The Smashing Pumpkins were started in Chicago in 1988 by front-man Billy Corgan, who is lead vocals and lead guitar, and James Iha (rhythm guitar). The band also included Jimmy Chamberlin on drums, D'arcy Wretzky on bass guitar, and together as a band they fused the growing alternative rock movement with blues and electronica to develop their own sound based on the traditions and influences of their Chicago neighborhoods.
Corgan wrote most of the songs for the Pumpkins and many are based on his own inner discord and melancholy. The Smashing Pumpkins created a sound and vibe that was unique even within the alternative rock explosion of the early 1990's. Rather than the punk infused and inspired sounds of the "grunge" era bands the Smashing Pumpkins were and are a guitar driven band with powerful emotional lyrics that while having their own unique sound was also a traditional large scale band meant for arenas and 10,000 screaming fans.
The band had been building their fan base and sending out demo records before being signed by the independent label Caroline to begin working on their debut full-length album.
That became their debut album "Gish". The album released a few months before the breakthrough albums from what would become the powerhouse bands Pearl Jam and Nirvana, but Gish was different than those and so it didn't experience as much success. With melodic guitar songs that balanced perfectly with Billy Corgan's unique vocals, Gish displayed all the hallmarks for what the band was about musically and the potential success that were to come. In fact, Gish set the stage for the band's breakout mainstream success with their next album.
Following the mild success of Gish, the band toured extensively to build their base. They also formally signed with Caroline's parent company, Virgin Records. The tour included opening for already headlining acts such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane's Addiction, and Guns N' Roses. The tour also revealed, however, major emotional divisions and scars within the Pumpkins. During the tour, Iha and Wretzky, who had been in a relationship, went through a difficult and often nasty breakup, while Chamberlin became addicted to narcotics and alcohol, and Corgan entered into a deep depression.
Corgan admits that he even contemplated suicide and because of that, he went into overdrive writing music and working in the studio. Although this in itself would create issues later on regarding Corgan being a micromanager and control freak, it also led to the Pumpkins becoming regarded as mainstream geniuses.
While being personally annoyed and frustrated to be compared to and filed with the wave of "Grunge" bands headed by Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Jane's Addiction, it did lead to a massive wave of publicity for the second album "Siamese Dream"
The truth was the Smashing Pumpkins and Siamese Dream stood out among the other hit makers at the time because thematically they were different. With a base sound that was more retro and a throwback to the arena rock of the 70's while being lyrically emotional and impassioned, the band struck platinum four times as it went on to sell over 4 million copies and is considered among the greatest albums of the decade. This success led to the band being the lead act of the influential and giant moneymaking tour "Lollapalooza".
During this time, Corgan had a explosion in creativity and the ban coalesced around their success. This led to the band recording an epic concept album that was Corgan's visionary rock opera about the cycle of life and death. The multi-disc set became Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, which Corgan somewhat arrogantly compared to the legendary Pink Floyd album "The Wall." Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness was a statement by the band that they were true artists and a powerful force in music. The album sold over 9 million copies and won numerous awards.
At the height of their success, the Pumpkins began to slip back into dysfunctionality and they began a slow dissolution.
While on tour, Melon Collie drummer Jimmy Chamberlin and keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin were shooting heroin when Melvoin overdosed and died. Chamberlin was arrested and sent to rehab, spurring the Pumpkins to kick him out of the band. This affected the sound and flow of the band as they finished their tour and began the development of their next album.
In 1998 the band made the album "Adore" which was much more characterized by electronica influences and a heavy use of drum machines rather than Chamberlin. The tone and substance of the album displayed a complete shift in direction of the Pumpkins. While the album sold well, it was not in the category of either of the previous releases by any means.
In 2000, Chamberlin returned to the Pumpkins, but D'arcy Wretzky left and was replaced by Melissa Auf der Maur. The band recorded and released "Machina/The Machines of God". With Chamberlin's return, the album attempted to merge the style of Adore with the band's earlier power rock anthems. The album did not do well in sales and did not meet expectations. This was not only due to the shifts and changes within the band and their sound, but also a market shift away from alternative rock to hip-hop and melodies of "Boy Bands."
With the sales decline, tensions long held down by success began to chip away and the Smashing Pumpkins broke up. Each of the members then followed their own pursuits. Corgan worked with Chamberlin in a new collaboration called Zwan. James Iha began working with other musicians, and Melissa Auf der Maur released a solo record in 2004.
In 2007 Corgan and Chamberlin announced the reformation of the Smashing Pumpkins; however, this reformation did not include Iha, D'arcy Wretzky, or Melissa Auf der Maur. Corgan and Chamberlin as the reformed Smashing Pumpkins recorded and released an album titled "Zeitgeist". The album did all right as it was certified as a gold record, but in no way did it reflect the previous success the band had attained.
In 2009, Chamberlin and Corgan again parted ways, leading Corgan to form an entire new line up for the Smashing Pumpkins and he announced a massive 44 song concept album Teargarden By Kaleidyscope, with each individual song to be released as a free digital download in succession. Corgan though has since reworked the project and the new line up is now at work on "Oceania" which Corgan calls and album within an album and makes up part of the larger Teargarden by Kaleidyscope concept.
Whatever you might think of the Smashing Pumpkins, there are two things that are most definitely true: 1) their music helped to define a generation; and 2) that music is still timeless. Only time will tell what is in store for Corgan and the Pumpkins of the future, but one thing is for certain... we're looking forward to whatever that might be.
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