The 1990’s and rock was not a great match. Granted, grunge ruled in the early years, but it wasn’t really that innovative. It essentially was a ‘back-to-basics’ move, comparable to the punk movement in the late 1970’s. The main difference being that the influence of grunge wasn’t nearly as far reaching as punk’s was, which had a lasting impact on (pop)music as a genre on its own, but also as one of the primary influences on new-wave.
For anyone in search of innovation and excitement, one had to look for rap, hip-hop and dance. Within those genres rock sometimes played a part, but never significantly.
So, nothing good came from 1990’s rock then? Of course not, but the number of classic albums is relatively limited. There is consensus on three albums, Nirvana’s Nevermind (even though In Utero is the better album), Pearl Jam’s Ten and Radiohead’s OK Computer. Many rock bands from the previous decade made great records (R.E.M., U2, Depeche mode). New bands often mimicked (and at times downright copied) music from earlier times: Oasis, Green Day, Soundgarden, etc. Luckily original albums with a very distinct sound did come from the era: Pearl Jam’s Ten, Radiohead’s OK Computer, Jeff Buckley’s Grace, Mazzy Star’s So Tonight That I Might See and Weezer’s Pinkerton.
For me, two bands really brought something special to the rock scene: Pavement and Smashing Pumpkins.
The last one being one of my favorite rockbands of all time. They released their second album Siamese Dream in 1993 (number 15 in my personal album top 50). Despite the difficult creation process, it was a masterpiece.
Smashing Pumpkins’ debut album Gish was released in 1991. Even though its success came as a surprise, it does contain a number of classic Smashing Pumpkins songs: I Am One, Siva, Rhinoceros and Tristessa. The albums stood out for the songs, which sounded melancholy and rocked hard. Billy Corgan’s voice was very distinctive as was Jimmy Chamberlin’s insanely inventive and fluid drumming. Chamberlin is one of my favorite drummers of all time.
That same year Nirvana’s Nevermind was released. Grunge exploded and Nirvana, against their will, became its standard-bearer for an entirely new generation of kids.
All heavy rock was labeled the same way. Smashing Pumpkins was no exception. They were even labeled as the next Nirvana. The band didn’t fit the scene, had no roots in it, and didn’t want to. Smashing Pumpkins had other (greater?) ambitions. Grunge’s nihilism didn’t suit Billy Corgan. He was more interested in grand and lively melodies and ideas.
Even though the band had only released one album, the problems were huge. Drummer Jimmy Chamberlin had struck up a very serious addiction to heroin and guitar-player James Iha and bass-player D’Arcy Wretzky had recently ended their relationship. On top of that, composer, singer and guitar-player Billy Corgan suffered from weight-gain and a deep depression and, a real problem for the band, writer’s block. At one point Corgan suffered a nervous breakdown and now underwent therapy to get his life back on track.
Still, work on a new album was started. Corgan felt an enormous amount of pressure. Not only did he have to come up with a sequel to a debutalbum, it had to follow up a successful album as well. Besides, the media increased the pressure, almost demanding the next album to reach Nevermind like status. Most of the recording was done between December 1992 and March 1993. The band got in the studio, far away from their regular environment, together with producer Butch Vig, who had produced Gish as well.
Corgan started writing again: Today was the first result. Musically speaking, Corgan was on his way back. The songs kept on coming, but now they had to be translated into taped recordings with a severely handicapped band. Corgan made extremely long days and practically lived in the studio. With producer Vig, 16 hour sessions were common practice for a long time.
The band’s mood was bad to utterly miserable, up to the point that bandmembers refused to talk to one another or went missing for days on end. Corgan’s insane level of perfectionism led to him re-recording the parts, initially played by Iha and Wretzky, by himself. The hard work, the depression he was going through and his own relationship troubles, had led Corgan to become suicidal. Around the time of the release of the remastered Siamese Dream version, he stated that he had fantasized about suicide and his funeral. He was even actively selecting the music that was to be played at the event.
Upon finalizing the recordings, Corgan and Vig were exhausted. Both lacked the energy to mix the album. That task was subcontracted and lasted over a month. The album was ready behind schedule and at higher financial costs. But, as is the case sometimes, out of all the misery an impressive piece of art was born.
