The Infinite Sadness: A Smashing Pumpkins Retrospective
This retrospective is built around a playlist, which you can listen to on the following services.
In recent weeks The Smashing Pumpkins built anticipation for an announcement of a reunion tour and new album. The lead-up was rife with speculation and social media intrigue around whether the entire original line-up would be involved. The conflict, animosity, and confusion around this announcement has been emblematic of the band’s history, which burned bright and then fell apart, resting since – for better and worse – on the forceful talent of Billy Corgan.
- I Am One
- Bury Me
- Cherub Rock
- A Girl Named Sandoz
- Tonight, Tonight
- Ava Adore
- Appels + Oranjes
- The Everlasting Gaze
- Stand Inside Your Love
- This Time
- That's the Way (My Love Is)
- Violet Rays
If one can set aside the behind the scenes drama, and I will try, this is a band that helped re-invent rock n’ roll for a generation and perhaps brought many fans into a love of heavier, guitar-driven pop music that had never previously ventured into those waters. Because it was that ability to blend fantastic pop melodies with hard rocking, R&B grooves that made Smashing Pumpkins one of the most important and successful bands of the grunge era. Let’s explore their sonic history and evolution.
I Am One; Rhinoceros; Bury Me \ Gish (1991)
Formed in Chicago by Billy Corgan and James Iha in 1988, the two guitarists recruited female bassist D’Arcy Wretzky and began playing shows around the city accompanied by a drum machine. They were known as Smashing Pumpkins from the start, a name Corgan had wanted to use. Acknowledging the limited appeal of a rock band without a drummer, they quickly brought on Jimmy Chamberlin, who oddly was a jazz player with limited exposure to rock, yet it was a choice that was serendipitous as his forceful and colourful playing fit beautifully and propelled the band to their soon to be unique, heavier sound.
They released their first single, “I Am One,” on a local indie label and its success led to a second single, “Tristessa,” on the emergent and influential label, Sub Pop. They finally signed with Caroline Records and went into the studio with producer Butch Vig, who had already done the preliminary recording of Nevermind with Nirvana and would finish it up with them after the Pumpkins album. The use of Vig and their presence on Sub Pop placed the Pumpkins in the crux of the grunge scene, which was about to break out centred in Seattle, placing the Pumpkins apart from the scene’s geographical focus. Also, the slightly more polished sound and less angry tone to the Pumpkins' music could also lead some to see them less as grunge and situated more in the broader ‘alternative’ category which was also gaining usage. Regardless, the first album, Gish, which included the prior singles along with a new single, “Rhinoceros,” and the incredible rocker, “Bury Me,” would be a strong statement of arrival for the band.
Corgan was influenced by the darker, post-punk music of the 1980s such as New Order and the Cure, but his and Iha’s guitar playing trended to heavier riffs. Once Chamberlin was on board the band leaned into the heavier sound built around the dark melodies of their influences. Hard rock music in the past had been more anthemic, accompanied by wailing vocals, booming drums, and usually more than a few guitar solos. The Pumpkins didn’t just hit you with a wall of fuzz-laden guitar, but the propulsive drumming and thick, resonant basslines made for complete songs that provided a thunderous foundation for Corgan’s distinctive, high-toned vocals. The result was a mix of classic rock, psychedelia, dream pop, hard rock, and a bit of heavy metal.
In 1991 I had settled into a weekend routine with my friend Jorge by attending The Dance Cave, a club above the venerable live music venue, Lee’s Palace. Fridays and Saturdays were DJ’d by a friend of my brother’s, Steve Scott, who was a veteran of the alternative club scene in Toronto and always had a great supply of new music. Gish immediately became a staple of his playlists and we danced every weekend to “I Am One,” “Bury Me,” “Tristessa,” and others. Smashing Pumpkins immediately became a frequently played CD on my stereo.
As we awaited the second album we were treated to a new song on the soundtrack to the grunge inspired movie, Singles (the soundtrack was the best part of the movie). The Pumpkins’ song, “Drown,” was a fantastic eight-minute, psychedelic plunge into feedback laden waters. It cemented the perception this was a formidable band.
