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Siamese Dream by Smashing Pumpkins
We now know that Billy Corgan is kind of an egomaniac, but there was a time before we knew. I’m not naive enough to think there was a time when he was modest and chill, and I’m also not naive enough to think that the level of success that Billy Corgan achieved with Smashing Pumpkins wouldn’t change or accentuate the ego in all of us. When Billy Corgan was on Joe Rogan’s podcast, they talked about what it was like to ride that meteor, and Billy talked about walking into a car dealership in Beverly Hills and paying cash for a Ferrari. He was laughing about it and talking about how stupid it was, but he was definitely not bashful, embarrassed, or apologetic. I’m not saying that he should be, necessarily, but it’s always interesting for me to set the stage on who these rock stars are today. This whole project has the benefit of getting to see the “after” as we go down memory lane to poke and prod what it was like to be in the “before.”
Long before Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness went to the top of the album charts as a double album with singles like “Bullet with Butterfly Wings,” and “1979,” they were this upstart band from Chicago featuring Corgan, James Iha on guitar, D’arcy Wretzky on bass, and Jimmy Chamberlin on drums. They had a few demos and singles and signed to an indie label called Caroline Records, eventually releasing their true debut, Gish in May of 1991. It was produced by Butch Vig who also produced Nevermind among other albums. Oh, and he also formed Garbage with Shirley Manson. Butch Vig is a whole other story that we don’t have time for right now.
I didn’t know about Gish when it was released. I had never heard of Smashing Pumpkins until I got to the very end of … you guessed it … the Singles soundtrack. The last song on the album is “Drown.” It’s 8:17 seconds long and I listened to every note of that song about a billion times. I knew every lilt in Billy Corgan’s voice. I knew every little plink of the guitars, and most importantly to me, I knew every little drum hit and fill as Jimmy Chamberlin blew my mind how he could make his way around a drum set. Hell, the end of the song that’s just a wash of guitar noise? I know each and every feedback note to this day until it finally fades out.
The moment in “Drown” though? Every great song has a moment, and the moment in “Drown” is right about 2:14 when the song kicks into gear and the guitar solos and drum solos start blaring. I probably injured my ears permanently blasting that song on my Discman in the basement as I did my best to recreate all the drum hits that Jimmy Chamberlin executes flawlessly in that song. The dynamics of how he brings it down and then absolutely owns the song at the 3:45 point is just sublime. The only thing that pisses me off is that the full 8+ minute version of the song isn’t on Spotify. The Pumpkins’ Greatest Hits record has a 4:30 version, but it’s just not the same.
So, yeah. “Drown.” That caused me to go back and buy Gish and I fell in love with that album too. There are lots of great songs on there, but I found that same “Drown” magic in the third track, “Rhinocerous.” It’s over six minutes long and the dynamics are perfect. It builds, it explodes, it meanders. It’s just a perfect song and I loved it and the whole record sometime in 1992.
“But Craig, I thought this essay was about Siamese Dream! Why are you going through their entire career in this level of detail?”
I had to properly set up what I felt like was one of the first obnoxious “I know more than you” bands of my life. You see, I’m “that guy.” Which guy? I’m the guy who already knew about the band that has a single on the radio because I’ve already been listening to them for years. Thanks to Cameron Crow and my utter obsession with music, I not only listened to “Drown,” I bugged the shit out of my parents to take me to the local record store and made them order it for me so I could have it. I don’t know that I would have said the Pumpkins were one of my favorite bands at the time, but when the singles started coming out for Siamese Dream, I was already on it.
“Cherub Rock” hit alternative radio ahead of the album’s release in July. People started talking about the Pumpkins and instead of getting to inform me about the band, I was like, “Yeah. You should hear their first record. It’s really good.” But “Cherub Rock” came and went. Then in September of 1993, the band released “Today” along with a soon-to-be ubiquitous video on MTV and the band just became part of the mainstream. Now, I had many more people to tell, “The Pumpkins? Yeah. Been listening to them for a while now. You should totally go back and hear Gish.”
And that’s where we start today to talk about Siamese Dream. I’m letting you know that even as I recognize how egocentric Billy Corgan can be. I never knew it at the time, and honestly, I shouldn’t judge him. I couldn’t handle the “success” of being early on a band like his when it came to bragging to my friends. I shouldn’t judge him for actually being on that rocket ride to the very top of rock and roll fame. If I became an egomaniac from just knowing about his band before other people, who's to say I wouldn’t have been buying two Ferraris with cash in Beverly Hills?
