The Smashing Pumpkins: Chicago’s Musical Juggernaut
Photo Credit: Alejandro Jofre
The year was 1996. I remember it was pouring out — thick molasses drops of rain. My mother was driving me home from a floor hockey game at Dunham Park. Oldies 104.3 was playing commercials, so I spun the dial around looking for some music. I landed on 101.1 and my life was changed forever. That sounds overly dramatic, but it couldn’t be more true. A swirling acoustic-guitar riff came melting out of the speakers, church bells clanging and violins swelling to a kind of sad crescendo. I was hooked. This nasally whisper-screech was crooning desperate lyrics that sounded as if they’d been written during the last moments of a life. When the song ended I eagerly waited for the DJ to name the artist. As soon as I heard the words, “Smashing Pumpkins,” I began pleading with my mom to take me to the record store.
She’s a good woman, my mom, and seeing the weird and immediate attachment that took place was enough to convince her to turn the car around. At that point in my life I was listening pretty exclusively to The Beatles, The Kinks and Buddy Holly. The newest music I’d ever voluntarily put on were her Michael Jackson and Gloria Estefan records; a little behind the times for sure. We pulled into a spot at Rolling Stones Records on Harlem and I raced inside toward the “S” section. I was greeted by two albums, Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. It was a hard sell, but I convinced my mom to splurge on Mellon Collie. The double-album was twice the price of Siamese, but in my head that just meant twice the number of songs. Math is easy when you don’t have a job.
The song I heard on the radio that day was, of course, “Disarm”, which isn’t on the record I chose. I wasn’t the least bit disappointed. A fifteen-year (and still going strong) love affair was born that night.
The Smashing Pumpkins were formed in 1988 by lead singer and guitarist Billy Corgan, guitarist James Iha and bassist D’arcy Wretzky. The group started off as a shoegazey three piece with a drum machine, mixing influences like Cheap Trick, The Cure, New Order and Black Sabbath into a goth-rock stew with tight, pop sensibilities. If that sounds like a mess, it’s because early on it was. At a time when most other Chicago bands were taking their cues from ’80s punk records, the Pumpkins never quite fit into the local music scene. Their first break came after a gig at The Avalon. The band was approached by Cabaret Metro owner Joe Shanahan, to whom the band had previously sent demo tapes. Shanahan agreed to book the band providing they replace their drum machine with an actual human being.
A friend of Corgan’s recommended local jazz drummer Jimmy Chamberlin. About four weeks before their initial Metro gig, Chamberlin met the band for rehearsals and immediately had Corgan wondering what he’d gotten himself into. In the documentary Graceful Swans of Never, Corgan recalls the meeting: “He showed up, he was wearing a pink t-shirt, stone-washed jeans, he had a mullet and was driving a 280z and had yellow drums. We were sorta looking each other in the eye thinking, ‘This ain’t gonna happen. This is not the guy.’ He learned all our songs off the top off his head. Within one practice we were ready to play.” Chamberlin not only learned all of the Pumpkins songs, but he completely changed their sound. Corgan would later tell Chicago rock critic Greg Kot that while he and Iha “were completely into the sad-rock, Cure kind of thing,” it only took “about two or three practices before I realized that the power in his playing was something that enabled us to rock harder than we could ever have imagined.”
After putting out a few well received singles on Chicago label Limited Potential and Seattle’s renowned Sub Pop, the band signed to Caroline Records and enlisted the legendary Butch Vig to produce their first full-length album, 1991’s Gish. Led by the drowsy single “Rhinocerous”, Gish was fairly well received by critics, earning the band comparisons to another psychedelic-metal mashup, Jane’s Addiction.
The ensuing tour took it’s toll on the band. While they were opening for acts like The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Guns ‘n Roses and Jane’s Addiction, D’arcy was going through a messy breakup, Chamberlin became dependent on drugs and alcohol and Corgan battled depression and writer’s block. The alt-rock explosion of the early ’90s led to the band being signed by Virgin Records, with high exceptions. In an interview on MTV’s 120 Minutes, Corgan remarked, “We’ve graduated now from [being called] ‘the next Jane’s Addiction’ to ‘the next Nirvana.'” Admittedly depressed to the point of contemplating suicide, Billy began to write constantly to channel his frustration. The band reunited with Vig in December of 1992 to begin work on a new album, Siamese Dream.
