It’s easy to forget that the Smashing Pumpkins were outsiders. Not in the sense that many bands are — the weird, artsy, pained kids who find an outlet by playing loud rock music. The Smashing Pumpkins were outsiders from a wave of outsiders, often regarded by a sneer from their contemporaries as ’90s alternative took over the mainstream. Because in writing about the past we need to make generalizations and group the survivors together, it’s not uncommon to see Smashing Pumpkins’ name in the same sentence as all the grunge bands, even as Steve Albini publicly denounced them and many were put off by what they deemed a blatantly careerist band. Of course, all these bands were getting huge and selling millions of records, but the key was to tell everyone very loudly how much you didn’t want it. The Smashing Pumpkins, on the other hand, were rock stars in a traditional sense, just speaking in the more angst-ridden lingua france of Gen X. In a sense that, in hindsight, makes them one of the last of their breed.
Part of this is because the Smashing Pumpkins always seemed to have their feet splayed in different worlds. While most of the ’90s alt rock bands held some debt to classic rock — and now often get grouped with classic rock, actually — Billy Corgan worshipped artists like ELO and Queen as much as he did Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. This went beyond unhip; this signaled that the Smashing Pumpkins would have a greater deal of comfort with the idea of performance. Compared to all the grunge bands’ aesthetics — the not-caring-about-your-appearance thing, which is really a very conscious decision in and of itself, but anyway — the Smashing Pumpkins looked prefabricated. Corgan was seen as an old-school rockstar egomaniac once tales of his perfectionism cropped up. If he’d re-record all his bandmates’ parts, the rest of it could be artifice, too. He could’ve carefully orchestrated the band’s diversity. And, throughout, he was always interested in the band’s look, cultivating a kind of goth-glam mix through the mid and late-’90s, at times almost playing rock star characters. This was far more akin to what U2 was doing in the ’90s than what Soundgarden or Pearl Jam were.
To a certain extent, the Smashing Pumpkins were indeed just something Corgan constructed. After a failed stint in St. Petersburg, Florida trying to find success with his first band the Marked, Corgan moved back to Chicago and plotted his next move while working in a record store. He already had the band name figured out when he met guitarist James Iha in that same record store. They met bassist D’arcy Wretzky at a show, arguing over the band they’d all just seen. In hindsight, it seems too perfect, the classic rock band origin story. Corgan hatched his band and then met people in the most expected ways, only needing the mythic entrance of a distinct drummer to make things fall into place. Jimmy Chamberlin was the final member to join, and his muscular style convinced Corgan to pursue a more aggressive direction musically. All of this is circumstance, how any band finds their way together. But there’s something about the Smashing Pumpkins that seemed a perfect, unreal depiction of what a rock band was supposed to be in a time where the other major artists bristled against it. Maybe this is largely the media’s doing, but the band came off as the intentional experiment of a sole architect passing himself off as bandleader, the most inauthentic of rock band concepts in a time that prized so-called authenticity.
And for a constructed rock band, a constructed rock band dissolution. Was there ever a totally good, peaceful phase in the Smashing Pumpkins’ career? There was the big issue — an alternative band at odds with the alternative world — and there were all the smaller, personal strife issues. Just during their first tour alone, Iha and Wretzky’s relationship fell apart, Chamberlin began nursing the drug habit that’d later get him kicked out of the band, and Corgan began struggling with depression. Once the Smashing Pumpkins became everything a rock band could imaginably be by releasing a sprawling double-album as their third record, just four years in, there wasn’t really anywhere for them to go but down a slow path of disintegration. They’d deconstruct their sound, and they’d deconstruct the perfectly synced vision of a rock band they’d projected. There wasn’t any big, dramatic flameout. After a few years spent alienating fans, Corgan announced preemptively that the band would release one more album and then quit.
He still had control over what would occur, but the narrative had wriggled out of his hands. Does anyone really talk about those last few years of the first incarnation of the Smashing Pumpkins? The main thing anyone seems to think of with the Smashing Pumpkins is those first three albums, and maybe Pisces Iscariot, exclusively. Which makes sense, on one hand, as it was undoubtedly their peak, and it’s the music of theirs that you could most easily identify as being influential on recent indie artists. But it hardly gets at the expanse of their catalog, the sheer amount of music Corgan wrote and the weirdness of how the band released it. This makes for some unconventional territory for a list of this sort. Pisces Iscariot is a collection of b-sides, but it’s a crucial entry in their catalog; the transitional phase of Teargarden By Kaleidyscope was left unfinished, but still seems important to note; MACHINA II was released for free on the internet in 2000, an album with a much lower profile and no official commercial release, but is one that many fans hold in high regard. For those reasons, these releases were included, while the smattering of other EPs and the expanded singles collection The Aeroplane Flies High were not. If there’s someone out there who thinks Zeitgeist was a stunning comeback and the greatest thing since nu-metal, make your case in the comments.
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