Salon: Sharps and Flats

Published December 3, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

It's starting to smell like hubris. First there was that big press blitz a while ago where Billy Corgan tried to shake off charges of band Hitlerism by presenting the Pumpkins as a group of equals. Suddenly, they all had names. The one that everyone always called "The Asian Guy" became "James Iha." The bass player, theretofore mostly known as "That Girl From The Smashing Pumpkins Who Doesn't Really Play Bass" became, commonly, "D'Arcy." The drummer -- now there's the rub. Right as their last big press blitz was smoothing out, the drummer became "The Guy Who OD'ed -- No, Not The One Who's Dead, The Other One: The One They Brought Back To Life At The Hospital." When the backlash started rolling in from that, Corgan promptly fired the guy, collected his remaining troops, and retreated back to Pumpkinland. Foiled.

Then another story started to creep quietly into the press. Billy Corgan, it went, is the hardest-working man in show business. He may be a bit of an autocrat, but he's a genuine eccentric musical genius. And prolific? Great Caesar's ghost! He records whole albums worth of demos every day before breakfast. The Pumpkins could have a whole brilliant career just on the songs he throws out.

But then came the five-CD box set.

Hubris, as we know, isn't simply a matter of God's deciding to take you down a couple of notches for some reason of Her own: There's an essential component of overreaching and arrogance to it. Its victim talks too big, walks with his shoulders too square, and gets too used to doing things his way. He stops knowing his limits, and -- whammo. The rule is that the tenor of one's sins determines the form in which fate comes to visit him.

Billy Corgan's sins are twofold: Cupidity and impertinence. It's the first of these that made "The Aeroplane Flies High" come out as a five CD package. Four of its discs have a running time of about 25 minutes, which is about the same length as a single LP side. A single CD would have held three of them. That leaves one more 25-minute disc and a much longer one -- which speaks to the second of Mr. Corgan's sins. The longer one is bloated double by the 23-minute "Pastichio Medley," a jumbled and careless home-stereo edit of some ungodly number of Pumpkins demos. There's nothing very interesting anywhere in its putatively CD-length sprawl which, it would seem, represents the best bits of whatever number of "unreleased albums" the band (read: Corgan) claims to have written in its (his) off-hours and pre-breakfasttimes.,br>

But that still leaves the package's five single A-sides and its nearly 30 B-sides to stand witness to the gathering legend -- and that's still a powerful lot of stuff. The A-sides are great. The B-sides are half pretty good, half underrealized and pointless. There's a scattering of songs written and sung by the now-James Iha that suggest that he has a good solo album or two inside of him. There are some Corgan songs that would've made fine album cuts, or even, with some fair amount of tinkering, respectable singles. There are also some really bad, sneezed-out covers of '80s New Wave hits (like The Cars' "You're All I've Got Tonight" and Missing Persons' "Destination Unknown"), and a whole brace of songs that aren't really very much of anything at all.

Every artist produces songs like these. Most, however, chalk them up to experience and let them sit quiet for a while when they don't work out. "Aeroplane" might sell some copies, but it won't buy Corgan the critical respect he's always angling for.

By Gavin McNett

Gavin McNett is a frequent contributor to Salon.

MORE FROM Gavin McNett

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