"Double Take: Smashing Pumpkins raises the stakes with 'Mellon Collie'"
by Greg Kot -- Chicago Tribune -- October 22, 1995
They are friends again, laughing more easily than ever, and even poking fun at the brasher pronouncements of their leader-agitator, Billy Corgan, who laughs right along with them.
The camaraderie is that of four people--singer-guitarist Corgan, guitarist James Iha, bassist D'Arcy and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin--who have survived a war or three with one another and with various factions of the rock industry to become, in the tongue-in-cheek verbal shorthand of Iha, "Mega like Hootie," a k a, a big-time commercial band in the league with Hootie and the Blowfish, with a sound a good deal more adventurous than the latter's safe-as-milk pop formulas.
Together the Pumpkins have spent their summer working 12- to 16-hour days for weeks on end to finish the most highly anticipated rock release of the traditionally busy fall season: "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness" (Virgin), a double album containing 28 songs spanning more than two hours, which arrives in stores Tuesday.
But the Pumpkins have never exactly been described as easygoing; they operate in a more or less constant state of urgency and court risk as a matter of routine. To wit, the release of a double album at a time when double albums have become rock's version of "Heaven's Gate," disasters that have disabled careers instead of expanding them: Guns N' Roses' "Use Your Illusion," Bruce Springsteen's "Lucky Town"/"Human Touch," Michael Jackson's "HIStory." Perversely enough, Iha has the granddaddy of all double-album flops in his car tape deck at the moment: Fleetwood Mac's 1979 opus "Tusk," recorded for a reputed $1 million.
"I really like it a lot, but I remember people always viewed it as this failure," he says. Indeed, "Tusk" sold 4 million copies, but because it followed the 10-million-selling "Rumours," Fleetwood Mac was never really the same again. It's a measure of the record industry's absurdity that a 4-million-selling record could be considered a failure, but it's one the Pumpkins fully appreciate.
The quartet's 1991 debut, "gish," was widely acclaimed, sold an unexpected 300,000 copies on independent label Caroline and paved the way for the astonishing success of the 1993 "Siamese Dream," which has sold more than 3 million copies, and a headlining appearance on the 1994 Lollapalooza tour. These high-profile accomplishments established the Pumpkins as the most commercially significant group in Chicago rock since the '70s heyday of Styx.
And with those credentials come expectations of even higher record sales and bigger market share, pressures to which the band is not immune. D'Arcy puts it succinctly: "If you don't sell more than the last record, it means you're going downhill."
"And that," Chamberlin interjects, "would be very discouraging to us. That is a vibe we want nothing to do with."
Yet by making a double album, the band raises the stakes even further. The sheer girth of the discs leaves the band wide open to criticisms that it is engaging in "a total dinosaur-rock self-indulgence," in the words of Corgan.
"If you do something as ambitious as a double record and it doesn't sell, it will be viewed as an artistic failure," he says. "And I will not have that hanging around my neck. If ['Mellon Collie'] is considered a failure, it's time for this band to be gone. It's 1995, it's a media-driven world and I'm sorry, I'm not going to have everything this band does cast in the shadow of this big failure.
"I happened to be having dinner with Michael Stipe when 'Siamese Dream' went platinum, and he turned to me and said, 'Welcome to the deep waters, kid.' And he's right. Because once you're there, you have to keep treading and treading or you drown."
They don't play it safe
The Pumpkins have done more than flap their arms and legs to stay afloat. They're more like a great white slicing through the surf, a band that seems to thrive on the acrimony and alarm of all the other fish in the sea, a band that enjoys pushing the buttons that get other people riled up. It was an impulse there from the beginning: As a lowly, relatively unknown opening act that smashed up the stage before a hostile audience of Guns N' Roses fans, to the Lollapalooza headliner that refused to pander by changing the set list every night, usually punctuated by a several minutes worth of spontaneous, spoken-word bile from Corgan, accompanied in at least one instance by a fabulously unimpressed D'Arcy twirling a Hula-Hoop.
"I think of all the bands we were on Lollapalooza with getting up there and doing the same thing every day looking bored," Corgan says. "They might as well have been Top 40 bands. Everything they grew up believing in and listening to, that's what it amounted to? That's rock 'n' roll? That's what they grew up to be? I grew up to lead by example and mean something...to myself.
"I'm not saying everything I did was right," a comment that causes his fellow band mates to explode in laughter. "But I don't apologize. We live by the example of what we respected in the past, and what we respected in the past was that daring, that ability to seize the moment. When you deal with spontaneity, you're going to end up in places that are...uncomfortable."
Recovering from the blast
While making "Siamese Dream," Corgan acknowledges that he virtually pushed the band into a corner where it couldn't possibly measure up to his expectations. "I was more concerned about technical efficiency than heart," says Corgan, who played most of the instruments on the album while co-producing with Butch Vig.