The album was recorded at Triclops Sound Studios in Atlanta, Georgia, partly in an attempt to cut Chamberlin off from his drug connections. The fact that Corgan insisted on recording everything but the drums for the record let to constant arguing with D’arcy and Iha, which forced Vig to play producer and mediator. Siamese Dream was a considerably heavier record that its predecessor, making use of the grunge-era’s fuzzy guitar riffs and tossing a little prog-rock into the stew. The album eventually debuted at #10 on the Billboard charts due to the massive success of it’s singles, “Cherub Rock”, “Today” and the aforementioned “Disarm.” The Smashing Pumpkins toured aggressively to promote the album, scoring headlining slots on the 1994 Lollapalooza Tour and the Reading Festival, as well as releasing a b-sides compilation, Pisces Iscariot, and a video featuring live performances and behind-the-scenes footage, titled Vieuphoria.
Rather than take a break, the band immediately began writing new material for a follow-up album, penning almost sixty new songs. The result, this time produced by Alan Moulder and Flood, was the double-album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Corgan described the record as “The Wall for Generation X.” The band’s label wasn’t pleased with the idea of a double-album, fearing that it was too early in their career for such an endeavor. When word began to leak that the band was releasing a 28-track record, the common thought among critics was that it was a sign of overindulgence and a lack of editing. Corgan says that “Mellon Collie became this kind of cause by which we were going to truly separate ourselves from everybody. Not just say, ‘hey, we’re our own band,’ but completely obliterate any thought or idea that anyone else was even in our league.”
Opening with a soft piano and strings instrumental, Mellon Collie was an immediate departure from previous work. Corgan’s songwriting was more nuanced and mature than it ever had been, allowing him to bounce back and forth between songs like the orchestra-backed ballad “Tonight, Tonight” and metal bulldozers like “Tales of a Scorched Earth.” Time called the album, whose songs were arranged to represent a life cycle, “the group’s most ambitious and accomplished work.” Going 9-times platinum and earning the band 7 Grammy nominations, Mellon Collie became the best-selling double album of the decade. The record spawned 5 singles — “Bullet With Butterfly Wings”, “1979”, “Zero”, “Tonight, Tonight” and “Thirty-Three” — as well as a box-set featuring more songs from those recording sessions, titled The Aeroplane Flies High. Originally released as a limited-edition offering with a run of 200,000 copies, Aeroplane sold out quickly, forcing Virgin to produce even more.
The Smashing Pumpkins seemed to be riding high by 1996, making an appearance on The Simpsons and embarking on a massive world tour. Things took a turn for the worse during a gig at The Point Theater in Dublin, Ireland when, despite pleas from the band for the crowd to stop moshing, a 17-year old fan was crushed to death. The show ended early and a performance the next night in Belfast was canceled as a result. Two months later, on July 11th, touring keyboardist Johnathan Melvoin and Jimmy Chamberlin overdosed on heroin in a New York City hotel room. Melvoin died and Chamerlin was arrested for possession. The band announced that Jimmy had been fired as a result of the incident. The Pumpkins have since been on record saying that the decision to continue the tour was the biggest mistake of their career.
With the band’s lineup and attitude changing, the Pumpkins began work on their 4th full-length record, Adore. The album would feature few guitar-based songs and relied heavily on electronic instruments. James Iha told Guitar World magazine after the Mellon Collie tour that “the future is in electronic music. It really seems boring just to play rock.” The loss of Chamberlin, the death of Corgan’s mother and his pending divorce all played heavily into the texture of the album. Despite the fact that Adore was well received by critics, even winning a Grammy for Best Alternative Performance, it only sold 830,000 copies in the States (though it sold roughly three times that overseas). Billy, James and D’arcy put together a seventeen-date, fifteen-city North American tour in support of Adore, donating 100 percent of ticket sales to local charities. By the end of the tour The Smashing Pumpkins had raised roughly $2.8 million for various groups across the country.
Tension continued to build among the remaining band members, mostly over the fact that they hadn’t taken a break to process and deal with the loss of Chamberlin. In a documentary about the making of the record, D’arcy remembers going over the initial recording schedule. “We were gonna go in, we were gonna record this album in six weeks. We were gonna work four days a week. We were gonna work six hour days. Yeah, yeah I was laughing too when I heard that. Oh, and we weren’t gonna tour on the album either.” Corgan played the role of strict task master, often resulting in blowups between he and his bass player. By the end of 1998 things were coming to a head.