Cherub Rock; Quiet; Today \ Siamese Dream (1993)
So often we hear music for the first time on the radio, in a club, or more recently (for me at least) on TV or in movies. We discover the album tracks on our own, but a first introduction to a band’s new music tends to come in more public settings. I will forever remember my introduction to Siamese Dream because it so forcefully didn’t follow that routine. Because of my love of Gish, I bought the CD immediately and then jumped in the car to drive my baseball game, which was an hour or more away by car (I was playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Inter-county Baseball League at the time). Once out on the highway I put the CD into my Sony Discman, which had to be connected to the tape deck by an adapter because our car didn’t have a CD player (talk about distracted driving, try changing a CD in a Discman laying on the passenger seat!). All of this is so memorable because so few songs have hit me as spectacularly as “Cherub Rock,” the opening song. The drum roll intro, the building guitar and bass, and the explosive launch of the song gave me (and still gives me) goosebumps. Within seconds I was air drumming and head banging on my own in the car, enthralled by the force and grace of this song. (I had a similar experience with Nevermind, though had been hearing "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on the radio for a few weeks before listening to the CD for the first time, which I did not on the 401 in Milton, but on interstate 10 headed to to Palm Springs, which was a much more dramatic environment to first bang my head to "In Bloom.")
As for Siamese Dream, well after "Cherub Rock," the rest of the album ain’t bad either – yup, it is just an immense listening pleasure from those wondrous opening chords to the final string notes of “Luna.” Picking songs for this playlist was fruitless since they’re all so good, so I just stuck with the first three songs, which covers the two major singles in “Cherub Rock,” and “Today,” and provides a good example of the band's heavy-metal-pop sound in “Quiet” (which after catching my breath from the end of "Cherub Rock," took it away again with that meaty guitar riff). It also nicely shows how Corgan’s vocals could move from a hush to a shriek, flowing along with the hyper-melodic guitar-and-bass layers and Chamberlin’s frenetic drumming. “Today” also shows the band’s improved songwriting, unleashing a song of exquisite beauty and grace, despite the onslaught of layered, fuzzy guitars. It’s a song that makes you want to throw your hands in the air and look to the sky with joy. I find ‘exultant’ a word that often comes to mind listening to this album, and this song especially.
‘Exultant,’ however, is not how one would describe the state of the band. Though Vig would return to produce this album, the band relocated to Georgia to record it yet saw a repeat of the dischord that marked the recording of the first album. Billy Corgan has been notoriously portrayed as a controlling and moody leader of the band. His penchant, with Vig’s support, to play most of the guitar and bass parts for the recordings led to understandable animosity with Iha and Wretzky; a pair who also had gotten into and then out of a relationship, so that was another troublesome mood setter, no doubt. Chamberlin also proved unreliable and would go AWOL for parts of the recording, most likely attributed to his drug problem. All these factors led to delays and strife and made it all the more amazing that such an incredible album resulted from this atmosphere.
Bolstered by the rise of grunge since the release of their first album, Siamese Dream, not unlike my impulsive purchase of it, took no time to gain an audience and brought increased success. My first signal of this was when I went to the Ticketmaster outlet in the Sunrise Records store near my office to buy tickets to their show, which was to be held in a Greek banquet hall at Pape and Danforth, only to find out it had sold out in minutes (this was pre-Bots). I still haven’t seen them to this day, though that will change later this year. Siamese Dream would reach #10 in the US and #4 in the UK, and three singles would crack the top ten on the US Alternative chart but couldn’t make it on the main singles chart. Despite their commercial success and building of a strong following, Corgan’s personality also served to bring criticism to the band from the music press and their peers. Billy didn’t care for being lumped in with the grunge movement, and likewise that scene’s players considered Smashing Pumpkins too pop and their sound too large for earning their respect. This further set the Pumpkins apart within the early 90s alternative movement.
A Girl Named Sandoz \ Pisces Iscariot (1994)
Siamese Dream had been the band’s first on a major label, Virgin, who now wanted to cash in on the band’s increased status. It released an album of rarities and B-sides the following year that provided another great collection of the band’s music. Surprisingly, though undoubtedly propelled by the success of the second album, Pisces Iscariot would reach #4 in the US, surpassing the breakout album. There are many great songs on this album, though generally a little rawer than their albums. It also revealed the band’s adept hand with cover songs, including a great rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide.” “A Girl Named Sandoz” is one of those hidden gems that shows how the band could riff on a blues melody and trot out a great sounding, hook-filled tune.
Tonight, Tonight; Zero; Love; 1979 \ Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995)
By 1995 the hard-rocking alternative era was dying down and, almost prompted by the death of Kurt Cobain in 1994, grunge seemed to quickly fall to the wayside. Perhaps benefiting from the slight separation from that scene, Smashing Pumpkins was able to continue its success. It also didn’t hurt that their third album would be one of the most ambitious, monumental albums of the decade. A double-CD, the first disc is labelled ‘Dawn to Dusk,’ and the second, ‘Twilight to Starlight,’ Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness contains some of the Pumpkins' best known songs and would become their first #1 album.