Tensions were so high and Corgan so outspoken in addressing them that it led to a series of magazine articles that practically wore out the term "dysfunctional" in reference to the band. Lost in the soap-opera tales was that "Siamese Dream" is an epic blast of teen angst, a cathedral of guitars that fused Boston's soaring arena rock with My Bloody Valentine's hallucinatory swirl and Led Zeppelin's psycho-swagger.
After wrapping up Lollapalooza in the summer of '94, however, the band was at a crossroads: exhausted and still feeling the side-effects of the "Siamese Dream" fallout.
"We all had our own head things going on that summer," D'Arcy says. "Not so much tension within the band, but just not being able to deal with other people in general."
"It was time to make another record or disband," Iha says. "Nobody wanted to go through the high dramatic b.s. anymore. It was totally necessary for everyone to do the next record."
Only weeks after the tour ended, Corgan was deep into writing the songs that would make up the bulk of "Mellon Collie," and by last March the band was cranking out rough-hewn rhythm tracks at its rehearsal space on the North Side with producer Flood (PJ Harvey, U2, Depeche Mode).
"After putting everybody's egos and personal shortcomings aside, you have what you love to do, which is to make music," Chamberlin says.
The rehearsal-space sessions, originally designed to create a rough draft for the record, ending [sic] up becoming the new album's foundation. "It was the sound of four people together," Chamberlin says.
"It was about going in for a feel rather than editing or cutting something into shape," Iha says.
These raw tracks ensured that the record, no matter how diffuse, would retain a certain organic essence, with songs rather than guitar solos paramount. At Chicago Recording Company studio on Ohio Street over the summer, Flood, co-producer Alan Moulder and the band applied the embellishments and finishing touches, adding synthesizers, sequencers, rhythm loops and other studio weirdness to the band's heretofore traditional, '70s based, neo-psychedelic sound.
Bastion of the young
The result is a record that shows all facets of the band, some previously unheard or underappreciated. There are familiar touchstones of the Pumpkins' over-the-top arena rock, such as "Jellybelly" and "x.y.u.," but also uncharacteristic displays of humor on the synth-pop ditty "We Only Come Out at Night" and a New Order-style dance groove on "1979." While there are a handful of epic tracks that stretch beyond seven minutes, notably the gorgeous "Porcelina of the Vast Oceans" with its Robert Fripp-like guitar atmospherics and the Roxy Music ambiance of "Thru the Eyes of Ruby," the emphasis is on concise arrangements and lean, if sometimes quirky instrumentation (the salt shakers and scissors that become an unlikely percussion section on "Cupid de Locke"), far removed from the heavily edited layers of "Siamese Dream."
The 28 songs touch on so many styles and raise so many allusions to musical heroes past and present that "Mellon Collie" in some ways recalls the Beatles' genre-hopping homages on the 1968 "The Beatles," a k a "the white album." It runs the gamut from the heavily orchestrated strings-and-percussion drama of "Tonight, Tonight" to the startling informality of the closing "Farewell and Goodnight," on which all four band members sing. Despite its sprawl, it feels like the band's loosest and yet most accomplished record, a major advance beyond the relatively one-dimensional flavor of the first two studio albums.
It is also a record that Corgan, 28, unapologetically says is written for people between the ages of 14 and 24, "because that's the age group that's really listening."
"It will be totally misunderstood by plus-30-year-old rock critics," he says. "I'm not writing it for them, even though I'm on the edge of losing my connection to youth, as is anyone entering their late 20s, and you've got a house, you get married, and the things that are important in your life begin to change. But I wanted to communicate from the edge of it, an echo back to the generation that's coming, to sum up all the things I felt as a youth but was never able to voice articulately."
The record touches on the false bravado and feelings of omniscience that empower the young, and the waves of nihilism, hedonism, and loneliness that debilitate them. At the record's core is a bittersweet search for identity that is reflected in a lover's dead eyes, the face of a tongue-tied Romeo "pressed up to the glass, wanting you." At their best, Corgan's lyrics have a fable or fairy-tale quality, a compassion couched in fanciful images of silver rain, enchanted kingdoms, "turpentine kisses" and "seashell hissing lullabies."
"I'm waving goodbye to me in the rearview mirror," Corgan syas of the album's elegiac feel. "Tying a knot around my youth and putting it under the bed."
It is the album that firmly establishes what "gish" and "Siamese Dream" only hinted at: That Corgan is rock's most ambitious and unrepentant romantic. "Mellon Collie" is Smashing Pumpkins' most forward-sounding record, but it is also a throwback to the romantic themes inherent in the classic pop records of the '60s, built around the evanescent moment when "all that's pure that's in your heart" begins to slip away. It manages to be both grandiose and quirky, preposterous and touching, a marriage of extremes that befits its subject. Like Brian Wilson and Phil Spector before them, Corgan and Smashing Pumpkins have concocted a bravura symphony for the kids.
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