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Smashing Pumpkins


Identified by the strangulated, angst-ridden vocal chords of Billy Corgan and the swirling menace of his lead guitar licks, Chicago’s SMASHING PUMPKINS were the bees knees in a post-grunge scene that saw alternative bands rise to the top of the rock heap. From 1988 onwards, with a few mishaps and splits along the way, the quartet have stuck to their guns with no room for compromise.
The son of a blues guitarist, Billy Corgan, Snr., and a former member of mid-80s goth-metal combo, The Marked, Corgan instigated the SMASHING PUMPKINS as a three-piece, alongside female bassist D’Arcy (whom he met and argued with outside a nightclub) and guitarist James Iha (a graphic arts student). Discarding their rather dated drum machine concept and enlisting sticksman, Jimmy Chamberlin (a man more into jazz), they completed their first gig as support to JANE’S ADDICTION.
After a debut single for a local label Limited Potential, `I Am One’, and the inclusion of a couple of tracks on a various artists compilation album in 1990, the Pumpkins came to the attention of influential Seattle-based label, Sub Pop. There, they issued one other 45, `Tristessa’, before being picked up by Virgin indie subsidiary Caroline Records (the Hut imprint in Britain).
Produced by renowned grunge-meister Butch Vig, their debut album GISH {*7} was released in 1991 and almost a year later in the UK, its grunge pretensions belying a meandering 70s/psychedelic undercurrent which distanced the band from most of their contemporaries; examples came by way of `Suffer’, `Crush’, the folky `Daydream’ and the climactic `Rhinoceros’. SMASHING PUMPKINS amassed a sizable student/grassroots following which eventually saw the debut go gold in the States; track 2 from the record, `Siva’, and a re-released `I Am One’ (the latter sneaking into the UK Top 75) were two arena-rocking spawns.
With the masterful SIAMESE DREAM (1993) {*9}, the band went from underground hopefuls to alternative rock frontrunners, the album fully realising the complex `Pumpkins sound in a delicious wash of noise and gentle melody. Influenced by an un-ledded LED ZEPPELIN, the riff-tastic BLACK SABBATH, fused with dashes of 70s prog, Corgan’s croaky but effective voice was at its best on the pastel, NIRVANA-esque classics, `Today’ and `Disarm’ (both UK hits), while they went for the jugular on the likes of `Cherub Rock’, `Rocket’ and `Geek U.S.A.’. The album cracked the Top 5 in Britain, Top 10 in the States, selling multi-millions and turning the band into a “grunge” sensation almost overnight, despite the fact that their mellotron stylings and complex arrangements marked them out as closer in spirit to prog-rock than punk.
Amidst frantic touring, their third album proper surfaced in late ’95. A sprawling double set, MELLON COLLIE AND THE INFINITE SADNESS {*9}, was a dense and stylistically breathtaking set, the record veering from all-out grunge/thrash to acoustic meandering and avant-rock doodlings, a less cohesive whole than its predecessor but much more to get your teeth into. Inevitably, there were criticisms of self-indulgence, though for a two-hour album, there was a surprising, compelling consistency to proceedings; among the highlights were `Bullet With Butterfly Wings’, the visceral rage of `1979’, `Tonight, Tonight’ and the fragile fourth hit `Thirty-Three’. Of the non-singles, staying power was rewarded through the brainstorming `Jellybelly’, `Zero’, `Muzzle’ and `Here Is No Why’, while the shaven-headed Corgan produced his most beautifully painful ballads in `To Forgive’, `Cupid De Locke’ and `Galapogos’; note that CD2 is somewhat weaker by comparison although housing half the aforementioned hits. The record scaled the US charts, where the SMASHING PUMPKINS were almost reaching the commercial and critical heights of sadly-missed NIRVANA; the group also taking Britain by storm, headlining the 1995 Reading Festival.
Never the most stable of bands, disaster struck the following year when newest touring addition, keyboard player Jonathan Melvoin died of a drugs overdose on July 12th; heroin addict Chamberlin (who was with him at the time) was duly kicked out. Replacements were found in drummer Matt Walker (of FILTER) and Dennis Flemion (of The Frogs), who helped out on their subsequent world tour. Meanwhile, onetime film student CORGAN branched out into film composition on the 1996 Ron Howard thriller re-make, `Ransom’, bolstering James Horner’s conventional classical score with a series of unsettling, abrasively evocative industrial cues. `Eye’, the SMASHING PUMPKINS’ contribution to David Lynch’s Lost Highway (in ‘97) was almost placid in comparison, while their theme to that year’s Batman & Robin flick, `The End Is The Beginning Is The End’, dented the UK Top 10. CORGAN also contributed to the score of Rupert Wainwright’s “Exorcist”-inspired chiller, `Stigmata’ (1999).
Iha and D’Arcy set up their own label in 1996, Scratchie, for whom the outfit, Fulflej recorded an album (`Wack-Ass Tuba Riff’) with the pair making guest appearances. JAMES IHA subsequently released an acclaimed solo album of melodious strumming in `Let It Come Down'(1998).
The SMASHING PUMPKINS also showed a softer side to their character, when the mournful, but still effective album, ADORE (1998) {*6}, hit the Top 5. With two UK hits on board, `Ava Adore’ and `Perfect’, the beefy guitars were toned down somewhat, and with 16 tracks taking up over 70 minutes (not quite a patch on their previous opus!), one was still awaiting Corgan and Co to pull into top gear by the end.
