Is This Prog?!|
Or: Why Genius Transcends the
Boundaries of Genre
Billy Corgan - lead vocals, guitar, keyboards;
James Iha - guitars, vocals on "Farewell and Goodnight";
D'Arcy - bass, vocals on "Farewell and Goodnight";
Jimmy Chamberlain - drums, vocals on "Farewell and Goodnight"
Additional: Greg Leisz - pedals and lap steel guitar on "Take Me Down"
String Arrangement on "Tonight, Tonight": Billy Corgan and Audrey Riley
Producers: Flood, Alan Moulder, and Billy Corgan
Art Direction and Design: Frank Olinsky and Billy Corgan
Illustration: John Craig
Photography: Andrea Giacobbe Tracks: CD 1 - Dawn To Dusk:
1. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (2:52), 2. Tonight, Tonight (4:14), 3. Jellybelly (3:01), 4. Zero (2:40), 5. Here Is No Why (3:44), 6. Bullet With Butterfly Wings (4:17), 7. To Forgive (4:16), 8. Fuck You (An Ode To No One) (4:51), 9. Love (4:21), 10. Cupid De Locke (2:50), 11. Galapogos (4:46), 12. Muzzle (3:44), 13. Porcelina Of The Vast Oceans (9:21), 14. Take Me Down (2:52)
CD 2 - Twilight To Starlight:
1. Where Boys Fear To Tread (4:23), 2. Bodies (4:12), 3. Thirty-Three (4:10), 4. In The Arms Of Sleep (4:12), 5. 1979 (4:25), 6. Tales From A Scorched Earth (3:45), 7. Thru The Eyes Of Ruby (7:38), 8. Stumbleine (2:54), 9. x.y.u (7:07), 10. We Only Come Out At Night (4:05), 11. Beautiful (4:18), 12. Lily (My One And Only) (3:31), 13. By Starlight (4:48), 14. Farewell And Goodnight (4:22)
Introduction: On the Pros and Cons of Discussing Genre
Some people are probably wondering what an album by the Smashing Pumpkins is doing in a Counting Out Time article at the DPRP. The band is, of course, mostly discussed in terms of alternative rock or even grunge, the wave it rode in on in the early 90s, but as I hope to show, they (or maybe one should say Billy Corgan, the man responsible for most of the band's music) have from their start showed an interest in transcending boundaries of genres. It is a truism of sorts to claim that most good music (or even art in general) moves beyond the limitations of such categories. Genre is not, primarily, a tool for the creating artist, but rather for his/her audience, and (perhaps even more) for the critics trying to mediate between the former two.
Speaking as a critic, I can only say that it is often a hard task defining these limitations and boundaries when sitting with a specific album in the player. That is not to say that it is always equally difficult. Some bands and artists produce music which is more clearly within certain boundaries - or at least many of us agree upon their categorisation. Others, however, turn the critic him/herself into a creative artist in pursuit of the right genre, the appropriate way to categorise that which strives to defy that very task. Nevertheless, the concept of genres is helpful when browsing through the vast jungle of music, since it gives indications as to how certain music corresponds to other music, and if it is something that appeals to your taste. Still, in my book, it remains a tool and not a gospel.
Now, as already stated, the Pumpkins have a history of working on borders (the fact that they were part of the formation of grunge, that is shaping a new category, is one thing that points to this), but I would argue that Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness took this one step further. And it is this step further that, in my book, takes them to the borders of progressive rock. So, without making any claims concerning the records the Pumpkins released before and after this quite extraordinary double album, let us see what led up to this album and why it belongs in the COT section.
The Pumpkin Story:
A Background to the Album
The history of the Smashing Pumpkins is very much the history of Billy Corgan. Corgan was born on March 17, 1967, and grew up in the Chicago suburbs. Home-life was anything but a calm and pleasant experience to Corgan as he was living a nomadic existence, shuttled back and forth between parents and step-parents. While this disruptive existence naturally marked Corgan and later came to affect his creative output, he nevertheless had the good luck of being the son of a R&B guitarist playing local clubs. This had the effect of exposing him to "just about everything" from an early age, and, in his teens, Corgan picked up playing himself.
