The Infinite Evolution
The Smashing Pumpkins represent all that was great about the 1990s while refusing to rest on their nostalgic laurels
When I was an awkward 11-year-old, The Smashing Pumpkins changed my life. At the time, disaffected, drug-addled grunge and punk bands like Nirvana, The Offspring and Green Day were riding high. But Billy Corgan, James Iha, D’Arcy Wretzky and Jimmy Chamberlain, who formed The Smashing Pumpkins in Chicago in 1988, trafficked in an introspective brand of swirling, symphonic rock, revealing to my impressionable eyes that emotion, passion and perfectionism had a place in the sloppy, flannel-clad ’90s.
Sure, the Pumpkins’ early hits, particularly “Today” and “Cherub Rock” from their breakthrough 1993 album, “Siamese Dream,” were crunchy slabs of alternative rock. But with the release of “Pisces Iscariot,” 1994’s collection of rarities and B-sides, The Smashing Pumpkins broadened their oeuvre far beyond what other bands of the period could achieve. The album featured snarling funk and lo-fi experimentation on “Girl From Sandoz” and “Soothe,” and revealed Corgan’s tender side on gentle indie-pop numbers like “Obscured” and “Whir.”
It was the Pumpkins’ cover of Fleetwood Mac masterpiece “Landslide,” though, that really captivated a million preteen hearts, sending them off to discover Stevie Nicks and company on their own. Corgan’s rendition also represented everything that critics loved to hate about The Smashing Pumpkins: His overly exaggerated, woe-is-me coo, his tyrannical desire to record every instrumental part, and his self-aggrandizing lyrics. Legendary producer Steve Albini even compared the Pumpkins to REO Speedwagon, claiming they were “by, of and for the mainstream.”
With hatred, however, often comes success. And The Smashing Pumpkins soared to the top of the alt-rock slagheap with ambitious 1995 double-album, “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.” Lead single “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” made metal cool again and introduced “the world is a vampire” into the Generation X lexicon; “Tonight, Tonight” reintroduced soaring orchestral arrangements to the rock ’n’ roll canon and yielded one of the coolest music videos of all time; and “1979” came to represent the height of thrumming, insistent ’90s nostalgia.
The triumph of “Mellon Collie” — it debuted at the top of the Billboard charts, selling more than 10 million copies, and earning seven Grammy nominations — was impossible to sustain, however. Nine months after the album was released, Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlain and touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin overdosed on heroin. Chamberlain survived; Melvoin didn’t. As a three-piece, Corgan, Iha and Wretzky delved deeper into electronica on the 1998 album “Adore,” a new direction that continued on heavily synthesized concept album “Machina/The Machines of God.”
When Corgan announced in 2000 that the Pumpkins were breaking up, he hastily threw together the farewell album “Machina II/The Friends & Enemies of Modern Music,” cut only 25 copies of it on vinyl, gave them to friends and instructed them to upload the digital files to the Internet for free distribution. Virgin Records bristled, old-guard music critics scratched their heads, but Corgan and the Pumpkins rode off into the sunset as vanguards of what, within the next decade, would become the music industry’s new normal.
In ensuing years, Corgan has delved into bizarre behavior, publicly battling with former bandmates and other musical luminaries, writing poetry books, opening suburban tea shops, running pro wrestling companies, curating websites devoted to “Mind-Body-Soul” integration, and becoming a regular conspiracy theorist for alternative-media outlets like InfoWars and Prison Planet. In 2005, Corgan took out full-page ads in two Chicago newspapers, announcing that The Smashing Pumpkins would reunite, although Chamberlain was the only original member who joined him.
But in 2009, he left, too, with relatively unknown musicians Jeff Schroeder, Mike Byrne and Nicole Fiorentino joining the Pumpkins. Meanwhile, Corgan’s egomania and grandiose ambitions remain; the band’s last two albums, 2009’s “Zeitgeist” and 2012’s “Oceania,” represent but a sliver of The Smashing Pumpkins’ 44-song work-in-progress “Teargarden by Kaleidyscope.” And the recent deluxe reissues of “Siamese Dream,” “Pisces Iscariot” and “Mellon Collie,” with their Corgan-curated books of liner notes, extensive alternate versions and even decoupage kits, are extravagant if enlightening exercises in music-geek minutiae.
As a much more dispassionate 30something journalist, it’s hard to remember just what it was I loved about The Smashing Pumpkins when I was 11, but diving into nearly any point along the band’s diverse 25-year discography of dream-pop, alt-rock, orchestral metal and electronica reveals what was so consuming about them in the first place. The best part? They’re also refreshingly honest about their role as contemporary musicians doing more than dredging up mere nostalgia.
“If I try to give you [a] visceral experience, you’re going to want it the way you saw it in some MTV video in ’95,” Corgan told Time Out Chicago in December, of the Pumpkins’ current live show. “I deal with it every night I’m onstage: ‘This isn’t the Smashing Pumpkins I wanted.’ Dude, you’re about 15 years too late. It’s frustrating, but I feel worse for [the fan]. You’re cheating yourself out of the experience of moving forward. I’m not responsible for the fact that you lost your virginity to this song.”