Alternative to Alternative - The Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dream
‘It’s great. It’s about time we can walk into a 7–11 and hear something cool.’ When L7’s Jennifer Finch said this in 1992, she’d most likely been hoping, as many in the underground had been, that the success of 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' on commercial radio had proved to radio programmers that all kinds of alternative music could safely be playlisted. But by 1993, it had become clear that this was not the case. Nirvana’s success had shown that distorted guitars and gloomy vocals could be played on the radio, but most radio programmers took this as a sign that only distorted guitars and gloomy vocals should be played on the radio. Having found a successful formula, US radio moved quickly toward standardisation. Nirvana had worked, and so had Pearl Jam. Stone Temple Pilots sounded a lot like both, and could be slotted into the new format with ease. The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ white-boy guitar funk had gone down a treat with listeners, so the Spin Doctors’ white-boy guitar funk probably would too.
Chicago’s Smashing Pumpkins fell foul of these new rules. The band shared strong genealogical links with Nirvana: its influences included the Pixies, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, and its debut album, Gish, was produced by Butch Vig in a similar style to Nevermind.But the Smashing Pumpkins’ sound could not be easily classified as grunge. Billy Corgan’s lyrics owed more to eighties goth favourites like The Cure and Bauhaus than was fashionable at the time, jazz-trained drummer Jimmy Chamberlin gave the music a prog-rock feel, D’arcy Wretzky’s basslines were straight out of the learn-to-play-me school of New Order’s Peter Hook, and guitarist James Iha worshipped at the feet of My Bloody Valentine. Corgan’s singing also owed more than a little to shoegaze, his curiously androgynous voice was mixed low under the band’s layers of guitar noise in a way that made it hard to hear the lyrics, though Corgan helpfully informed those who might have been interested that they dealt with ‘pain and spiritual ascension’.
James Iha was proud of the band’s un-pin-downable mixture of styles. ‘It’s very individual,’ he said in 1991. ‘We don’t really fit into any specific category.’ But shortly after Caroline records released Gish in May 1991, the music industry began taking steps toward the standardisation of alternative rock, and the Smashing Pumpkins, as Corgan acknowledged later, ‘were doing all the wrong things’. ‘It was very much this kind of flannel-driven, no guitar solos, three-minute pop songs thing,’ he said, ‘and we were playing these six-minute songs with solos.’ Radio gave some attention to the single ‘Rhinoceros’, and the band toured with Pearl Jam and the Red Hot Chili Peppers in August 1991. But the Smashing Pumpkins did not break through to the mainstream to anything like the extent that its touring companions did. ‘Anybody who heard Nevermind, then tried the Pumpkins for more of the same,’ observed Creem magazine’s Dave Thompson, ‘was doomed to disappointment.’ Gish spent only one week on the Billboard chart, and climbed no higher than 195.
Gish was by no means a write-off — the album was well-reviewed and sold steadily, if not spectacularly, into 1992. But it suited Billy Corgan to believe that his band had been rejected by the alternative nation, because he was used to being rejected. He had been rejected by his biological parents, who’d left him in the care of his stepmother, rejected in high school for being a too-tall geek with an ugly birthmark, and rejected in Guyville for being a pop careerist in an indie world. He had, by the age of twenty-six, come to think of himself as an outsider, and saw his band in exactly the same terms. ‘We weren’t with any of those scenes,’ he said of the band’s early days in Chicago. ‘We weren’t cool like the Touch and Go [Records] bands.’ The note of pride in Corgan’s voice as he said this spoke of the vast talent he had developed for synthesising hurt into ambition. In 1988, the Pumpkins scored an early triumph when they were booked to support Jane’s Addiction in Chicago, and one week before the concert, Corgan appeared on WNUR to give away tickets. Noting that the show was going to be filmed, the interviewer asked if he was looking forward to it. ‘Yeah,’ Corgan replied with a smile, ‘it’ll be nice for all my old high school pals who didn’t like me to see me on TV.’
Corgan’s long history of rejection taught him to rely on himself and determine his own goals, and this allowed him to develop the sound of the Smashing Pumpkins in defiance of, rather than in deference to, the demands of scenesters, critics, and even the band’s own fans. ‘It sounds kind of twisted,’ he admitted in 1991. ‘But we don’t really play for audience reactions. That’s for the arena-rock fans.’ But if Corgan’s words made him sound as though he shared Steve Albini’s ‘who cares if you listen’ philosophy of music, subsequent events would reveal that this was nothing more than a coincidence. Corgan had no real allegiance to indie rock or its ideals, so when he found himself excluded from the club in 1991, he vowed that the Smashing Pumpkins’ next album would be everything indie guitar rock was not. He began to define his music against the prevailing aesthetic: if alt rock was cynical, nihilistic and self-deprecating, the Pumpkins would be sincere, romantic and entirely selfish. If grunge was loose and slack, his band would be uptight and exacting. And if indie was ashamed of success and allergic to hype, Corgan would write for the stadium. He dreamed of making the kind of epic, symphonic art-rock he’d loved as a teenager: Queen, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, and the Electric Light Orchestra.
