Albums that changed my life – ‘Siamese Dream’ by The Smashing Pumpkins

Albums that changed my life – ‘Siamese Dream’ by The Smashing Pumpkins

September 15, 2018 Off By Glenn McDonald

An essay outlining why The Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘Siamese Dream’ is an album that changed my life – from a series of essays about albums that have had an undeniable impact on the person I have become, and why I love them. Come on a track by track journey as I re-listen to ‘Siamese Dream’ and reflect on the impact it had on my life.

Siamese Dream marked my enthusiastic and wholehearted plunge into the world of grunge, heavy rock, guitars, second hand cardigans, and guitar effects pedals. By the year 1993, when Siamese Dream was released, I was already heavily into the Seattle scene and many works lumped under the ‘grunge’ moniker. I had consumed everything released to date by more notable Seattle acts such as Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, and others, and was starting to look further afield for grungespiration. Enter an incredibly musically talented and unique sounding Chicago band with a different take on alternative guitar-driven pop-grunge. I think I had probably heard Gish, the band’s previous album, by then but Corgan’s brand of high-pitched whine over distortion soaked guitars hadn’t really hooked me on first listen. It has since become a solid favourite that still enjoys regular rotation in my collection. But it was Siamese Dream that embedded itself in my ears, my mind, and my heart, in more ways than one. I probably wore my Smashing Pumpkins heart logo t-shirt at least three days a week during the mid 1990s, publicly proclaiming my loyalty and love for the band.

Siamese Dream was a departure from the straight up guitar rock of Gish. Billy Corgan’s penchant for multi-layered textural guitar overdubs is still evident however Siamese Dream pushes it to extremes. The complexity and sheer talent of Siamese Dream was what hooked me I think. Both the talent of musical performance, and that of the incredible production values imbued into the album by Butch Vig. The musicianship of Corgan, D’Arcy, James Iha, and Jimmy Chamberlin, and the superb production of engineer Butch Vig. By this time, Vig was carving a name for himself as a talented rock-engineer capable of shaping a new type of hard fx-laden guitar-driven rock, brimming with energy and ambience. Corgan’s competence as a composer of evocative pop-rock ballads, and driving rock, and his unique nasal voice had me under his spell, as I am sure many people my age can relate to. As with other albums I have written about in this series, Siamese Dream is a journey. It is an album, rather than a collection of singles. It is a journey that I enjoy every time, and I rarely skip tracks any time this album makes it to my earphones or speakers.

The album begins with a tight snare drum roll and a simple clean guitar riff that builds intensity hinting at the intensity of the coming album. D’Arcy enters on the bass before an explosion of fuzz-drenched guitars begins the opening riff of Cherub Rock. Reportedly there are up to 30 guitar overdubs on some of the tracks on this album and this first riff on Cherub Rock is a salient example of Vig’s engineering, and Corgan’s use of this technique in composition. The opening lyrics of this song “Freak out, give in, doesn’t matter what you believe in, stay cool, and be somebody’s fool this year” unashamedly reveals Corgan’s disdain for uncritical consumption of popular culture, and his advocacy of individualism and embrace of counter-culture. To say Corgan was a difficult personality would be an understatement. As a band-member, interviewee, and general personality he is renowned for being unapologetically non-compliant and difficult to deal with. Almost wearing this and his individuality as a badge of honour, he was the antihero I was seeking in what I perceived to be a world of compliant automatons marching towards their middle class existence in the suburbs. Looking back I was overly critical of those that desire a house in the suburbs, 2.6 kids, and a reliable 9 to 5 although this critical perspective has driven me to pursue a life that honestly has been quite extraordinary to date. I’ve even learned to be a little less judgemental of those that pursue different goals and agendas as I age, perhaps luckily as I would have missed out on some great friendships had I continued to view the world through my judgmental adolescent lens.