One of the reasons I go to every rock show I can muster to this very day is I’ve had a lifelong fear of missing out. For every band I’ve seen in the perfect venue at the perfect time of their career, there's a show I missed out on. On a Thursday night, December 2, 1993, I missed one of those shows that haunts me to this day. One of the only other people I knew in the world who knew of the Pumpkins at that time went to the show and him telling me about it only made it worse. I was too young to drive. I had no ride. I tried to buy tickets and figure it out, but it was sold out. I missed my chance to see them at a tiny theater in Cleveland called The Agora.
This is what I missed.
As I got older and could drive, I went to ***ALL THE SHOWS.*** Tuesday night at Peabody’s Downunder in the Flats? I basically told my parents I was going. Thursday night at the Grog Shop? If it was an all-ages show, I’d pony up my extra couple bucks and get the “X” sharpie’d onto my hands and I’d be there. When my mom would push back, I’d wear her down to the point she would begrudgingly give me that fake permission that parents give. It’s presented as some kind of conditional permission to give you room to make the responsible choice and say you’re not going to go, but I’d plow right through, having heard just the right amount of “yes” I needed to go to the show.
Why was I so desperate? There was no YouTube. You never knew if you were going to get another chance. You never knew if you were going to miss “the show” where something monumental happens. A special guest coming on stage. A special performance that only happened on that one night. An opening band who would go on to become the next Smashing Pumpkins and you could have seen them before. I was positively obsessed with covering the entire waterfront and seeing as much live music as I possibly could. If the show started at 8 pm, I’d be there at 7:45 even if the cool kids weren’t showing up until 10 pm.
It must have been hard to be my parent. It must have been hard to be my friend. I don’t even want to think about the ramifications for me as a parent of two boys who are getting ever closer to their teenage years every single day. If I get half of what I gave, I’m in for it big time. I should start apologizing to my wife now and just never stop.
But it all started with the music, and I wouldn’t have been so mournful about missing this show if I hadn’t been so in love with the record.
I don’t remember putting Siamese Dream into the CD player for the first time. I don’t remember what it was like to hear any of these songs for the first time either. What I do remember is sometime after the record came out, I had the luxury of an empty house on a Saturday. I have no idea where anyone else was, but I moved my boom box into the family room, cranked it all the way up, and blasted this record just for myself. I don’t know why I had to do that in the family room other than it was something I could get away with when nobody else was home. And this was a record that I loved so much that I probably wanted to experience it in a different room. Maybe the way it would bounce off the cathedral ceiling would give me a different perspective on it. Maybe a new room combined with an even louder volume would give me a new angle on these songs.
“Cherub Rock” is just a rocker from beginning to end. When the first distorted guitar kicks in, it slams you straight in the face in almost the same tone that Billy Corgan hits you with when he gets screechy. This song is notable for never cranking the distortion down when it starts. They manage to provide dynamics from the verse to the chorus without ever turning off the distortion.
“Quiet” is another solid song. I like it, and it’s got some really cool parts to it, but it probably makes sense that it wasn’t on the setlist above. Across the 13 tracks on Siamese Dream, there are just other more important things, ya know?
This brings us to “Today.” This was the first really big smash hit for the Pumpkins in their career. It’s a mid-paced song that leans more into the dreamier side of the Pumpkins sound. It’s a great song and it definitely hit a nerve, but there’s a little secret among Pumpkins fans. It’s nowhere close to the best song on the album, despite likely being the most popular song from this album to non-Pumpkins fans. (Maybe it’s actually “Disarm” instead of “Today,” but let’s go with it for now.)
Here’s what I mean. I really don’t want to do this because it still hurts, but when Chris Cornell died, everyone started playing his music and covering his songs. I went with a big group of friends to see Guns ‘N Roses and they covered “Black Hole Sun.” And I guess in hindsight it makes sense with how big that song was, but when I as a big Soundgarden fan think about Soundgarden, and try to think of my favorite song, I don’t get to “Black Hole Sun” right away. However, in the realm of pop culture, I think it’s obvious that “Black Hole Sun” is a natural conclusion. That’s how I feel about “Today” on Siamese Dream.
As someone who listened to this album incessantly, I’d take “Hummer", “Rocket,” “Soma,” “Geek U.S.A,” “Mayonaise,” and “Silverfuck” over “Today” every single time. That’s not to attack “Today” other than to say popularity ain’t everything.
