Friday, February 8, 2008

No. 360: Siamese Dream


Band: The Smashing Pumpkins
Album: Siamese Dream
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Despite being a two-man operation, "Siamese Dream" is the Smashing Pumpkins' greatest work by a mile. The song's production is tight, the guitars rage and Billy Corgan's voice is a wail of pain.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: The lyrics on the record reek of self-centered nonsense and reflect, I'd say, Corgan's deplorable personality.
Best song: "Cherub Rock" is great, though the other three singles ("Today," "Disarm" and "Rocket") are all awesome. As far as non-singles go, "Soma," "Quiet" and "Spaceboy" all soar.
Worst song: I don't like "Mayonnaise," though, people enjoy it.
Is it awesome?: Unfortunately, yes.

I am a pretty disorganized person and one of my great regrets is that I've lost many of the columns I wrote in college for the MU Student News. Their online archives suck and my columns appear to have been lost in the ether.

Nevertheless, I wrote a column about superfandom that had a specific person in mind (a fellow who I knew in high school) and lambasted the idea of the "fanboy" and those who worship at the altar of certain bands.

(The irony, of course, is that I am a closet fanboy of a few bands, Death Cab for Cutie being the big one.)

I mentioned the three bands I'd experienced the most exuberant and unrelenting fandom (the wording I used, I believe, was something like "[Band] could fart into a microphone and their fans would still think it was genius.") were Tool, Radiohead and the Smashing Pumpkins.

(I would, by the way, add Nine Inch Nails to that list now.)

I don't have anything against Tool or Radiohead fans, particularly. I did hate Radiohead fans at the time because they wouldn't quit it with their love for "Kid A," though I've since come to love that album. Tool fans and I are mostly on the same page, though they bristle at the idea that Tool is a prog-rock band. Smashing Pumpkin fans, though, would always argue with me that "Melon Collie" was genius, a modern day "The Wall." They'd namedrop the Cure and Smiths, while claiming "Adore" was just an extension of '80s eyeliner rock. They'd cite Corgan's nihilistic streak as cause for "Zero" to be a generation's anthem, as opposed to what it really is: A neat guitar riff.

There's an inherent problem with SP fans and that's Billy Corgan. Most of the popular alternative rock bands of the 1990s had a pretty negative attitude towards fame; most simply wanted to make music and make a living from it. If they wanted fame or thought themselves geniuses, they kept it quiet, put on a humble face and made music. Some went to great strides to disassociate with fame (Pearl Jam and Radiohead come to mind) and some let fame destroy them (Nirvana, sadly).

Corgan, leader of Smashing Pumpkins, doesn't necessarily appear to love fame any more than a normal person, but he certainly fancies himself a genius. Being humble is not something that is in his behavior set. If he ever had a day without self-importance, I'd be hugely surprised. In his own mind, everything he says is important.

On some level, I understand the entitlement and self-centeredness. Corgan is the child of divorce (I can't totally identify with this, as my parents split when I was in college) and grew up in the Chicago suburbs (this I can certainly identify with).

The failed dreams of suburbia, however, is a concept I can identify with. It's a dangerous game as we suburban kids have been told from our first days on Earth that we could do anything we wanted. We were worshiped, coddled and treated as kings from day one, so when those things didn't come, many of us moped and complained. Many of us expected the world to hand us something that wasn't going to come.

In short, the expectation of success and affluence was our Achilles' Heel. Some of us adapted, worked hard and achieved that success. Some faced failure and overcame it. Others are bouncing around careers and post-graduate education (Hello!) in the hopes for a facsimile of the comfort we had growing up. This failure to replicate that suburban upbringing is frustrating, but a learning experience for most.

Billy Corgan, I have to think, grew up with the same encouragement. Eventually, we suburban kids realize that the world isn't our cheering section and we buck up. Many settle into a life that isn't our parents', either in mindset or in affluence.

Corgan never lost the cheering section.

