The most casual of music fans could easily recite a well-worn collection of bullet points about The Smashing Pumpkins. Grunge band. Tyrannically lead by megalomaniac frontman Billy Corgan. Fraught inter-band relationships. Revolving lineups.
The headlines, as ever, don’t quite tell the whole story.
Grunge band? That’s a problematic genre description at the best of times. After all, Nirvana with Soundgarden is as tricky a comparison as Pearl Jam with Tad. Smashing Pumpkins were ever the outliers, though. For better or worse, this was largely thanks to Billy Corgan’s studious, near-obsessive attention to detail in the band’s studio output. They were always more art rock than grunge… with gothic, dream pop, alternative, metal, classic rock, post punk influences. Of course.
Megalomaniacal? Corgan famously performed all of his bandmates’ guitar and bass parts during the recording of the first two Pumpkins albums. A tyrant? After founding bassist D’arcy Wretsky left the band, she was never seen in the public eye again. Doubtlessly, Corgan seems to have called the shots to an almost oppressive degree. But who knows what goes on behind closed studio doors.
Fraught inter-band relationships? In their early days, drummer Jimmy Chamberlain had a well-publicised smack problem. Meanwhile, guitarist James Iha and D’arcy Wretsky’s romantic relationship imploded painfully, eventually prompting her departure. Corgan himself wrestled with depression. These folks are dysfunctional even by Fleetwood Mac standards.
Revolving lineups? Well, that’s one thing which does exactly what it says on the tin. It could also indicate the reason why the Pumpkins’ critical stock has lowered since their heyday.
Whereas their contemporaries Pearl Jam retained their creative nucleus, Smashing Pumpkins’ eeny-meeny-miny roster changes have made comparing their albums difficult. How do you compare records with vastly different personnel to one another? Can you even call half of the Smashing Pumpkins discography… well, Smashing Pumpkins albums?
Trekking through everything they have released is no mean feat. A definitive top ten is difficult to arrive at. But we think that this walks the line between an introduction for newbies and a satisfying hidden treasure trove for fans.
10. Drown from Singles soundtrack (1992)
Stylistically, Smashing Pumpkins were always lumped in with grunge. This label never quite seemed to fit, but they cannily its rails just as long as it suited them. Billy Corgan would call their Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness album The Wall for Generation X, but equally often spoke of the band’s frustration at the grunge tag.
Early on in their career, you can see how awkwardly the Pumpkins fit in with the prevailing scene. Drown is full on classic rock, with a mastery of light and shade that would arguably elude the band in years to come.
Many are quick to overlook how easily and with such compulsion the feathery guitars of Drown tug the listener through a tidal current. In contrast to the obsessively detailed wall of sound which would later characterise Pumpkins songs, Drown trades on something as simple as expertly handled loud-quiet dynamics and a screaming classic rock guitar solo.
Steve Albini’s infamous barb that The Smashing Pumpkins were like REO Speedwagon seems less an insult, more an accurate comparison listening to Drown.
9. Stand Inside Your Love from Machina/The Machines of God (2000)
Full disclosure here, I personally have an alt rock soft spot for Stand Inside Your Love. It’s the moment in which, late on in their career, The Smashing Pumpkins dropped all arty pretence. They ceased looking loathingly in the mirror at what the critics thought, and over their shoulder at what their contemporaries were upto, and just mainlined straight for a radio-ready banger.
Stand Inside Your Love’s saturated sound and chunky drums are immensely, immediately satisfying. If gigantic, hookish singles like this and Honestly – by Corgan’s later ill-fated Zwan project – don’t bring a goofy smile to your face, you may just be dead inside. It’s probably something he wouldn’t identify as being in his wheelhouse. But come on.
8. In My Body from Machina II/The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music (2000)
Perhaps Smashing Pumpkins fans thought that 1995’s double album (plenty more on that later, promise) was as complicated as things would get as a new release. Boy would the new millennium would prove them entirely wrong.
Following two disappointing sellers – Machina I and before it the critically re-appraised Adore – Machina II was unwanted by its record company. So the band released it online as a free download and then split, one last middle finger to an industry Corgan’s enmity towards was well-known.
Far from a clean break however, Machina II is a mess. Sonically crying out for a remaster and absurdly unwieldy sprawling as it does over an album and three EPs, rewards for navigating it are hard-earned. However the six-minute In My Body is one track worth tuning in for. Post-Mellon Collie Pumpkins are often compared with The Cure, yet it’s rare that the band go full goth shoegaze. In My Body however is pure Fascination Street by way of Depeche Mode, a coiled, glistening clean guitar riff gradually unwinding in sinister manner over pattering drums. Dreamy stuff.
7. Panopticon from Oceania (2012)
Surely the Machina saga was as complicated as things got for the Pumpkins, right? Nope. Corgan and Chamberlain reunited for the disastrous Zeitgeist in 2007, Corgan citing a wish for ‘his’ band to reunite. Of course, he next recorded with no original members, tagging the project Teargarden By Kaleidyscope.
The band’s output since 2009 is a confusing on-again, off-again album cycle comprising the Oceania and Monuments To An Elegy records plus a handful of EPs and singles. As with all things Pumpkins, it was dictated entirely by Corgan’s whims.
