Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream came out 20 years ago today – July 27, 1993. I can’t think of an album more formative for me growing up than this one. Siamese Dream is one of the first CDs I ever owned and the singular reason why I picked up a guitar and why I’m the proud owner of a Big Muff pedal (I’m not alone), so I’d be remiss to not recognize a sort of nostalgia toward this record that people older or younger than me perhaps don’t share. And that’s fine. More to the point though – critics have always had difficulty categorizing an album as expansive and dynamic as Siamese Dream, which adds a certain enigmatic flavor (in tandem with all the in-studio rumors at the time as well). It’s also annoying, as more pedestrian music criticism tends to lump this album in with the grunge movement solely because of it’s popularity and time period. But if you strip away the pretense, it’s an album that informed the tastes of many people my age. To wit, Siamese Dream was my gateway to shoegaze, psychedelia, and ’60s-’70s proto-metal.
Siamese Dream offered a formative listening experience within a crucial timeframe for both Gen X and Gen Y, informing and steering musical tastes toward envelope-pushing acts like My Bloody Valentine and Hawkwind – much like how Nirvana contributed to raising general awareness about acts like Flipper and The Vaselines. Not to mention, it’s a great fucking record. Sure, Billy Corgan is a total fucking pud who straddles the line between advanced and embarrassing (Resistance Pro lol), but Siamese Dream is still a masterwork two decades later.
Recently, the 33 1/3 book series (you can read my interview with the author of Spiderland here) announced their latest round of the beloved music analysis series – a total of 14 new books. They chose from a pool of about 500. I was one of them, and my proposal for Siamese Dream was rejected. I wasn’t surprised – the competition was fierce and the vying writers formidable. As such, I can share with you the first chapter (required for submission) to celebrate 20 years of silky guitars and denser than lead celestial rock. Maybe one day this album will get the book treatment, and it’s hard to say if that’ll be me or someone else. Certainly hope it happens regardless.
On April 8, 1994, Smashing Pumpkins found themselves on the cusp of becoming the biggest band in America, through both calculation and circumstance.
On this evening, the band’s rigorous touring repertoire found them playing both larger music venues and amphitheaters, but in less than three months time, Smashing Pumpkins would command stadium-sized crowds and watching the perennially crowd-pleasing Beastie Boys open for them. Hastily, the band became the headliner of Lollapalooza 1994.
The opportunity for the Pumpkins to carry the weight of alternative nation’s most significant beacon would originate on this very night, as Corgan and Iha’s fuzz-soaked dream anthems permeated every space in the salty, balmy air of Biloxi’s Mississippi Coast Coliseum. Kurt Cobain’s body was discovered by an electrician visiting his lakefront Seattle home just twelve hours earlier. The Internet has obviously memorialized this show in full. In retrospect, the footage reveals a wealth of information about the tensions and dynamics of the early ’90s rock and roll paradigm.
In the time when “alternative” was not yet a faux pas and for the first time in decades great bands felt a palpable sense that artistic credibility and personal success could co-exist. A real community raised within the church of punk rock and fringe art held the loudest voice in pop culture history yet.
But much like their storied history in their native Chicago, Smashing Pumpkins more often than not found themselves excluded from this conversation – and bandleader Billy Corgan was never shy about nailing this talking point into the ground. By most accounts, the Pumpkins were sort of Nirvana’s foil. While Cobain’s songwriting emphasized abrasive punk ethos and subversion, the Pumpkins felt delicate, sonically nuanced, and disinterested in dive bar aspirations. The Pumpkins embraced many of the stadium-ready classic rock aesthetics that alternative rock vehemently eschewed – guitar solos, soaring melodies, complex guitar licks, and of course, the elaborate, psychedelically-influenced live production flashing in full force this evening in Biloxi.
At no point during their performance did Corgan make mention of the events that day, and we can certainly speculate the reasoning behind that. Undoubtedly, the tensions between Corgan and Cobain that resemble a sort of nemesis-style relationship stemmed from their parallel lives – born within weeks of each other and came of age in a disruptive home environments, both released breakthrough albums in 1991 while sharing producer Butch Vig and one Courtney Love (jokes forthcoming), and both were ascribed the daunting “voice of a generation” tag. Musically though, they couldn’t have been different, and the Nirvana vs. Smashing Pumpkins dichotomy echoed loudly in throughout the press. Their respect for each other was probably inversely proportionate to their dislike of each other, so perhaps Corgan felt it was inappropriate to remark on Cobain’s passing.
