In 1988, Chicago’s clubs were still pumping with the dance innovation that had exploded in the city two years earlier – house music. Meanwhile, at a Polish bar near the centre of town, the germ of another sonic revolt was taking shape. In front of a tiny crowd, a lanky, moon-faced guitarist and his ice-cool, American-Japanese side kick were whipping up a maelstrom of freeform jazz-punk noise.
18 months later, this embryonic two-man show had evolved into the Smashing Pumpkins, a proto-grunge quartet with two incendiary 7″s to theor name, including one on the legendary Sub Pop label. Signing to Virgin (Hut in the U.K.), they quickly transformed from a dizzying provincial attraction into one of the world’s biggest alternative rock bands, mixing a barrage of metallic guitar with touches of psychedelia and jazz dynamics. Their previous album – the ‘White Album’-esque “Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness” – has become the biggest selling double-CD, while their total record sales have now topped the 10 million mark.
But global success has exacted its price. Thanks to the mercurial temperament of Billy Corgan, the group’s creative mainspring, the atmosphere within the group has been fraught at the best of times. Yet the group faced its greatest crisis in the summer of 1997, when their touring keyboardist, Jonathan Melvoin, fatally OD’d on heroin in a New York hotel room. With him was Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, who awaoke from his own drug-induced stupor to alert paramedics to Melvoin’s critical condition.
A close friend of Corgan’s and in some respects the Pumpkins’ emotional anchor, Jimmy was fired soon afterwars for his continuing drug use. In one fateful night, the Pumpkins lost two well-loved members, and pretty much all their self-confidence. The years of relentless gigging, emotional upheavels and creative peaks and troughs had finally taken their toll. But don’t worry, the Pumpkins are now back…
Billy Corgan’s introduction to music came early, Brought up in the suburbs of Chicago, he was the son of an R&B musician who earned a living by touring with minor showcase bands. The family house was filled with the classic sounds of his father’s extensive record collection – Hendrix, Miles Davis, Frank Sinatra, Muddy Waters – which Corgan duly absorbed.
Corgan’s birth date of 17th March 1967 was just four weeks after that of Kurt Cobain, a man who would become his friend and occasional rival, and whose life would display several uncanny parallels to his own. As with the Nirvana singer, Billy had a disruptive home-life, being shunted from step-parent to parent and back again. “That’s what’s at the base of this,” he once confessed to Rolling Stone. “I feel like I was fucked over. I thought, why the fuck did you have me if you weren’t going to take care of me?”
At 14, Billy was sent to a psychiatrist by his stepmother (then divorced from his natural father), who believed he suffered from a persecution complex. As the shrink was one of his stepmother’s best friends, he found it hard to explain that he thought she was the problem. Music proved his only escape; and after seeing a neighbour playing electric guitar in his garage, he resolved to be a rock star. At this time, Billy was enormously influenced by Judas Priest, Cheap Tric, and the Cure.
Deeply intelligent and academically bright, it was assumed that Corgan would pursue a career in law, but after leaving school, he got a job in a record store. Now living with his father, who taught him “the difference between ego and true playing”, he began road-testing his talents as a guitarist with a local rock band called the Marked – so called because both Billy and the drummer had strawberry birthmarks (Corgan’s is on his hand) about which they’d been hugely self-conscious as kids.
In 1987, the Marked moved to St. Petersburg, Florida in an attempt to escape the Goth-metal atmosphere of Chicago’s indie scene. But within a year Billy was back home, penniless, sick and disillusioned. His answer to his predicament was to lock himself away, to demo an astonishing torrent of original material. When he emerged he met James Iha, a strikingly handsome Japanese-American, then playing in a college band called Snake Train. Sharing Corgan’s musical vision of a modern Zepp/Floyd/Queen hybrid, the two began performing as a duo, their first appearance taking place at one of Chicago’s many Polish clubs.
