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In 1991, the Smashing Pumpkins were one of Chicago’s most successful local bands, and one of the biggest draws on the local club circuit. That year, they released “Gish,” their first major-label album, and toured in support of it. Two singles from the album, “Rhinoceros” and “I am One,” gained substantial radio play and, in video form, even made it to MTV. In 1993, the band released “Siamese Dream,” and took their place as the most popular alternative band not from Seattle. The band headlined their first stadium tour, playing to sellout crowds wherever they went. Four singles from “Siamese Dream” made the Billboard Hot 100 Singles Chart, and the album went multi-platinum. The Pumpkins then released “Pisces Iscariot,” an album of B-sides that included a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide.” In 1995, the Pumpkins went back into the studio to record a new album. The result was the two-disc album “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.” Again, the Pumpkins went on tour. But on this tour the Pumpkins’ career took a drastic turn for the worse.
The Smashing Pumpkins’ fall from glory was more like a nosedive than a gentle slide. In 1996, the Smashing Pumpkins were at the top of the alternative music world. “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” was on top of the charts, and the Pumpkins were in the middle of an 18-month world tour. Just before midnight on July 11, the day before the Pumpkins were to play the first of three sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden in New York City, drummer Jimmy Chamberlin and keyboard player Jonathan Melvoin, both of whom had a history of heroin addiction, shared a fix in their hotel room and nodded off. When Chamberlin revived, he found Melvoin’s still, lifeless body on the floor beside him. Paramedics were summoned to the hotel, but could not revive the keyboardist.
The Smashing Pumpkins completed the “Mellon Collie” tour with a replacement keyboardist and drummer, but the band would never be the same. Jimmy Chamberlin, who provided most of the band’s on-stage energy and served as a counterbalance to lead singer Billy Corgan’s massive ego, was irreplaceable. In the aftermath of Melvoin’s death, Billy Corgan made the fateful decision that the Pumpkins were his band, and that the other members would submit to his will. Corgan’s autocratic leadership would prove almost fatal to the Pumpkins’ career when the time came to record a new album.
In late 1996, the Pumpkins released “The Aeroplane Flies High,” a five-disc box set that, in my opinion, is their best album. It contains the five singles from “Mellon Collie” and various B-sides that were recorded during the “Mellon Collie” sessions. The Pumpkins’ crowning achievement on “The Aeroplane Flies High” was the title track, a seven-minute long raw rock song that has an edginess not found on any other Pumpkins’ track. “The Aeroplane Flies High” is the Pumpkins’ “Stairway to Heaven,” the marathon song that represents the pinnacle of their career.
In 1998, the Smashing Pumpkins recorded a new album, “Adore,” with Matt Cameron, a former member of Soundgarden and current member of Pearl Jam who is arguably the most talented drummer to come out of the alternative movement. The album was doomed from the start. Corgan lead the band in a transition from the mainstream, guitar-driven sound that had earned them their place at the top of the alternative music world to an almost electronic, machine-made sound. Corgan made most of the album himself, re-recording most of his band mates’ tracks and replacing most of Cameron’s drum work with drum machines.
For their part, guitarist James Iha and bassist D’Arcy Wretzky seemed content to let Corgan make the album. Iha had just finished his solo album, “Let it Come Down,” and Wretzky was busy pursuing her budding acting career. Critics, unwilling to speak badly of a band whose bandwagon they jumped onto a few short years earlier, resorted to adjectives such as “innovative,” “daring,” and “different.” In my own personal opinion, the album was at least decent. It was certainly a change from the Pumpkins’ old sound, but it had its bright spots. But the album was not warmly received on radio or MTV, and suffered disappointing sales.
For their new album, the Pumpkins invited Jimmy Chamberlin to rejoin the band. Chamberlin has resolved his legal problems and professes to be drug-free. But he was unable to change the fact that the Smashing Pumpkins are now nothing more that Billy Corgan and a backup band. On the new album, “Machina: The Machines of God,” the Pumpkins sound takes a turn for the worse. The entire album is overproduced, and the band’s sound blends into a mush of noise. The new songs lack all the elements that made some of the Pumpkins’ past songs so good. The hard edge of “Zero” and “Silverf**k,” the mellow pop sound of “1979” and “Disarm,” and the quiet power of “Thirty-Three” are all missing on “Machina.” The only other way to describe the new album’s sound is to compare it to another Pumpkins’ song. “The End is the Beginning is the End,” which the Pumpkins contributed to the “Batman and Robin” soundtrack, would fit well on the new album. Or you can just take my word for it- the album is bad. Very bad.