Or maybe he couldn’t find the words. Billy would later write on his Confessions LiveJournal blog in 2005:
“I sit on the edge of the bed and just stare at the screen…I cannot believe my eyes, it is just all so sad…I don’t pray, but I do now…I pull myself down to the floor, my back pressed up against the bed, the t.v. screen just a foot away from my eyes…I say a prayer for his soul, thanking him for all the good he has done…I pray a lot for his child, who is now without a father…and I start to cry and I don’t stop until there are no more tears to cry…”
The vast majority of Corgan’s banter this evening fell inside the band’s usual live breakdown during “I Am One,” wherein the band would ride on a quiet, low-rumbling groove while Billy angstily free-associates (“for 27 years I have lived with pain in my heart / gimme gimme gimme nothin’!”). This evening, Billy talks a little about relative depravation, waxing on the budding casino developments along the Gulf Coast juxtaposed against the area’s traditional poverty. At one point, an audience member yells something at bassist D’arcy Wretzky, to which Corgan lashes out “Darcy doesn’t want you, dumb fuck!” There’s a visceral anger; that day encapsulated a range of emotions for fans and musicians alike. Was Corgan angry that Kurt took his life? Was he angry at how the Cult of Cobain and alternative nation had treated his band, undeserved or not, and Kurt’s passing sparked this wave of complex resentment? Or was this all part of Corgan’s rock god stage persona that he embraced unironically since the band’s inception in 1988?
Regardless of whatever specific emotions and turmoil suffocated the room that evening, Corgan lost an important inspiration and rival that fueled the trajectory of the Pumpkins’ during their most creative and formative period.
The band opened with “Soma,” the mid-point of their 1993 sophomore album Siamese Dream. Its dreamy, aerodynamic verse and rollocking, bombastic chorus is sweeping, emotional, cathartic. They rarely opened with this sort of song, usually opting for fist-pumping fan favorites like “Siva.” This probably served as the best tribute to Cobain the band could offer as the movement’s most prolific outsiders. In that sense, it still feels appropriate today.
Released on July 27, 1993, Siamese Dream fell onto shelves with a thunderous roar, complemented by MTV and radio’s overzealous search for the next big alternative masterpiece in the shadow of the aforementioned, the album’s notoriously tumultuous recording sessions, and the most singsongy suicide anthem since the M*A*S*H theme – “Today.” Siamese Dream would become the album that made Smashing Pumpkins competitive with the biggest names in alternative rock and secure both Rolling Stone and SPIN covers in December 1994 for Artist of the Year. It was the work that would throw the quartet into the ring for Lollapalooza, and due to the events eight months after its release, would see them headline the festival.
Siamese Dream comes replete with some of the most intense sonic dynamic song-structures ever laid to tape. Soft, galactic ballads brush against brutal, tectonic, metal-informed scorched earth guitar pyrotechnics. Ornate psychedelia, mellotrons, and orchestral strings all find a niche, often within the same song, while multi-tracked, Big Muff-saturated, wholly impenetrable guitars provide the teeth to an often gentle body of songs. Dissonant, avant garde noise is explored, as well as radio-ready catchy hooks.
Siamese Dream‘s sweeping 13 songs, 62 minutes is not only one of the most adventurous musical explorations contained within a single album, the production work concocted between Corgan and Butch Vig yielded some of the most aurally unique sounds and nuances of the past few decades. Most headphone-doning music obsessives can identify the Siamese Dream sound within a single guitar chord – that satin, sustain heavy, fully engrossing tone that, in the case of the “Soma,” took 40 overdubs. And any discussion regarding this album would be remiss to not mention that Siamese Dream launches with the most unequivocally badass album opener of all time “Cherub Rock” – drum roll, enter clean guitar, a fluid bass line that squelches the quiet before the storm, then an explosive assault of multi-dimensional fuzz blitzkriegs.
Yet despite the inventiveness and versatility of the record – a body of songs that paid homage to everything from prog rock to dream pop to proto-metal – Siamese Dream did not enjoy the same level of reverence of comparably talented and aesthetically amalgamating acts like The Pixies or Dinosaur Jr., despite the fact they were often drawing from the same well.
