Saturday, September 06, 2008

Artist Spotlight: Smashing Pumpkins

The Beginning is the End is the Beginning: The Smashing Pumpkins (l-r James Iha, D'Arcy Wretzky, Billy Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlin) in 1990.
I haven't listened to one of my favorite 90's bands in a while, but I have a bit of renewed interest in them so I thought it would be a good time to blog about the Smashing Pumpkins. Led by auteur Billy Corgan, the Pumpkins hit it big as a part of the early 90's Grunge movement. Corgan's braying voice and heavy guitars made for incredible music in the Clinton era. Initially joined by drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, bassist D'Arcy and guitarist James Iha, the Pumpkins seemed poised for legendary status at one time and still have a decent following.

Gish (1991)

Their debut album was named after actress Lillian Gish and produced by Butch Vig (Nirvana, Garbage) to hard hitting effect. Gish is easily the rawest of the Pumpkin patch and the tone is set right from the opening cut, I Am One. My favorite Pumpkin song, the raging guitars, the propulsive drums, lurking bass lines and vocals that alternate between snarling and sighing were all in place from the giddy up. Most of Gish follows in a similar course, ranging from the mosh pit ready Siva to the psychedelic dreaminess of Suffer. Rhinoceros garnered the band some attention from rock radio. This album had a slight 60's garage rock edge that would not appear on any other Pumpkins disc. The inclusion of Drown on the Singles soundtrack is what really started to break the band and ensure their association with the Grunge / Alt rock movement.

Billy's rumored sh*t list: Billy Corgan is notorious for, to put it mildly, upsetting the people who know him. So I thought I would chart some of his enemies and frenemies (much of which seems to revolve around Courtney Love). Around this time he dated Courtney Love beginning an on again/off again friendship that still brews to this day. Corgan also played almost all of the bass and guitars on Gish, ticking off his band mates.

Siamese Dream (1993)

With Vig returning to the Producer's chair, the Pumpkins steamlined their sound a touch taking the garage band sound out and replacing it with clean, muscular sonics. On top of this, Corgan hit a hot streak in his songwriting as he churned out one brilliant whiny boy anthem after another. Everything came together for the Pumpkins, the songwriting and performance, the marketing ties to Grunge and Alternative and the increased visibility through MTV and the Singles soundtrack pushed the band to the forefront of rock.

Hit songs like Today created a huge buzz as they took over the Alternative Nation. The sweeping orchestral Disarm added depth to their sound and hinted at Prog rock tendencies. Album cuts like Geek U.S.A. and Spaceboy stood out too, displaying the fullness of Corgan's compositions. But the highlight was the Rock Band / Guitar Hero fave Cherub Rock where the Chicago band brought down the thunder. And Soma was rated by Rolling Stone magazine as having one of the best guitar solos ever. I bought this CD a few years later while camping with my wife, great memories of 100+ degree Summer days, sunburns and swimming go with this album.

Billy's rumored sh*t list: Again, Corgan played most of the instruments and publicly stated it much to the dismay of his band mates. Courtney Love got together with Kurt Cobain of Nirvana making a rumored feud between Cobain and Corgan.

Pisces Iscariot (1994)

After Nirvana released Insecticide (1992) following their monster breakthru album Nevermind (1991), the release of an "Odds & Sods" album became a popular trend. Made up of B sides, covers and outtakes the disc holds together surprisingly well. Most of the album sounds like what it is, decent but not amazing songs. Still, the format gave James Iha a little more room for his soft Country rock style such as on Blew Away where he even gets a lead vocal. The only other song that really connected for me was the Fleetwood Mac cover Landslide which finds Corgan getting all sensitive- a rarity indeed.

Billy's rumored sh*t list: Alternative and Indie rockers like Pavement, Bob Mould (ex-Husker Du) and Steve Albini openly criticized the Pumpkins for not being "legitimate". The criticism had started earlier in the band's career and was part of what inspired "Cherub Rock". Corgan and Courtney Love allegedly got close to each other again following Kurt Cobain's death which made some unhappy.

Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995)

Billy Corgan's magnum opus, a two CD concept album about...I really don't know, but it was still a fantastic set of songs. Mellon Collie does exactly what a double album should do, play to the band's strengths and expand them at the same time. Switching Producers from Butch Vig to Flood (U2) allowed a little more space for atmospherics. Take no prisoner rockers like Zero and the awesome Bullet with Butterfly Wings went over well with the faithful. Meanwhile, new ideas led to the New Orderish smash 1979 which is arguably their best known song. The Prog side gets more play with the Moody Blues styled Tonight Tonight or the Yessy Cupid De Locke. The epic length Porcelina and the Vast Oceans takes the band to new Art Rock heights.

By the second half of the second disc the album does start to run out of steam with a series of slower songs. The odd ball serenade We Only Come Out At Night adds a little bit of fun before heading off for the finish line and by the end you realize you've just finished listening to an incredible album. The slow streak in the second half would eventually hint to the future of the band, particularly the ballad Thirty Three.

This was the first Smashing Pumpkins disc I had, it started a chain reaction where I would eventually pick up all the SP discs.

Billy's rumored sh*t list: in 1996, drummer Jimmy Chamberlin and tour keyboardist Jonathan Melovin overdosed on heroin. Melovin passed away, Chamberlin was promptly fired and the group continued as a three piece.

Adore (1998)

After three years, news of a new Pumpkins CD was like finding water in the desert. We ran out to Tower Records right away to pick up...a soft ambient Goth folk album? Replacing Chamberlin with drum machines and studio musicians, the energetic rhythms were gone and in its place were a lot of slow songs. While this approach did allow for an even more accurate New Order pastiche with Perfect, the lack of beats put more weight on Corgan's self pitying lyrics making it a more somber affair. A sad dark cloud permeates Adore making it more of a mood album, the song For Martha was written for Corgan's mother's passing in 1996. My personal favorite track is the strummy The Tale of Dusty and Pistol Pete which has a nice feeling of pleasant escape. But ultimately I was disappointed, Adore added more dimension to the groups sound but the new style did not beat the old style. Around this time one of the oddest hirings I've seen in Rock took place when drummer Kenny Aronoff (John Mellencamp) was called in to play with the Pumpkins for live performance. The sight of Aronoff in a tight black shirt and yellow ski goggles playing behind the Pumpkins was just bizarre.

Billy's rumored sh*t list: Around this time Corgan helped Courtney Love with her Celebrity Skin (1998) album including the title track. Corgan's involvement in the sessions eventually led to their usual sniping at each other. One of my favorite Corgan quotes came from this, where Love tried to downplay Corgan's involvement with the Title Track and Corgan responded "Yeah, but it's my riff". I also recall Corgan being disappointed that the fans did not take to Adore.

Machina / The Machines of God (2000)

Jimmy Chamberlin was brought back for what was to be the last hurrah for the Smashing Pumpkins. Originally intended as another two disc epic concept album, Machina was cut down to one disc to make it more accessible. Just before completing the record, bassist D'Arcy left the group and was replaced by Melissa Auf Der Maur (ex-Hole). The lead single The Everlasting Gaze became an instant favorite of mine, Chamberlain's drums and heavy guitars were back though there was still a high tech gloss included for the Matrix (1999) crowd. The rest of the album was OK, Stand Inside Your Love and Try Try Try were fine singles as well but it was clear the Great Pumpkin was winding down. Heavy Metal Machine stood out as one of the harder rocking cuts but as the later part of the album takes hold the lost concept gets more confusing. Farewell shows were announced early on and they seemed to call it a career.

Billy's rumored sh*t list: D'Arcy quit, making what was to be the final act in the Pumpkin's play incomplete. She has never come back and Corgan has openly insulted her in the years that followed. Sharon Osbourne dropped the Pumpkins from her management around the album's release because Billy Corgan "made her sick".