(For the record, I have no idea as to what one is supposed to do to stop this suburban situation. I'm partially sure this whole rant is simply narcissism and a reflection of my own laziness and expectations of the world. This, of course, is why I should never have children.)

---

I know sports relatively well and Corgan reminds me of the wunderkind wide receiver who has never been told "no." He records all the parts on the album by himself because, damnit, he's the genius. He drinks his fans Kool Aid so much, his lips are redder than a French hooker's.

And his fans just mainline ass-kissing to him, while defending even his worse projects to non-fans (like myself). After I wrote my column about the band's fanboys, I got more e-mail than when I told bicyclists that I hate them and bloggers (irony much?) that I don't care about any of their lives.

The simple fact is this: Corgan thinks the world revolves around him. We all do, on some level, but Billy Corgan is one of the only people around who gets it reinforced by other people. When an album doesn't get critical praise, he pouts on his blog like an infant. He would refuse to go on tours with Nirvana because Kurt Cobain's wife was an ex-girlfriend (with whom Corgan would reunite after Cobain's death. Classy, Bill.). He would secretly re-record James Iha's guitar parts. He kicked, I think, three bass players, out of his band.

There are a lot of mercurial talents in rock music who are clearly jerks. I'd never want to share a meal with Steve Albini, but his music is wonderful and his polemics on the industry are great. The guys in Metallica seem like abject douchebags, but to deny the glory of their first four records would be foolish. Dave Mustaine is clearly a nutjob, but "Peace Sells" kicks all types of ass.

But, Corgan takes it a step further. He acts like a spoiled child and his fans reward him. At least there was a backlash for Metallica when Lars Ulrich decided Napster was worse than Hitler.

---

Of course, the problem is that Corgan's first mainstream success is great. For all of Steve Albini's comparisons to REO Speedwagon, "Siamese Dream" is a wonderful extension of alternative's rock and its move into the stadia of America. Corgan's love of Zeppelin caused him to ape Page/Plant's songwriting work while expanding on it and shortening it to fit a more space-rock aesthetic. So, instead of expanding quasi-metal odes, we get "Rocket," a popish song built around a cool rock riff. Instead of "Battle of Evermore," we get "Disarm," a vulnerable ode to rock stardom filled with strings, bells and timpani.

"Quiet" is a full-throttle rock song echoing the band's debut, while "Today" sounds almost like sugary enough to justify the band's idiotic video. "Soma" is literate and cool, while "Spaceboy" has the acoustic feel of a, well, space rock song.

"Siamese Dream" is likely to be remembered for its opening track, "Cherub Rock." The song's lyrics -- again, showing Corgan's selfish, idiotic tendencies -- are a somewhat blunt attack on the independent music scene of Chicago at the time, telling the Albinis, McEntires and Prewitts of the world that it "Doesn't matter what you believe in" and that they're only in the scene for the money. Like a tantrum-throwing kid, Corgan's voice modulates between the softness of a child and the wail of a baby as he acts the scene's victim. Unlike Mr. Simpson and the "No Homers Club," Corgan appears to have been left out of the party is angry.

Still, as awful as it is lyrically, the song's production (Butch Vig had recently come off the success of "Nevermind" and had worked on the band's debut, "Gish") and Corgan's meticulous guitar layering make for the band's best work. The guitar solo takes as much from the metal gods of the '80s as it does from Mick Ronson. The song starts with a drum roll, an easy riff that ends up riding up the neck up before the band explodes into the song.

It's easily the band's greatest achievement, a staggering riff, an awesome drum line and a vocal performance that fits the song's terrible, terrible anti-independent music message. Musically, though, it rocks.

---

As much as I hate to say it (again, their fans are pricks just like the band's frontman), "Siamese Dream" is wonderful. Allmusic.com says "Siamese Dream stands alongside Nevermind and Superunknown as one of the decade's finest (and most influential) rock albums." I wish I could dispute this, but, sadly, I cannot.