In 1988, Corgan fell into an argument outside the city’s Avalon Ballroom with D’Arcy Wretzky. A year his junior, 19-year old was a classically trained musician from Michigan, who’d played with a French group while while travelling around Europe. “I went around to his [Billy's] house because he said he was looking for people to write with,” she later explained. “But he said, ‘Before we can write together you have to learn these songs.’ And he handed me a tape of 40 or 50 songs. Of his! Every week there’d be ten more new songs. But I really loved the music.”
As a trio, the Pumpkins (“It could have been any vegetable,” Billy would wearily point out) performed to 50 people at the Avalon with a drum machine for back-up. They then punted a demo to the manager of the Cabaret Metro, Chicago’s biggest venue, who said he’d book them as a support act if they employed a human drummer.
Corgan called up Jimmy Chamberlin, the son of another jazz and R&B musician. Following an successful opening slot with Jane’s Addiction, the Pumpkins became the Metro’s premier indie support act, propping up bills featuring That Petrol Emotion and Buzzcocks. With their squalls of guitar noise, ethereal vocals and jazz dynamics, they soon became a live attraction in their own right, capable of pulling a local crowd of around 800.
Around this time, a demo fell into the hands of Mike Potential, from Chicago indie Limited Potential. He didn’t like it, but was ecststic about their live show, which he thought he’d check out “just in case”. The result was a limited 7″ featuring “I Am One” (now rated at £150.00/$230.00), a song later re-recorded on the Pumpkins debut album, ” Gish”.
This in turn brought them to the attention of Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman of the seminal American hardcore independant, Sub Pop, who offered to put out a second single. (The label had, of course, done exactly the same for Nirvana a year earlier.) “Tristessa” epitomised the early grunge sound, its barbed-wire guitars sparring with Chamberlin’s powerhouse drumming, while Corgan’s whispering, nasal voice articulated a profound sense of dislocation and loss. It was more a thrilling statement of anger and frustration, and no one could doubt the group’s awesome potential.
In late 1990. the Pumpkins were perhaps the hottest unsigned rock act in America, and with the Andy Gershon/Raymond Coffer manangement team (Ian MacCulloch, Cocteau Twins, Love And Rockets) behind them, they inked a deal with Virgin.
Work began on a debut album, “Gish” – named after the silent movie heroine, Lillian Gish – in December 1990, at producer Butch Vig’s Smart Studio’s in Madison, Wiconsin. It was clear the group had evolved considerably, bringing in acoustic guitars and experimenting with song structure and dynamics.
“Siva” and “Bury Me” were classic early Pumpkins – all pummelling bass lines and squealing, pyrotechnic guitars – but “Daydream” and the quasi-psychedelic “Rhinoceros” denied categorisation, instead offering an open window to Corgan’s startling genius that was to flower so spectacularly over the next five years.
In fact with its wistful, poetic verse, gently cascading Eastern guitar riff, and thunderous Zepp-style coda, “Rhinoceros” remains one of the great rock songs of the 90s, possibly eclipsing both Radiohead’s “Creep” and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in its schizoid beauty. Significantly, in the following months, Butch Vig went on to produce Nirvana’s epochal “Nevermind”…
After “Gish” was released in May 1991, the Pumpkins embarked on a gruelling 18 month world tour that nearly split them up. In September, they made their U.K. debut at the Camden Underworld, which sold out despite very little press. By this time, Billy was stepping out with Hole’s Courtney Love, and Billy found that a jealous Kurt Cobain, shadowing the Pumpkins as Nirvana’s tour also hit Europe, was penning graffiti about the couple on dressing room walls.
Meanwhile, The Pumpkins were gaining a reputation as an awesome live act. “Back then I felt we’d really hit on something,” Corgan later recalled. “When we toured, the band became ultra-aggressive. By early 92, we’d become this lean, mean, on-the-edge, completely rockin’ machine. With a little bit of wizardry and a little bit of sheer will, we were either blowing people’s minds…or they hated ud.”
“He [Billy] always seemed to have these formulas in his head for what was right and wrong, good or bad,” remembered D’Arcy. “I never could think that way, or see things that way”.