In the meantime, the press knew about the problems surrounding the album’s creation. Corgan was certainly open about his views on the matter:
“You know, I gave them a year and a half to prepare for this record… I’m surrounded by these people who I care about very much, yet they continue to keep failing me…. If you really think about it, of course, someone doesn’t do the job because they’re lazy, or they don’t think it’s important. But I took it as, ‘You’re not worth going home and working on the song.'”
During the many interview sessions following the album’s release, Corgan appeared to be some kind of dictator, who was very difficult, if not completely impossible, to work with. The bandmembers were there to satisfy every whim of their leader. Corgan apparently didn’t mind. However, it is one of the reasons that Corgan, to this day, is generally frowned upon by audiences and media alike. Justified or not, his persona seems to illicit irritation.
On July 27th, 1993, Siamese Dream was released. The album wasn’t Nevermind at all. Siamese Dream sounded rich, lush, varied and orchestrated. It didn’t sound like punk and/or grunge. It seemed almost arty at times.
Deviating from the norm and what was expected, was just what made the album so bold, and so good. It arrived at the right moment in time. It was somewhat refreshing to have an album that was different and still delivered the music and message with the same kind of urgency.
Audiences quickly picked up on it. The album surpassed Gish‘s success. Almost every critic immediately acknowledged the fact that this was an exceptional album and reviews were glowing.
The lyrics enticed some criticism. The Chicago Tribune, a newspaper from hometown Chicago, made fun of the band. Hummer in particular was targeted. To be fair, not too surprising, since the line:
Life’s a bummer, when you’re a hummer
© 1993 Billy Corgan
is not that too convincing. Corgan never forgot the criticism (and its source). The newspaper and the reviewer were scolded every time during concerts in Chicago.
Still, to focus on that one line is a bit easy. The subjects were (being in) love, the indie-scene, depression and suicidal thoughts. Traumatic experiences were made accessible. Melancholy in stead of ‘fuck you’. Declared by the typical Corgan smirk and scream, almost puking out his frustration and anger.
A classic rock album that sounds beautiful. Vig’s production is clear and sparkling. Even after 25 years, the music pops out the speakers. All instruments are clearly audible. Contrary to what was the norm at the time, the album is filled with rich arrangements, including guitar parts that are dubbed up to 40 (and sometimes even more) layers. The rich melodies are stunningly beautiful. And of course the exceptional drumming of Jimmy Chamberlin. Without him the album had never become as good as it is today.
It immediately starts off on a high with Cherub Rock, one of the very best rock songs of all time. From the first drum roll to the wall of guitars that tear the song inside out. The song’s about being part of a subculture of which you really don’t want to be a part of. Smashing Pumpkins and grunge?
Freak out, give in
Doesn’t matter what you believe in
And be somebody’s fool this year
‘Cause they know
Who is righteous, what is bold
So I’m told
Let me out!
© 1993 Billy Corgan
After that, the album goes from highlight to highlight. Quiet also has great lyrics:
We are the fossils
The relics of our time
We mutilate the meanings
So they’re easy to deny
© 1993 Billy Corgan
The song Today was written during a bout of depression. The lyrics are ironic, given its real subject. Today is a typical Smashing Pumpkins song. Filled with contradictions, a fairly happy song at first glance, but upon listening more closely a heart wrenching story of someone who feels utterly lost.
Today is the greatest day I’ve ever known
Can’t live for tomorrow, tomorrow’s much too long
I’ll burn my eyes out
Before I get out
I wanted more
Than life could ever grant me
Bored by the chore
Of saving face
Today is the greatest day I have ever known
Can’t wait for tomorrow, I might not have that long
I’ll tear my heart out
Before I get out
© 1993 Billy Corgan
And then Disarm. A song on Corgan’s childhood, which was not very loving (to say the least), filled with abuse and humiliation. This song is about those times and (according to me, anyway) about the fear of making the same mistakes as his father (the killer in me is the killer in you) and the desperate attempts to ease the pain (I send this smile over to you). A beautiful acoustic song that’s kept (relatively) small.
Disarm you with a smile
And cut you like you want me to
Cut that little child
Inside of me and such a part of you
Ooh, the years burn
Ooh, the years burn
I used to be a little boy
So old in my shoes
And what I choose is my choice
What’s a boy supposed to do?
The killer in me is the killer in you, my love
I send this smile over to you
© 1993 Billy Corgan
The great songs Soma and Mayonaise are complex, beautifully built up and contain moving musical themes. Silverfuck, on the other hand, is one big chunk of excitement, with heavy guitar eruptions and wild drumming.
