After last week’s little round-up of Morrissey-related discussion and analysis, here are my thoughts on a work by another of my generation’s problematic favourites: Billy Corgan and his band, the Smashing Pumpkins.
In fairness, I should say that I don’t see Billy Corgan and Morrissey as being in the same category of problematic fave. As far as I know, Corgan has an obsession with New World Order-style conspiracy theories that are at least adjacent to the fashy right, and he’s got some very conservative views on healthcare and climate change, but I’ve never heard him traffic in the same kind of bigotry you get from much of the conspiratorial right, some of whom have moved from anti-government, libertarian positions into more or less open fascism in the last seven or eight years. That said, I’m by no means keeping up with what he says or does; I just see when something he does makes it on to those websites that aggregate music-related news.
None of which changes a note of the music he made in the 1990s, although if there are former fans who don’t want to listen to it anymore because Corgan hangs out with Alex Jones and opposes universal healthcare, I do understand and sympathise. There’s no moral imperative to separate the art from the artist. The reverse is not necessarily true either, although again I sympathise with anyone who won’t listen to Ryan Adams, Mark Kozelek or Michael Jackson now (to take three examples of musicians whose work has meant a lot to me and who I find I just don’t want to listen anymore).
So, Smashing Pumpkins, then.
When Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness came out in 1995, I was 13 and a newly converted fan of alternative rock music – open to anything with a big drum sound, heavy guitars, gloomy lyrics and a good tune. I was knew and liked Today from Siamese Dream, and so was keen to hear more by this band with the silly name. A guitar magazine I bought in October 1995 contained a long interview with Corgan where he talked about recording the album, went through the guitars and amps he used, and explained and demonstrated some of the songs’ riffs. It was super interesting, and he came over very well. Corgan was a great interview back in the 1990s; garrulous and full of himself, sure, but analytical and reflective about the state of rock music and his place in it, and full of creative ideas. I duly got a copy of the record from the library and dove in.
Melon Collie is, obviously, far too long and baggy as anything. The Pumpkins were always a maximalist band, and for me they are – and remain – a difficult band to listen to at double-album length. Corgan’s voice, which emanates entirely from the throat and head and so has little warmth and resonance, is not necessarily a problem on Gish, Siamese Dream and Adore, as on the former two he is sunk quite low in the mix, and on the latter is mostly singing more softly. On Melon Collie, though, he’s mixed more prominently and he made some questionable choices with his delivery, particularly on Tonight, Tonight, where he’s all over the place – sometimes sneering and declamatory, sometimes soft and intimate, sometimes both within the same line. There’s no emotional throughline to the vocal; it sounds carelessly comped from a set of takes with wildly different timbres and moods, although perhaps he just sang it that way. Either way, it ruins the song for me. He’s also pretty hard to take on Zero and Bullet with Butterfly Wings, but I think more intentionally so; one may cringe at a line like “God is empty – just like me!”, but at least his sneering delivery supports the juvenile sentiment.
OK, so now I’ve trashed half of the album’s best-known songs, is there anything I do like? Actually, quite a lot – at least half of it. Jellybelly is one of Corgan’s most crunching riffs, and Jimmy Chamberlin is on fire on that one. Here is No Why – Corgan’s affectionate tribute to a teenage goth, who may or may not be himself – is monstrously anthemic, with a fantastic guitar solo. To Forgive and Galapagos are two of his best ballads. An Ode to No One commits entirely to its bratty premise, with another great drum performance from Chamberlin. Muzzle sees Corgan at his most outward looking and has a gorgeously chunky rhythm guitar sound (might be James Iha rather than Corgan – it’s quite organic sounding in a medium-gain Les Paul/Marshall-y way, in contrast to the usual Corgan rhythm tone, which is very high gain with a suprising amount of low end from a Strat, suggesting some extensive EQ use).
On disc two, highlights for me include the opening one-two punch of Where Boys Fear to Tread and Bodies, which both have great riffs, the gentle In the Arms of Sleep and the very-much-not-gentle Tales of a Scorched Earth, which has a riff somewhat similar to Jellybelly and a heavily distorted vocal. The high-gain treatment essentially turns his voice into an aggressive texture in the mix rather than the focal point of the song, which actually works quite well. The epic Thru the Eyes of Ruby is perhaps not much of a song to spread over seven and a half minutes, but the main riff is enjoyably preposterous – even Queen might have felt it just a bit too grand and pompous – and I can’t help but smile at the audacity of it.
Which just leaves Corgan’s masterwork, 1979. The way it was put together, blending loops and samples with live, organic performances, was indicative of the path Corgan would follow on Adore (which is my favourite Pumpkins album, though again, it’s half an hour too long), but it works brilliantly on Mellon Collie, not sounding out of place at all; more than that, it’s the very heart of the album. For all that Mellon Collie was Corgan laying to rest his own teenage years, 1979 remains so indelible because of how it universalises the coming-of-age experience. I never rode around the Chicago suburbs, bored and looking for some kind of adventure, but I feel like I lived every moment of that song. Managing to evoke your own fondly remembered but highly personal lost adolescence and make it resonate with everyone listening, making them feel that they went through it all too, is a hell of a thing for a writer to pull off. Corgan’s acted like a terrible brat at times in his career, but he gets forgiven a lot. 1979 is a big reason why.
Twenty-five years on from its release, I’m inclined to look indulgently on Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness‘s flaws – its grand ambitions, lyrical missteps and musical over-reaches. Nevertheless, it’s for me – far more so than the White Album – the archetypal double album that would be better as a single. So here’s my 12-song, single-album tracklisting.
- Tonight, Tonight (but I’d force Corgan to redo the vocal)
- Here is No Why
- To Forgive
- Where Boys Fear to Tread
- In the Arms of Sleep
- Tales of a Scorched Earth
- Thru the Eyes of Ruby
Note: I’ve not said very much about James Iha or D’arcy Wretzky in this piece, and frankly, that’s because I’ve no idea how much of a role they played. It’s well documented that Siamese Dream was basically played entirely by Corgan and Chamberlin (producer Butch Vig has confirmed as much). Mellon Collie seems to have been a more collaborative affair, with Wretzky playing bass on most, if not all, the basic tracks, and Iha credited with rhythm and lead. Nevertheless, it seems likely that Corgan took the lion’s share of the solos, and safe to assume most of the flashiest ones (for example, that glorious solo on Here is No Why) are Corgan’s work.