By mid-1992, though, the strain of touring was taking its toll. Jimmy was hitting the bottle, D’Arcy and James – having been an item and then splitting up – were finding life in the band intolerable and Billy was slowly going mad. Matters reached a head at the Reading Festival in 1992, when a wigged-out Billy smashed up his equipment during an ill-tempered set. Halfway up the bill on the Saturday, the Pumpkins had been expected to “do a Nirvana”, and liven up the event, just as Seattle’s grungemeisters had done the previous year. It didn’t happen – and the atmosphere of failure was componded by the prescience of Nirvana’s headlining slot the following day. Courtney, of course, was now married to Kurt.
Dejected, Corgan toyed with the idea of splitting the Pumpkins. He returned to Chicago, split from his girlfriend, and entered a dark phase of self-reassessment. The pressure was on for a follow-up to “Gish”, but he couldn’t write. And then the inspiration came: “Today is the greates, days of the year” went the opening lines of the song that dragged him out of the mire.
It was now early 1993, and Corgan – shunning his bandmates – went into Triclops Sound Studios in Atlanta, Georgia to record the album “Siamese Dream”, again with Butch Vig at the controls.
If “Gish” revealed glimpses of Billy’s curious, compelling world viw, then “Siamese Dream” proved he was among the best – and most versatile – songwriters of his generation. Cut during a period when, by his own admission, Billy “wasn’t a very nice person” (he insisted on playing virtually everything on the record, bar the drums), the album was a thoroughly modern rock masterpiece, with a raft of nagging melodies, subtle acoustic and string passages, superb arrangements and a violent undertow that bullishly re-staked the Pumpkins’ grunge credentials, had they ever been in doubt.
While “Silverfuck” was a monumental axe blow-out, the later singles “Disarm” and the dreamy “Today” were sufficiently melodic and immediate to propel them chartwards, their lightness-of-touch providing a sublime counterpoint to other, more visceral crowd-pleasers like the indie-scene bashing “Cherub Rock”, and “Spaceboy”, written for Corgan’s younger brother Jesse, who suffered from a genetic disorder.
On its completion, Jimmy was checked into rehab, and Billy sought professional psychiatric help, part of a process of spiritual renewal that saw him reuniting with his girlfriend, Chris, getting married to her, and buying a house on Chicago’s Northside.
The immense success of “Siamese Dream” – which reached No. 4 in the summer of 1993 – meant another succession of punishing tours. The album was promoted here with an acoustic show at Raymonde’s Revue Bar in Soho, before the group returned for two shows at the Brixton Academy in October, during which Billy took the stage for the encore dressed as a clown. They then jetted out for more overseas dates, including a triumphant homecoming gig at the Chicago Avalon, followed by a Christmas break and an appearance in January 1994 at the two-week Big Day Out festival in Australia, with Nirvana, Violent Femmes and Henry Rollins.
The group’s March 1994 British dates culminated in four sell-out shows at the London Astoria. During that same visit, the group were banned from Top Of The Pops, after refusing to change the line “cut that little child up inside of me” in “Disarm”, which the B.B.C. had declared offensive. The Pumpkins didn’t care: one thing they were never about was artistic compromise.
Between that British tour and the group’s next visit to these shores, to play the Reading Festival in August, an event occurred which had an unfathomable impact on Corgan. In April, Kurt Cobain took his own life, crushed by the contradictions of being a idealistic songwriter caught up in the enormous, cynical machinations of the music business.
Corgan refused to discuss Kurt’s death, but his death seemed to add a punctuation mark to the dark, self-searching days of grunge. Though Billy had cited “dysfunction” as his chief creative impulse, he now seemed happy and relaxed, chatting to journalists about the therapy he’d had to confront the demons of his childhood. He was still wary of giving too much away, though. “After what happened to Kurt, opening up to the press seems even more ridiculous,” he said.
After headlining the U.S. touring festival, Lollapalooza, in July (Nirvana had been scheduled to top the bill), the Pumpkins returned to play a blinding set at Reading. With “Siamese Dream” topping critics polls the world over, the Pumpkins retired to Chicago to work on their third album, “Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness”. Corgan had always been a prolific writer, but his new-found stability seemed to inject him with even more creative energy.
