Smashing Pumpkins' Beautiful, Grand 'Siamese Dream' Turns 25
Is Billy Corgan and Co.'s sophomore release the best alt-rock guitar album of the '90s? For many, the answer is yes.
Does the Smashing Pumpkins’ second album, Siamese Dream -- released 25 years ago on July 27, 1993 -- take the title of best alt-rock guitar album of the ‘90s? For those who love dreamy hooks and diary-like lyricism, the answer is often a resounding, "duh."
There’s stiff competition for this vaunted crown, from Nirvana to Pavement to Soundgarden to My Bloody Valentine to whoever else you think deserves it, all of whom released classic six string-centric LPs during an era known for its classic six string-centric albums. But Siamese Dream accomplishes all their sounds and more; it's universally and eternally beautiful and grand. It manages to meld the colorful, drowning squall of shoegaze with poppy riffs, teeth-glinting angst, eye-watering emotion and universal heartbreak galore, and it’s all tied off with a passionate songwriting and virtuosic guitar play that’s epic, new and still familiar. The scope is undeniably huge.
In 1993, the grunge sound was in full swing, for better or worse. Siamese Dream was the psychedelic blast that that dreary rock world needed. Instead of the cool kid guitar drone and downtrodden lyricism, Billy Corgan and Co. brought a sweeping masterpiece full of multi-part epics ripped from the 1970s Rock Star Bible.
The story is rock lore: Corgan was amid a nervous breakdown, separated from his then-wife and struggling with suicidal thoughts. He was seeing a therapist and viewing his problems through a new lens when he started a songwriting binge. And the drama within the band was brewing, as Corgan took more control. Between December 1992 and March 1993, the band left their hometown of Chicago for Triclops Studios in Marietta, Georgia, to avoid distractions. There they linked up with Butch Vig, who recorded their debut, Gish—and who was basking in the fame from producing Nirvana’s mega-selling breakout LP, Nevermind.
Once in the studio, Corgan went full control freak. He was relentless in his pursuit of the sound in his head, working 16-hour days for weeks at a time, which harshed the mellow for the rest of the band (to put it mildly). He ultimately played all the guitar and bass parts, as bassist D'arcy Wretzky locked herself in the bathroom and guitarist James Iha went silent. Some tracks feature up to 100 compressed guitar parts; Corgan reportedly worked days on 30-second-long segments. Chamberlin, meanwhile, would disappear on benders, but still turned up to play all his parts; Corgan once forced him to a play drum part until his hands bled. But his contribution is vital.
Like most rock soap operas, the recording price went way over budget (roughly $250,000 or more over) and behind schedule, of course, forcing Virgin Records to grow concerned. But when the LP was finally finished, Corgan picked engineer Alan Moulder—known for his work producing shoegaze band My Bloody Valentine’s magnum opus, Loveless—to mix the album. He booked two weeks for mixing; it took over a month.
The result is a masterpiece, and perhaps the career-best work from at least Corgan, Chamberlin, Vig and Moulder (sorry about that, Iha and Wretzky).
Yes, production wise, this tops Nevermind and Loveless, perhaps because it’s the sum of their sounds—and so much more. There’s a high production value, angst and riffs, but with ornate arrangements; there’s a musical depth you can drown in. It’s packed with memorable hits that will define this era, mostly because they’re so drastically different from the others of the time.
“Cherub Rock” will go down as not just one of the greatest album openers of all time, but as having one of the greatest intros of all time. That sped-up, drummer boy roll rat-a-tat leads right into one of the hottest guitar fuzz-bombs of the ‘90s. This is paisley rock. This is Led Zeppelin-sized riffage, suspended in time in an impressionistic Monet wormhole.
Then, of course, there’s “Today,” another one of the most memorable riffs that just explodes on impact. Smashing Pumpkins may have nailed the loud-quiet-loud dynamic better than Nirvana, hell, even better than its former master, the Pixies. And lyrically, Corgan slays with sentiments everyone can understand: “Today is the greatest day,” he snarls. We all hope for one of those.
There are multi-part, hard-rocking prog epics like “Silverfuck,” “Geek U.S.A.,” and “Soma,” lullabies like “Soma” and Luna,” and acoustic gems like “Sweet Sweet” and “Spaceboy,” a tune about his half-brother with sweeping strings.
But the best pair of tracks here are arguably “Hummer” and “Mayonaise.” Corgan—a master of the riff, who knows when to pause it with a mute note, or when to elongate it with a bend—really flaunts his chops on these two, especially the former. “Hummer” is a tour-de-force of all things that make Corgan, Corgan. A skittering intro opens into one of the most gorgeous prog riffs in the game, switching from quiet to crunch, his lyrics dialing the passion up note after note. The man knows when to snarl. “When I woke up from that sleep / I was happier than I’d ever been / When you, decide that your life is a prize / When you realize, it’s all right honey, it’s all right yeahhhhhhhhhh.”
It sure is. And hellllloooooo fuzz pedal.
Exhibit A -- check the 1:38 mark when Corgan lets loose on that snarl.
Then there’s “Mayonaise,” for the more tender-hearted. A lilting riff drops into crunch territory, as Corgan unloads: “Try, ease the pain / Somehow we'll feel the same / Well, no one knows / Where our secrets go / I send a heart to all my dearies / When your life is so, so dreary / Dream.” It sounds ripped from a 14-year-old’s diary.
Siamese Dream peaked at No. 10 on the Billboard 200 and was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Performance and Best Hard Rock Performance with Vocal. It’s since gone 4x platinum. And, frankly, Corgan has done it no favors, tarnishing the legacy of the band with numerous foot-in-mouth quotes in the press.
But it’s his commercial vision that triumphs here, from the music to the cover art to the playful music videos that accompany its singles. Part of what makes Siamese Dream so great is that it’s the ultimate outsider album—it’s a middle finger to the sound of the day, a reminder that trends are lame and some things about rock never change. And Siamese Dream is the album you’ll likely remember from that era. Twenty years from now, if someone asks you to hum one of the best songs from the '90s -- the ultimate test of staying power -- which track will you go for?