When God created ’90s rock stars, he used up his supply of looks and coolness on Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder, and Chris Cornell; all that was left for Billy Corgan was talent, ambition, and burning desire fueled by resentment. Now resentment is all Corgan seems to have left, but he spent his reserves of the other two attributes spectacularly during the first half of the ’90s. The first two Smashing Pumpkins albums, 1991’s Gish and 1993’s Siamese Dream—both of which have been reissued in deluxe editions that include discs of demos, alternate mixes, and outtakes, as well as DVDs of live shows from the period—are the biggest, brightest, and most unabashedly outré albums of the alternative era. While Corgan’s naked hunger for stardom and his unfashionable hesher-rock influences ensured his cred-conscious peers would never accept him, his music helped define the sound of ’90s mainstream rock.
The downside for Corgan is that Gish and Siamese Dream (along with 1995’s wildly hubristic near-masterpiece Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness) now sound dated. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing; if anything, it makes the albums more important as documents of their time. The extras packaged with the reissues don’t add much to the legacy; the best tracks, like “Starla” and “La Dolly Vita (from the Gish set) and “Pissant” and “Frail And Bedazzled” (from Siamese Dream) are already available in slightly different form on the 1994 outtakes collection Pisces Iscariot. But album tracks like “I Am One,” “Today,” and “Disarm” are practically shorthand for alternative music, in the same way Jimi Hendrix signifies the ’60s Woodstock generation or the late-’70s Bee Gees instantly conjure the cheesiest excesses of disco. But where Gish and Siamese Dream are Corgan’s best cases for greatness, they also keep him in frozen in time—a challenge for a guy still obsessed with pushing forward as The Smashing Pumpkins with a band that’s no longer the actual Smashing Pumpkins.
Opening with the martial drumming of Jimmy Chamberlain and the propulsive bass-playing of the mercurial D’Arcy, Gish’s introductory track, “I Am One,” doesn’t spotlight Corgan’s supporting cast for long. Sporting a healthy dose of screaming “Look at me!” guitar solos and self-aggrandizing lyrics, “I Am One” introduces Corgan as an egotist obsessed with melding The Cure with Judas Priest. Had Gish been released five years earlier, or five years later, the concept would’ve seemed silly. But Gish came out the same year as albums like Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger and Pearl Jam’s Ten, which took a similarly modern view of ’70s stadium rock, retaining the scale and posturing, but losing the machismo and overt show-business trappings. For the next several years, this blueprint proved incredibly popular.
Corgan’s ability as a tunesmith was already obvious on Gish, particularly on moody, slow-building songs like “Rhinoceros” and “Suffer.” He also showed an early knack for mid-tempo lighter-wavers like the rousing “Snail.” In its weaker moments, Gish relies on generic, boogie-friendly classic-rock retreads (“Siva,” “Bury Me”) but the physicality of Chamberlain’s drumming—rivaled at the time only by Dave Grohl—gives even the bum tracks a powerful kick.
In light of Siamese Dream, Gish feels like a dress rehearsal for the large-scale, no-holds-barred rock production of Corgan’s dreams. Already a magnet for scorn and suspicion, Corgan’s controlling ways in the studio—he famously assumed all bass and guitar-playing duties from his bandmates while making Dream—made him an even easier target for ridicule in some circles. And yet the finished product justifies whatever toes he stomped on to get it made. The meticulously constructed cathedrals of guitar sounds on Siamese Dream—so clean and melodic, yet also heavy—make the album more comparable to A Night At The Opera or Boston than Nevermind or Vs.
Unlike most grunge-era bands, which desperately tried to align themselves with sacrosanct underground figures like Ian MacKaye and Mike Watt in order to appear more punk than they actually were, Smashing Pumpkins dared to sound even grander and more gorgeously melodramatic on “Today” and the epic ballad “Soma.” On “Cherub Rock,” Corgan was even more explicit in his otherness, mocking the judgmental elements at the time that decided “who is righteous, what is bold.” Corgan wasn’t welcomed into that club—but on Siamese Dream, he could pretend he never wanted to be, and sound completely in the right.