Wednesday, 8 December 2010

The End is the Beginning is the End: the Smashing Pumpkins

Now I'm sure that I've mentioned this somewhere else- and I do feel like I say it often enough- but the Smashing Pumpkins are my favourite band. I don't know if this should come as a surprise or not, but there it is. Yes, I am aware that Zeitgeist is a piece of shit, that's a given- there is no such thing as the Smashing Pumpkins without James Iha (and, to a much lesser extent D'arcy, or even Auf Der Maur), and no matter how many incredible session musicians you get in to replace those lost members, the band will never be the same. Do you hear me, Billy Corgan? THE BAND WILL NEVER BE THE SAME. Right, so proceeding from the idea that the Smashing Pumpkins ended sometime in 2000, let's begin.

The Gish Pumpkins.

The greatest thing about the Smashing Pumpkins is not that their music is killer, or that on each album they did something completely different (though I will discuss this later), but the story behind the band. Anybody who's heard the alternative edit of 'Mayonaise' cut with the interview clips of Billy Corgan and co. chatting knows what I'm on about.

At the root of it, Billy Corgan was once likable, remember? He was a clever kid who skipped college to follow the rock and roll dream and failed. His first band, The Marked, broke up in obscurity, and it was not until a considerable time after that the seed of the Pumpkins (cough, cough) was formed when he met James Iha and the two jammed with a drum machine. All of the lyrics of the first album were so obtuse as to be indecipherable, but that all changed with Siamese Dream, where he finally bared all in one cathartic, angst-soaked masterpiece. It's also the record where the Smashing Pumpkins' sound was truly born. Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of Gish, and 'Snail', 'Rhinoceros', 'I am One' and 'Bury Me', but the Pumpkins will forever be associated with the massive, overdub- loaded sound they achieved on Siamese.

The story of Corgan's wife- how he met her on the stairs at a show, to their courtship, breakup and his eventual retreat to living on the floor of their practice space even with a million dollars in his bank account is certainly one of the best rock n' roll tales I've ever heard, but it's not for me to recount here. The truth is, evidenced especially by things like the Vieuphoria tape, the Pumpkins of this period were everything rock is supposed to be about- a bunch of kids playing great songs, all just friends on an adventure. After Siamese, it would never quite be the same again, and though their albums would keep getting better, their story would only get sadder.

I'm not going to tell the story everyone knows- a dead fan in Dublin, a dead keyboardist in the States, and a dead mother to return to- that caused the first collapse of the band. I'm just going to say that for me, the pre-Mellon Collie Pumpkins as a band will always have the best mythos. That these scruffy geeks, shot through with neuroses (and increasingly) drug problems should get a chance at the big-time is the ultimate rock fable.

Then there's the albums. Obviously there's Gish, Siamese and Mellon Collie... but you know about all those. By the time 'Transformer' from The Aeroplane Flies High fades out of your speakers, the Pumpkins you know and love have left the building, and they will never be the same again.

The Mellon-Colle Pumpkins.

Drawing a line under their previous work, they continued to do new shit- the industrial rock on Batman soundtrack 'The End is the Beginning is the End' segued into the downtempo and bleak electronica of Adore before morphing into what was to be their best album, Machina/The Machines of God, an insane, megalomaniacal swan song of a concept album, mirrored in vision, genius and delusion by its sister-work, Machina II: The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music. For all their flaws, it's this pair that are my favourite Pumpkins albums, as they unite both the 'rock' Pumpkins and the weirder, more experimental 'electronic' Pumpkins. From their first basement tape, Nothing and Everything (if memory serves) their entire discography is a natural progression that leads, inevitably, to the Machina duo, and I still cannot listen to songs like 'The Sacred + Profane' without being moved; even six or more years after they first entered my life, the grace and beauty of songs like 'This Time' and 'Home' still catch me like I haven't aged a day, and it's the first time I'm hearing them. 

The Machina Pumpkins.

After all that I still can't really say why the Pumpkins are so special, exactly. maybe I feel an affinity with a character like Corgan who drives those close to him away, I don't know. What I do know is that no band's music will ever be as special to me as the Pumpkins' was when I first heard it on my Walkman, listening secretly in bed on a school night.

This mixtape should about cover it. 

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