Corgan was considered academically bright and people seemed to hope that he would pursue a career in law, but rather than entering law school, he began working in a record store. This, together with his musical intake as a child, helped form Corgan's eclectic approach to music. In fact, in detecting parallels between, for instance, Hendrix and John Coltrane, he discovered what became an important truth to him as an artist: "Great music completely obliterates any conceptions of genre."
His first band experience was as guitarist with the local band called the Marked. The band left Chicago in 1987, emigrating to Florida in order to escape the overwhelming atmosphere of Goth metal ruling the independent scene of Chicago at the time. The attempt was far from a success and Corgan returned to his native city, disillusioned and broke. In order to deal with his situation, Corgan turned away from the outside world to write an astonishing amount of original material. When he returned to the realm of the living, he met up with James Iha, who was then playing in a college band called Snake Train. Iha shared Corgan's eclectic vision and they started performing together as a duo, playing the clubs of Chicago.
In 1988, the duo was joined by bass player D'Arcy Wretzky. She was a classically trained musician from Michigan and had previously played with a French group while traveling around Europe. D'Arcy was invited by Corgan who said he was looking for people to write with, but it never got to that point, as Corgan first told her that she had to learn the already existing material that he had written himself. And that numbered 40-50 songs. In addition to this, Corgan kept writing at a frightening pace - about ten new songs per week. Luckily for Corgan and Iha, D'Arcy enjoyed playing his music, and the Smashing Pumpkins appeared as a trio, performing backed-up by a drum machine. Following this, the manager of Chicago's biggest venue, the Cabaret Metro, promised them a spot as support act if they employed a real drummer. Corgan then contacted Jimmy Chamberlain, the son of another jazz and R&B musician, and the Smashing Pumpkins successfully opened for Jane's Addiction. This success made them the main independent support act at the Metro in the years that followed and they became capable of attracting a local crowd of 800 people simply by their reputation as a live attraction.
The winds of success carried the band forward and they released two 7" singles (I Am One on Limited Potential Records and Tristessa on Sub Pop) in 1990. Late that year, the Pumpkins were possibly the hottest unsigned rock band in the US, and Virgin made a deal with them. In December, the band began working on their debut album, Gish, together with producer Butch Vig (before his seminal work on Nirvana's Nevermind).
Gish was released in May 1991, and was followed by an 18 months world tour that shook the Pumpkins to their very foundations. However, while the strain of touring was almost destroying the band, their reputation as an awesome live act spread like wild fire. Nevertheless, halfway through 1992, the experience had taken its toll. Chamberlain was drinking heavily, while D'Arcy and Iha, having pursued a romantic relationship and then split up, now found life in the band less than appealing. Corgan, on the other hand, was on the verge of losing his mind. Corgan and Hole's singer Courtney Love had earlier been an item, something which at that time had disturbed Corgan's friend and rival Kurt Cobain. When the Pumpkins took the stage at the Reading Festival in 1992, the organisers had hoped that the band would liven the day up, just like Nirvana had done the previous year. But Corgan and his by dysfunctional band, playing in the shadow of Nirvana's headlining slot the next day, failed to deliver - and to make matters worse, on a personal level, Love was now married to Cobain, of course.
Returning to Chicago, Corgan considered dismantling the band. Instead he left his girlfriend and locked himself away from the world. There was pressure to write a follow-up to Gish, but Corgan was now deeply depressed and felt entirely unable to take up this creative task. Then finally, one day, one line - "Today is the greatest day of the year" - arrived and with it inspiration returned. The song dragged Corgan out of his hole and he now began working on the second album, Siamese Dream.
It was 1993, when Corgan went into the studio, once more with Butch Vig, to record the album. He was, however, not fully re-socialised and by no means nice. He shunned the company of the other band members and insisted on playing just about everything himself (apart from the drums). Siamese Dream made use of acoustic and string passages, while still using a violent undertow which reaffirmed (as well as transformed) the Pumpkins grunge affiliations. Not only this, enough of the songs were melodic enough to take the album to a number 4 position in the charts in the summer of 1993. The success naturally meant another punishing tour.
In April 1994, a seminal event in rock history occurred, which had an enormous personal impact on Corgan: the suicide of Kurt Cobain. Corgan refused to discuss it, but his approach to life and his own role as an artist changed. Having cited "dysfunction" as his main creative impulse, he now became more relaxed and seemed to enjoy himself more.