23 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think that this might be your best entry yet, nice job.

(And I'm by no means a fan or hater of this band)

Anonymous said...

you make some good points (no, its not just the praise of SD that i agree with)...however you should note Billy has never kicked a bassist out of SP. Darcy left, Melissa volunteered to temporarily help and after finishing out the tour Darcy was supposed to be involved with in 2000, she went to do her solo work. And now the new bassist is Ginger Reyes.

Furthermore MCIS is genius. And its not just the fanboys defending it. Look at it this way: Gish set indie and college records. SD is universally acclaimed as captureing the essence of the alternative rock era. MCIS was the pinncale of the band's evolution and no band was bigger in 1995/1996 than SP.

Anonymous said...

.....[continued]

THOSE are the things fueling Billy's ego, and I think he has every right to do so. I mean, shit, I would too.

As a midwesterner, I'm sure you can understand the dry sarastic humor we have out hear and hopefully consider for a moment that Billy's persona in the press is not his true persona.

R.J. said...

I could consider that Corgan's press persona is one of sarcasm, but I wonder how much of it is true. Certainly, I praise people like Albini and Morissey for their public statements, but neither ever really fancied himself a musical genius. Albini is the worst of them, but, of course, because I like his music, I like him.

I think more of my issue is with the fanbase. I've never seen fans so fervent. I had a friend in high school who thought Corgan crapped gold and I've never seen that for anyone but him. I had a friend in college who felt the same way.

And, on some level, Albini is right. Smashing Pumpkins is REO Speedwagon. They're an arena rock band and trying to take the indie/hipster scene to task in Chicago in the 90s really rubs me the wrong way. That's my favorite time period and place for music. Maybe I'm being petty.

Finally, I'll acknowledge that my anti-SP feelings are partially fueled by overexposure. Growing up in Chicago during the band's heyday, I had to hear Q101 play all their music all the time.

As for Melon Collie, that record comes up towards the end of the list (487, I believe) and I'll get into it more there, but I'd stick with my general bias against double albums. Even the best double albums (my double album of choice is the White Album) are filler-tastic.

Anonymous said...

But that should tell you something. I assume that generally these fans you mention in high school and college weren't completely musically inept. And if someone with gernally good taste in music can fall that head over heels, that should tell you there's something to the obession...if even a glimmer of truth.

I also know some very fanatical SP fans. They remind me more of the Kiss fans and the Kiss Army and all of that. None of us started with any predispositions or biases. Listening to the music purely for enjoyment, you eventually find that connecting with the sentiments is not difficult.

Its pretty interesting how generally you don't find many middle of the road SP fans. People seem to either love, or loath.

In regards to the indie/hipster scene and SP's rise to success...that is also not what it seems. First off, Billy was trying to prove that to change the mainstream you have to change it from within. Thats why you can't fault him for taking his music to that level. He didn't crap on the indie scene, because as we all know he doesn't compromise his music for the audience, even in cases when it has hurt him amongst his fanbase. He was thrust into the indie scene by the indie acclaim and success of Gish on college radio. That was never his intention, though it was the vehicle for propelling the band forward.

Furthermore, when Metro owner Joe Shanahan liked what he saw, he began imposing SP as an opening act on many local bands coming through that venue. This is what steamed Albini and the hipsters the most. The fact that a supposed indie band was using "business people" like Shanahan, local chicago managers and label folks like Barry Watterman and Mike Potential, to conduct things in a mainstream kinda way.

I find this funny, because though this can be viewed as a very "corporate approach" i personally think the use of exclusive local Chicago representation should have been viewed as a good move for the indie scene in Chicago (relative to the national mainstream) vs. a snub. So basically, you've got this local band gathering steam and being "forced" down the throat of the metro attendees vs. building their reputation from the ground up like everyone else had to do. Thats why people in Chicago reacted the way they did towards SP. It was purely situational and Billy's comments in Cherub Rock communicate his sentiments that even they, the hipsters up on a pedestal, are just in it for the success...they just want it on their own terms.

