When the Music Farm announced a summertime Smashing Pumpkins concert, old-school fans cheered and clamored for advanced tickets. For not-so-rabid Pumpkins fans, the idea of seeing whatever the band had become after multiple break-ups made eyes roll and brows furrow.
This love-them-or-hate-them split reminded me of the band’s early career. During the first grunge wave, music fans and indie know-it-alls argued endlessly over singer/guitarist Billy Corgan’s musical merits and his band’s indie credibility and balance of style and substance.
I never joined the fray. To me, the Pumpkins seemed too contrived and gussied up to be taken seriously. Friends who absolutely loved the Pumpkins at the time thought I was deaf, blind, and crazy.
Corgan formed the band in Chicago around 1988 with bassist D’Arcy Wretzky and guitarist James Iha. They added drummer Jimmy Chamberlin just in time for their 1990 single, “I Am One,” initially released on the indie Limited Potential.
When the Pumpkins’ full-length debut Gish came out on Virgin’s subsidiary label Caroline, college radio played the hell out of it. I remember hearing the head-bangin’ remake of “I Am the One,” the Sabbath-at-45-r.p.m. “Siv,” and the whispery “Rhinoceros” throughout the year.
I could tell the Pumpkins had bombast, chops, and cool fuzztones, but to me, the songs and videos came off as quirky, forced, and fabricated. I never bothered to purchase a Pumpkins album during the ’90s, but I didn’t have to go far to hear or see them. The band’s saturated production style was on commercial radio, their lavish videos were on MTV, and Corgan’s nasally singing emanated from nearby car stereos and home jam boxes.
While I didn’t really get it, I did respect the craft and suaveness behind much of it. If Gish displayed the band’s flexibility and range within a guitar-driven, über-distorted, heavy-rock format, 1993’s Siamese Dream enhanced it. Meticulously produced, Siamese Dream flung Corgan and his mates into full-blown commercial success. “Cherub Rock,” “Today,” and the acoustic “Disarm” topped the modern rock charts and landed them the headlining slots at Lollapalooza 1994 and other major music fests.
By 1996, they were practically international rock gods. Their third album, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, debuted at number one. The song “1979” straddled Pixies-style pop sensibilities and Sonic Youth’s dissonance. There was rat-in-a-cage-rage in “Bullet With Butterfly Wings.” The dramatic “Tonight, Tonight” stepped into more orchestral territory.
While Mellon Collie sold millions, tensions between Corgan and his mates escalated and cracks stated to show. The frontman’s clinched-fist directing style and hands-on approach fueled the theory that the Pumpkins were more of a dictatorship than an all-for-one collaboration. They wobbled through the next few years, barely surviving episodes of drug abuse, ugly lineup adjustments, and rock star soap operas. 2000 brought an official break-up. 2007 brought a reunion (Chamberlin returned for the synth-heavy album Zeitgeist; Iha and D’Arcy did not).
Twenty years after Gish, one wonders how Corgan’s vast life experiences and career twists have affected his current songcraft and singing style. Maybe his new crew — bassist Nicole Fiorentino, guitarist Jeff Schroeder, and drummer Mike Byrne — plays with a bombastic style that’ll shock old naysayers like myself. Maybe the show will freak out even the most die-hard fans. Maybe it’ll flop. We’ll see and hear soon enough.
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