Switching to Flood and Alan Moulder as co-producers, who were also famed in their own right – Flood for his mixing work on many of U2’s biggest albums and Moulder for engineering some of the best shoegazer albums of the era – Corgan and the band set out to expand their sound. In that respect they succeeded, mixing their heavy rockers with many graceful ballads, more use of strings and piano, and one of the smartest and most intriguing pop songs ever recorded, “1979.”
It took me a while to warm up to this record as I felt it lacked the artistry of their first two albums. This was likely because the first single, “Bullet with Butterfly Wings,” sounded too much to me like a traditional hard rock song and was missing the elements that had set their music apart. It reminded me of Electric, the 1987 album The Cult released that followed their landmark LP, Love, which similarly shifted to a heavier and less exciting sound. Heavy guitars are great, but still need melody, an engaging rhythm section, and some interesting hooks to grab my interest. This album's first single lacked that for me and I paid less attention (maybe they could never have succeeded with me given the very high regard I held for the first two albums). However after “1979” and “Tonight, Tonight” were released it became clear this album still had much to offer. Now in my mid-twenties and no longer living at home, I just needed to scrape the cash together to buy the higher priced double-CD (I think I ended up getting it as a Christmas present).
“1979” is one of my favourite songs and sounds unlike most anything I’ve ever heard. The even pace, mesmerizing rhythm, and off-kilter guitar made for an elegant and complex composition that still managed to sound simple and subtle. The use of loops and samples created unique sounds and showed more studio creativity than anything they’d done before; and was a breakthrough in evolving their sound beyond the wall of guitars and thick bottom end of the rhythm section. It would be the band’s most successful single, reaching #12 in the US (and #1 on the alt and modern rock charts) and being lauded by fans and critics alike. It also helped propel the album to #1 in the US and Canada, their only to do so, and #4 in the UK (where #1 has remained ever elusive).
In 1996 the band also released a box set that literally came in a box with a handle and a flip-open lid. The Aeroplane Flies High was five-disc set with each CD anchored by a single from Mellon Collie. Also included are 5-6 extra songs on each CD. The first CD for “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” included great covers of The Cars’, “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight,” The Cure’s “A Night Like This,” Alice Cooper’s “Clones (We’re All),” Missing Persons’ “Destination Unknown,” and Blondie’s “Dreaming.” Once again it showed the band’s adeptness at reinterpreting the songs of their upbringing into their own sound.
Ava Adore; Perfect; Appels + Oranjes \ Adore (1998)
While on tour for Mellon Collie Jimmy Chamberlin and touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin overdosed on heroin. Melvoin died and Jimmy was arrested. The band decided Chamberlin’s drug issues needed to be his focus and he was dismissed from the band. They also ill-advisedly decided to finish the tour with replacement musicians, a decision Corgan later admitted was wrong and did nothing to help the Pumpkins’ poor reputation.
The band took the opportunity for a change in direction, turning to drum machines to replace their drummer while also incorporating more electronics into the mix. A sense of this new sound could be heard in the song “Eye,” issued before the next album on the Lost Highway soundtrack, though the guitar-heavy sound remained on another soundtrack song at that time, “The End Is the Beginning is the End,” from Batman & Robin. As songwriting continued with the band, who since Mellon Collie had been participating more in the creative process, Corgan was again struggling with depression as a result of Chamberlin’s absence (they were close), his divorce, and the death of his mother. Unsatisfied with the production of Brad Wood, a Chicagoan they’d worked with early in their career that was taking the helm on the new album, Corgan took over both as producer and in reworking the songs into a stripped-down folk-electronica format, once again resulting in the band being left out. Flood was recruited again to do the finishing touches.
Adore continued the band’s streak of fantastic albums, showing that despite all the challenges Corgan could certainly write great songs. Leaning into the progressiveness and experimentation heard on “1979,” the album was replete with industrial-electronic sounds and much less guitar. Billy’s solid melodies shone through like never before, no longer competing with the wall of guitars. Mostly subdued, the songs nevertheless carry the darker elements of the classic Smashing Pumpkin’s sound. The lead single, “Ava Adore” was a beat-driven, electronica song, while the next single, “Perfect,” was a lovely acoustic-electronic song (with a similar feel to "1979"). There are several others equal to those such as “Daphne Descends,” “Once Upon a Time,” “Pug,” the sublime “Shame,” and the quiet “Annie Dog.” “Appels + Oranjes” was their most electronic yet, driven by an infectious beat throughout. In many respects, Adore was their most listenable album start to finish.