Anonymous said...

.....[continued]

Regarding the REO Speewagon comment, I always saw them as more of a Zeppelin, personally.

Anyway, this aspect of the band was never concealed on Gish. They were the same band then, as they were when they got big. Arena rock with searing guitar solos was always their aspiration.

Its not as though they decided to become something different in mid-stream of being part of the Chicago indie scene. As I said above, they were placed in this category by the success of Gish...and just continued along the path they had always intended. They were just fortunate enough, in part, to be in the right place at the right time. The same can be said about Lolla in 94 after Nirvana dropped out. They were in teh right place at the right time and got the headlining spot, and along with it, more national exposure.

And once again, they got lumped in, against their wishes, with the Grunge bands of Seattle.

R.J. said...

I was not aware of the general way the Pumpkins' success played out in their early years -- I was but a wee lad of 12/13 when their popularity started.

With that said, I would say that comparing SP to KISS is not a comparison I would respond to. While I don't blame people for being a fan of a certain band -- anyone can like whoever they like for whatever reason they like -- I don't care for KISS. And, for me? It just doesn't resonate, just as SP's later work doesn't.

I think the issue -- especially when it comes to the Chicago indie scene in this period -- is that the "hipsters" didn't want "success" in the same way Corgan did. In fact, the reason Touch & Go, Thrill Jockey, Drag City, etc. started was because the respective label heads hated the industry. A lot of bands -- Butthole Surfers, Big Black, etc. -- were attracted to Touch & Go because the music industry was such a terrible situation. Albini himself has written about this on many occasions, though Gibby Haynes went back on it.

Look, there's a part of me that begrudgingly respects Corgan for his personality. He clearly has a vision and he is clearly executing it. That people enjoy said vision is great for him. You guys have read the piece, I like "Siamese Dream," albeit begrudgingly.

Again, I go to the fanbase. There's a real passion there that I don't see in many other bands of that time period, save for the ones mentioned (NIN, Tool and Radiohead). The idea that Corgan could fart on a microphone seems to exist in a lot of SP fans (example: I had a friend defense "Zeitgest" as "Than a lot of the other shit being pumped out these days"), despite a lot of the music being, well, crappy.

It's the nature of fandom, sure. I get just as annoyed with Redskins fans here in D.C. when they think Joe Gibbs shits gold. With the Pumpkins, I'm mostly just tired of people telling me that I should like them because he's the voice of my generation or that his music is so smart politically or that his annoyance with the underground is so profound or whatever. It's not.

He's a dude with a forum. His opinions resonate with some people and don't with others. That's fine, just don't count me in the fan camp.

Jason Br. said...

"Corgan is the child of divorce (I can't totally identify with this, as my parents split when I was in college)...

"[W]e suburban kids have been told from our first days on Earth that we could do anything we wanted. We were worshiped, coddled and treated as kings from day one...

"Billy Corgan, I have to think, grew up with the same encouragement."


Uhm...yeah. The preceding is incoherent.

padraig said...

well, if you can't dispute it, I will - lord knows I listened to Siamese Dream enough times growing up. It's not a bad album, admittedly and it is the Pumpkins' crowning achievement (though, next to the rest of their catalogue that isn't saying much) - but it did much better commercially because the millions of American teens who snapped it up had never heard of My Bloody Valentine or the Jesus & Mary Chain. It's watered down shoegaze crossed with bombastic arena rock - though I do have to credit Corgan with introducing a 10 yr old me to that guitar sound that he ripped off from Kevin Shields. Corgan even went out and got Alan Moulder, the guy who produced MBV, Ride and Slowdive among others, to mix Siamese Dream.

I'm not going to waste time dissecting the awfulness of his lyrics - Corgan should be thankful Trent Reznor was around to take the crown as worst English-language lyricist of the 90s. Not that most shoegaze bands were known for profound lyrics - but they had the good sense not be so upfront about it.

