally, Chamberlin joined the fold and the Smashing Pumpkins was born.
After releasing independent singles through Limited Potential and Sub Pop, the band signed a contract with Virgin Records and produced their debut album Gish in 1991. Its minor success overshadowed by the phenomenal impact of Nirvana‘s breakthrough Nevermind, the band still gained a cult following, but it would be 1993′s masterpiece Siamese Dream that would launch them into the mainstream. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness looked set to transform them into one of the biggest groups in the world, but the sudden overdose of touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin and the subsequent dismissal of Chamberlin cast a dark shadow over their future.
The Smashing Pumpkins struggled through two more studio albums – one without Chamberlin and then the last marking the departure of Wretzky – before finally calling it a day after over a decade together. With bridges burnt between Corgan and both Wretzky and Iha, he collaborated with Chamberlin once again on Zwan, before deciding to reform his old band, this time without his former guitarist or bassist. The two worked together on their next album, 2007′s Zeitgeist, before Chamberlin left once again, forcing Corgan to recruit new band members. After the experimental project Teargarden by Kaleidyscope, which saw one one song at a time released via the internet, he returned to the studio with a new line-up – bassist Nicole Fiorentino, drummer Mike Byrne and guitarist Jeff Schroeder – to record their 2012 offering, Oceania. Their most recent album Monuments to an Elegy was released two years ago to considerable critical acclaim.
While often hailed as one of the strongest rock albums of the decade, upon its release in 1993 Siamese Dream was met with mixed reviews, with many critics unsure on how to react to the often abstract lyrics. ‘Corgan sings them with, well, conviction, but he might as well be reciting the alphabet in French,’ stated Spin’s Glenn Kenny, while Jim DeRogatis of the Chicago Sun-Times criticised one of the tracks, Hummer, because, ‘the lyrics are sophomoric, and the song is stupid.’ Having first been performed the previous summer, unveiled alongside a handful of new tracks during a performance in Milwaukee, Hummer was the first true indicator that the band had progressed significantly, both as musicians and, in Corgan’s case, as a songwriter, since the release of their debut in 1991. The song was notable for a significant change in tone during the last ninety seconds, when the distortion is replaced by a hypnotic segment, in which he sang, ‘Ask yourself a question, anyone but me. I ain’t free.’
PORCELINA OF THE VAST OCEANS
With a running time of almost nine-and-a-half-minutes, Porcelina of the Vast Oceans was arguably the most ambitious of the twenty-eight tracks that would appear on the epic double album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Sandwiched between Muzzle and the James Iha composition Take Me Down, Porcelina was a curious piece that took almost a minute to fade in, before suddenly turning heavy a little after two minutes, then reverting back to melodic. The song takes its time, refusing to condense its scope for commercial purposes, and it is Corgan’s uncompromising attitude that often saw the Smashing Pumpkins scale to such heights. Taking references to George Orwell’s dystopian classic Nineteen Eighty-Four (the thought police) and making such statements as ‘in my mind I’m everyone,’ Porcelina represented both the ego and ambition that would come to define Mellon Collie.
In many ways, Cameron Crowe’s twenty-something drama Singles came to define the grunge scene of the early 1990s. Set in Seattle, Washington, the heart of movement, the movie featured music an array of relatively new artists, including Alice in Chains, Soundgarden and Mudhoney, along with the defunct Mother Love Bone. Among the songs included in the film was a new eight minute track from the Smashing Pumpkins entitled Drown, which marked the transition between the raw sound of Gish and the Butch Vig-produced Siamese Dream. ‘I got a call one day from somebody who said Cameron Crowe wants to talk to you,’ Corgan told Matt Pinfield in a 2011 interview which coincided with the re-releases of the band’s first two albums. ‘I was a little hesitant because I didn’t want to be any more associated with Seattle than we already were. Everywhere we went we kept being called a Seattle band, by defacto, you know you play this kind of style so you must be from Seattle and we’re like no, we’re from Chicago, it’s actually a big city. So I sent them the demo of Drown and they loved it and said, ‘Okay, you’ve got to get in a studio right away.”
Zeitgeist, the band’s first studio album in seven years, had divided the opinion of even many devoted fans and so Corgan decided to release their next project a track-at-a-time. Following this, the Smashing Pumpkins returned to the studio to produce the underrated Oceania, a record that managed to combine some of their recent experimentation with old school heavy guitars. The result was possibly their finest album since Mellon Collie, a collection of thirteen strong tracks that demonstrated their diversity. Documenting the writing and recording of the album with MusicRadar, Corgan explained that, ‘Everybody agreed that it was a really good song, but no one liked its direction. That’s another thing I compliment my bandmates on. They had no problem in saying, ‘Love the song, but we need a better version.’ That’s music to my ears. I’m all for that. I need that kind of feedback.”
