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Members include Melissa Auf Der Maur (ex-member of Hole; group member, 1998-2000), bass; Jimmy Chamberlin (born June 10, 1964, in Joliet, IL; fired in 1996; rejoined group, c. 1999), drums; Billy Corgan (born March 17, 1967, in Glendale Heights, IL; married Chris Fabian [an artist]), vocals, guitar, mellotron; Dennis Flemion (ex-member of Frogs; touring member, 1996), keyboards; James Iha (born March 6, 1968, in Elk Grove, IL), guitar; Jonathan Melvoin (born December 6, 1961, in Los Angeles, CA; died July 12, 1996; wife, Laura; son Jacob August; touring member), keyboards; Matt Walker (ex-member of Filter; touring member 1996-97), drums; D'Arcy Wretzky (born May 1, 1968, in South Haven, MI; left group, 1998), bass, vocals. Addresses: Website--Smashing Pumpkins Official Website: http://www.smashingpumpkins.com.
Critics heard endless lists of influences in the songs of the Chicago-based Smashing Pumpkins--Black Sabbath, Queen, Boston, the Who, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie--and use countless hard-edged adjectives to describe the Smashing Pumpkins' sound. Murray Englehart in RIP observed, "The collage that makes up the Pumpkins--ranging from a Husker Du guitar onslaught to a sometime Hendrix-like fret dynamism and flashes of dreamy ambience--also features slabs of Sabbath, the band Henry Rollins once called 'the ultimate lonely man's music.'" And lead singer-songwriter Billy Corgan, whose "lonely guy" persona has been much explored by the media, admitted to Englehart that he did indeed listen to Black Sabbath at a young age. Leaving only five studio albums for critics to ponder, the group disbanded in 2000.
While many suspected that Corgan was the band--and no one denies that he was the major contributor of time, art, and effort--the other members did their share to bring the alternative rock 'n' roll to full, impassioned life. Corgan got the band together in 1988 after warming up with a band in Florida called the Marked, so named because of Corgan's strawberry-colored birthmark on his arm and a similar mark on another band member's face. He and D'Arcy Wretzky, who usually goes without her last name, met in an argument in a parking lot outside of a concert; when he discovered she played the bass, they joined forces and brought in guitarist James Iha, who was a student at Chicago's Loyola University, and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin.
Though many critics have spent their energy describing Corgan, the personalities--social and musical--of the other Smashing Pumpkins members were strong enough to make their way into the press as well. Jim Greer offered this summary for Spin: "D'Arcy (thumbnail sketch: likes to wear sunglasses and act cool), Iha (shy, friendly, big fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation), and Chamberlin (madman)." Alluding to various personal problems, including the end of D'Arcy's and Iha's long-term relationship, Chamberlin's drug problems, and Corgan's emotional problems, D'Arcy told Michael Azerrad of Rolling Stone, "It's really a dysfunctional band."
But their performances suggested otherwise. Michael C. Harris described one Chicago event for Rolling Stone at which the band "worked the crowd into a moshing, body-surfing frenzy, guitarists Corgan and James Iha urging each other on to spastic heights while the seemingly unmoved D'Arcy worked a bass groove deep enough to maintain the dueling guitarists. And drummer Jimmy Chamberlin forged an unwavering rhythm bed augmented by original, jazzed-up fills."
However, Billy Corgan's philosophies, personal and musical, gave the band its shape and purpose. His angst pervaded their full-length debut album, Gish, and follow-up, Siamese Dream, which was named for Corgan's longing for the perfect companionship of a siamese twin attached at the wrist. He describes his childhood as "terrible." After his parents' divorce, Corgan lived first with his great-grandmother, then his father, who was a musician often on the road, and his stepmother. He has always felt himself to be an outcast, he told Request's Bill Wyman. "People consistently make me feel that there's something wrong with me. That I'm an incorrect person.... Even today, the music community has not exactly opened its arms up to my ideology." But these profound insecurities have in no way come between Corgan and his commitment to musical progress. To the contrary, he clarified, "The simplest thing I can say about it is that if I'd had a decent childhood, I definitely wouldn't do this. There's definitely something about that hole in my life that pushed me to need acceptance from a thousand people at a time."