Despite the quality of the album the change in sound didn’t grab their fan base or win them new ones. The album rose quickly to #2 in the US and #5 in the UK but then just as quickly disappeared. While critics praised the album it still gained the reputation as a bit of a flop for the band, which was undeserved and a shame. They would never again hit the heights of Mellon Collie.
The Everlasting Gaze; Stand Inside Your Love; This Time \ Machina/The Machines of God (2000)
As the band toured Adore, they welcomed Chamberlin back but saw the departure of bassist, Wretzky. She had been dealing with her own drug issues and there was speculation of mental health problems. She declared she was going to pursue an acting career. The band replaced her with Canadian Melissa Auf de Maur who had been in the band, Hole, for the prior five years.
Billy was looking to make a concept album for their next project, with a rock star protagonist a la Ziggy Stardust. As they toured and underwent the personnel changes, the concept fell away and a return to their guitar-driven rock came to the fore as the finalized album Machina/The Machines of God. The goal was to make more of a pop-rock album, but to be honest it just sounds like a less engaging attempt at their Melon Collie sound. The electronics were still around but more as accents than a primary driver of the sound like on Adore. There are several decent songs, such as "This Time," but nothing that really stood out or captured the same spirit as their early records. The second single, “Stand Inside Your Love,” is the only track that really captured a pure pop sensibility and had their distinctive swagger and polish. It was the only song I would include as a worthy addition to their stellar discography.
This could have been an opportunity to wade into New Order territory, given their influence on Corgan, and blend their rock sound with the electronics more completely, offering a heavier variation of the electro-rock sound. It’s too bad they didn’t go that way and seem held into their established rock-pop sound. This album, similar to Adore, rose quickly on the charts to #3 in the US and #7 in the UK and then again faded quickly, not selling nearly as many copies as their earlier discs. The band was challenged with the general demise of rock as a mainstream genre. Pop, dance, and hip hop were ascendant and rock acts were struggling to stay on top. This, as much as anything, spelled trouble for the band. Add to that the many negative perceptions around Corgan and the changes to the line-up for various problematic reasons, and it made for a difficult future for Smashing Pumpkins in the new millennium.
Machina was released in February and in September a companion album, Machina II/The Friends & Enemies of Modern Music, was released for free on the internet. This was the extra material Corgan had wanted included originally in a double-album version of Machina, which Virgin was not willing to release after the weaker sales of Adore. Machina II was therefore released on Corgan’s own label and included a ‘two LP set,’ which was the album proper, and then three EPs that Corgan referred to as the B-sides. There are many decent songs but nothing to set the world on fire. Billy seemed prone to volume at this point and had settled into a consistent sound that was just mining the same territory.
Perhaps it was that feeling, that the band was not achieving anything new, that led Corgan to announce in May that year that the band would finish at the end of the year. In December, 2000 they played a final show at The Metro in Chicago, releasing a single, “Untitled,” to accompany the show (it would appear on a greatest hits compilation, Rotten Apples, released in 2001).
That’s the Way (My Love Is); Tarantula \ Zetigeist (2007) (included in YouTube playlist only)
After the break-up Corgan and Chamberlin would have a short-lived act, Zwan, and Corgan would guest on others’ albums, including New Order’s Get Ready in 2001 and also release solo work. It should be noted that Corgan was also a significant contributor to Hole’s greatest album, Celebrity Skin, one of the best albums of the 1990s. Chamberlin would also form his own rock-jazz fusion band and Iha would join A Perfect Circle.
In 2005 Billy would announce his intention to reform Smashing Pumpkins, and while Jimmy was on board this vision would run into some problems when Iha and Auf de Meur declined to participate. As touring members were added it was evident that Smashing Pumpkins, now as much as ever, was essentially Billy Corgan with supporting members (though he’s acknowledged Chamberlin is an important partner).
The seventh album, Zeitgeist, was released in 2007, led prior to its release by the first single, “Tarantula.” It’s a stronger effort than the Machina albums but not up to the standards of the first four. The heavy guitars are back and again it’s a tried-and-true Pumpkins album, very comfortable within their established sound. There were some broader and ambitious songs like “United States” and big pop-rock songs like “Tarantula,” “Starz,” and “That’s the Way (My Love Is)” that gave the listener more to bang and bop their heads to than anything heard since 1995.
