Machina/The Machines Of God Turns 20
Insofar as anything about Billy Corgan could be considered underrated anymore, he doesn’t get nearly enough credit as one of greatest quotes of the ‘90s: telling Homer Simpson, “We try to make a difference,” laying claim to fictional “best art direction in a sad video” honors at the 1994 VMAs, using his Guitar World column to clap back at Toto’s guitarist (“Some people, like Steve Lukather, think I’m a terrible guitar player…Although I would say that if ‘Hold The Line’ was the best rock riff I’d ever written, I think I’d keep my mouth shut”). These were all instances of Billy Corgan playing the role of “Billy Corgan” for a public audience, but his truly quintessential Corganism occurs in an ostensibly candid moment over strawberry margaritas at an Australian hotel bar.
Before Jonathan Gold became the most influential food writer in the history of Los Angeles, he was on assignment for Spin, bearing witness to Corgan’s bumrush of a Soundgarden drinking session prior to 1994’s Big Day Out Festival. Corgan pummeled them with on-brand rants about his low opinion of their alt-rock peers and how astrology explained the tension between them. At one point, he began complaining about how he’s always stuck in the back during Smashing Pumpkins photo shoots, behind his far more conventionally attractive bandmates: “They don’t think I’m the cute one.”
If anyone could relate, it’d be Kim Thayil: Sassy readers called Soundgarden “the ugliest band in America,” an opinion that should live in infamy alongside Spin choosing Bandwagonesque over Nevermind and Loveless as their 1991 album of the year and Rolling Stone naming Pinkerton the third-worst album of 1996. Even though Thayil played the Mick Mars role in Soundgarden — hunched over his guitar, bearing a wizard-like presence in contrast to his hunkier bandmates — he was not about to indulge Corgan’s self-pity.
Having grown weary of Corgan’s carping, the other members of Soundgarden had already ditched the bar, leaving Thayil there to point out the obvious: Photo shoots aside, Billy Corgan is the Smashing Pumpkins in the public eye, the guy who writes all the songs, plays all the instruments, and does all the interviews. And that doesn’t even take into account the countless times that Corgan had called himself ugly both on and off record. What happened next is worth reprinting in full:
The next day at the Big Day Out festival, Thayil is talking to Kim and Kelley Deal in the Breeders’ dressing room when Corgan walks past wearing a long-sleeved Superman T-shirt like the one your four-year-old nephew probably owns.
“You hurt me deeply,” Corgan says, touching the giant S on his chest and pouting. “You hurt me deeply in my heart.” The Pumpkins go on to play the best set anybody has ever heard them play, their usual passiveness and precision overlaid with an unfamiliar scrim of anger that throws their music into brilliant relief. [Author’s note: Jonathan Gold clearly had never listened to an actual Smashing Pumpkins song.]
This is the quintessential Billy Corgan quote for two reasons. First, the Big Day Out scene was actually an excerpt from a Soungdarden cover story, but Corgan invented a personal slight out of thin air and used it to make himself the center of discussion. It’s the only part of the article that anyone remembers 25 years later. And secondly, fueled by the spite of his fellow peers, stemming from a situation he created, he drove Smashing Pumpkins to a new level of greatness. To put it in modern parlance, this is how Billy Corgan wins.
At least that was the case for the first decade of Smashing Pumpkins, a decade capped off 20 years ago this Saturday with the release of MACHINA/The Machines Of God. Rather than the grand reassertion of dominance Corgan envisioned, the album now stands as little more than punctuation on the band’s original run, largely forgotten and scarcely revered. But if MACHINA failed to recapture the glory of the Pumpkins’ early classics, it at least successfully crystallized the impulse that drove the band to such heights in the first place.