Late in 1992, Corgan broke a long spell of writer’s block with a song called ‘Today’, a stinging ballad about alienation and suicide that gave Corgan back his confidence, and set the tone for the album, which the singer later defined as ‘me versus them, or me versus me’. Corgan’s basically adversarial relationship to the world found an outlet in a flood of new songs about those who’d done him wrong: his parents, his friends, his critics. He recorded a demo of ‘Today’ and played it for the Virgin reps. ‘They loved it,’ he told Dave Thompson. ‘Suddenly, all these people were shooting their mouths off about how great the album was going to be.’ Corgan had always felt that the Smashing Pumpkins could make a world-class record. But at the time, the rest of the band was in no state to realise such a project. Wretzky and Iha had ended their long relationship in the middle of an eighteen-month tour and were now barely speaking, and Chamberlain had become addicted to heroin. So when the dilapidated Pumpkins failed to deliver the performances he required of them, he simply erased their parts and played them himself. ‘I just have a vision,’ he explained in 1992. ‘And I can’t let them not having a vision stop me.’ Working around the clock with Butch Vig and engineer Alan Moulder, Corgan channelled a lifetime’s worth of loneliness and resentment into one hour of music that ran the gamut from string-soaked ballads to apocalyptic guitar fury.
Timing, as Thompson noted in his Creem piece, is everything — and in this instance, the Pumpkins got it right. Released in July 1993, Siamese Dream debuted at number 10 on the Billboard chart, and was still hovering around the Top 30 three months later, by which time it had sold almost a million copies. Michael Snyder of the San Francisco Chronicle watched the group, now cleaned up and given a new sense of purpose by the success of the album, play a sold-out show at the Warfield Theatre in October. ‘Smashing Pumpkins,’ he concluded, ‘is the buzz-band of the moment, and a horde of MTV-weaned thrashers pushed and pummelled one another in the pit by the stage.’
Watching the Pumpkins strike their neo-rock star poses on stage, Michael Azerrad suggested that the band’s ‘avowedly un-indie music has helped force the question of what exactly is “alternative”.’ The Pumpkins, as Azerrad pointed out, had spent no time on an indie label (apart from one Sub Pop single), had no scruples whatsoever about selling out, and made music that, by this point, owed far more to Queen than the Pixies. There was only one sense, really, in which the Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream could be described as alternative, a lunatic possibility hinted at by comedian Todd Snider on his 1994 single, ‘Talkin’ Seattle Grunge Rock Blues’. ‘Now that’s alternative,’ exclaimed Snider. ‘That’s alternative to alternative!’ Chicago music journalist Bill Wyman seemed to agree with this assessment. In his year-in-review column, Wyman insisted that the Smashing Pumpkins’ new direction amounted to ‘an explicit rejection of much of the insularity that increasingly characterises underground music and the fringes of alternative music in America’. Like Liz Phair and Urge Overkill, the Pumpkins had, according to Wyman, cast aside ‘the harshness, contrariness and machismo of the underground in favour of a professed desire to sell records’.
There was, as Steve Albini pointed out in a subsequent letter to Wyman, something truly absurd about this argument. ‘If I read your heavily parenthetical English correctly,’ he wrote, ‘you are making the case that Liz Phair, Urge Overkill and the Smashing Pumpkins are somehow unique in rock music because they are brazenly trying to sell records. Genius.’ Albini, who had frequently described Corgan in the past as a careerist, now added the singer to his list of 1993’s ‘pandering sluts’ — artists without principles, who served the service industry and left their integrity to rot. There seemed to be some truth to this. Corgan had, by his own admission, sacked the band while recording Siamese Dream because they couldn’t play up to the standard he needed, and this standard was at least partially determined by what he thought would get played on the radio. ‘It’s a good song,’ he’d ask himself as he listened to the playback of ‘Disarm’, ‘but is it a hit?’ When the song was a hit, and the album had raced to the top of the charts, he started ‘leaping up and down in an airport somewhere. But it’s not something I like talking about,’ he quickly added, ‘because I don’t want people to think that success is all I care about.’
Corgan cut short his victory dance because he knew what the Albinis of the world would say about him if they caught him doing it. But this was the whole point. For Corgan, people like Steve Albini were no different to the cool kids at school who’d looked down their noses at you because you dressed funny or didn’t know what was ‘in’ and what wasn’t. It was indie hipsters and ideologues that he’d had partly in mind when he wrote the lyrics to Siamese Dream’sferocious opening number, ‘Cherub Rock’. ‘Freak out and give in,’ he sighed, ‘doesn’t matter what you believe in / Stay cool, and be somebody’s fool this year.’ Indie rock said it was cool to stay underground and make deliberately difficult music. But to be cool was to conform, and Corgan was resolved, in all things, to do only what he believed in, which in this case was playing world-class pop-rock for the masses. If the story of the Smashing Pumpkins could be said to have a moral, it was, as far as Corgan was concerned, be yourself.
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