Photo credit: Jeff Kravitz. Also, to any potential angry commenters, this is an opinion piece!
While Alternative Nation has heavily covered the Smashing Pumpkins 2018 drama with D’arcy Wretzky and more recently Pogo, but make no mistake, we are huge fans of all four members of the original Smashing Pumpkins lineup, and that obviously includes William Patrick Corgan. Corgan is undoubtably a standout songwriter of the last 30 years.
With each decade comes a slew of artists who can name themselves the voice of a generation. Pick any decade since say the sixties and you can run down a gauntlet of musical juggernauts who can hold that title. The greatest aspect- of which there are many- about music is the subjective nature in which a particular song can speak to a hundred-different people and mean a hundred different things. The key though to this though sits in one’s ability to craft wonderfully honest, if not straight up blunt songs that not only stand on their own but seem as if they carry on a piece on the artist who created them in the first place. When it comes to the nineties, honestly, the list for greatest songwriter may be endless. However, one songwriter owns that title. The man’s name, you ask. Billy Corgan. And here is why.
The Smashing Pumpkins- in almost their original form (minus D’arcy of course)- have reunited and are about to embark on the Shiny and Oh So Bright Tour in which they will focus on material from their classic era during the nineties. And what a classic era it is. Throughout the decade that gave us grunge and alternative, Billy Corgan and the Smashing Pumpkins produced four wildly successful albums. I could bore you with the stats….well, yeah, let’s look at that. The albums that bookended the decade, Gish and Adore each reached Platinum status. The cream of the overstuffed oreo, Siamese Dream and the landmark, career-defining double album, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness racked up Quadruple Platinum and Diamond certifications, respectively. Sixteen million albums sold in one decade. No small feat.
But with any successful band; it comes down to the songs. And Billy Corgan possesses an almost otherworldly ability to craft songs. Perfect songs. Perfect alternative rock songs that hold up to the best work in most any other genre. What pushes Corgan into another realm is a songwriter is how well defined his prowess was right out of the gate. Drawing from his favorite bands and influences of the seventies, Corgan brought an epic feel to straight up rock songs. On the band’s debut, Corgan wrote one song in particular that served as a mission statement of sorts; “Rhinoceros”. The song weaves crisp, dreamy guitars with a pounding underbelly of a rhythm section that keeps the song brooding without overstating its true power.
By combining octave chords and some chorus guitar effects, Corgan creates a lush atmosphere that helps you understand just what sitting in a cloud may feel like. But the genius of it all is when the song takes off- crunching guitars sweep you off your feet while that punishing rhythm section takes flight. The song is built like an experience more so than a song. We’re not even talking lyrics here. The song’s arrangement and instrumentation do all the talking and more, touching you on emotional levels not normally uncovered by alternative rock. A classic if there ever was.
Gish set a foundation that acts more like the basement of a house. Upon that strong foundation came Siamese Dream. If not for the grandiosity of its successor, Siamese Dream would stand as the band’s magnum opus. The opening snare rolls of “Cherub Rock” set the pace and clutch onto you leading into one of the greatest intros of not only a rock song- but any song. Again, Corgan pounds those octave chords- a trademark of his guitar playing and take you on a ride. With the punching bass underneath and crashing drums, you can barely stand still with fuzz-soaked guitar bliss that soon follows. “Cherub Rock” is a hallmark of the era. Not only does it boast one of Corgan’s finest guitar solos but the song swings with such intensity and bite that a true tour de force unfolds before you.
“Today” serves as a phenomenally honest look into the mind of Corgan. The autobiographical lyrics and melancholy (no pun intended) arrangement carry with them a yearning so intimate that you feel the song more than you hear it. Great songs often have basic, instantly relatable premises. “Today” is no exception. The understated “Disarm” shows Corgan’s range. A sonic left turn, with its acoustic arrangement and use of strings, this beautiful killer of a track showed Corgan’s capabilities knew no limit.
For as powerful a songwriter as he had proven himself to this point, Corgan was just as prolific. The argument here may be that Corgan was the songwriter of the nineties, it’s fitting then that this musical mad genius would also be responsible for the album of the decade. With the band’s third album, Corgan puled out all the stops. An insane twenty-eight songs. Three singles that would go on to rival any other classics from the era, the album become as synonymous with this era of music as albums from the Beatles had in the sixties and Led Zeppelin in the seventies.
Corgan didn’t completely abandon the dream pop influence of Siamese Dream. Instead, he molded that with classic rock influences from years past. “1979” and “Tonight,Tonight” fall further outside his comfort zone than “Disarm” had previously. But with this expansion of his expected craft, Corgan continued to build upon this reputation. Mellon Collie kept the hard rocking alternative swagger rolling though. “Zero” proved a massive hit that inspired a generation of rockers and honestly one of the most symbolic tee shirt designs of the generation.
What stands most striking of this era of Corgan’s songwriting is the risk. A lot of bands try to evolve. And most of the times- these bands find varied results. See Metallica, Aerosmith and Weezer just to name a few. Fans and critics don’t always view change as a positive. And too often, a band- or more specifically a songwriter chooses to change it up over trivial reasons like being bored or worse- trying to prove people wrong. Not Corgan. “1979” seemed a natural evolution. The honest lyrics. The vulnerability previously established allowed for an easy transition where not only was the change of pace welcome, it was celebrated.
Corgan kept the change train a rollin’ with Adore. Say what you will about the band’s fourth album, but it is without doubt the underrated gem of the band’s entire discography. Despite inner turmoil, personnel changes and even tragedy, Corgan continued his effortless evolution. An industrial-tinged album, Adore threw caution to the wind and sits as a true artists expression- and time stamp of a particular time in life. When you look back at the history of Corgan and the band, this is the album people look back at with fresh eyes and fall in love with. All the credit in the world is owed to Corgan for his fearless attack and determination to avoid complacency.
With Corgan’s unique vocal style and non-traditional voice, he certainly rose to the occasion time and time again in his ability to craft a strong melody. Better yet, he possesses as innate ability to write lyrics that imbed themselves into the subconscious. I dare you to go up to someone and say, “Despite all my rage…”. I’d be willing to bet the lucky participant of this social experiment would respond with, “….I am still just a rat in a cage.” That is power, man. That is a gift. So many songwriters would literally give their left hand to write a lyric that carries so much life. The thing with Billy Corgan though, he doesn’t even need to try. Like great songwriters John Lennon, Mick Jagger and Geddy Lee, Corgan was able to tap into the social subconscious and speak the words for an entire generation.
With what the current state of rock would be during the band’s heyday, the Pumpkins struck a chord that resonated far past a lot of the here today gone tomorrow cookie cutter carbon copies of the grunge movement. His songs have stood the test of time and will continue to long from now. A true testament to unmatched ability. Even when compared to his most famed contemporaries, there’s something about Corgan’s earnest approach that is so damn respectable and so god damn pure that when you look at it, you can’t help but see it as so shiny…and oh so bright.