Within a few months it became clear that the album was going to be a double, possibly even a triple. (It ended up as a two-CD and three-LP affair.) His paymasters, Virgin, didn’t seem to object: “Gish” had sold 350,000 copies while “Siamese Dream” had reached double-platinum status; even “Pisces Iscariot” – the B-sides collection issued in the States in 1994 and here only last year – had peaked at No. 4 in the album charts. Whatever the Pumpkins touched, it was bound to sell.
With half of the songs written on piano, and the other half on guitar, “Mellon Collie” ended up as a 28-tracker, with an astonishing breath of styles in evidence, from the lush orchestrations of “Beautiful” (which apparently came to Corgan in a dream) to the full-on rush of “Tale Of A Scorched Earth”. The album was at its most itchingly intriguing when Billy forsook the guitar pyrotechnics, and either trundled along with a lo-fi, hypnotic pop sensibility, as on “1979″, or experimented with delicate, singer-songwriter arrangements, as on the aching “Farewell And Goodnight”, co-written with Iha.
In fact, it was by far the Pumpkins most egalitarian work, with Corgan willingly loosening his creative monolopy. “I want to get the others more involved this time”, he’d admitted to Melody Maker. “I want James to sing on some of it and I want D’Arcy to sing. I mean, it will still be my vision, but I want to create surroundings with it that will be conducive to their ideas too”.
Issued in November 1995, “Mellon Collie” proved that Corgan’s vision had been as astute as ever, and the album – produced by Corgan, Flood and Alan Moulder – became their most successful to date, selling over six million copies.
Yet with the success came the inevitable pressures of touring, and with that, the tragedy of Melvoin’s death, and the upset of Chamnerlin’s dismissal. Perhaps it was the inevitable oay-off for the Pumpkins’ astonishing success, the dreadful price of the kind of pressures only fame can bring.
The incident occurred during the early hours of 12th July 1996, while the group were in New York to play the first of two sell-out concerts at Madison Square Garden, the scene of triumphant performances down the years by such rock myth-makers as the Rolling Stones, the Who and Prince.
Melvoin fatally overdosed on a lethal combination of alcohol and an exceptionally pure form of heroin, known as “Red Rum”, in his Manhattan hotel room. Chamberlin, who was at the scene, was charged with illegal possession of a controlled substance (a syringe with traces of heroin on it were found in the room), and booked into a special clinic.
The incident followed the death two months earlier of a 17-year-old fan at their otherwise euphoric Dublin concert. It was a terrible time for the group, and Billy Corgan sat back to consider the Pumpkins’ plight. Initially, he saw no other option but to await Chamberlin’s recovery, and then go straight out on the road. But then it dawned on him that there was another option, far harder to take, perhaps, but ultimately more beneficial for his precious group. He phoned the Pumpkins’ manager with these instructions: “sack Chamberlin”.
“The subject [of drugs] gets so romanticised in rock’n'roll – that ‘elegantly wasted’ thing,” James Iha told Mojo. “But it’s totally a disastrous, selfish thing to do. We just couldn’t go on that way, trying to get around it. Basically, Jimmy overdosed every time we went on tour. What were we meant to do, lock him in his room every night?”
On 27th August, the tour restarted in Las Vegas, with replacement sticksman Matt Walker (ex-Filter) and keyboardist Dennis Fleming (the Frogs). In September, they returned to New York to play the rescheduled Madison Square Garden dates. This time, the rhythms behing the Pumpkins’ incendiary guitar white-outs weren’t quite so confident, the understanding between the musicians not so intuitive. But at least the Pumpkins were back where they should have been – at the top.
18 months later, the Smashing Pumpkins have consolidated their post-Chamberlin line-up, and, of course, have released their new album. After a fresh mini-album, “Zero”, including a medley of excerpts from some new Corgan compositions, and their contribution to the Batman & Robin soundtrack, the chilling “The End Is The Beginning Is The End”, the future looks bright. In October 1997 news broke that Billy had formed a Gary Numan tribute band, the Replicants, though the sam month the group were successfully sued over the death of Melvoin.
But stay tuned – the Pumpkins have more fruit to bear yet.