After playing the Reading Festival in August, the band went back to Chicago and began working on their third album, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.
Melancholy And An Odyssey
In Human Emotion
From a financial point of view, the field was golden for Corgan and his Pumpkins when they started working on Mellon Collie.... Gish had sold 350,000 copies and Siamese Dream had reached double platinum status. Even the release of their collected B-Sides, Pisces Iscariot, had reached a number 4 position in the chart. Whatever, the band choose to do, Virgin would not object - the Pumpkins had a Midas touch. And this was probably lucky, considering what they went on to do.
I am reminded of one of the stories behind the making of Marillion's third album, Misplaced Childhood. They were a band on the way (although by no means as well on the way as the Pumpkins facing that same crossroad) and then decided to make a concept album... only, it was a time when everyone told them that such an album would be suicide, that concept albums were dead, out of time. And yet, it turned out to be Marillion's most profitable album ever, as far as I know. Well, when the Pumpkins faced the making of their third album, they too took a somewhat unexpected and quite possibly unadvised route. The result was not a concept album, but nevertheless a double CD/triple LP containing no less than 28 tracks (the vinyl edition contains two extra tracks, Infinite Sadness and Tonite Reprise); of these, 26(!) were written by Corgan, one (Take Me Down) by Iha, and the remaining track (Farewell and Goodnight) by the two of them in a joint effort. Without their previous success, their would have been no way that Virgin would have let this project through, but the Pumpkins had achieved their golden goose status and history could be made.
The album was released in November 1995, produced by Corgan himself, Flood (who has also worked with Nine Inch Nails and U2), and Alan Moulder, and it became the Pumpkins' greatest financial achievement (selling over six million copies) as well as arguably also their greatest artistic success. The album epitomises the concept of eclecticism, both in its range and variety of songs and internally within some of these songs. Ranging from the soft and gentle to the hard and noisy, from contemplation to screaming rage, the two discs become an odyssey in human emotion.
The full experience of the album is enhanced by John Craig's somewhat weird, yet symbolically enriching illustrations found on the cover and in the booklet.
Dusk To Dawn:
The Delight Of The General Audience
The eclecticism of Mellon Collie... makes it difficult to talk about separate styles on the two CDs. Some people try to label Dusk To Dawn the heavy one and Twilight To Starlight the soft one, but just as the album as a whole defies easy categorisation, so do its parts. Nevertheless, there is one feature, that seems to distinguish the two discs, and that is popularity.
When going through the customer reviews of the album at Amazon.co.uk, I discovered that while people debate whether it is has enough quality material to justify a double release, most people seem to agree that Dusk To Dawn is a great disc. And those who actually prefer Twilight To Starlight nevertheless generally acknowledge the greatness of the first disc (something which the fans of disc one often seem unwilling to return towards the second disc).
Despite the fact that it seems to be the more popular disc (three out of five singles come from disc one, and Muzzle was planned as a sixth single), it nevertheless contains three of the most progressive songs - one of which, Tonight, Tonight, became the fourth single!
The album's instrumental title track which opens Dusk To Dawn is a short, gentle piece lead by a classical piano surrounded by mellotron and orchestration. This track could very well have opened quite a few regular prog CDs without difficulty. This intro is then followed by the more heavily orchestrated Tonight, Tonight, which in its very essence must be categorised as symphonic rock - and very good symphonic rock at that.
It is, however, the over nine minutes long Porcelina Of The Vast Oceans which presents the most obvious progressive track on disc one. It uses the same kind of narrative movement between different musical sections as bands like Genesis, Yes and Van Der Graaf Generator did most strikingly in the 70s. The song opens up really quietly with an atmosphere which brings bands like Porcupine Tree to mind (although, musical influence might more likely have flowed the other way). The softer sections are then interwoven with heavier outbursts with interesting rhythmical patterns.
(On a short note: rhythmical patterns on the album in general often interest me. Although they are sometimes repetitive, what they repeat is often quite fascinating and rarely not what one would usually associate with ordinary rock music.)
I would like to state for the record, that despite these, more or less, obvious prog tracks which I have mentioned, there are many tracks that move on borderlines of many genres (including prog). Furthermore, I would argue that it is the way in which eclecticism not only structures individual songs, but the relationship between them on the two discs, and between the two discs themselves, that form the very basis for my labeling this album progressive - if forced to label it as anything.