In 2007 though, rock was not top of mind for most record buyers. Zeitgeist followed the same rise and fall chart pattern as Smashing Pumpkins’ prior albums, which was generally the result at the time for many guitar-driven albums and releases from established artists of prior decades. The album shot up, reaching #2 in the US (in its first week) and #4 in the UK (and #1 in New Zealand and Canada) but then disappeared quickly, with overall sales being comparatively low for the band.
Panopticon; Violet Rays \ Oceania (2012)
Anaise! \ Monuments to an Elegy (2014)
Corgan and Chamberlin issued a Pumpkin’s EP, American Gothic, in 2008, but the next year Jimmy Chamberlin once again left the band, though this time under less auspicious and more amicable conditions. Now essentially a solo act, Corgan replaced the drummer and continued with his hired musicians, keeping the Smashing Pumpkins name alive. The first project he announced with his new line-up was a monumental, 44-song concept album called Teargarden by Kaleidoscope, which was to be released online one song at a time. However only one song would be released, “A Song for A Son,” before it was announced a proper album would be issued in 2012, Oceania, drawn from the content of the concept album.
Given that Billy has been the creative force from day one (and often played most of the recordings) it’s not surprising that it’s hard to tell this album doesn’t include any of the original members of the band. With his vocals and song styles it’s another solid, if predictable, Pumpkins album. There are some great moments – “Panopticon” rocks pretty good, and “Violet Rays” has a lovely feel – but otherwise it’s another stroll through the standard Pumpkins tunes. The band went on tour and played Oceania in its entirety, which I don’t think went over very well for a lot of fans. Still the Pumpkins have a die-hard audience that sticks with them. They continue to receive favourable critical response, but now into his third decade of making music Corgan needs to deal with the challenges of those fans wanting to hear the full discography (see: Reunion Tour).
The band went on tour and played the album in its entirety, which I don’t think went over very well for a lot of fans. Still the Pumpkins have a die-hard audience that sticks with them. Certainly the band’s sound is solid and the songs are still listenable, receiving favourable critical reception, but now into his third decade of making music Corgan needs to deal with the challenges of those fans wanting to hear the full discography.
In 2014 the next album was released, Monuments to an Elegy, a relatively brief album of nine songs totaling 32 minutes – to which I applaud as I find most albums these days, to a fault, far too long and suffer for it. It was recorded by yet another line-up of supporting musicians, including Tommy Lee from Mötley Crüe on drums. It was the least successful release under the Pumpkins name since the first album, ending a string of seven consecutive top ten albums (not including Machina II, which as a free download wasn’t chart eligible). But once again it is a solid, enjoyable album.
It's easy to pine for the aggressive sounds of the first few albums, or the progressiveness of Adore, or perhaps a new and bold direction riding Corgan's great melodies, but while all of that can be wished, it would be unfair to judge these later albums against those expectations. These are highly listenable and consistent albums, you just have to be willing to continue dwelling in the established boundaries of the band's sound. It’s perhaps not surprising that with time, success, and maturing Billy is writing less aggressive, edgy, and urgent music, and with that it’s unavoidable that the new music is more likely to be described as pleasant rather than groundbreaking, and certainly not exultant.
Over 2016 and 2017 James Iha made several appearances with Billy, who has been working on solo material. Pictures and hints on social media created a build-up to the announcement of a tour and new album that will include Iha and Chamberlin, reuniting 75% of the original line-up (and either Jeff Schroeder, who has been on guitars and keyboards since Zeitgeist, or Jack Bates, the bassist in his father's band, Peter Hook and the Light - I've read separate articles indicating one or the other). D’Arcy and Billy offer competing stories of whether the former bassist was invited to participate or not, but at this point it seems certain she won’t be involved. The drama around it has been a distraction to what could be triumphant period for the band if they can lose the aura of dysfunction and Corgan's reputation as an asshole. This new album and tour is a chance to reset and start a new, hopefully more creative and positive phase (early indications are not encouraging, as the tour is not selling well).
The Smashing Pumpkins, whether they’re a true band or just the operating name for Billy Corgan, are undoubtedly one of the most successful and influential acts of the grunge era. The first four albums each hold a distinctive place in the last great period of rock dominance. Gish was an impressive debut and Siamese Dream was one of the most perfect rock albums ever recorded; and for that alone the band can take pride without even getting into the argument – and many will – of whether Mellon Collie is more deserving of that claim. Adore gets short shrift in their legacy but I think it was also a brilliant effort and capped an incredible run that few bands can achieve. So I will go to the show in August and ignore all the backdrop distraction and appreciate the chance to hear their 90’s music, celebrate their legacy, and make up for that lost opportunity to see them in a basement on the Danforth.