The Smashing Pumpkins - Biography

By David Downs


Ambitious, divisive and brilliant, Billy Corgan led Chicago alternative rock band The Smashing Pumpkins to perilous heights of success in the 1990s. From a young age, Corgan expected excellence and he delivered it alongside guitarist James Iha, bassist D'Arcy Wretzky and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, selling a combined 18.75 million albums over six original LPs. The original members met in the Chicago alt rock scene of the late '80s, releasing vinyl seven inch "I Am One" (1990-Limited Potential) with Corgan's college money. A pillar of the alt rock canon, debut LP Gish (1991-Caroline) combined overdriven guitar, squirrelly lead guitar, and Corgan's effeminate, tortured vocals and flare for melodramatic lyrics. Siamese Dream (1993-Virgin) peaked at ten on the Billboard 200, then double-disc Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995-Virgin) peaked at number one. It remains number nine of the top 100 selling albums of all time, according to the the RIAA. Adore (1998-Virgin) disappointed while Machina - The Machines of God (2000-Virgin) peaked at number three on the Billboard 200 yet still meant the end. Wretzky and Iha would soon leave and {Rotten Apples} Greatest Hits (2001-Virgin) peaked at an embarrassing thirty-one. Zeitgeist (2007-Martha's Music) lacking Iha and Wretzky -- still peaked at number two on the Billboard 200. Corgan soldiers on.


Corgan grew up the son of of a jazz guitarist in a Chicago suburb, and his father says Billy wanted to be a rock star from age sixteen forward. Corgan was always difficult, his father said, and demanded the best from those he knew. The honors student ditched college for metal band Marked in the South. When that quickly failed, he returned to Chicago, worked in a used record and met Iha. Prophetically, Wretkzy and Corgan fought the first time they met at a bar. The three rehearsed with a drum machine, and played their first live gigs at The Metro, adding jazz drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, a friend of Corgan's. Corgan's grandmother left him a small amount of money for college, and after fighting with his father, Corgan spent it on the Pumpkins' first single, "I Am One" on the Limited Potential label in 1989. Already, Corgan reportedly had earned the enmity of locals for his desire to take the band as high as it could go. The single sold out, and the band cut single "Tristessa" on Sub Pop. They soon signed to Virgin Records after a bidding war, but Virgin's indie subsidiary Caroline, would carry more credibility and release the record.


Gish, was produced by superstar producer Butch Vig, and backed by the might of Virgin, becoming a college and modern rock hit in 1991. Graphic artist Wretzky did the art and the album was recorded at Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin. “Rhinoceros” is an exemplary cut, with its distorted guitar, uptempo drumming, squealing lead, hard-soft dynamic, and Corgan's bleating, lamb-in-a-slaughterhouse vocals. They toured Gish for a year, opening for Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam while Iha and Wretzky, former lovers, broke up. Chamberlin became addicted to drugs and alcohol, while Corgan was simply bummed out.


Intense expectations were only further fueled by single "Drown", which appeared on the hit soundtrack to the motion picture Singles – an iconic Gen X movie alongside Slackers and Reality Bites released in the summer of 1992. The group decamped to Georgia but Chamberlin was addicted to heroin and Iha and Wretzky proved unreliable. Corgan later told the press he came up with great ideas twice and fast as Iha, and didn't slow down for his bandmates. Iha, sitting in the same room, disputes this. Either way Vig and Corgan spent December 1992 through March 1993 crafting songs with up to one hundred guitar parts and ornate stereo flourishes. The two failed to finish mixing the record and engineer Alan Moulder booked two weeks in a studio to mix it. It took him more than a month before the album was finished four months late and $250,000 over budget. "Soma" alone contains almost 40 overdubbed guitar parts. Corgan says most of the lyrics for the album were about his girlfriend and future wife Chris Fabian. Siamese Dream (1993-Virgin) debuted at number ten on the Billboard 200 with "Cherub Rock," "Today" and the acoustic "Disarm" launching another huge tour. The Pumpkins headlined Lollapalooza 1994, and after another long slog, went back into the studio after the tour for a new album Corgan promised to be a double-disc. Pisces Iscariot (1994-Virgin) satiated fan desires with B-sides and rarities while the band worked at what would be their last great album together.


Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995-Virgin) was basically a big "fuck-off" to everyone who doubted the band, said Corgan to reporters. In order to achieve such a statement, the band reworked its recording technique from the prior disaster. Flood forced jamming and experimental period every day to prevent tedium. Two studios prevented gridlock during months of guitar overdubs. Corgan told the press he wanted the band to work on it like it was their last. The double disc was as good as it was audacious, with singles "Bullet with Butterfly Wings," "1979," "Zero," and "Tonight, Tonight," selling over four million copies in the U.S.


But with the success, came just as much trouble. A fan was crushed in a huge moshpit at a show in Ireland in May 1996. In July keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin overdosed on heroin. Chamberlin also OD'd, but lived. Tour dates were abruptly canceled and Chamberlin was fired. Filter member Matt Walker and Frogs' Dennis Flemion filled in on tour drums and keyboards. The Pumpkins' Mellon Collie ...  also lost the Grammy Award for Album of the Year to Falling Into You by Celine Dion.


After the tour, the fractured band returned to the studio for Adore. Corgan's mother had died, close ally Chamberlin was out of the band, his wife had divorced him and Iha and Wretzky were tired of his act. The two launched Scratchie Records, preceding Iha's solo debut, Let It Come Down (1998-Virgin). Adore did not do as well as past albums. In 1998, The Smashing Pumpkins raised more than $2.8 million on a seventeen-date charity tour. In September 1999 Wretzky left The Smashing Pumpkins. In May 2000, Corgan announced on LA radio station KROQ that the band would break up at the end of the year. That same month that Wretzky cleared drug charges for a January arrest for possession of crack cocaine.


Machina - The Machines of God (2000-Virgin) featured Chamberlin's return with former Hole bassist Melissa auf der Maur replacing Wretzky for the farewell tour in 2000. The final show at the Metro, the Pumpkins played a four-hour, thirty-five-song set without Wretkzy. Corgan also finished twenty-five tracks left over from the Machina sessions, yet Virgin Records declined to release them so near to the prior album's release. In a fit of classic Corgan fiat, he posted the songs to the Internet for free download, going by the title Machina II: The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music.


Corgan then played with New Order and started Zwan with Chamberlin on drums and former Chavez guitarist Matt Sweeney and bassist Skullfisher.  Iha and Auf der Maur started the Virgins and in 2001 {Rotten Apples} Greatest Hits (2001-Virgin) did less than brisk business. In 2003, Corgan dissolved Zwan, citing the failure of his band members to meet his expectations. In 2005, Corgan released first solo album The Future Embrace, (2005-Reprise) taking out a full-page ad in the Chicago Tribune the day of its release to announce that The Smashing Pumpkins were reuniting.


However, Iha quickly told Rolling Stone he and Corgan had not spoken for years and would not return. Nor did Wretzky. Only Chamberlin returned. Zeitgeist (2007-Reprise) with Corgan, Chamberlin and Terry Date, and Roy Thomas Baker proved heavier than prior outings and did quite well, debuting at number two on the Billboard 200 with singles “Tarantula”, “Doomsday Clock”, and “That's The Way (My Love Is)” helping it go gold. The band still records and has released 2008 DVD If All Goes Wrong which features footage from shows in 2007. Chamerlain left the group for good right before the 2009 follow up, Teagarden by Kaleidyscope. With an entirely new line up, Corgan followed  this with Oceania in 2012.

The sources of The Smashing Pumpkins' success also contained its mortal flaw – namely the hubris of one Billy Corgan. Corgan relentlessly drove Iha, Wretzky, and Chamberlin like sled dogs over Everest, enduring very public slights when his too-late calls for rapprochement went unanswered. No individual member of The Smashing Pumpkins has done as well as that bittersweet amalgam, as evidenced by their lackluster solo projects. The band continues today without Iha and Wretzky or Chamberlain, much to the chagrin of many fans they had made along the way. Still, the Pumpkins' enormous body of work, bold creative output, and astounding commercial success assures their Grecian story arc a place in the pantheon of alternative rock; with an encore remaining a remote but tantalizing possibility.

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