Happy 25th Anniversary to The Smashing Pumpkins’ second studio album Siamese Dream, originally released July 27, 1993.
“Freak out / And give in / Doesn’t matter what you believe in,” Billy Corgan sings, “Stay cool / And be somebody’s fool this year.”
The opening lines of the first track of the first famous record by The Smashing Pumpkins are a tasteful, sarcastic jab at the music industry. That is, the music industry of the early 1990s, back when there still was a clear and concise path to power and how to get it: sound like Nirvana.
That’s what The Pumpkins were sold as after their debut record Gish was released in 1991 on Caroline Records—“the next Nirvana.” But the thing is they were never going to live up to it. The Smashing Pumpkins not only sound completely different than Nirvana but they had their own melodic ideals, philosophies, and sonic ambitions.
They were and are Billy Corgan’s ambitions. The Smashing Pumpkins set out to be the perfect band, jackhammering their way between the slog and mud of fuzzy bass lines and scrambled electricity. But as they were gearing up for Gish’s follow-up, the band were grappling with a lot of inner-demons. Co-founder and guitarist James Iha had recently broken up with bassist D’arcy Wretzky, and Drummer Jimmy Chamberlin was struggling with heroin addiction. Not to mention their leader, obsessive songwriter, and number one, Billy Corgan, was deep in a pit of writer’s block, depression, and a truckload of industry pressure.
Before Corgan was famous and made of money, before he formed a wrestling promotion company, and became the Internet’s punching bag, he was a quiet, midwestern lunchroom loner with unkind divorced parents, a meaner stepmother, unforgiving high school classmates, and a darkness in him thick enough to build a backbone.
It would grow the spine of The Smashing Pumpkins, their records, and their sound. It is Corgan and his perfectionism. Considering there is no such thing as perfect, it’s a lot to live up to. And it’s provided him and the band with years of disagreements, feuds, uncomfortable situations, mean spirits, and a weird legacy.
But the band’s landmark sophomore record Siamese Dream is worth the hangover and dread. It’s a record unlike any other in their catalog or their peers’. Siamese Dream is a defining album of the 1990s and its sound has come a long way. Built around brutal honesty, the refusal to smile, to give in, and one guitar layered on top of another, Siamese Dream is dense and emotionally taxing even 25 years later.
“Cherub Rock,” that first song and the first single, is a protest of the indie rock world that, before, wanted nothing to do with Billy and The Pumpkins. Instead it ended up getting them nominated for a Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance. It opens with a drumroll and a building, repeating guitar pattern. It’s a fat sound you can slip into like silk pajamas, essentially setting the tone for the record. Right away “Cherub Rock” sounds nothing like Nirvana. Corgan whines, whispers, and screeches to guide us over the terrain that is his self-doubt, self-harm, and self-loathing. He is angelic and eerie, mimicking the tone set by the title itself.
And of course Corgan wanted a different song to be the first single. It was “Today,” his song of survival and the first song he wrote for the record after his writer’s block had lifted. About his obsession, at the time, of killing himself, it’s a song about a great day that starts off slow and hazy and winds up taking you on a sunny walk in the park. It’s the sound of Corgan deciding to go on.
“Can’t wait for tomorrow / I might not have that long,” he sings, “I’ll tear my heart out / Before I get out.”
Never has a cry for help become so popular. It’s in the chime of the guitar solo humming behind the throb, clicking in your head, reminding you it’s there. It’s one of the tracks Corgan eventually performed Iha’s and Wretzky’s parts for after dissatisfaction with what they had put on tape.
Corgan directed the band as if they were his, not his peers and collaborators. He spent hours working to perfect the sound only he could hear in his head. He had help from producer Butch Vig, who had also produced Gish (along with other milestone alternative records, like Sonic Youth’s 1992 LP Dirty and L7’s Bricks are Heavy from the same year). Famously, Vig produced Nevermind, having cleaned it up to the crystal clear, radio friendly, money printer it became. Vig humored Corgan and re-re-recorded takes with him dozens of times for hours and hours. The recording of Siamese Dream was tedious and over budget, but ultimately worth the wait.
Each of the four singles from Siamese Dream sport a different mood of dissatisfaction with life. “Disarm” opens with church bells and an acoustic guitar keeping the pace under Corgan’s cries. As the record’s third single, the BBC banned it in the UK because of lines like “cut that little child.” It didn’t stop it from becoming a hit in the US, topping off at number eight on the Billboard Alternative Chart and number five on the Mainstream Billboard Chart. Love the status quo Goth intro: “Disarm you with a smile / And cut you like you want me to.”
The fourth and final Siamese single is “Rocket” with a standard Pumpkin sound of glossy coated guitars plugged into themselves, leaving the listener with a thick film to wipe off. “I shall be free” it repeats at the end, “Free, free / Free of those voices inside of me.” No one shares quite like Corgan.
The heirlooms of The Smashing Pumpkins show in the cracks of the rest of the record—“Soma,” “Geek U.S.A.,” and “Mayonnaise”—songs that ebb and flow: soft and loud, rage and sorrow, constant motion in the drums and single notes that pull on your nerves. You can hear the battle whether it was between the band or within Corgan himself in the crescendos linking verses and choruses with bursts of energy.
Siamese Dream’s temperament, like its recording, is manic. It’s a lonely, busy record. If there ever was an album for a depressive cycle, allowing you to trip and fall into a song only to have its fourth verse wake you from an emotional slumber, it’s here on the nearly nine-minute “Silverfuck.” The drums stir up a slimy amoeba that never stops wiggling. The guitars trickle around each other and Billy’s voice remains itself: raw and worrisome:
“Bang bang you’re dead / hole in your head,” the chorus repeats and echoes, “Bang bang you’re dead / hole in your head” before the pace cuts in again.
At just under seven minutes, “Hummer” is a churning static, followed by a loose bass line popular of the era, cementing The Pumpkins in the library where they belong: heavyweights of sounds covered in a metallic glow that shines on a cloudy day.
The Smashing Pumpkins have remained a particular fan favorite, shouldering a psyche specific to Corgan’s continuous anxieties and fears. Siamese Dream will swallow you whole no matter what state it’s in. Forgive Corgan’s outrageous behavior for his insightful sensitivities delivered in lyrics between head banging solos and orchestral bridges.
The Pumpkins stood out in so many ways different than Nirvana. For one thing they kept going, which is arguably a technicality. Corgan found something in himself that pushed him to persevere, and he keeps doing just that—the band just kicked off a massive reunion tour with a three hour opening show in Arizona, James Iha playing a full set with the band for the first time in 18 years.
While their music belongs in the same categorized library as Nirvana, The Smashing Pumpkins’ are Billy Corgan’s perfect universe: a catalog of records contemplating why he goes on, one guitar tier at a time. Siamese Dream is the place to start, unafraid of its own dueling highs and lows, inevitably leading you into its light.