Siamese Dream Turns 20
Billy Corgan was the first star produced in alt-rock’s early-’90s star-producing boom period who could’ve been a rock star in any less civilized time, too. In the ’70s, Corgan’s gift for triumphal melodic excess would’ve almost certainly catapulted him into Camaro stereos, though he probably would’ve had to wail or bellow instead of doing the adenoidal mumblewhine that came naturally to him. (Or he could’ve done like Journey’s Neal Schon and found himself a wailer or a bellower to stand out front while he cranked out the triumphal melodic excess.) But then, Chris Cornell, a top-shelf wail-bellower, probably would’ve been a ’70s star, too. Cornell, however, would’ve been lost in the ’80s mainstream-rock landscape, which is presumably how he ended up on SST in the first place. Corgan might’ve had to cake on a few pounds of pancake makeup to hide that babyface, but he could’ve been a Sunset Strip glam-metaller, easily, and there’s plenty of Sunset Strip glam-metal residue in the solos and power-ballads that made it onto Siamese Dream, his breakout. Unlike the various other alt-rock breakout stars, he had basically zero hardcore or pigfuck or college-rock pedigree working for him, and though he was enough of a shoegaze-head to hire Loveless guru Alan Moulder to mix Siamese Dream, he mostly just recognized the genre’s dissolving swoops as yet another guitar-based route to triumphal melodic excess, one that worked really well alongside Byrdsy space-jangle and Floydian head-trips and Kiss-esque blazes of glory. Siamese Dream remains Corgan’s most perfectly calibrated big-rock moment, a canny radio-grab that accurately took the temperature of its time and turned out to be a moving personal statement, almost despite itself.
Fun fact: I earned myself an afternoon or two of eighth-grade playground-fame by calling into the local Baltimore album-rock station and getting on the air once, asking the DJ what Corgan was mewling at the climactic moment of “Today.” (I was convinced it was “my fill is strange,” even though that made no sense; turns out it was really “my belly stings.” The DJ was no help.) I was playing the fool, of course, but this still seemed like the sort of question that mattered, and I’d have long conversations with friends regarding just what the hell Corgan was talking about at any given moment. Those lyrics were all basically gobbledygook, of course, quite possibly engineered specifically to give 13-year-olds something vague to puzzle over. But they came wrapped in music of such obvious transcendent power that they had to mean something, and wasn’t until “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” that Corgan’s lyrics became the kind of thing you joke about.
Those lyrics seemed to be worth debating, partly because Corgan made them so hard to decipher and partly because Siamese Dream was just an obvious instant classic, an album with scope and force and hooks to burn. Before its release, all the band really had to its name was one very good album of culty guitar curlicues on a pseudo-indie and one scene-stealing final track on the Singles soundtrack. But even to an adolescent alt-rock-radio dork like me, the album immediately scanned as an obvious Big Deal, and all I really had to hear was that great extended endorphin-rush build on first single “Cherub Rock” to know it. Man, the intros on this album! The slow-building fuzz roar of “Cherub Rock,” the precise twinkle-chimes of “Today,” the elegiac church bells of “Disarm” — all brilliant, and that’s just the singles. Corgan had evidently put in serious time as a rock student, and even when you get into the late-album transitions, like the way the almost-metallic ends of multi-part epics like “Mayonaise” and “Silverfuck” always fade right into acoustic sighs like “Spaceboy” and “Sweet Sweet.” And all this stuff mattered, because we, as listeners, had quickly accustomed ourselves to the grunge-era idea that this sort of conscientious craft was now irrelevant, that the real geniuses would transmit angst directly from their souls to our ears. (That’s not to say that, say, Pearl Jam didn’t put serious work into Vs., but bands like Pearl Jam were great at making their music sound second-nature, and Corgan wasn’t.) Corgan pulled off something with all the widescreen ambition of, say, Use Your Illusion, but he did it using the language of alt-rock. And if his decision there was a con, then we could use more cons like that.
It’s telling that two of 1993’s best rock albums, Exile In Guyville and Siamese Dream, came from people who were feeling completely alienated by Chicago’s cool-kids underground rock scene. The defining poles of that scene — Steve Albini’s spartan sonics, Urge Overkill’s hilariously cocksure swagger — could do great things, but they were focusing on some pretty stark and simple things. Albini was directly involved in two of 1993’s other best rock albums, In Utero and Rid Of Me, but it’s funny to listen to king-shits Urge Overkill’s own 1993 major-label move Saturation next to Siamese Dream. Urge Overkill wore leisure suits and medallions and wanted to be Cheap Trick, a commendable goal. And Saturation had great singles. But they were an alt-rock band who actually wanted a pop breakthrough and weren’t quite good and varied enough to get there. Corgan, meanwhile, was a paisley-shirted, potato-faced dork who locked himself in the studio for years, spent too much of his label’s money, pissed off his bandmates, played most of the instruments on the album himself, and actually ended up making a ’70s-style rock opus with the sweep and the success of the old records that the Urge dudes probably worshipped. That must’ve stung.
And in a weird way, the world probably needed a ’70s-style rock opus in the summer of 1993. That was the peak of the alt-boom, the moment just before Nirvana and Pearl Jam got around to releasing the blockbuster follow-ups to their breakthroughs, when major labels got busy attempting to snatch up the entire rosters of labels like Touch & Go and Dischord. The hype was that the face of music had changed forever, that honesty and guitar-fuzz would rule from then until forevermore — and if you were a kid who read music magazines, as I was, then you probably believed the hype. But this was a ridiculous utopian idea, and it wouldn’t last much longer. The pretenders of the world, the Collective Souls and the Candleboxes, were already starting to sneak onto alt-rock radio playlists, and within five years, “grunge” would come to mean “Creed.” Siamese Dream was marketed as a grunge record, but it’s emphatically not one. It’s also emphatically not a cynical record. It’s merely a record that wants to be huge, and it succeeds on every level. So maybe it served as a gentle reminder to the idea that a great rock album didn’t have to change the world; it just had to be a great rock album. And in the years that followed, when Corgan covered Fleetwood Mac and dropped an enormous double-album and shaved his head and wore silver lame and headlined Lollapalooza and went synthpop, none of it was really that much of a surprise. He’d established with Siamese Dream that a big-money alternative rock album didn’t have to be an act of ideological war, that it didn’t have to drive a wedge between our side and their side. All it had to do was rule. Which it did.
So: What was your favorite Siamese Dream song? Your favorite sensitive-Corgan interview quote? Your favorite summertime memory of listening to the album, preferably with the windows down? Talk about it in the comments section, and maybe watch some videos too.