Spaceboy is dedicated tot Corgan’s autistic half-brother.
This album is essential, from the very first to the last note everything is just right and fits the (musical) theme. Give its conception it’s nothing short of a miracle that this album came to fruition at all. Pure musical genius is the base upon which this exceptional album is built.
Four singles were culled from the album. Cherub Rock was the first, The perfect rock-song, but it didn’t do too well. Today was the second (the record company wanted this to be the first single) and was very successful. The video was played a lot on MTV and gave the band its first taste of fame. The third single was Disarm. Its black and white video created a lot of attention on MTV. The last two singles in particular, had a great impact on the sales of Siamese Dream. The last single to be culled from the album, Rocket, faired pretty well.
All songs written by Billy Corgan, unless stated otherwise.
- Cherub Rock
- Soma (Billy Corgan, James Iha)
- Geek U.S.A.
- Mayonaise (Billy Corgan, James Iha)
- Sweet Sweet
- Billy Corgan – vocals, lead guitar, bass , Mellotron on Spaceboy, string arrangements
- James Iha – rhythm guitar, background vocals
- D’Arcy Wretzky – bass (according to the credits), background vocals
- Jimmy Chamberlin – drums
- Mike Mills – piano on Soma
- Eric Remschneider – string arrangements and cello on Disarm and Luna
- David Ragsdale – string arrangements and violin on Disarm and Luna
Special attention for the album’s remaster, which was released on December 5th, 2011. The complete remaster series of all the early Smashing Pumpkins albums should be a template for the way projects of that kind should be handled (as far as I’m concerned). All albums up to and including Adore are part of the series and every release is special, elaborate and beautifully packaged and has many extras, like unreleased material, rehearsals, live recordings and DVD’s. This applies to the Siamese Dream release as well, that has an extra disc and a DVD.
This disc contains extra songs, written by Billy Corgan, unless stated otherwise.
- Pissant (Rough Mix)
- Siamese Dream (Broadway Rehearsal Demo)
- STP (Rehearsal Demo)
- Frail and Bedazzled (Soundworks Demo)
- Luna (Apartment Demo)
- Quiet (BBC Session/Billy Corgan Mix)
- Moleasskiss (Soundworks Demo)
- Hello Kitty Kat (Soundworks Demo)
- Today (Broadway Rehearsal Demo)
- Never Let Me Down Again (BBC Session) (Martin Gore)
- Apathy’s Last Kiss (Siamese Sessions Rough Mix)
- Ache (Silverfuck Rehearsal Demo)
- U.S.A. (Soundworks Demo)
- U.S.S.R. (Soundworks Demo)
- Spaceboy (Acoustic Mix)
- Rocket (Rehearsal Demo)
- Disarm (Acoustic Mix)
- Soma (Instrumental Mix) (Billy Corgan, James Iha)
The live DVD contains the full concert the band played on August 14th,1993 at The Metro, Chicago. The songs: Rocket, Quiet, Today, Rhinoceros, Geek U.S.A., Soma, I Am One, Disarm, Spaceboy, Starla, Cherub Rock, Bury Me, Hummer, Siva, Mayonaise, Drown and Silverfuck.
After Siamese Dream
Contrary to Kurt Cobain, Smashing Pumpkins wanted nothing less than fame and fortune. This album was the important first step towards that end goal. Two years later the band was the biggest and most important rock band in the world. The release of Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, masterpiece number two, was the final breakthrough. Unfortunately, very soon after things escalated (dramatically) in the band. The escalation did give way to masterpiece number three: Adore. More on that at a later time.
What do you think of Siamese Dream and Smashing Pumpkins? Let me know!
Smashing Pumpkins – Disarm – video image: google.com
Smashing Pumpkins 1993 image: ew.com
Smashing Pumpkins – Billy Corgan & Butch Vig in the studio image: wordpress.com
Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dream image: discogs.com
Smashing Pumpkins – Today – video image: imdb.com
Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dream – Singles image: 45cat.com/apoplife.nl
Smashing Pumpkins 1993 photo shoot image: tumblr.com
Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dream – remaster image: consequenceofsound.net
Smashing Pumpkins – Live Metro Chicago 08/14/1993 image: albert0.nl
Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dream – lettering image: famfonts.com