As Corgan told Stereogum in 2014, his attitude in the Pumpkins’ early days amounted to “gotta get on MTV, gotta win, gotta beat the other bands.” He did so in inflammatory fashion. The band’s 1991 debut Gish was genetically engineered to piss off a city defined by the brutalist, dead-serious indie rock of Touch & Go and, soon enough, Drag City, a self-described “spiritual journey” indebted to unfashionable funk-metal, mainstream prog, and paisley psych-rock, released on a fake indie label — the Pumpkins had agreed to release Gish on Caroline, a subsidiary of Virgin Records, on the stipulation that they’d release the next album on Virgin.
Gish was a hit by nearly all metrics, but Corgan fell into a “suicidal depression” comparing its success to that of Nevermind and Ten. Wracked with writer’s block but unshakeable in his belief of predestined greatness, Corgan channeled his childhood trauma, monomaniacal ambitions, and abrasive perfectionism into Siamese Dream, an album where he reputedly played every instrument except drums. The first song is an explicit embrace of commerce over indie cred, setting the course for a decade spent beefing with the coolest people in ‘90s indie rock.
Steve Albini, Stephen Malkmus, and Kim Gordon may have been Corgan’s rivals in his mind, but they were no longer competition — even Smashing Pumpkins’ B-sides compilations went Platinum, and their cover songs became hit singles. But at the time, it seemed like no one else wanted to stay on the echelon that Billy Corgan fought so hard to reach. Kurt Cobain died by suicide; Pearl Jam were deep in their battle against Ticketmaster; legacy bands like U2 and R.E.M. and Metallica were in the midst of deeply divisive pivots into glam and irony. One can’t help but feel like Corgan took alternative rock’s ambivalence as an insult, and he responded with Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, a two-hour teen dream that openly embraced the possibility of being Led Zeppelin, Queen, and Pink Floyd all at once.
By 1997, alternative rock was like a video game that Billy Corgan had beaten, and he was just doing side missions — releasing boxed sets of B-sides from a double album, collecting the band’s iconic videos on DVD, experimenting as an electro-rock hybrid on big-budget movie soundtracks. There was no way they could follow-up Mellon Collie by trying to top it. A logical next step would be their Tunnel of Love, a modest, downbeat recalibration of expectations.
This is exactly what happened with Adore, an album wracked with unexpected grief, inspired by something far more humane than Corgan’s spite: Between 1996 and 1998, he lost his mother, and touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin died of a heroin overdose. Drummer Jimmy Chamberlin was in the same hotel room as Melvoin and was deep into addiction as well, forcing Corgan to oust his “musical soulmate.” Adore is consequently haunted by death, decline, and the uncertainty surrounding Smashing Pumpkins’ direction forward at a time when electronica was poised to upend alternative rock. But it’s only demure and modest by Smashing Pumpkins standards — it’s nearly 70 minutes long with song titles like “Behold! The Night Mare,” and it spawned the “Ava Adore” video.
Adore’s success was likewise only humble by Smashing Pumpkins standards. The reviews were mostly middling — time has been kind to Adore, as it usually is with anomalously quiet and poor-selling albums from legendary acts, though as Corgan told me in a 2017 interview with Spin, “Twenty years later, everywhere I go, people want to talk about that fucking record. I was ‘wrong’ then, ‘right’ now, but it didn’t suit me a lot of good to be right then.” He recalled with great detail the same publication’s 5/10 review from 1998.
But Corgan was a vocal advocate for Black Sabbath and Queen, bands who critics absolutely loathed at the height of their popularity, creating a kind of symbiosis between the so-called snobs and slobs who played off each other’s dismissal of each other, reaffirming opinions on both sides. Critical disapproval was to be expected. The bigger problem was that the album flopped commercially. “Adore was very artistic but had commercial potential,” Corgan sniped. “The record company abandoned it after six weeks…it was treated like a fucking cancer on my musical life.” The overall reception of Adore had indeed hurt Corgan deeply in his heart, and he might’ve believed he had us right where he wanted us on MACHINA/The Machines Of God. For the first time since 1991, he was in “gotta get on MTV, gotta win, gotta beat the other bands” mode.