The Pumpkins attempted to bounce back in 1999, announcing a reunion with a now-clean Jimmy Chamberlin, a new tour, a new album and the promise of a return to rock. The “Arising!” tour featured the band playing a combination of classic material and songs from the forthcoming Machina/The Machines of God. The tour wound down in September of that year, and at it’s end it was announced that D’arcy was leaving the band. The Smashing Pumpkins, as constituted, had run their course. Machina’s two singles, “The Everlasting Gaze” and “Stand Inside Your Love” had been garnering the band it’s most praise since the mid-’90s, though album sales were still relatively low. Since Virgin had rejected Corgan’s plan to release another double album after Adore, and then subsequently refused to issue a second Machina record, Corgan formed his own label, Constantinople Records, and pressed 25 vinyl copies of Machina II/ The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music. Those copies were distributed mostly to friends of the band, along with instructions to release the material for free via the internet. One of that album’s singles, “Let Me Give the World to You,” managed to get a decent amount of local airplay despite the less than studio quality of the initial rips. The A.V. Club called the album “an artistic high” for the band and Pitchfork noted that the band seemed at “energized and at a creative peak.”
The Pumpkins ended their farewell tour in Chicago with two shows, one stadium gala at the United Center and a 4+ hour marathon at the Cabaret Metro with appearances by Matt Walker, Bill Corgan Sr., Linda Strawberry, Rick Nielson of Cheap Trick and long-time friends The Frogs. Hours before the show local rock radio station Q101 debuted one last single from the band, Untitled.
The years following the band’s initial break-up were filled with a multitude of short-lived projects. Billy and Jimmy reunited in 2001 as a part of Zwan, only releasing one album, Mary Star of the Sea, before disbanding. Corgan toured as a part of New Order, providing vocals on their album Get Ready, and played on Chamberlin’s solo record, The Jimmy Chamberlin Complex. Billy also recorded a modestly received solo record, TheFutureEmbrace, and penned a book of poetry, Blinking With Fists. James Iha joined and toured with A Perfect Circle, while D’arcy all but disappeared from public life, only making the news when she was arrested in early 2000 for allegedly purchasing three bags of crack cocaine.
In 2005, after Zwan’s break-up, Billy Corgan took out full-page ads in the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times, announcing “I have walked around with a secret, a secret I chose to keep. But now I want you to be among the first to know that I have made plans to renew and revive the Smashing Pumpkins. I want my band back, and my songs, and my dreams.” Chamberlin signed on, though Iha and Wretzky declined the invitation. Guitarist Jeff Schroeder and bassist Ginger Pooley joined the band, which recorded an album of new material, Zeitgeist. Released by Reprise Records in 2006, it entered the Billboard charts at #1. The album, made up of tight, radio-friendly rock songs, received mixed reviews. The slightly over-produced effort was followed up by the release of American Gothic, an EP of thin acoustic ballads. Having fulfilled their contract with Reprise, The Pumpkins met the changing landscape of the music business head on, releasing several tracks for free online. In an attempt to work out new material, the group booked extended residences at The Filmore in San Francisco and The Orange Peel in Asheville, NC, footage of which would make up the 2008 documentary/performance film If All Goes Wrong.
If you’ve read this far you’ve probably guessed that something else was about to go wrong. In March of 2009 Corgan announced on the band’s website that Chamberlin had left the group. In a weird twist, Jimmy was replaced by the 19-year old Mike Byrne, a long-time Pumpkins fan who auditioned against hundreds of other drummers. Shortly thereafter it was announced that Ginger would be leaving the group, replaced by bassist Nicole Fiorentino. The newly constructed band has taken on the ominous task of recording The Pumpkins’ eighth album: a 44-song collection entitledTeargarden by Kaleidyscope, to be released for free, one track at a time, on www.smashingpumpkins.com. (As of March 2011, nine songs have been released.) Shows from the subsequent world tour have featured material dating from as far back as Gish, as well as songs slated for future release. Schroeder and Byrne have expressed interest in staying with the Pumpkins for the foreseeable future, and both are involved in the recording of new Teargarden material.
The Smashing Pumpkins, now approaching 25 years of rock, stupidity, bombast, fun, mayhem and excellence, are firing on all cylinders. It would be easy to knock Billy Corgan as alternative rock’s Axl Rose, to dismiss this incarnation of the Pumpkins as a fraud, but if you close your eyes and forget the endless drama and just focus on the music, he’s still got it. The songs are tighter now than they have been since Adore, more diverse than they have been since Mellon Collie, and though the new concept album, all 44 songs of it, seems entirely bloated, it’s pretty fucking good. Do I believe that all of it will see the light of day? Hell no. I could write another article about all of Corgan’s abandoned projects. But I won’t. I’m more interested in the ones he finished. And the ones he’s still working on.