The Smashing Pumpkins’ commercial breakthrough, ‘Siamese Dream’ is 20 years young this month, having initially seen the light of day on July 27th 1993. Clash bends its ears the way of the Chicago band’s still-fascinating second LP, to unpick its seams and work out what made it tick so superbly, and somewhat against the odds, in the first place…
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“Today is the greatest day I’ve ever known.” A glorious declaration, or a sneakily ironic whiplash from Billy Corgan’s devilish, smirking lips? In 1993, when the George Bush Sr. years still left a generation feeling slighted, angry and frustrated, this holler, a proclamation of positivity, was unexpected from the previously brooding Smashing Pumpkins.
‘Siamese Dream’ was the album with which Corgan and bandmates James Iha (guitar), D’Arcy Wretzky (bass) and Jimmy Chamberlain (drums) turned from college radio mainstays into mainstream superstars.
They had to hold their collective breath while ‘Nevermind’ played out, but ultimately ‘Siamese Dream’ catapulted the band to the heights of popularity they’d always yearned for. The dream was always to escape the shadow of the indie sphere, and the type of conformity connoted by said scene.
‘Siamese Dream’ was one of the most widely anticipated albums of 1993, and with its opening track ‘Cherub Rock’ Corgan thrust a dig at the indie world, and the media, wailing: “Let me out!” He’s since claimed the song to be his “middle finger to the indie world”.
The message was delivered loud and clear. Collaborating with producer Butch Vig, as the band did for 1991’s ‘Gish’, ‘Siamese Dream’ was less languorous and more multidimensional and further reaching than its predecessor.
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Atop the razor-sharp, ripping and zipping fuzz-metal guitars of ‘Cherub Rock’ and ‘Quiet’, and the strings, bells, and space-rock balladry of ‘Disarm’ and ‘Spaceboy’, Corgan took on wicked and uncomfortable subjects of abuse, suicide, and disability. The whole time, his words are filtered through those inimitable, scratchy and frustrated vocals.
And this glorious creation did not come about without trouble. During the recording, all four members were dealing with various debilitating issues. Corgan was nearly suicidal and in therapy, while Iha and Wretzky were in the throes of ending their relationship.
Drummer Chamberlain, meanwhile, had acquired a healthy drug and alcohol addiction while on tour. He ended up spending 28 days in rehab, and also suffered a breakdown during the recording of ‘Siamese Dream’, leaving the studio for a week.
The band was constantly referred to as dysfunctional, and the cracks from the fractious nature of their relationships only grew deeper and deeper. Accounts that Corgan had personally re-recorded guitar and bass parts laid down by Iha and Wretzky, during the painstaking 16-hour sessions, only added to the tensions.
Corgan became something of a recluse, spending a great deal of time in the studio alone. Pressure was mounting: in the wake of ‘Nevermind’, the Pumpkins were challenged to rival the runaway success of Nirvana’s second LP.
Ultimately, ‘Siamese Dream’ was no ‘Nevermind’, commercially – it peaked at 10 on the US chart, while Nirvana’s album had, steadily, made its way to the top spot after debuting way down at 144. But it still represented a grand gesture on the part of its makers. It’s a multitude of emotions, cryptic yet identifiable lyrics, a dichotomy of messages too, many times seemingly ironic.
The Pumpkins, and especially Corgan – self-proclaimed freak of nature and society, and wimp – were thrust into the position of icons of a sort of counterculture, of which the frontman didn’t feel a part. Slotted in with grunge and the Seattle scene, the foursome represented something far slicker. ‘Siamese Dream’ might be considered a grunge classic on paper, but its full arrangements, multifaceted sentiments and grandiose production paint it as something very different.
Sleek freaks from Geek City, USA, the Pumpkins took the notion that they belonged to an alternative scene and made the transition to superstardom without actually conforming to commercial traditions in the slightest. And it was this album that truly set them apart from their peers.
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Words: Libby Mone
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