Machina II / The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music (2000)

After the Pumpkins had called it a day, an album's worth of remaining tracks was given out free over the internet as a last farewell to their fans. The tracks were from the Machina concept album, where Corgan revealed he initally had a master plan for the whole deal. I seem to remember each member having a different character or something like that, it all sounded like Warcraft to me. Machina II contains music that's slightly less commercial but edgier than what appeared on the main album. Cash Car Star was the only song I had heard in advance, having seen the clip linked here on a KISS tv special (this is the one with Aronoff in it from 1998). Other songs like Real Love or Let Me Give The World To You were memorable and could have had commercial potential. Acoustic ("Innocence"), Near Industrial ("White Spyder") and classical piano ("Le Deux Machina") jams add to the variety. Machina II is less polished than it's counterpart, but it has more spirit and nerve making it the better album.

Billy's rumored sh*t list: Did you see the title of the album?

Zwan - Mary Star of the Sea (2003)

Billy Corgan wasn't done yet, he grabbed Chamberlin and formed a new group called Zwan. He brought in a bassist and three (count 'em, three!) other guitarists for the new enterprise. Sort of billed as "Billy Corgan being happy", Mary was the most upbeat record he has recorded to date (Honestly!). It also differed from the Pumpkins in allowing another person (bassist Paz Lenchantin from A Perfect Circle) a stronger presence in the background vocals allowing for an almost harmonious effect. Songs like "El Sol" and "Ride the Black Swan" are excellent displays of the new direction. Plus a more spiritual tone was given to the lyrics concerning God and Jesus while simultaneously lightening up with song titles like "Yeah!" or "Baby Let's Rock!". Yes, this was a new band.

Billy's rumored sh*t list: But this is Billy Corgan folks! Happiness doesn't last and Zwan imploded shortly after taking off. Corgan has since slagged the entire band except Chamberlin.

Billy Corgan - The Future Embrace (2005)

I've never heard this album, though I've heard of it. This album practically became a moot point anyway because Corgan, always dramatic, took out a full page newspaper ad stating he wanted the Smashing Pumpkins "back" around the same time as the release of this. As if he didn't realize he IS the Smashing Pumpkins. This record I've heard is sort of techno, maybe some day I'll check it out.

Billy's rumored sh*t list: Corgan launched a blog in 2005 that brought some issues to light in detail such as an abused and neglected child hood, sexual encounters and Jimmy Chamberlin's drug use. It doesn't seem to be written in anger, but I imagine some of the people depicted might have felt uncomfortable.

Zeitgeist (2007)

Bringing back only Jimmy Chamberlin (other members were said not to be interested) the Smashing Pumpkins got back into gear for the first time in seven years. Zeitgeist is a little self conscious as it returns to the early sound of the Smashing Pumpkins. The single Tarantula was good but not as catchy as classic SP. But the one track that does stand out is That's the Way My Love Is, showing Corgan can still write a great tune when he needs to. Bring the Light provides near Queen like thrills. The rest of the album is frantic and busy, in its weaker moments its a little remiscent of Bush more than the Pumpkins (lacks a little bite sometimes). The enthusiasm is there, yet somehow it rings a little hollow. But its still fun to listen to anyway.

Billy's rumored sh*t list: Corgan lived in the same house as Courtney Love for a little while, but he missed her daughter's birthday party putting these two on the outs again. He also sued Virgin records for being included in the Pepsi Stuff campaign saying it threatens their "artistic integrity".

Billy Corgan has since recruited new members to round out the band. Recently, they've made news by having their new song G.L.O.W. as part of the Guitar Hero game. Also, the usage of "The End is the Beginning is the End" from the Batman and Robin (1997) soundtrack has become popular from it's usage in the Watchmen trailer. Below is a video that a You Tube person named vesselrx put together that's fairly apocalyptic but fits the song well. Billy Corgan may upset some people, but he's a talented guy and I look forward to see what he comes up with next. And a "reunited" Smashing Pumpkins is better than none at all.

Smashing Pumpkins "The End is the Beginning is the End"


Some Kinda Wonderful said...

I don't know Mr. Mike. I just never could get into this band. This Billy fella just is so in love with himself. So puffed up with his own importance. He just turns me off.

Mr. Mike said...

Billy is very in love with himself, I thought it was funny he took out newspaper advertisements saying he wanted the band back. It was like he was asking himself permission to work with himself.