Twilight To Starlight:
The Acquired Taste
Just as it soon became obvious that most people who were not fond of the album as a double preferred disc one, it also became clear that those who did enjoy Twilight To Starlight very much liked the album as a whole, but had acquired a taste for the second CD. And I tend to agree. The album works very well as a whole (true, there are tracks that are weaker than others, but it is a question of acquiring a certain range and variety which one disc could never have done), but Twilight To Starlight is the disc that grows the most upon you. Whereas Dusk To Dawn slips into your system more easily, this one takes some digesting. From the opening guitars on the first track, Where Boys Fear To Tread, that for some reason remind me of King Crimson mingled into some sort of prog metal shape, it was clear that this disc needs time (which is funny, considering that it contains some of the tracks with the greatest pop sensibilities on the album). It is also, perhaps, symptomatic that the three (here as well) most obvious prog tracks on this disc are not as obvious as those on the first CD.
Of those three tracks, only one - Thru The Eyes Of Ruby - is as clearly progressive as those on disc one. This track is yet another long one (closing in on eight minutes) and also makes use of narrative structures, actually challenging Porcelina... as the seminal progressive track of the album.
The other two tracks, the already mentioned Where Boys Fear To Tread and the roughly seven minutes long x.y.u., are both more on the verge of what most people call progressive. It is, however, noteworthy, that this disc (as well as the first one) has a lot of common references with another band which some label progressive and others not - but which also, in many ways, share Corgan's vision - namely Radiohead. And it might be interesting to remember that Radiohead's big commercial success and progressive flagship in many people's eyes, OK Computer (with its daring use of Paranoid Android as first single) was not released until 1997.
Another reference in this field (which is also heavily debated by prog fans and critics) is, of course, latter days Marillion. Their last three albums - Radiation (1998), Marillion.com (1999) and Anoraknophobia (2001) - have all been situated close to the same lines where both Radiohead and the Pumpkins have been operating. Maybe some are more clearly on a certain side of the line, but I would argue that that is not the point.
Epilogue: So... Is This Prog?
There is an ongoing debate in the field of progressive rock - and let us remember that it is a rather vast field - as to what is and what is not progressive. One school of die hard 70s fanatics seemingly claims that it is not prog if it a) was not made in the 70s, b) does not contain mellotron, and c) does not include ten to twenty minutes epics. The list could be longer, and is currently stylised, I admit, but nevertheless telling, I fear. Personally, I have always preferred an inclusive view (with obvious restrictions, of course) to an exclusive one - this goes back to my days as an editor for the Swedish fanzine ArtRock (published by Gothenburg ArtRock Society - GARF) and is still true today in my duties as a reviewer on the DPRP. Genre is never the brand of quality - there is good progressive rock and bad progressive rock, just as there is (believe it or not) good and bad rap music. If anything, the categories of genre are helpful to me and my colleagues in narrowing down the field we work with as reviewers, just as I hope they are of help to you as readers (and listeners) in finding your musical fixes.
Nevertheless, some music refuses the ultimate pinpointing to its last breath, working on the boundaries of whatever it can find. And to some extent, I find something intrinsically progressive with this approach. Progressive in the word's actual meaning. It can quite easily be argued that a lot of progressive rock, especially of the school caricatured above, is intrinsically regressive - in that word's actual meaning. But let us not squabble over such matters. It is a matter of daring to be open to something new, to the next generations of prog, not only in their comforting guises, but also when they come from where we least expect it. Just delve into Nine Inch Nails with their clear history of King Crimson references, who have developed Crimsonesque ideas more successfully, of late, than Crimson themselves have (in my opinion).
In short and conclusion, if you do not want anything to do with that which is not unquestionably prog; if you do not in any way see the progressive elements that current day Marillion abound in; if you dare not take a listen to that which might or might not be progressive rock - then forget that you read this article, put on your 70's albums and enjoy them; they are good, I agree. But if you do want to know what happens at the boundaries, where few things are clear and easily categorised, then pick up Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. It is a seminal album in 90's music, whether we are talking about prog, alternative or even mainstream rock. This is where boundaries blur.
Written by Joakim Jahlmar, September 2002
• Smashing Pumpkins - Biography
• Discography Net