Intense Lyrics, Innovative Guitar Work
While "acceptance" may be forefront in Corgan's thoughts, he did not cater to his audience. He challenged himself, his band, and his audience with consistent conviction and hard work. His lyrics were deeply intimate and revealing. "These are very personal songs. I sing them because they mean something to me, and in that sense, I think they will signify things to other people," he told S. L. Duff of RIP. In addition, "a frightening amount of time was spent" in search of the right guitar sounds, Corgan told Brett Milano in Pulse! "Everybody's already heard every guitar sound ever, so we wanted to come up with something as new as it could possibly be when you're still using guitars, foot pedals and an amp."
For Gish, Corgan explained to Mike Mettler of Guitar Player, "I wanted the rideout to sound like World War I airplanes divebombing around your head." The band's ambitious goals can be summed up in Corgan's typically aggressive and simultaneously understated stance: "I've always thought we could do something that's basically stupid, which is playing rock music, but to take it to a level that's something of a higher art form, as daunting a task as that might be, and to do it with some intelligence and class."
Indie or Not Indie?
Smashing Pumpkins have inspired awe from critics since the release of Gish. Chris Mundy in Rolling Stone wrote that Gish "smacks ... of the opening of an alternative universe." But the Smashing Pumpkins--members have noted with a certain bitterness--were not received too warmly by the independent label music world: they were too successful at selling albums and booking shows. They simply did not suffer enough. For Billy Corgan, however, an indie label was the only way to go with their first album, even though they were actively pursued by major labels. The goal was to retain creative license, Corgan told Mundy. "What the band does is so specific that we couldn't dilute it in any way. We couldn't put ourselves in the position where we were powerless."
Christopher John Farley of Time noted that the band's 1993 album Siamese Dream--one of their two most successful with Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness--"relies heavily on Hendrix-era musical scores, but manages to transcend most of them and create a lush sound the Pumpkins call their own." In Stereo Review, one writer exclaimed, "Bombastic riffing--newly minted from the archives of Hendrix, Zeppelin, and others--gets reconfigured by this Chicago quartet into jagged shards and clumsy arpeggios. They've taken the beauty of heavy metal's obsessive hooking and messed with it."
The band's next release, Pisces Iscariot, was a collection of B-sides and "songs never meant to come out," Corgan noted in the LP's liner notes, as quoted in Entertainment Weekly. Pointing out the element of humor in the eclectic blend of tunes on Pisces Iscariot, which includes a remake of Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide," Jim Greer of Spin found that "Great Pumpkin Corgan rarely disappoints." The album was meant to serve to tide the fans over until their next release.
Their next release was Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, a double-disc set that debuted at number one on the charts and hit it even bigger than Siamese Dream. In fact, it went certified platinum over eight times. The Pumpkins were at the height of their career, popular and respected musicians; the poster-children for the alternative scene, which was in its heyday.
Downward Spiral and Absolution
In 1996, the Pumpkins' touring keyboardist, Jonathan Melvoin, and Jimmy Chamberlin overdosed on heroin together in the hotel room they were sharing. Melvoin did not survive the incident and the Smashing Pumpkins booted Chamberlin from the group, fed up with his wayward ways, especially with their reputation as a drug-free group. They stated that "his long-term problems with alcohol and drugs, coupled with his arrest on possession charges, 'has nearly destroyed everything we stand for,'" according to People. They all took two months off to recover and to look for a new drummer. They replaced Melvoin with Dennis Flemion and Chamberlin with Matt Walker.
When the band returned to the scene, they released the LP Adore. It received bad reviews and sold poorly. Soon after, D'Arcy left the band under shady circumstances and was replaced by Melissa Auf Der Maur. And as the band continued to shuffle, Chamberlin returned to drums. With sales plummeting and membership in flux, the band released Machina: The Machines of God, and Corgan announced his intention to dissolve the band before the year was out. The band launched its farewell tour in 2000.
Machina: The Machines of God was a major disappointment when released. It started as an experiment; the Smashing Pumpkins' members were each to take on a fictional character in a fictional band, the Machines of God. But the band didn't entirely follow through. On top of that, the album received critical disclaim, and sales faltered. Whereas the Pumpkins were at one time what David Fricke of Rolling Stone.com called "the most consistent hit makers of the alternative rock explosion," their sales had dropped dramatically with each album after Mellon Collie. "It was like watching your kid flunking out of school after getting straight A's for ten years," Chamberlin said to Fricke.