1999 saw two major personnel changes via the return of Chamberlin and the departure of D’Arcy (who was replaced by ex-HOLE bassist, Melissa Auf Der Maur). MACHINA/The Machines Of God (2000) {*6} was the group’s supposed swansong set, a renewal of their grunge pledge (`Heavy Metal Machine’, `The Imploding Voice’ and `The Everlasting Gaze’) while keeping in with Billy’s unrewarding mainstream machinations; `Stand Inside Your Love’ hit the UK Top 30 while `Try, Try, Try’ only managed a paltry and undeserving No.73.
In a postscript to the messy break-up of the ‘Pumpkins, Corgan began putting together a supergroup, hand-picking musicians such as David Pajo (ex-SLINT and PAPA M), Matt Sweeney (of post-rockers CHAVEZ) and A PERFECT CIRCLE bassist Paz Lenchantin. Along with the pardoned Chamberlin, the resultant ZWAN played a handful of gigs in America during 2001. The buzz was now circling Corgan’s new mantle, with some critics dismissing it purely as a vanity project. They were pleasantly surprised then, when the quintet issued `Mary Star Of The Sea’ (2003) {*7} to some rave reviews and massive US sales. ZWAN, however, was abandoned forthwith, as the frontman sunk the project shortly after the album’s release.
Finally going on his ownsome, BILLY CORGAN poured his insecurities, mopes and fears into THE FUTURE EMBRACE (2005) {*5}, an album that actually looked to the past – more specifically, surprise, surprise, the 80s – in order to go forward. The album’s razor-jawed synth pulse, industrial-mascara shadings and neo-gothic navel-gazing was a far cry from The SP’s, but at least it was in step with contemporary sensibilities, right down to an ethereal, post-pop cover The BEE GEES’ `To Love Somebody’ (featuring The CURE’s Robert Smith). A Top 40 entry in the US, the album also generated a very minor UK hit in `Walking Shade’.
On a cover note (so to speak), The SMASHING PUMPKINS were known for their odd renditions; ones that come to mind are:- `A Girl Named Sandoz’ (ERIC BURDON/The ANIMALS), `Landslide’ (FLEETWOOD MAC), `Dancing In The Moonlight’ (THIN LIZZY), `Never Let Me Down’ (Depeche Mode), `You’re All I’ve Got Tonight’ (The CARS), `Clones (We’re All)’ (ALICE COOPER), `Dreaming’ (BLONDIE), `A Night Like This’ (The CURE), `Destination Unknown’ (MISSING PERSONS), `Over The Rainbow’ (Arlen-Harburg), `My Blue Heaven’ (Donaldson-Whiting), `Soul Power’ (JAMES BROWN) and `Sad Peter Pan’ (VIC CHESNUTT) – jointly w/ RED RED MEAT.
Said to have informed the media before the band itself, Corgan re-booted The SMASHING PUMPKINS, although only stalwart Chamberlin took up the invitation to join; Jeff Schroeder (guitar) and Ginger Pooley (bass) were picked up along the way. ZEITGEIST (2007) {*4} rocketed into the Top 5 on its release, but although the album resumed their trademark metal-America sound of the early 90s, only `Tarantula’ `Doomsday Clock’ and `Bring The Light’ had any lasting substance.
In March 2009, Chamberlin decided that he’d had enough, Corgan finding his subsequent replacement through Mike Byrne, while Nicole Fiorentino became the quartet’s new bass player. Delivered in dribs and drabs (downloads and four EP’s in fact), under the running title of `Teargarden By Kaleidyscope’, Corgan and Co tried hard to steer away from the conventional CD format. Intended to be a 40+ song concept suite, sent downline to the fans as they were cut, not every poor fan had Billy’s wide vision.
Thankfully, second comeback set OCEANIA (2012) {*7} stopped the rot (so to speak), a proper record for the loyal fan to sink their teeth into. Gutsy and undeniably passionate, the balance between melodious metal and gorgeous grinds was the right blend; and clocking in at the usual hour, there was always value for money. `Quasar’ almost opens like an early QUEEN number, but classic-rock icon Corgan comes into his own on `Panoption’, `Pinwheels’ and `The Chimera’.
Augmented by hired hand Tommy Lee (ex-MOTLEY CRUE), Corgan and Schroeder picked out pieces from their ongoing “Teargarden By Kaleidyscope” project to come up with the tight 9-track set, MONUMENTS TO AN ELEGY (2014) {*7}. Sculptured from fragile foundations of fuzzed-up rock such as `Tiberius’ and `Being Beige’ (for starters), there was method to Corgan’s madness, injecting synthetic death-disco and head-swirling shoegaze into the mix through `Anaise!’ (very DURAN DURAN) and `Dorian’ respectively. Chart-wise, it also breeched the Top 30, while relatively poor sales in Britain betrayed fine reviews.
Fast forward four years, and but for fact that D’Arcy Wretzky declined or deferred an invitation to re-join Corgan’s group, The SMASHING PUMPKINS – along with the reinstated Chamberlin and Iha – were near enough the original line-up; guitarist Jeff Schroeder, of course, was the exception having signed up in ‘07. Best intentions aside, 2018’s Rick Rubin-produced SHINY AND OH SO BRIGHT, VOL.1 / LP: NO PAST. NO FUTURE. NO SUN {*7} was not quite a “Siamese Dream”, though the mid-table chart album – at 31:47 minutes! – did attest to at least three semi-classics by way of `Solara’, `Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts)’ and `Travels’.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/GRD-LCS // rev-up MCS Aug2012-Nov2018

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Comments

    1. Martin Strong

      Thank you, James. I don’t get too many compliments these days, so it’s comforting. I’m also a huge Pumpkins fan.

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