Cherub Rock from start to finish is a belter. Unrelenting guitar assault and Corgan’s atmospheric, overdubbed and harmonic vocals create a pastiche of hard rock genius that listens like a fauves painting looks, which is incidentally another genre and group of artists I was introduced to and inspired by at this stage of my adolescence. The chorus poses the query “who wants the honey, as long as there’s some money” which could be a barbed attack on the ‘grunge’ scene and its fame-seeking money grabbers. Or it could be a comment on the way that we are prepared to pursue only the goals that offer us the potential of significant personal benefit or gain. Regardless, it offered me enough impetus to consider my own motivation and the role of economic stability in my future, which seemingly contrasted sharply with my desire to engage in full-time artistic expression. As if writing, composing, and singing on the song wasn’t enough, Corgan then launches into one of the greatest guitar solos on the album. I remember later hearing that he was a megalomaniac often recording parts himself when other band members frustrated him. After hearing this guitar solo, there is part of me that feels he may have been partly justified. His talent inspired and challenged me as I tried to learn the guitar parts and vocal parts of his songs and put them together in some kind of coherent fashion. Lyrically and musically he has inspired me and his style is evident in my playing today, particularly his slower, more acoustic songs and fingerpicking and strumming styles utilised in his ballads. Towards the end of the ‘Cherub Rock’, the line “love, let me out” rings out while the guitars and drums build momentum towards a crescendo, only to build to an anticlimactic static and fuzz altered fade out as the track abruptly ends.

Quiet enters with some creative reverse overdubs and guitar effects before another killer ascending guitar riff lays the prelude to the words “Quiet! I am sleeping, in here, we need a little hope”. The song wastes no time in getting to the second hook of the chorus. A major chord driven major chord pop-rock chorus that both breaks and continues to drive the song forwards. Corgan’s ear for a pop melody and catchy hook is evident right throughout this album. I loved that he could write a song with an intro hook, verse hook, pre-chorus hook, chorus hook, bridge hook, solo, and outro hook. I can count a handful of songs in the hundreds of songs I have written that achieve this, and yet the Smashing Pumpkins wrote several albums full of them. After the first chorus, I always remember being impressed by Corgan’s ability to cram the word ‘metamorphosis’ into the next verse. This made me think differently about lyrics, although I was never able to achieve the poetic nuance and lyrical dexterity of Billy Corgan. Quiet ends as it starts, abruptly and unpretentiously. I guess it’s partly because of what the producer knew was coming next.

The opening riff of ‘Today’ is surely one of the greatest intro rock riffs ever written. Its simplicity surely contributed to it being one of the great ‘ear worms’ of the 1990s. Corgan’s clean tone Stratocaster ambling through a simple series of just five  notes is a great example of what set songwriters like him, Kurt Cobain, and others apart from their peers. The ability to create something magical out of something simple. It has been said of Kurt Cobain that his songs were analogous to nursery rhymes. Simple, catchy, and unforgettable. Corgan achieves this on several tracks although ‘Today’ is the most obvious example of this talent. Upon hearing ‘Today’ for the first time, you could be forgiven for thinking, “the album’s changing pace to a more relaxed and melodic tune”, then a wall of guitars smashes through heralding the intro of the ‘real’ song. Although ‘real’ is perhaps a misnomer as the contrast of light and dark, heavy and clean, loud and soft, are all important elements in what makes this song such a classic. I learned this intro on guitar within an hour of playing the album for the first time and whenever I play it I still smile. Following the intro riff, the track opens up to provide space for one of the greatest lyrical openings to a song ever. “Today is the greatest, day I’ve ever known, can’t wait for tomorrow, I might not have that long, I’ll burn my eyes out, before I get out”. What does this mean? For me, Corgan highlights the value in living for the moment but not only that, living each moment to the maximum. He wants to stare at the sun, make the most of the day, and enjoy it till it burns his eyes out. This line for me was a call to arms, and was reminiscent of my grandfather’s proclamation that “if anything is worth doing, it’s worth doing properly”.