“You know I’m not dead!” Corgan snarls on the album’s very first line, never mind that he had spent the past two years looking very much like a kind of a self-styled Nosferatu. More to the point, the lyric assumes that the listener has been consumed by the same, solitary obsession as Billy Corgan since 1998: whether Smashing Pumpkins could return to their rarefied perch atop the charts. Perhaps assuming that fairweather fans and critics turned on the sadder, softer Smashing Pumpkins, “The Everlasting Gaze” is a declaration of intent even more blatant than “Cherub Rock” and “I Am One.” Smashing Pumpkins weren’t just returning to rock, they were reborn as a hyperbolized caricature of rock.
“The Everlasting Gaze” is the first Smashing Pumpkins song where guitars were tuned all the way down to C, and combined with Chamberlin’s quasi-disco beat, it could pass for a pitched-up version of Korn (Billy’s a cappella breakdown is the Pumpkins equivalent of Jonathan Davis’ scat solos). Chamberlin makes up for his absence on Adore by playing an entire album’s worth of fills within four minutes. After collaborating with Nitzer Ebb’s Bon Harris and Exile in Guyville producer Brad Wood (Corgan and Liz Phair were both Chicago artists derided by Albini as a “pandering sluts”), Corgan welcomed Flood back into the fold, and he lives up to his name. During the chorus, the band sounds like they’re playing in a room rapidly filling up with radioactive goo.
“The Everlasting Gaze” is Corgan at his most unapologetically grating, somehow allowing it to serve as both a defense of Smashing Pumpkins and a “sorry, not sorry” apology for Adore. The first half of MACHINA is driven by that same overcompensation, even if Corgan refuses to admit actual defeat. “Raindrops & Sunshowers” presumes the New Order-ish deep cuts on Adore would’ve been hits if Jimmy Chamberlin was wrecking shop. “Stand Inside Your Love,” “I Of the Mourning” and “The Sacred And Profane” court radio by speaking its language — “You and me, meant to be,” “Radio, play my favorite song,” “You’re all a part of me now.” They were painstakingly designed to be Smashing Pumpkins hits in the year 2000, unmistakably the work of Billy Corgan, but sleek, shiny, and ostentatious enough to compete with nu-metal and boy bands that were crowding them out of MTV.
None of it worked. To quote the Simpsons episode that came immediately after the Pumpkins’ appearance at Hullabalooza, the whole thing smacked of effort — and that’s even before you get around to the track that’s literally called “Try, Try, Try.” That song is by far Corgan’s greatest accomplishment of the 21st century: like “1979,” a pleasing jumble of Corgan-speak (“Pop tart, what’s our mission?”) and legible emotion (“Try to hold onto this heart a little bit longer”) as well as a glimpse of alt/indie future vis a vis unexpected and unhip influences (in this case, the silvery gloss and springtime warmth of Fleetwood Mac circa Tango In The Night). But MACHINA’s fate was sealed by the time “Try, Try, Try” was released as the third single. I assume that Corgan attempted to maintain some sense of dignity and agency by tying it to a predictably harrowing and predictably banned video directed by Jonas Akerlund, a guy who existed for the express purpose of making banned videos for MTV superstars.
The singles tanked harder than those of Adore, and though Chicago Sun-Times critic Jim DeRogatis (once described by Albini as the band’s “music press stooge”) called it their masterpiece, the reviews were far more cruel, focusing on CD-filling bloat that cemented the Smashing Pumpkins as a ‘90s relic. Fair enough; there are many obvious ways to reduce the album to a more digestible listen. “Heavy Metal Machine” encapsulates the MACHINA experience in about six minutes, Flood’s atrocious digital production burying a soaring chorus and Corgan’s laid-bare ambitions. “If I were dead, would my records sell?” he shouts, a crass but honest assessment of the reputational damage he did by staying in the limelight longer than many of his alt-rock peers (either literally or figuratively).
