Among all the tantrums, pretention, drug abuse, tyranny, depression and Uncle Fester look-a-like jibes that accompany Smashing Pumpkins these days it is easy to forget they were once one of the most truly awesome bands around.
Their first album Gish (1991) couldn’t have been timed better coming among the explosion of grunge music. Second album Siamese Dream, broke (1993) them into the mainstream and cemented their place as one of the US’s premier alternative rock bands.
By the time next album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, which debuted at number one in the Billboard charts in the US, came out in 1995 they were arguably one of the key alternative rock bands of the decade.
It soon went downhill though, as drug abuse, depression and a change of direction more to the gothic end of the rock spectrum sent them into a spiral of declining sales and by 2000 they split. Frontman Billy Corgan reformed the band six years later. He is currently the only original member of the act, which continues to blaze the heritage indie rock trail in the US.
But to serve as a reminder that they were once dripping in awesomeness Gish and Siamese Dream have been given the deluxe reissue treatment, both coming with a bunch of extra tracks, a DVD and the customary lovely packaging.
When Gish came out I was at university. For around a year it was probably my favourite album, with Bury Me joining Smells Like Teen Spirit and Groove is in the Heart as the biggest pulls on the indie disco floor at the time.
My copy is on vinyl and I’ve long since lived in a record player-less house so I was pretty excited when their PR got in touch to offer me a copy of this reissue. Even though 20 years have passed I’m delighted to report the album has lost none of its dazzle.
The rules of the music for those that are unfamiliar with their earlier work are simple. Like The Pixies before them and Nirvana at the same time, they listened to Husker Du, copied their quiet verse, noisy chorus arrangements and hey presto instant post Husker Du grunge band.
Of course you need something different to succeed. The Pixies had their twang, Cobain had his passion and introspection and with Smashing Pumpkins they had undisputed band leader and frontman Billy Corgan’s distinctive fey rock vocals and more than a passing nod to psychedelia.
Bury Me is still a highlight, featuring one of the best bass intros there has still ever been. The drumming and metal riffs on I Am One and the laid back psychedelia of Rhinoceros are as wonderful as I remember them. It is quite striking how it doesn’t date.
Another welcome part of this reissue is the extras. They really add something from the raw energy of their Peel session version of Siva to their inclusion of their early Sub Pop single Tristessa back through one of my favourites Starla.
There’s a real buzz and love of music by a young talented band with the world at their feet. Sure, Corgan was beginning to exercise what would become almost tyrannical control over the group, even playing most of the instruments on Gish, but the band seem to mind less here. For that reason there’s a charm to this album that is lacking in the rest of the albums.
Here’s what Corgan says of the recording of Gish.
Gish’ represents our first foray into the deep waters of rock and roll. In the music within, I still hear our naivete and fresh spirits asking to be heard, and I miss the times that helped make this music so earnest.
Siamese Dream was their breakthrough album, but in many ways the beginning of the end. The recording was more protracted. Corgan’s depression was worsening as his control over musical matters grew and he ended up playing most of the guitar and bass parts on the album.
Meanwhile drummer Jimmy Chamberlain’s drug abuse was now fully out of control. In an effort to move Chamberlain away from the drugs of the band’s native Chicago they relocated to Marietta, Georgia, to record Siamese Dream. He soon discovered a new bunch of friends and a new batch of drugs though.
After four months and $250,000 over budget Siamese Dream was eventually made and set them on the road to rock stardom. It’s epic in places, but there’s an undeniable tension and anger in the music.
Before Siamese Dream came out I had the unfortunate pleasure of seeing Smashing Pumpkins at The Reading Festival. It was at the end of a long tour. They clearly hated each other, the audience, life itself and even the music. It was awful. I didn’t bother getting Siamese Dream. ‘If you can’t perform to a paying public, why should I buy your record,’ I thought.
Listening to the album after all this time I’ve realised I missed out. Sure it has its faults and a tendancy to revert more to rock clichés and squealing solos but it’s still a mesmerising album and while not as good as Gish has a far more interesting tale of rock destruction attached to it.
The single Today is an obvious standout as is the opener Cherub Rock. The riff on Rocket is another highlight as are the bells and acoustic guitar of Disarm. Geek USA is where the tension in the band really comes out. Corgan’s guitar here is played out of pure anger. It works a treat as does the nearly nine minute long Silverfuck.
Extra wise the deluxe reissue of Siamese Dream is an even better package than Gish, with demos and rehearsal performances showing what some of the tracks would have sounded like with a smaller budget and perhaps a more convivial atmosphere. There’s a warmth to some of these demos such as on Rocket that the final album ironed out. Perhaps that’s why they are there to remind those like me that beneath the tension they once got on.
Clearly time has given Corgan a sense of perspective as well, acknowledging it was the beginning of the end of the fun rock band he formed and the start of the careerist alternative rock gods that their peers such as Bob Mould and Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus derided them for being at the time.
Final word on Siamese Dream should go to Corgan -
In 1992, with the weight of a perceived world on our shoulders, we disappeared into a parking garage to write the songs that would change the course of our lives forever. ‘Siamese Dream’ represents all of our dreams coming true, while the dreams of a happy band fell apart.
Siamese Dream 8.5/10
By Joe Lepper