Even a thicker layer of guitars enters to support the pre-chorus line “I wanted more, than life could ever grant me, bored by the chore, of saving face” reflects Corgan’s ambition, drive, and unwillingness to be content with the banality of a mediocre existence. Although I could never equal the talent, drive, and ruthless ambition that Corgan clearly had, I always strived to achieve more, and this lyric resonates with my desire to be better, to achieve more, and to strive harder in everything that I do. The song then changes pace as the chorus enters and the fuzz guitars exit leaving the chorus space to breathe and space for the listener to sing along to the chorus. The first taste we get of Corgan’s true melancholy poetic nature on this album is in the following lyric, “Pink ribbon scars, that never forget, I tried so hard to cleanse these regrets, my angel wings, are bruised and restrained, my belly stings”. This lyric showed Corgan’s ‘no fucks to give’ attitude towards whatever others thought of his lyrics and music, and his willingness to bare his heart to his audience in cathartic release. I think this album forced me to become intimately familiar with the concept of catharsis, as every strain of Corgan’s voice and every note that is played with purpose and conviction, hints at the emotion underlying Corgan’s desire and motivation to create this album. The chorus repeats again and again, and a simple yet memorable bridge supports the entry of yet another chorus as the song fades melodically into silence with one final distorted guitar chord.

Ok, so by this stage of the album, the audience needs a little break. The simple sitar riff that begins the song ‘Hummer’ at times barely discernable through the distortion provides that break. Chamberlin’s simple rock beat provides the juncture between this opening and the harmonic guitar riff that opens the song. Although compared to other albums this introduction is relatively heavy, in the context of Siamese Dream, it is a welcome reprieve ushering in a more ballad-type rock song. The melodic pop verse and distorted overdubbed guitar chorus contrast is used again to create anticipation and emphasise the chorus. I always loved the mix of clean atmospheric guitars in the background, simple drum beat, Corgan’s voice, and D’Arcy’s purposeful and on-point bass run in this track. Vig’s production gives every instrument space and place, and Corgan’s voice still cuts through the melange of instruments and audio production that is ‘Hummer’. The only line I remember from this song is “Life’s a Bummer, when you’re a Hummer”, which I still don’t know the meaning of. I never cared, it’s so catchy. ‘Hummer’ is also brilliant as it transitions to a clean-tone melodic guitar fest towards the end of the song. Corgan tones down his vocals a notch and the song ends in a radically different place to where it starts. The final notes of the song descending to the clean major chord exit, of course impacted by one final guitar effect and production addition from Vig.

For me, the next song ‘Rocket’ was always fairly unremarkable. It keeps the album ticking but doesn’t really stand out. In saying that, if the rest of the album wasn’t so remarkable it probably would. It could have probably been a single if this was another album from another band. Not this one though. It’s really as close to filler as this album gets. It’s kind of ok though considering the album as a whole and the track that comes next.

‘Disarm’ is the ballad of the album. The apathetic angst-ridden anthem that had disaffected teens singing along, crying at concerts, and attempting their own bad poetry about cutting. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the artsy black and white filmclip complete with church tile roof shots, evocative violin vibrato close ups, weird clay mask close ups, cutaways to band profiles and Corgan’s “little boy” self, perfectly complemented the nihilistic fatalism of this track. The song is a theme song for the disenfranchised and misunderstood. Although my relatively middle-class upbringing resulted in me wanting for little, as an only child, the alienation and loneliness I felt was like it was for all teenagers, at times incredibly overwhelming. Additionally impacting me was the fact that my parents moved from an extremely multicultural city suburb to a fairly homogeneous country town during my early adolescence, and my ‘progressive’ views towards ethnicity, sexuality, and identity at times resulted in marginalisation from my peers. While not my favourite track on the album, it had its place in my life, and I frequently listened to this track when I was feeling down. As one of the shortest tracks on the album, it gets in, does what it needs to do, and gets out. I could analyse the lyrics of this song forever but suffice to say, Corgan’s frustration with his own loneliness and alienation, and his nostalgia and yearning for the naivete and simplicity of his younger self are prominent themes.