As for what could be trimmed, “The Imploding Voice” mostly exists for an opening riff that facsimiles Hole’s “Celebrity Skin,” prodding at the rumors of Corgan’s involvement in writing that album. (Melissa Auf Der Maur replacing D’Arcy Wretzky on bass certainly stoked them further.) And then there’s “Glass And The Ghost Children,” nearly 10 minutes long and stuck right in the middle of MACHINA, right when the momentum of its intentional front-loading starts to wane. There is also a recording of Corgan talking to his therapist about hearing the voice of god. But he’s so committed to the bit, I can’t discredit “Glass And The Ghost Children” in good conscience — it’s the “Porcelina of the Vast Oceans” or “Silverfuck” or “Starla” or “For Martha” that this album needs and deserves.
I’d imagine there’s a sizable number of MACHINA owners who made it maybe four minutes into “Glass And The Ghost Children” before heading to the nearest used CD store, meaning they never got around to the songs that were all but intended as filler. Perhaps noted Pumpkins fanatic Anthony Gonzalez took the honking synth riff from “The Crying Tree Of Mercury” as inspiration for “Midnight City,” but otherwise, that’s the only thing that helps me distinguish it from “Blue Skies Bring Tears,” both dreary dirges that I have trouble distinguishing from the back-end filler of the Cure’s Bloodflowers, another puffy album from a formative band that I desperately tried to appreciate during a particularly Steel Reserve-tinted time in my life.
Get rid of the most obvious padding and MACHINA is a taut, propulsive and purposeful 35-minute alt-rock album in the spirit of its terribly underappreciated deep cuts “Wound” and “The Age of Innocence,” songs that soar for not having the weight of the world on their shoulders. But who the hell would want a 35-minute Smashing Pumpkins album? Certainly not Billy Corgan.
If the commercial failure of Adore had chastened Corgan’s ambitions, it wasn’t obvious in the actual creation of MACHINA: “The record was written as a pseudo-rock-opera type deal,” he once explained, “and when the band completely fell apart in the middle, the album never really got finished in the way I’d written it, so I view it as kind of an unfinished album.” Furthermore, Smashing Pumpkins were going to preempt Gorillaz by turning this whole gambit into an animated series. “Yeah, actually Sony at the time had picked up an animated version of the concept, and it was supposed to be made into a cartoon,” Corgan boasted. “And they actually made some episodes, and it never came out unfortunately; the whole thing went out of business.”
The plot of the pseudo-rock-opera type deal was centered around Zero, a rock star based on the public persona of Corgan, which requires the belief that Billy Corgan’s private persona is different. Apparently, the other members of the band would follow suit, despite Thayil’s previous point that no other member of the Smashing Pumpkins had much of a public persona at all (it’s unclear whether Auf Der Maur would participate in this concept). I’ll just quote this religious symbolic reading of MACHINA to explain the rest because I don’t want to give myself the credit of believing I could come up with this: “‘Zero’, whose relationship with Corgan is obvious, hears the voice of God and renames himself Glass. He then also renames his band ‘The Machines Of God’. Within this narrative, fans of the band are referred to as the ‘Ghost Children.’”
So there you have it: “Glass And The Ghost Children” may indeed be The World’s Most Pretentious Stadium Rock Song Ever, but that’s only because it wasn’t part of a fully-realized double-album rock opera that would explain the entire thing.
Keeping in mind that Corgan is one of the era’s most unreliable narrators, this explanation does conveniently play into his persistent persecution complex — MACHINA needed full buy-in from Virgin and the other three members of Smashing Pumpkins before the public could even begin to comprehend Corgan’s vision, and neither party appeared to have anywhere near the patience they might have in 1995. This is even more blatant in the case of MACHINA II/The Friends & Enemies Of Modern Music, a collection of alternate takes, demos, and B-sides that Virgin refused to release. Consider that for a second: five years after Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness — hell, four years after The Aeroplane Flies High — Virgin wouldn’t even release a Smashing Pumpkins album at basically no cost.
