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Of all the major alternative rock bands of the early '90s, the Smashing Pumpkins were the group least influenced by traditional underground rock. Lead guitarist/songwriter Billy Corgan fashioned an amalgam of progressive rock, heavy metal, goth rock, psychedelia, and dream pop, creating a layered, powerful sound driven by swirling, distorted guitars.
Corgan was wise enough to exploit his angst-ridden lyrics, yet he never shied away from rock star posturing, even if he did cloak it in allegedly ironic gestures. In fact, the Smashing Pumpkins became the model for alternative rock success. Nirvana was too destructive and Pearl Jam shunned success. The Pumpkins, on the other hand, knew how to play the game, signing to a major-subsidized indie for underground credibility and moving to the major in time to make the group a multi-platinum act. And when the group did achieve mass success with 1993's Siamese Dream, they went a long way to legitimize heavy metal and orchestrated prog rock, helping move alternative rock even closer to '70s AOR, especially in the eyes of radio programmers and mainstream audiences. Unlike many of their contemporaries, the Pumpkins were able to withstand many internal problems and keep selling records, emerging as the longest-lasting and most successful alternative band of the early '90s.
The son of a jazz guitarist, Billy Corgan grew up in a Chicago suburb, leaving home at the age of 19 to move to Florida with his fledgling goth metal band, the Marked. After the band failed down South, he returned to Chicago around 1988, where he began working at a used-record store. At the shop he met James Iha (guitar), a graphic arts student at Loyola University, and the two began collaborating, performing and recording songs with a drum machine. Corgan met D'Arcy Wretzky at a club show; after arguing about the merits of the Dan Reed Network, the two became friends and she joined the group as a bassist. Soon, the band, who named themselves the Smashing Pumpkins, had gained a dedicated local following, including the head of a local club who booked them to open for Jane's Addiction. Before the pivotal concert, the band hired Jimmy Chamberlin, a former jazz musician, as their full-time drummer.
In 1990, the Smashing Pumpkins released their debut single, "I Am One," on the local Chicago label Limited Potential. The single quickly sold out, and in December the band released "Tristessa" on Sub Pop. By this point, the Smashing Pumpkins had become the subject of a hot bidding war, and the group latched on to a clever way to move to a major label without losing indie credibility. They signed to Virgin Records, yet it was decided that the group's debut would be released on the Virgin subsidiary Caroline, then the band would move to the majors. The strategy worked; Gish, a majestic mix of Black Sabbath and dream pop produced by Butch Vig, became a huge college and modern rock hit upon its spring 1991 release. While it earned a large audience, many indie rock fans began to snipe at the Smashing Pumpkins, accusing them of being careerists. Such criticism did the band no harm and they embarked on an extensive supporting tour for Gish, which lasted over a year and included opening slots for Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam. During the Gish tour, tensions between bandmembers began to escalate, as Iha and D'Arcy, who had been lovers, went through a messy breakup, Chamberlin became addicted to drugs and alcohol, and Corgan entered a heavy depression. These tensions hadn't been resolved by the time the group entered the studio with Vig to record their second album.
Toward the beginning of the sessions, the Pumpkins were given significant exposure through the inclusion of "Drown" on the Singles soundtrack in the summer of 1992. As the sessions progressed, Corgan relieved himself of his depression by working heavily -- not only did he write a surplus of songs, he played nearly all of the guitars and bass on each recording, which meant that its release was delayed several times. The resulting album, Siamese Dream, was an immaculate production owing much to Queen, yet it was embraced by critics upon its July 1993 release. Siamese Dream became a blockbuster, debuting at number ten on the charts and establishing the group as stars. "Cherub Rock," the first single, was a modern rock hit, yet it was "Today" and the acoustic "Disarm" that sent the album into the stratosphere, as well as the group's relentless touring. The Smashing Pumpkins became the headliners of Lollapalooza 1994, and following the tour's completion, the band went back into the studio to record a new album that Corgan had already claimed would be a double-disc set. To tide fans over until the new album, the Pumpkins released the B-sides and rarities album Pisces Iscariot in October 1994.
Working with producers Flood and Alan Moulder, the Smashing Pumpkins recorded as a full band for their third album, which turned out to be, as Corgan predicted, a double-disc set called Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Although many observers were skeptical about whether a double-disc set, especially one so ridiculously named, would be a commercial success, Mellon Collie became an even bigger hit than Siamese Dream, debuting at number one on the charts. On the strength of the singles "Bullet with Butterfly Wings," "1979," "Zero," and "Tonight, Tonight," it sold over four million copies in the U.S., eventually being certified platinum over eight times (each disc in the set counted separately toward certification). The Pumpkins had graduated to stadium shows for the Mellon Collie tour, and the band was at the peak of their popularity when things began to go wrong again. On July 12, prior to two shows at Madison Square Garden, the group's touring keyboardist, Jonathan Melvoin, died from a heroin overdose; he was with Jimmy Chamberlin, who survived his overdose. In the wake of the tragedy, the remaining Pumpkins fired Chamberlin and spent two months on hiatus as they recovered and searched for a new drummer. Early in August, they announced that Filter member Matt Walker would be their touring drummer, and Dennis Flemion, a member of the Frogs, would be their touring keyboardist for the remainder of the year. They returned to the stage at the end of August and spent the next five months on tour. During this time, Corgan contributed some music to Ron Howard's Ransom.
Early in 1997, once the Pumpkins left the road, Iha and D'Arcy launched Scratchie Records, a subsidiary of Mercury Records. In the spring, the Smashing Pumpkins recorded two songs for the soundtrack for Batman & Robin. Iha's solo debut, Let It Come Down, appeared in early 1998; Adore, the new Smashing Pumpkins LP, followed a few months later to disappointing sales and reviews. Chamberlin returned to the group and D'Arcy exited prior to the early-2000 release of MACHINA: The Machines of God. Several months later, Corgan announced his intentions to dissolve the band before the year was out. With former Hole bassist Melissa auf der Maur replacing D'Arcy, the band launched their farewell tour in 2000. Fans of the band received one last treat when Corgan and company worked feverishly to finish off tracks that were left over from the MACHINA sessions. Surprisingly, Virgin Records balked at the idea of releasing the 25-track set so close in time to their previous album, so the band put the entire album (going by the official title of Machina II: The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music) on the Internet for fans to download for free. On December 2 of the same year, the Pumpkins played a mammoth final show at Chicago's Metro (also the venue at which the group played their first show back in 1988) before officially calling it quits.
But the former members of the band didn't wait long before carrying on with other projects -- Corgan spent the summer of 2001 playing guitar with New Order on select concert dates, and later in the year unveiled his new band, Zwan, including Chamberlin on drums (as well as former Chavez guitarist Matt Sweeney and bassist Skullfisher). The other two former Pumpkins, Iha and auf der Maur, began putting together an alt-rock supergroup dubbed the Virgins. The same year, a pair of postmortem Pumpkins collections were issued for the holiday season -- a double-disc collection and a DVD both called Greatest Hits. Corgan released his first solo album, The Future Embrace, in 2005, and on the day it came out, he took out a full-page ad in the Chicago Tribune to announce that the Smashing Pumpkins were reuniting. He hadn't informed any of his past bandmates, and only Chamberlin went along. Zeitgeist, a heavier album than any past Pumpkins album, was released in 2007.
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