‘Soma’ is the first quiet song of the album. The clean guitars ringing and echoing in reverb-drenched space fill four bars before an understated chord progression lays the foundation for Corgan’s musings about the fact that there is “nothing left to say”. ‘Soma’ is a bit of a sleeping dragon though as following the beautiful and melodic first half, the wall of distortion returns as Corgan proclaims “I’m all by myself, as I’ve always been”. Is he a narcissist, megalomaniac, individualist, self-indulgent, or overly introspective? Probably a combination of all of these. Something I can relate to, although hopefully in smaller doses than Billy Corgan. Nevertheless, ‘Soma’ is an interesting track for an only child to relate to and for me, it was a track for reflection after the hopelessness and enigmatic self-reflection of ‘Disarm’.

‘Geek U.S.A.’ brings back the angry guitars, forceful drums, and driving bass. It is a classic rock song influenced by the hard-rock icons of the 1970s and early 1980s. Sounding at times like a Led Zeppelin song, the harmonised guitar fills of James Iha are interspersed perfectly with Corgan’s rhythm guitar and verse lines, along with Chamberlin’s drum fills, which are reminiscent of Plant and Page’s playful musical interplay. In what can only truly be termed a ‘face-melting’ solo, Corgan again reveals talent that at times seems superhuman and unattainable. Seriously, you should check out the intensity that this guy pulls this solo off with live, it’s unbelievable. Hardcore angry rock at its best. Savage track. I’m regretful that I never played in a band that composed anything with the sheer intensity and energy of this track. I can’t begin to imagine how Vig captured that energy in the studio and transferred it to tape, but it’s a credit to hard-rock production and his work. It’s no surprise that he engineered some of the most intense, energetic, dynamic, and emotionally expressive albums of the era.

My favourite track on the album is ‘Mayonnaise’. Corgan again uses the device of clean-tone introduction contrasted with distorted wall of guitars emblematic of the grunge genre and the era. In part I loved this song so much because the only guitar pedal I had at the time was a Boss DS-1 Distortion pedal. It meant that I could play the clean tone of the introduction, smash my foot down on the pedal, and crank out the verse riff in my bedroom through my little Yamaha 10watt practice amp, and fell like a rock star in a stadium. The fingerpicking of the introduction, the simple melodic guitar solo, and the driving rock riff are pulled together perfectly to build intensity and support the emotional and evocative lyrics. “Fool enough to almost be it, Cool enough to not quite see it, doomed” always spoke to me about the folly of following the crowds. The follow-up line “pick your pocket full of sorrow, run away with me tomorrow” always suggested that if you found someone to share in your hard times, you could build a worthy life together. Funnily enough, much later in life, that’s what I have found in my wife. The chorus line of “and I’ll fail, but when I can, I will, try to understand, that when I can I will” hits at the fallibility of us all, and our sometimes well-intentioned hopelessness. This song suggested to me that it’s ok to fail, provided you pursue something meaningful with purpose and awareness. Perhaps evident in the line “I just want to be me, when I can, I will”, our desire to be ourselves, despite the identify performance required in everyday life was clearly something that Corgan, and many others felt.

The spacious ethereal feel of the track “Spaceboy” always reminded me of Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’. I guess given the Bowie tributes and the covers performed in the later part of the Pumpkins’ career, it’s obvious that Bowie was a big influence on the band. I guess I never really saw it at the time apart from this track, which echoes the feel, style, and lyrical themes within Bowie’s seminal work. This track for me was mostly about the production values. It is a perfect example of the production of a track contributing to, and building on the artist’s performance. Vig does a magnificent job of capturing the acoustic guitar in its natural state behind Corgan’s doubled and stereo-widened vocals during the introduction and verse. The pre-chorus builds with the prophetic line “when a lover aches, that’s when a lover breaks” reminding us that sometimes we are harshest to those we love the most, and if we’re not careful, they will suffer pain as a result of our actions. This line reminds me to be a bit nicer when I hear it, especially to those closest to me. In the chorus, the guitar fattens and widens, as it’s accompanied by a string ensemble to back the emotional cry, “Spaceboy I missed you, spinning round my head, any way you choose me, you’ll break instead”. The lyrics are heartfelt, honest, and laden with emotion. Later I learned that the song was penned for Corgan’s half-brother Jesse, who apparently suffers from cerebral palsy and tourettes. This gives the song context for me, as I always took the song as a cry for someone who was just out of reach, or someone who Corgan wanted to be closer to. It is a beautiful track and despite its radically different sound from the other tracks on the album, it doesn’t feel like the ballad that was tacked on to the album, as so many others of this era do. The last ten seconds of the song contains a bizarre audio sample in which an unsatisfied lover laments that her partner is presumably more interested in pornography than her. I can’t imagine why this was tacked on to this song and I would love to ask Butch Vig about his justification for its inclusion.