Of course, Corgan’s personality may have contributed to some extent. Many important artists have certainly been known to exude shades of stand-offishness, condescending attitudes, sociopathic tendencies, and an air of general orneriness, but Billy really rubbed folks the wrong way – to say the least. There’s the story of Corgan’s run in with Soundgarden’s Kim Thayill in the summer of 1993, after the type of uncomfortable conversation that would feel right at home in Seinfeld – after which Rolling Stone reported that Billy began vigorously pointing at the giant S on his grunge-worthy Superman sweatshirt and telling Thayill “you hurt me right here in my heart.” The next year in the SPIN‘s Artist of the Year feature on the Pumpkins, Corgan was quoted backstage at the MTV Video Music Awards yelling “Fuck Kim Thayil!” at the backstage video monitors. Earlier that summer, he managed to anger another Kim – Miss Deal of The Breeders – to the point in which she unrelentingly slammed Corgan in interviews around Lollapalooza. Closer to today, Chuck Klosterman neatly summed up some of Billy’s interpersonal communication shortcomings: “The band’s reputation seems to erode every year, and I suspect it’s mostly because people don’t like Billy Corgan. And the reason they don’t like him is that (ironically) he’s too honest during interviews, which wouldn’t be a problem were it not for the fact that he honestly believes he’s a goddamn genius.”
Of course, the other component is how Smashing Pumpkins fought an uphill battle, starting with their rejection from the Touch-n-Go-centric Chicago scene – the community in which they felt camaraderie with but never gained acceptance. Their aspirations were huge of course (Corgan once said the Pumpkins had “to be a big band, or no band”), and the band quickly established a strong relationship with the city’s most beloved venue, Cabaret Metro, before they “earned their dues.” But even before they achieved any real successes or well-placed opening spots for Jane’s Addiction, they were all but shunned by the alternative rock community, despite the fact the band aligned with the mission statements of indie and alt rock royalty – uncompromising music and artistry, a sense of anti-fashion, and a gloomy attitude of push-back against the empty, saccharine, feel-good American rock music of the ’80s. Fellow Chicago luminary Steve Albini, responsible for turning knobs for The Pixies, Nirvana, and most of the Pumpkins’ fiercest competition, criticized Corgan and the Pumpkins for embracing a sort of professionalism he felt bordered on “selling out” – threatening the vitality of the city’s burgeoning indie and electronic scene, in both band logistics and their studio perfectionism. In a more heated torrent of words, Albini wrote in a letter to the editor in Chicago Reader comparing the Pumpkins to REO Speedwagon and arguing “they don’t, however, make timeless, classic music that survives trends and inspires generations of fans and other artists.”
They never quite won over Chicago, and in the height of the grunge period in 1991 and ’92, they marched into battle against another city. After Gish, the Pumpkins remained the only band with real traction outside the Seattle scene. The band’s second recorded document, the Tristessa 7″, became Sub Pop’s first non-Seattle release. The Pumpkins were also the only non-Seattle band that contributed an original song to Singles, Cameron Crowe’s legendary period piece. That song, “Drown,” became a long-time fan favorite.
The indie-alt cliques of tight-knit, Seattle-centric bands, businesses, and critics set the agenda for the conversation in the early ’90s, and reflexively passed the verdict declaring Smashing Pumpkins uncool, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that Corgan tended to push back in the press. Of course, Corgan’s reactionary persona in tandem with rock history “as written by the cool kids” marred the legacy of the band. This is unfortunate because it does Siamese Dream such a disservice. In hindsight, the Pumpkins engaged in a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, knowingly or otherwise, in bloated, cheesy stadium rock. But these labels were unfair regarding the band’s earliest efforts, and Siamese Dream in particular. Music nerds can chew the fat as the day is long about whether the Pumpkins are unequivocally uncool, and there’s nothing wrong with such a discourse. Siamese Dream, however, is as groundbreaking as it is cool, and its coolness is empirical as the album is informed by timeless, boundary pushing music.
If you strip away the alt rock coattail-riding pretenses that people incorrectly ascribe, Siamese Dream becomes a phenomenal psych rock and shoegazing album. My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields even recommended much of the gear that sculpted Siamese Dream‘s landmark tones. As such, Siamese Dream offered a formative listening experience within a crucial timeframe for both kids within Gen X and Gen Y, informing and steering musical tastes toward envelope-pushing acts like the aforementioned My Bloody Valentine and Hawkwind – much like how Nirvana contributed to raising general awareness about acts like Flipper and The Vaselines. Not to mention, it’s a great fucking record. The music that inspired Corgan during the songwriting process of Siamese Dream generally never ended up on the radio. But they did, and as such, Smashing Pumpkins opened a door to an entirely different world for young music fans with budding tastes. Both the record itself – a collection of anthemic, celestial, denser-than-lead rock that still sounds great two decades later – and the impression it left deserves a second look outside the streamlined, canonical annals of indie rock critic revisionist history.