On paper, this sounds less than promising. There are actually some triumphant moments through Kaleidyscope however, particularly on the 9-track synth rock missive Monuments To An Elegy. If you’re looking for an ‘in’ however, the striding, confident Oceania single Panopticon couldn’t come more highly recommended. Newly recruited stand-in drummer Mike Byrne, then just 19, takes the track and makes his part count like it’s the last track he’ll ever play. The result is a thunderous piledriver of rhythm and thick guitar chords recalling – and in some cases bettering – the band’s glory days.
6. Rhinoceros from Gish (1991)
Listening back on Pumpkins debut Gish now, it’s a tricky album to love. Butch Vig’s co-production (with Corgan, naturally) is exacting, but the albums hooks are slicked over with a toothless mix and depthless mastering. Rhinoceros however wins out, like many of Smashing Pumpkins’ finest moments, through its sheer ludicrous pomposity.
The band goes up gradually through the gears before the track supernovas into a droning, distorted chorus. Spurred on, some of the greatest minutes the Pumpkins ever put to record come afterward with seismic dynamic shifts. The coda’s octave slides suddenly stall into palm mutes and Chamberlain crashes a landslide of drum fills to accompany the guitar fireworks. That is where it is at.
5. Stumbleine from Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995)
If one there’s thing which kept The Smashing Pumpkins from real, true, stadium-sized success, it can be generalised as a tendency for obtuseness. Even their best known album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness’ vinyl edition was reworked with a baffling, Corgan-endorsed new running order. It situates Thirty-Three, In the Arms of Sleep and Take Me Down at the album’s outset, right after Tonight, Tonight, bizarrely.
I mention this because Mellon Collie has its pointed quiet moments. Picking an approachable example of the Pumpkins’ less grandiose work is a tough call, but doing so from the enchanted forest of Mellon Collie is rewarding. In The Arms of Sleep certainly has a languid charm for example, but the lyrical, fingerpicked Stumbleine is a welcome respite from the album’s labyrinthine moments. It’s simple and gorgeous, Corgan’s consciously poetic lyrics supported by a sparse arrangement. Not every Pumpkins acoustic moment is pitched correctly. Stumbleine is one exception
4. Ava Adore from Adore (1998)
In terms of a top ten, it’s a tough call which to include between Ava Adore and Eye. A lot of common ground is covered by this track from the Pumpkins’ overt Cure loveletter Adore, and the Lynchian digression of Eye from the same era. Ava Adore shades it however.
Corgan’s angsty lyrics are often maligned, somewhat unfairly in my opinion. Sure he drops some clunkers – The Everlasting Gaze tried way too hard just a year later – but Ava Adore is perfectly pitched. It’s appropriate that you can almost imagine one of Corgan’s idols David Bowie in his Earthling era singing this track’s middle eight: “In you I feel so pretty/ In you I taste God/ In you I feel so hungry/ In you I crash cars”. Pounding drums, burbling bass filled with menace, and crashing guitars, Ava Adore beats a steady, stately rhythm. It’s a track that pays off in the simplest terms (“We must never be apart”), and is all the better for cutting to the chase.
3. Tonight, Tonight from Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995)
Yes, it’s one of their biggest, most recognisable tracks. The accompanying Georges Méliès-inspired video certainly ensured it was one of the most ubiquitous singles of the mid-90s. But this is truly the sound of Corgan and co. making a break for the stratosphere. With a heady dollop of lyrical pathos and a skeletal arpeggio, Tonight, Tonight sparks to life with Jimmy Chamberlain’s iron-armed drum rolls powering the whole steampunk machine along.
All of this means it’s hard near the song’s blaring crescendo to not get swept along by the big sentiments extolled. When Corgan quacks about, “The indescribable moments of your life, tonight/ The impossible is possible, tonight, tonight,” as an army of violins screech, you really do believe. This towering catharsis crests thrillingly, and then dies away just as impressively. Particularly for a band with such a maudlin reputation, this is triumphant stuff.
2. Mayonaise from Siamese Dream (1993)
Personally – this is all subjective, mind – I’ve never felt a big connection with Siamese Dream. It’s all a bit vague, like a thunderstorm happening all around. Mayonaise however is like a comfort blanket of fuzz. Jimmy Chamberlin’s impressively powerful drum part with it’s offbeat hi-hat lifts in particular never fails to speak to me.
You could argue over Siamese Dream’s true centrepiece. Geek USA is certainly in with a shout. but Mayo gets my vote. Apparently misspelt deliberated to phonetically approximate the phrase “my own eyes” – if you can believe such bullshit – it’s a chunky sledgehammer of enormous guitar chords and surprisingly deft peaks and troughs. Check out that elongated chorus (“No more sadness, no more sorrow/ No longer will I follow”) and tell me it doesn’t sound thrillingly empowered.
1. Zero from Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995)
Wanna go for a ride? In a word, Zero is iconic. For a start it sounds like space metal from a distant Matrix-like dystopian future. There’s also the fact that it’s a cunningly constructed masterpiece which chucks around new parts as if it were phobic of repetition.
I didn’t want to make a point of picking too many the band’s uber-singles. But Zero is not only peak Pumpkins, but it has also aged much more favourably than something like Bullet With Butterfly Wings. It’s two minutes forty-one, a fuck-off great grunge riff and of course that quintessential payoff. All together now Gen X-ers: “Emptiness is loneliness, and loneliness is cleanliness…”.
Aeronaut from Ogilala (2017)
The histrionic, funereal single from Corgan‘s 2017 solo album is about all you need to hear. Theatrics are turned all the way up to eleven here with plonked Elton John piano chords. Such melodrama is more sustainable over the course of a track than a relatively bare album. Trust me, and save yourself a trawl.