Next, the album returns to hardcore rock with the tune ‘Silverfuck’. To be honest I was never really into the lyrics of ‘Silverfuck’ until the chorus. Corgan screeches “I have, what you want, and I feel that way”. I never really inferred too much meaning on them but it is an extremely catchy rock hook. The guitar solo is Corgan’s effect-addled best as Corgan’s famous Mu-tron Bi-phase effects pedal creates stereo width and atmosphere in the guitar solo. The track quietens to almost a spoken word with Corgan repeating “I feel no pain” and “she was my lover so sweet, she was my angel” before the track shifts into top gear again blasting home the chorus “I have, what you want, and I feel that way”. At nearly 9 minutes long it is one of the longer tracks of the album (there are a few others), again proof of Corgan’s disdain for the rules of ‘pop’ songs of the era. For this and other reasons, this album was generally labelled alternative rather than grunge, and many others debated whether the Pumpkins’ sound and the fact that they were from Chicago precluded them from being another ‘grunge’ band.

‘Sweet Sweet’ is another sugary sweet little ballad. Vig creates another beautiful sonic soundscape layering the instruments across the stereo spectrum creating air, space, and shape. Corgan’s self-backing vocals repeat the line “and they all want you to change” as he also sings the main line, “where are we going” over the top. Another little reminder of Corgan’s (and my) unrelenting pursuit of individual identity and the rejection of uncritical compliance with cultural and social norms. I perhaps didn’t realise it at the time but simply complying with another set of cultural norms (that of grunge culture) didn’t completely free me from the shackles of cultural hegemony. Although this song, and the album more broadly was a powerful influence in my ability to engage critically with cultural practice and the norms that define our actions, behaviour, and societies.

The album finishes with the beautiful track ‘Luna’. I’m not sure if Luna was written later than the other tracks but is shares more stylistically with the Smashing Pumpkins’ later works on the albums Pisces Iscariot, and Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Corgan is an expert at the presentation of sublime, optimistic melancholy. ‘Luna’ has the hopelessly romantic chorus line “I’m in love with you, so in love”, which is a nice contrast to the hopelessness, despair, and dissatisfaction presented in the album to this point. Another short track, ‘Luna’ doesn’t stick around to be pretentious or indulgent, it simply closes out the album with an air of pragmatic yet romantic optimism that rounds out the journey. The message is to pursue love, for it is the only thing that will free you from the overwhelming weight of life’s unrelenting challenges.

And just like that, the album is finished. On the ‘Siamese Dream’ journey I always engage with the emotions of anger, love, despair, frustration, hope, hopelessness, sadness, and frailty, with a dash of ego and narcissism thrown in for good measure. I rarely listen to a single track on this album, and generally it plays from start to finish without interruption. I love the inspiration this album has given me to be unafraid to feel and present deep emotions, and to engage with them in the pursuit of art. To be confident to wear my heart on your sleeve, even when my heart is broken and my sleeve is in tatters. I love this album and it is as relevant to me now as it was when I was a teenager, although these days I am less inclined to feel so angry about it all, and way less inclined to think that my bad poetry and songwriting equates with the genius of Billy Corgan and the Smashing Pumpkins. This is a genre-defining album that no doubt played a small part in defining me, and for that I thank the Smashing Pumpkins.