My freshman year in college in ’91 was the year that The Smashing Pumpkins debut album “Gish” came out. I remember a friend asking me what I thought was the best band ever. I said the Smashing Pumpkins. Not the Grateful Dead (who I think were his favorite at the time), not the Beatles, not Zeppelin, but the Smashing Pumpkins. Since then I have gone through my Beatles and Dylan phases, but I ]think that to continually only have 5 bands to choose from when answering that question isn’t very interesting. To quote Edna Mode from “The Incredibles” – “I never look back darling, it distracts from the now”. I think we should reflect where we are in the moment when we express an opinion on music. If you asked me today, I’d say TV on the Radio or Arcade Fire.
Now, I get that The Smashing Pumpkins never were and never will be in the pantheon of bands like the Beatles or the Dead or Zeppelin, but for me at that time and for many years, there was nobody better than the Smashing Pumpkins. I was a huge fan. With their debut album “Gish”, it sounded like something new and amazing, even if it did slide into the “grunge” craze that was happening at the time. It has this stripped down sound, but still a feeling of grandeur and scale.
In later albums like “Siamese Dream” and certainly the double album “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness”, the band added more instrumentation, more sonics and more depth to their sound. The spaces left open on “Gish” without those additions were filled with melodic vs. crunching soundplay or a more complex sound structure than your normal grunge record and it was a sound I responded to with aplomb. I listened to Gish over and over and was so excited to hear the first single “Cherub Rock” from “Siamese Dream”, it totally delivered. “Siamese Dream” was a great progression from “Gish”, it had more depth to it, but they hadn’t yet got to some of the extravagance of the double album, this was still their raw sound, just amped up a bit. My appetite for their sound could still not be sated.
Then, with what would normally be a throw away album of the nasty bits from the studio floor for other bands, they released “Pisces Iscariot”, which was an awesome album in its own right. I was going crazy for them at that point. They could do no wrong. Then came the double album, Billy Corgan’s ego didn’t have anything to resist it. For a double album, which can suffer from not enough editing, there are few misses and it entertains throughout, but things had started to unravel for them.
That’s about the time when I finally got to see them twice within the fall of 1996, once in Rhode Island and again in Boston. I was very excited to finally see them live, but I can’t say there were great shows. The set lists (see below) didn’t feature much from the first two albums and you could tell that the band was starting not to enjoy each others company and weren’t enjoying their time at the shows. The drummer had been replaced with a former NIN drummer and was still a little rusty learning all the songs. They were big arena shows that sounded OK but couldn’t possibly live up to my expectations.
There were some memorable moments for sure. Some of the big epic songs like “Porcelina of the Vast Oceans” or “Siva” translated well, no matter the challenges. Those on the floor at the Rhode Island show got rid of their chairs which weren’t bolted to the floor, cleared them out and made a big pile of them at the back of the GA section. I had to watch with envy from my seats in the nose bleeds, didn’t have the balls to hop down on to the floor like many did. Got to meet the band backstage at the Boston show thanks to a college radio connection. That was a highlight, still have the signed piece and remember saying to Billy Corgan “I love your work”. I didn’t know what to say and I wasn’t going to just be another mute fan in the long line of us dorks waiting for an autograph. It was the best I could come up with. I may be in some little way be responsible for stroking his legendary ego, sorry for that.
Re-reviewing the set list from the RI show, they played a teaser bit of the Doors “The End”, they too knew they were on a downslope. I’d argue that they still had a few good albums in them – I think “Adore” is a great album. But for me, recent attempts have not been nearly as creative as those early albums, seems like they are stuck on repeat of variations of “Bullet With Butterfly Wings”.
I can’t say that these were amazing shows, but they did play a part in securing the Smashing Pumpkins a special place in my heart. Today I wouldn’t put them on my top 5 bands of all time today, but they are a band I will continue to enjoy for years to come.
RI – http://www.setlist.fm/setlist/the-smashing-pumpkins/1996/providence-civic-center-providence-ri-6bd73222.html
Fleet Center – http://www.setlist.fm/setlist/the-smashing-pumpkins/1996/fleet-center-boston-ma-7bd73208.html