Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Smashing Pumpkins

Sound Familiar?

“Today,” “Bullet With Butterfly Wings,” “1979”

Who Are They?

The pleasant (yet still very angsty) alternative to grunge. (An alternative to an alternative genre? How novel!)

This is a story of romance, success, and general jackassery. Actually, that kind of makes things seem a little too epic. Most of this drama comes from one person, and that person is Billy Corgan.

He’s no Liam Gallagher, but that still doesn’t make him a saint.

But let’s not point fingers here (we’ll get to that later). Let’s start at the beginning, way back in 1988, when Billy Corgan met James Iha and a band of epic proportions was born. D’arcy Wretzky was recruited as the bassist and ended up having a short-lived love affair with James. For the band’s first official show, they decided to use a drum machine instead of an actual drummer, which really wasn’t a surprise considering Billy and James’ obsession with The Cure.

When drummer Jimmy Chamberlin finally joined the group, he felt a little out of place. He knew nothing about alternative rock, and was certainly clueless as to what the hell Billy meant by “sad-rock.” But Jimmy eventually opened everyone’s eyes to a much harder sound, helping to create a sound that got the Smashing Pumpkins compared to Jane’s Addiction.

Their 1991 debut album Gish was only a minor success, although the single “Rhinoceros” got some mainstream airplay. During the recording process, Billy was determined to make the album perfect. So he played most of the instruments himself. Nobody else really appreciated that.

During the tour behind Gish, problems galore began to arise. James and D’arcy went through a messy breakup, Jimmy became addicted to drugs and alcohol, and Billy went into a deep depression. Inter-band tensions continued to mount during the recording of the Pumpkins’ infinitely more successful follow-up Siamese Dream.

Despite being adored by critics, the Pumpkins faced hostility and general distaste from the alternative rock community. Instead of just being called sellouts (as is custom among music elitists and people who are jealous of others’ success…did that sound bitter?), they were dubbed “the grunge Monkees” and labeled as “careerists.” In the 1994 song “Range Life,” Pavement lead singer Stephen Malkmus refers to the band with the lines, “I don’t understand what they mean/And I could really give a fuck.” Stephen maintained that he was just dissing the band’s status and not their music.

After a massive amount of touring (including a slot on the 1994 Lollapalooza tour), it was back to the studio to record what would become the adventurous concept album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. The Pumpkins exploded into the mainstream with singles like “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” and “1979.” Malls all over the country started selling Billy’s iconic “Zero” shirt and MTV played Mellon Collie’s singles to death.

Towards the end of the Mellon Collie era, Jimmy was arrested for heroin possession and was fired from the band as a result. Billy, James, and D’arcy recorded the electronica-influenced Adore without Jimmy and adopted a darker look to match the albums gothic undertones. The Pumpkins ended the decade by simultaneously reuniting with Jimmy and ditching D’arcy for good.

Where Are They Now?

The name remains, but the lineup is not the same (that rhyme was unintentional and I’m actually laughing at myself for it).

The year 2000 marked the beginning of the end of the original Smashing Pumpkins. Former Hole bassist Melissa Auf der Mauer replaced D’arcy on the tour supporting Machina/The Machines of God. The album was a welcome return to the more traditional rock sound of previous albums. After the release of Machina II/The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music, the band called it quits.

Billy and Jimmy reunited to form the short-lived supergroup Zwan in 2001. Zwan only released one album, then Billy presumably got bored with it and released a solo album titled TheFutureEmbrace. Jimmy started an alternative/jazz fusion band called The Jimmy Chamberlin Complex, James enjoyed a brief stint as the guitarist for A Perfect Circle, and D’arcy disappeared off the face of the earth. This is, until she was arrested in February 2011 (check out the lovely mugshot).

On February 17, 2004, Billy basically disowned the entire band on his personal blog. He called D’arcy a “mean-spirited drug addict” and blamed the breakup on James. Now that’s not a way to make friends, kids.

In 2005, Billy announced a Smashing Pumpkins reunion. And everyone lived happily ever after.

Just kidding. James and D’arcy refused to be anywhere near Billy, but Jimmy agreed to the reunion. Billy and Jimmy recruited bassist Ginger Pooley and guitarist Jeff Schroeder and released Zeitgeist in 2007. The album received mixed reviews, but Billy assured fans that the best was yet to come. That was after Jimmy left and Billy became the lone member of the band.

But Why Smashing Pumpkins?

Billy’s massive Teargarden by Kaleidyscope project is being released one song at a time. In the meantime, he’ll release another Smashing Pumpkins album titled Oceania, set to be dropped on September 1. How do I know all this? I happen to stalk him on Twitter.

What Does Sam Think?

Let me just say this: the Smashing Pumpkins are not the same band without James Iha, D’arcy Wretzky, and Jimmy Chamberlin. Of course the original lineup will never reunite because we live in a bleak, unfair world. And because no one can get along with Billy Corgan.

Now, Billy may be kind of a dick, but he’s a great musician. I guess I’m just slightly bitter because when I saw the Pumpkins live, I was just seeing Billy. I’d like to think of any band as a group effort and not just a superstar at the forefront with some nobodies behind him. But I do still respect Billy as an artist. The man is responsible for one of my favorite albums of all time, for God’s sake.

So let’s talk about the music, shall we? In case you weren’t aware, I’m in love with Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. “I’m in love with my sadness” just went through my head as I wrote that. I’m now having a “Zero” moment.

Anyway, the Pumpkins have (or had, at least) this innate ability to mix so-called “gothic” lyrics and imagery with some absolutely beautiful instrumentation. So what’s the difference between the Smashing Pumpkins and The Cure? Aside from the lack of a synthesizer and Robert Smith’s crazy hair, the Pumpkins have a certain hardness related to their style. They kind of got lumped into the whole grunge movement, but they definitely didn’t belong there (really the only connection they had to grunge was Billy’s relationship with Courtney Love, not that it has any merit).

It’s almost impossible to go back to the sounds on Gish and Siamese Dream. The early albums contain the purity of the Pumpkins’ signature sound. Mellon Collie found them at their peak of their creativity, but things unfortunately went downhill as the original lineup disintegrated.

Moral of the story: Being in a band is like being in a marriage; if one person starts taking all the credit, he’ll just be left making beautiful music by himself (in his mom’s basement surrounded by cats).

--Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.

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