Sitting down to reconsider the newly-released, deluxe, nostalgia-baiting box sets of The Smashing Pumpkins‘ first two albums—1991’s Gish and 1993’s Siamese Dream—is impossible for me to do without remembering what it was like to hear the albums as a kid. When it came out, Siamese Dream just sounded like a more emotionally needy version of Nevermind with solos I couldn’t figure out how to play. That’s just how the 11-year old version of myself heard music in 1993: As long as it had distorted guitars, not too much reverb, and a singer who couldn’t really sing, I liked it.
“There’s a kind of cultural wish fulfillment in the success of someone like Billy Corgan: Even if you’re a nerd, you can make it big—and not just nerd-big but rock-god big. You can go platinum nine times. You can shred. You can wear a leather cape.”
It doesn’t hurt that this is how music was marketed to my generation. Bands as incomparable as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins and even Stone Temple Pilots all existed under the banner of “alternative rock.” In sixth grade you were either listening to them or you were listening to Whitney Houston sing “I Will Always Love You” while wearing a cape. I’d imagined all these bands I liked lived in the same neighborhood. They had beers in the evening. They fed each others’ fish when someone went on tour.
In retrospect, the only thing that unified them is the way they reclaimed classic rock in the context of something that was remotely cool. Bands like Pearl Jam (and Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins) had internalized the vocabulary of 1970s rock—heavy, muscular, romantic—as adolescents. Nirvana were Black Sabbath fans, and Billy Corgan said Mellon Collie was supposed to be like Pink Floyd’s The Wall for Generation X. The reason Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” makes more sense next to “Carry On Wayward Son” on the radio than anything by R.E.M. is because R.E.M. was a rejection of crap like Kansas, not a thoughtful reimagining of it. The reason Weezer is charming is that Rivers Cuomo sang about wearing sweaters and being really into Kiss on the same album.
The difference between Smashing Pumpkins and some of their peers is that Smashing Pumpkins actually seemed as grandiose as the bands they’d obliquely imitated. There’s a kind of cultural wish fulfillment in the success of someone like Billy Corgan: Even if you’re a nerd, you can make it big—and not just nerd-big but rock-god big. You can go platinum nine times. You can shred. You can wear a leather cape.
Siamese Dream sounds like a band that somehow knew it was going to be famous. If Corgan’s lyrics don’t tell you he’s in an overwhelming and totally uncomplicated kind of pain, his whine will. He may have grown up listening to bands who worked hard onstage and in the practice space, but by the time Gish came out, he was surrounded by bands who did their work in the studio—specifically bands like My Bloody Valentine, who prized volume and texture over technique. Parts of Siamese Dream are pure sonic indulgence, the sound of ten different guitar tones layered on top of each other. The album creates an imaginary spectrum—showy, extroverted arena rock on one end and humbler, more introspective alternative stuff on the other—and exists somewhere in the middle. It’s the beach bully and the 99-pound weakling in near-equal measure.
At the time, I guess the band were seen as charlatans, taking advantage of indie cred but making corporate money. This was in the early 1990s, when Major Vs. Indie was as much an ideological choice as it was a logistical one. The producer Steve Albini compared them to REO Speedwagon in print. Gish—an album I can still barely make it through, and one that a friend of mine says, “seemed hard to really distinguish from Guns n’ Roses”—came out on Caroline, an indie subsidiary to the major-label Virgin, which released Siamese Dream. None of their reputation was helped by the impression that Billy Corgan was—and continued to seem—paranoid, oversensitive and comically self-important.
Between 1991 and 1995, Smashing Pumpkins released three albums. In the fifteen years since, they’ve replaced every original member except for Corgan. For a little while, they’d broken up. Each album they’ve released is increasing proof that they’re operating in a kind of small, distant world that doesn’t have a lot to do with our own (the most recent, Teargarden by Keleidyscope, is a 44-song concept album inspired by Tarot released exclusively online a handful of songs at a time).
I imagine there are a lot of people roughly my age—people between, say, their late 20s and early 40s—who’ll be very excited to hear Gish and Siamese Dream again. Good—it’s being sold to them, more or less. As a listener, it’s strange to watch bands you liked when you were younger start to relive past glories because it reminds you just how much time has passed. Archers of Loaf, Pavement, Guided By Voices—all these 90s bands who seemed to have too much integrity to do something as corny and classic as get the band back together have, well, gotten the band back together. I don’t think their audiences mind, either—they’ve gotten older and are happy to enjoy the music. What’s strange—and frankly, sad—about listening to these box sets is remembering that Smashing Pumpkins never really went away, it just feels like they did.
The Smashing Pumpkins’ Gish and Siamese Dream deluxe reissues were released November 29 in North America and today, December 5, internationally via EMI.