Looking back on the band’s breakthrough second album
Billy Corgan’s perfectionism is like Axl Rose’s — kinda heartwarming if you’re not one of his poor bandmates.
It came from somewhere for both of them, a pathological urge to top themselves to please the number-one fan in the mirror. The major difference is that Axl’s megalomaniacal phase came late and his obsessiveness and mythos cloaked a desperation to find a new sound to latch onto after Guns N’ Roses survived alternative rock. Corgan emerged from the womb calling the shots. On Smashing Pumpkins’ first two albums he played nearly all the guitar and bass. But as we now know, the latter, Siamese Dream, tapped into a sonic awesomeness that may have only been matched by one of his pre-techno ‘90s rock peers, an important one.
VIDEO: Smashing Pumpkins “Cherub Rock”
Let’s call it what it is and say My Bloody Valentine’s soul-melting Loveless was 808s and Heartbreak, the ur-text, and that Corgan was Drake, this gigantic sound’s evangelical preacher versed in crowd-pleasing entertainments past and future. In shoegaze, especially Kevin Shields’ inhuman guitar tones and moans, the Pumpkins’ dictator heard a seismic force to match his beloved ‘70s rock records as an adolescent. Suddenly the unabashed shred-happy, even funky grooves on the plenty-good Gish — “Bury Me” is a pothead cousin to “Even Flow” — met jaw-dropping technological advances and the jams finally had true songs to grow off of like kudzu vines.
VIDEO: Smashing Pumpkins “Today”
So the heart of Siamese Dream is in the ears; what’s your favorite sound effect on it? The jet-engine zooms at the start of “Quiet?” The strange Mediterranean trip-hop at the outset of “Hummer”? The tinkly/tingly music-box figure that keynotes the classic “Today?” The flattened, robotic layers of bit-crushed guitar swirling around “Rocket?” Obviously the consensus gives “Mayonaise” the gold medal everytime that tooting-teapot guitar feedbacks in the spaces between thick, churning chordage. But those off-the-rails little mini-solos Corgan tosses off between lines on “Geek U.S.A.” deserve every stinkface from fellow guitarists.
The frontman’s emotions don’t interest me nearly as much as the musical worlds he builds from them, and unlike later Pumpkins releases, almost every peak and valley, every riffsplosion and proggy little ballad oasis is worth your attention. The musicianship is astonishing, particularly the way Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlain lock into each other on “Geek U.S.A.,” which is simply one of the finest achievements in the history of rock guitar. Not to mention Butch Vig layering literally dozens more axes than the more spontaneous Nirvana or Sonic Youth could be bothered with.
Even though the pleasures rest heavily on side openers and hit singles, five whole songs out of 13 achieve Corgan’s intended perfection, in descending order: “Geek U.S.A.,” “Mayonaise,” “Today,” “Cherub Rock,” “Disarm.” No big surprises there, but those 22 minutes deliver studio-crazy alt-rock heaven and most haven’t left radio in three decades. “Hummer,” “Rocket,” and “Quiet” remain more-than-respectable heaters, “Silverfuck” and “Soma” more-than-respectable epics. “Sweet Sweet” and “Spaceboy” sweet sweet distractions.
But as I run down this list, the songs don’t get weaker, just vaguer, more evocative of tones and feels between the big singalongs and dreamed-up riffs. In short, they make the album an album. Corgan declared war on alt-rock by proudly wearing his emotional and studio excesses on his sleeve, identifying harder with Boston than, oh, Pavement. So he quadrupled down on making the Something/Anything for a disaffected generation glued to Beavis/Butt-Head.
It’s no secret why emo kids flock to it and, like, “Everlong” more today than the ‘90s’ more sarcastic, less earnest ilk. The candy-coated louds and softs of “Today” hijacked the grunge dynamic model from sour dissonance to a glycemic rush that even the Bay City Rollers fanboys in Nirvana would’ve never gone near. I prefer ironists and imperfections, but 30 years on, Siamese Dream still stands as one of those hallowed masterworks that truly took you to the heights it dreamt up.
Luxuriate in its sound-swirl and you’ll find alien noises you simply must hear again, and if you experienced them at the right age, you’ll be moved to recreate. Perusing used Electro-Harmonix pedals on eBay is a start.
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