Also, how was Siamese Dream "influential"? Sure Corgan, like Kurt Cobain, loved a bunch of awesome bands - shoegaze, Sabbath, Joy Division, Husker Du etc. - and he sold a trillion records but have you ever heard a musician whose work you admire cite the Pumpkins as an influence?

I can't deny the catchiness and appeal of the big hits and the rest of the album is palatable enough - like I said Siamese Dream isn't bad and it manages to avoid collapsing under its' own excess, the fate to which all later Pumpkins' records would be subject. Albini, whether you like him or not, was right - they're ultimately insignificant. Maybe some people used them as a gateway to their infinitely superior influences - if so, great.

Anonymous said...

Fair enough RJ.

I was also young in that time of the Chicago scene, but I've done a lot of research on the subject. I think most importantly, we should be thankful we had as many "voices of our generation" to choose from as we did growing up and listening to music in the 90's...

-D, HS class of '95

D. said...

yes padraig, i have.

Secret Machines and Silversun Pickups most recently. Though I can google you up some more if you want to.

Everyone musician "steals" from someone else. Its called musical influence. Billy took the MBV meets Sabbath meets Bowie meets whomever else influences and made them his own. He developed upon the ideas, did not plagarise them.

The Jesus and Mary Chain are SUCH a different band. The fact that you make some of these generalizations tells me you haven't given SP music the level of commitment it deserves. You're commenting purely on the surface-level 10-sec analysis point of view.

There's a lot more going on my friend.

An i personally feel MCIS is the crowning achievment. There could have been SD2 or SD3 if BC wasn't setting his aspirations any higher. The sheer range of musical styles/influences/etc. on MCIS is staggering for a band who released such a comparatively cohesive album as SD.

Here's an idea: why not go track by track through all 28 of those and tell me who he ripped them off from?

D. said...

btw, anonymous who was having the discussions with RJ = d.

kellydwyer said...

As someone who had heard of and owned tapes of Jesus and Mary Chain and MBV well before the time this album came out, I don't credit it with introducing me to anything.

Now, as an admitted Queen freak (then and now), my tastes are going to run closer to Brian May than to Kevin Shields, so there's little surprise when I point out that I much prefer Corgan's fuzzy leanings to that which came before him.

The guitar work is more accessible, it cuts through the muck, it's memorable, and shows off a surprising sense of economy despite it's arena-wank leanings.

Of course, early parts of the preceding paragraph could be said for just about any arena rock axe-slinger, but I'm pretty comfortable in my preferences. It was nice to hear someone in 1993 who actually cared enough to demo a few amp/rig configurations and pay attention to guitar mixes while letting the self-aware stylings of the times (and the Chicago pressure) keep him in check. Believe me, this album is Billy Corgan "in check." This is a dude who thinks people want to pay money to hear his poetry, so this is about has subjugated as his ego gets.

As for overdubbing Iha's guitar parts? I've no issue with that. Though I'm not quoting you as having issue with that, Ross; it should be noted that Iha is a pretty shitty guitar player. Can barely get his hands around the 15th fret of a Les Paul neck.

It's a big, stupid album. And, for a time where obscurity was something that was to be coveted -- not just in terms of popularity, but the actual way records were written, recorded, and mixed -- it stood out.

I never listen to it anymore, and Corgan's "I'm going to pose as if I want to be a rock star, smirking enough to try and throw off the scent that I don't, even though I want my band to be the biggest in the land and the prize of every kid who knocks down a pyramid of bottles at the county fair should receive a mirror with my band's logo on it and not the stupid Swan Song logo"-pose was pretty evident to even junior high schoolers back then.

I was taking the good with the bad back then, and I am know.

Great post, Ross. All over the place, but to the point when it counts.