Played Final Concert
In September of 2000, the Pumpkins released Machina II: Friends and Enemies of Modern Music as a free, online-only sequel to Machina. When they couldn't get the album released the conventional way, they rebelliously turned to MP3 downloads and made the album available to fans. As they finished handing out their Machina II, Smashing Pumpkins had made six studio albums that had sold more than 22 million copies.
In December of 2000, the Smashing Pumpkins played their final concert at Chicago's Metro, a "four-and-a-half hour, 36-song extravaganza that featured friends, family, clowns and prayers," according to MTV.com's Gil Kaufman. The Cabaret Metro was the club where the Smashing Pumpkins made their debut in 1988. The concert was meant to thank musical inspirations and the band was characteristically creative to the last; there were song rearrangements made less than 24 hours before the show. Corgan closed the show with their last words, "Ladies and gentlemen, there is nowhere left to go. God bless the Smashing Pumpkins," as quoted by Kaufman.
Eventually, Corgan put together a new band, Zwan, which features Chamberlin on drums. Iha and Auf Der Maur had also put together a group of super-musicians, dubbed the Virgins. Auf Der Maur works on solo work as well and has a Canadian band called Tinker. Iha also does solo work and is involved in a joint effort to open a recording studio in New York.
Change, experimentation, and irreverence are some of the qualities that made the Smashing Pumpkins one of the most admired alternative bands even while they burst out from that rubric. As Kevin Kerslake, who filmed their video for "Cherub Rock," told Deborah Russell in Billboard, "I think of angels when I hear the Smashing Pumpkins music." And the band's many fans would agree that their music does seem transcendent, even now.
by Diane Moroff
Smashing Pumpkins's Career
Corgan started the short-lived band, the Marked, at age 18; Smashing Pumpkins formed in Chicago, 1988; released debut 7-inch, "I Am One"/"Not Worth Asking," Limited Potential, 1989; released full-length debut, Gish, 1991; released highly successful album Siamese Dream, 1993; headlined Lollapalooza tour, released Pisces Iscariot, 1994; released Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, 1995; released Adore, 1998; released Machina: The Machines of God, and Machina II: The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music, performed farewell concert, 2000.
Smashing Pumpkins's Awards
Grammy Awards, Best Hard Rock Performance for "Bullet with Butterfly Wings," 1996, and "The End is the Beginning is the End," 1997.
- Selected discography
- Gish , Caroline, 1991.
- Lull (EP), Caroline, 1991.
- (Contributor) Singles (soundtrack), Epic, 1992.
- Siamese Dream , Virgin, 1993.
- Pisces Iscariot , Virgin, 1994.
- Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness , Virgin, 1995.
- (Contributor) Batman & Robin (soundtrack), Warner Bros., 1996.
- Adore , Virgin, 1998.
- Machina: The Machines of God , Virgin, 2000.
- Machina II: The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music , Constantinople, 2000.
- Greatest Hits , Virgin, 2001.
- Billboard, August 7, 1993; August 21, 1993; September 25, 1993.
- Details, December 1993.
- Detroit Free Press, December 3, 1993.
- Entertainment Weekly, August 6, 1993; September 20, 1993; October 7, 1994.
- Guitar Player, March 1992; December 1993; September 1994; January 1996.
- Interview, February 1996.
- Los Angeles Times, October 17, 1993.
- Musician, September 1993; July 1994.
- People, July 29, 1996.
- Pulse!, September 1993.
- Request, September 1993; November 1993.
- RIP, May 1993; August 1994.
- Rolling Stone, August 8, 1991; September 16, 1993; September 30, 1993; October 14, 1993; December 23, 1993; April 21, 1994.
- Spin, December 1991; August 1993; November 1993; January 1994; February 1994; November 1994.
- Stereo Review, December 1993.
- Time, August 16, 1993; January 3, 1994.
- All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (February 5, 2002).
- Grammy.com, http://www.grammy.com (February 5, 2002).
- MTV.com, http://www.mtv.com (February 5, 2002).
- RollingStone.com, http://www.rollingstone.com (February 5, 2002).
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from a Virgin Records press release, 1993.
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