THERE IT GOES
Based around a funky baseline, There It Goes was the first Smashing Pumpkins number to truly demonstrate what potential Corgan had as a songwriter. Having made their official live debut in July 1988, albeit with a drum machine, the band soon began to include several strong tracks in their set-lists, such as She and Spiteface, but before relocating to Reel Time Studios to record what would be a major stepping stone towards landing their first record deal, the Smashing Pumpkins recorded a handful of tracks during late 1988, many of which formed the unofficial compilation Mashed Potatoes. Corgan by this point had yet to embrace the darker side of his lyrics and instead offered such sweet passages as, ‘The way you look at me makes me happy inside.’ A remastered copy of the demo of There It Goes was included on the bonus disc to the deluxe edition of Pisces Iscariot in June 2012, finally treating fans to a wealth of unreleased material.
APPELS + ORANJES
Overcoming the firing of Chamberlin and the passing of his mother, Corgan decided to soldier on with the Smashing Pumpkins, and in doing so faced the impossible task of following up the epic scope of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Adore, released three years after its predecessor, may have lacked the energy, diversity and commercial appeal of Mellon Collie, but the album hit the correct notes many times throughout. While singles Ava Adore and Perfect received regular airplay, there were other tracks such as Daphne Descends and Appels + Oranjes that, over the years, have been sadly overlooked. ‘What if what is isn’t true, what are you going to do?’ crooned Corgan over the synthpop chorus.
It had been five years since the release of the critically mauled Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me when cult filmmaker David Lynch finally returned to the big screen with his surreal and nightmarish film noir Lost Highway. While his regular composer Angelo Badalamenti once again scored the movie, Lynch had brought in Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor to compile a list of artists whose music could be used throughout the film. Among those featured were David Bowie, Lou Reed, Marilyn Manson and Rammstein, introducing the latter to English-speaking metal fans. Smashing Pumpkins‘ contribution was Eye, which would mark the beginning of a new era in the band following the firing of Jimmy Chamberlin, allowing them to flirt with synthesisers and drum machines once again. Paving the way for the later hit Ava Adore, Eye demonstrated how the Smashing Pumpkins were always able to adapt out of necessity, even when losing one of its members.
THE SACRED AND PROFANE
Initially recorded under the title Desolation, Smashing Pumpkins‘ original swan song Machina/The Machines of God was released in early 2000 to mixed reviews, described by Slant as ‘at once sad and strangely prophetic.’ D’arcy Wretzky had since departed by the time of the albums release and as the later companion piece Machina II/The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music would prove, the experience proved to be difficult for the band to endure. Still, there were many inspired moments on the album, such as the singles Stand Inside Your Love and The Everlasting Gaze. One of the more overlooked tracks was The Sacred and Profane, in which Corgan asked, ‘Will our love ever be enough?’
While Teargarden by Kaleidyscope may have at times been a little too self-indulgent, 2014’s Monuments to an Elegy hearkened back to the raw guitar sound that the Smashing Pumpkins had flaunted during the 1990s, with such tracks as One and All hinting at a heavier side to the band’s sound not seen since Machina/The Machines of God over a decade earlier. Arguably the album’s highlight was Tiberius, which opened with a sooting piano riff before launching into a the same melody played on guitar accompanied by thundering drums performed by Mötley Crüe‘s Tommy Lee. ‘Tiberius sounds like its title (imagine marching hordes). So certainly our best day yet and I’d say the excitement here is palpable in a way that I haven’t seen in those around me since, oh…our American president played saxophone,’ declared Corgan on the band’s website during the recording of the album.
‘As I sit here today at thirty-three years old, my life is going to completely change at thirty-three,’ Corgan explained to his audience during a performance on VH1’s Storytellers. ‘So, this song serves both as notice prophecy and sort of a hope/unhoped – or unwished, maybe that’s better.’ Released as the fifth single from Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and following the acclaim of their previous release, Tonight, Tonight, Thirty-Three failed to achieve the same kind of success as the other four tracks, yet remains one of the album’s most sincere moments, in much the same way as Disarm had with Siamese Dream. ‘Speak to me in a language I can hear,’ pleaded Corgan during the opening lines of the song. ‘This is the first song that I wrote for that album and this song really embodies the spirit of that time. I had just gotten married, I’d just moved into a new house, the band was achieving the kind of success that people only dream of and I was really hopeful,’ he explained to the VH1 audience. ‘Hope is really the key component in life because one must have hope and faith to actually get out of bed and do anything in this world.’