“Hummer” takes you through a full-on soundscape from an anthemic rock song to dream-pop at the end. The way the song fades out with all the plinky little notes and playful little syncopations with the drums? It’s incredible and leaves an indelible mark on me as a listener. At nearly seven minutes, it’s just not meant to be played three times an hour on the radio like a 3:21 “Today.”
“Disarm” was another hit single for the band. It’s too urgent to be a ballad per se, but it definitely shows an alternative sound and contrast for the band, especially at that time. The song has a percussive acoustic guitar strumming pattern and features some orchestral instruments and arrangements in the background. The violins and timpani are quite a departure from the alternative rock fuzz of the normally distorted guitars. I always found it incredible to hear the band play it live at the time because they played it in a way that it would have actually fit in better with loud guitar and huge drums. I’m sure most people hate this version, to be honest, but I remember being blown away by it at the time when they played it on the 1994 VMAs.
The real mastery of Siamese Dream is how the band takes you on a trip inside of a song. “Geek U.S.A.” does it from spastic openings and verses to breaks where the band becomes impossibly quiet only to bang you over the head again except somehow playing even faster, yet completely under control. They finish by cutting time and making you bounce.
“Mayonaise” is more straightforward, but the way the chorus vocals peak and interplay with the guitars dropping out except for one note is a new trick. The melodies of the vocals as Billy Corgan sings “And I just want to be me… and when I can… I will” is some of the prettiest on the whole album.
“Silverfuck” is another of the journey songs for the band. It’s over eight minutes long and it has all these different movements like the Pumpkins are writing their own alt-rock orchestra. If anything told us where the band was headed with Mellon Collie in the future, it’s songs like these. Obviously, the band had no designs on this song becoming a big single with a name like “Silverfuck.” The spastic arrangement is legendary in my mind. The band once again plays at an impossible speed but sounds completely and totally in control. That’s the power of Jimmy Chamberlin.
When you see Chamberlin play, he looks entirely efficient. Contrast it with Dave Grohl from his Nirvana days where his limbs are flopping all over everywhere and he’s pounding the living shit out of the drums. Chamberlin is a mechanic back there and his hands are a blur as he moves around his kit in ways that seem like they should give a drummer an aneurism. It’s emblematic of the entire band when they hit these speeds. They almost don’t have the capability to jump around or do any other stage moves. It’s all about letting their technical speed do the talking.
I’m going to hit album-ending “Luna” before I talk about “Soma.” I’ve always been obsessed with perfect album-ending songs. Manchester Orchestra is incredible at this. Pearl Jam started it off for me with “Release” on Ten. But the Pumpkins definitely play into this for me because “Luna” feels like the perfect calm after the storm that is the rest of Siamese Dream. “I’m in love with you… So in love” refrains its way out of the album and ties a bow on the thirteen tracks you’ve just experienced. But let’s go back.
This brings me to “Soma” at track number seven after “Disarm” and before “Geek U.S.A.” I don’t want to spend a lot of time on it even though it’s one of my all-time favorite Pumpkins songs. It’s another “Drown.” It’s another “Rhinocerous.” If I could bottle the Smashing Pumpkins into a single elixir and only keep one version of the band, it wouldn’t be any of the Mellon Collie stuff except where it fits with these three songs. Maybe we’ll do a Mellon Collie essay at some point. It would make sense. For now, however, I would take these three songs over everything else if I was living in a crazy world where I could only keep one essence of the band. I love the other parts of the band’s career, but this is far and away, my favorite. It makes sense because it’s what brought me into the band in the first place. The dynamics, the builds, the crashes, the falls, the dreamy quiet parts, and guitar noises that sounded alien compared to anything else I’d ever heard.
We all know what The Smashing Pumpkins have become, but I beg you to do this. Either put this on your phone with some headphones. Better yet, if you have a theater-type sound system in your house, put this YouTube video up of the Pumpkins playing “Soma” in their hometown of Chicago at The Metro in 1993. Really see this band before they became the stadium-filling rock band as the hands of the audience are in the air obscuring some of the camera shots. As Billy splats out the vocals and sweats down the front of himself onto his guitar in a Superman shirt.
Watch the moves they make as the song really hits just before the four-minute mark. Watch as Billy Corgan launches into his guitar solo with some crowd-surfers in the foreground. This is the stuff that gives me chills to this day. This is the band that became popular by screaming “I’m all by myself as I’ve always felt” and somehow used that to become anything but.