Smashing Pumpkins were far ahead of their time in terms of utilizing fan-fic and viral marketing, and so Corgan went ahead and dropped MACHINA II on his own label in September of 2000; most of its 25 vinyl copies went to friends at Chicago’s Q101 and prominent figures in the Pumpkins online community, who were instructed to distribute the music online. The quality of the material on MACHINA II is sort of a non-issue — it tends to be held in higher regard than MACHINA, largely due to its underdog status, but there are very few ways to hear the album where it doesn’t sound like a vinyl rip from the year 2000, i.e., complete dogshit.
Because MACHINA is a Smashing Pumpkins album, it does have its legion of supporters; when I first met Strand of Oaks frontman and vocal SP acolyte Tim Showalter, we immediately connected over our alienating MACHINA advocacy, like two frat brothers bemusedly recalling the same hazing ritual. Hell, I’m not even sure if MACHINA is good or whether I’m exhibiting a Stockholm Syndrome endemic to the days of brick-and-mortar album buying; $18 was hard to come by as a 20-year old college student, and there are far worse examples of CDs that I learned to love out of sheer stubbornness (i.e., Silkk The Shocker’s Made Man).
But even if Corgan’s plan to reissue MACHINA in full as a double-album ever comes to pass, it will never experience the reappraisal granted to Adore, which had an inherent nobility as an expression of grief and artistic restlessness. Conversely, MACHINA recaptures the emotional tenor of Smashing Pumpkins’ earliest work, if not the sound itself — of Corgan summoning every bit of energy in his mortal being to show them, show them but good.
In his exegesis on rock’s greatest rivalries, Steven Hyden compared Corgan to Richard Nixon, a nod to tendency of both to compile enemy lists where entries are written in permanent ink (perhaps less so to Corgan’s tendencies towards alt-right trolling). This form of inspiration needs to be handled like a nuclear isotope, a highly powerful and unstable energy source that will cause profound internal mutations if one is subject to prolonged exposure (I mean, look at Billy Corgan). And it explains why people only five years older than myself, and thus, out of high school when Siamese Dream or Mellon Collie dropped, tend to despise Smashing Pumpkins though we agree on most other things.
But with the proper protection (i.e., a suitable emotional and temporal distance), MACHINA is sorta my favorite Smashing Pumpkins album when the security of adult life, with all of its small talk and dutiful bill-paying, starts to feel stifling. With all due respect to Homer Simpson, Smashing Pumpkins’ gloomy music didn’t foreclose on any grandiose adolescent dreams of a future beyond what my parents could provide, it inspired me to get them my damn self. I get a similar charge from the profound pettiness of Michael Jordan’s Basketball Hall Of Fame enshrinement speech, where he diverted from the usual, heartfelt acknowledgments of supportive family and friends and teammates to mouth off at all of the various haters who doubted him throughout his career. Sometimes, the social contract is worth ripping to shreds to take on the world on your own terms.
I have no idea whether Billy Corgan could write a truly great song again, but what’s been missing most of all in his post-MACHINA is that same sense of dizzying stakes. Zeitgeist and Oceania were “back to basics” feints for a band that never once did “basic” (even though Corgan really did the whole “make a stripped-down solo album with Rick Rubin” thing). The 33-minute, Tommy Lee-featuring Monuments To An Elegy is memorable for being “not bad” and nothing else, and I’m not even going to bother trying to Google the name of that album that dropped around the time of their reunion tour in 2018 because Billy Corgan doesn’t think it’s an album either. I’ve dutifully listened to every single one of these and forgotten them days, if not hours later, because none of them aspired to what the next one is supposedly gunning for: “a real new double album.” It’ll probably be bullshit, but at least it’ll be Corgan back on his bullshit.