Anonymous said...

if you like Brian May and Queen, I wonder what you would think of the Roy Thomas Baker produced Zeitgeist, kellydwyer.

padraig said...

d. - you're missing the point. I'm not saying Corgan plagariased anyone's ideas and I'm fully aware that there is nothing new under the sun as far as musicians cribbing influences. I'm saying that his music seemed innovative and fresh to a lot of people who'd never even heard of his influences. That's not Corgan's fault or anything - but in the same way I'd rather just listen to a Gang of Four record than anything Interpol or Franz Ferdinand has done, I'll stick with MBV and Sabbath over Corgan's yelping.

Also, JAMC was "SUCH" a different band? Have you ever listened to Psychocandy? They were the first dudes to update the VU's drone into a wall of guitar sound and mix it with massive pop hooks. Wall of guitar sound with catchy pop hooks was Billy Corgan's raison d'etre.

Of course he didn't just baldly rip off shoegaze - did you notice where I mentioned Sabbath, Joy Division etc. as his other influences? Not to mention the obvious 70s arena rock vibe. Or the Stooges and Blue Cheer - whatever, like I said, he like a lot of cool bands.

I don't begrudge his success, nor do I care about the stupid (on both sides) war with the Chicago indie scene - though I'd take Big Black over SP any day purely based on my musical tastes - I just think dude is waaaay overrated. If your opinion or anyone else's differs, fine - it's not like Billy Corgan needs me to buy the shitty albums he's pumping out nowadays.

Oh, and I don't admire the work of the Secret Machines or Silversun Pickups, so I guess we'll have to differ in opinion there as well.

kellydwyer said...

I should add that, for most of the albums on this list, the idea of holding them up to intense scrutinization seems a bit odd. Not that Ross is going over uncharted territory, Wikipedia and Allmusic.com and Rolling Stone itself have written hundreds of thousands of words on these 40-minute discs, and entire books have been focused on a few of these albums.

But, with Corgan and his generation, the work deserves the time. Not because the music is great, for me most of it falls well short, but because Corgan and the musicians of his generation were thinking in historical terms with each effort they tracked. Not so much as, "this needs to stand the test of time," so much as, "this needs to stand up to ridicule."

This generation, and the ones that followed, were too damn self-aware not give it that treatment.

kellydwyer said...

anon -- I haven't heard a second of the album, to be honest. I'm a bit of a geezer, no radio or MTV2 to be found around here, so I can't possibly comment.

I actually had to Google what you were talking about. I thought "Zeitgeist" might be the name of some newish band that RTB was producing.

padraig said...

mr. dwyer - that bit about Corgan's "I'm going to pretend not to care about being a rockstar as a ploy to become an ever bigger one" schtick is dead-on. well said. and the good with the bad pretty much defines SP - how much good and bad respectively depending upon one's view of the band. though I do think you were in the rather small minority of Siamese Dream buyers who were already familiar w/MBV etc. - I was thinking mostly of the legions of 10-14 yr olds circa 1994.

and yeah, that post-Nirvana self-awareness is kind of the curse of pop music - and I think one of the many reasons why hip hop supplanted guitar bands for white suburban kids - though of course these days hip hop is just as meta, if not more so.

R.J. said...

Padraig, e-mail me. I need to ask you a question.

dcm said...

I cringe everytime I hear Billy Corgan and Lin Brehmer doing Cubs coverage on XRT every spring. Billy says stupid shit and Lin just agrees with everything. I understand the argument, but I have always loved the Pumpkins. Growing up with these albums is something I will always remember. Siamese Dream is in my car right now and "muzzle" is one of my favorite songs of all time.

R.J. said...

I used to work with Lin Brehmer. He was a super nice dude.

Anonymous said...

I do not regret reading this article. I may even read this icicle again.

Somehow I do feel that you rushed your review of this album. I don't mean you rushed the review of Billy, or of SPs, or of suburbia. I mean: you rushed the review of the music.

fft said...

Butch Vig was on Sound Opinions recently talking about making this album and working with Corgan, et al:

http://www.soundopinions.org/shownotes/2008/031408/shownotes.html