In the spring of 1998, the estimable music critic Robert Hilburn wrote a profile of Billy Corgan for the Los Angeles Times in which he intimated that his band, the Smashing Pumpkins, was a solid bet for remaining in the vanguard of rock music for years to come.
This idea was far from controversial at the time. Since the early ’90s, the Pumpkins had been a commercial and critical juggernaut, a linchpin member of the alternative rock scene that had rendered the garish hair metal of the previous decade culturally, if not commercially, irrelevant.
And in the spring of ’98, the Pumpkins were one of the few alt-rock acts still genuinely interested in pushing onwards into new creative territory. (The band’s 1998 album “Adore” forayed into electronic music, a significant stylistic break from the guitar-heavy assault found on its first three albums.) At the end of the 20th century, if you had to wager the farm on one American band dominating the rock landscape of the forthcoming millennium, the Pumpkins represented a good choice.
That long and glorious reign atop the rock charts did not, as we now know, come to fruition. “Adore” and the Pumpkins’ next album, “Machina/The Machines of God,” failed to resonate with audiences and critics to the degree that their previous works did. The band disbanded in December 2000, shortly after taking the then curious step of releasing one final album, “Machina II/The Friends & Enemies of Modern Music,” for free via the internet.
And just like that, the Pumpkins were gone, transmuted into a historical footnote from one of the last eras in which guitar-based rock dominated pop culture.
Today, it’s not difficult to understand why the Pumpkins failed to replicate their early career successes. (It should be noted that Corgan did reform the band in the mid-2000s, though the new incarnation included only one other member of the original lineup, the inimitable drummer Jimmy Chamberlain. And the band’s subsequent albums have failed to make a palpable impact on pop music culture.)
Corgan’s mercurial and occasionally domineering personality always appeared to have a less than positive effect on group chemistry, as did Chamberlain’s on-again, off-again drug habit. As a unit, the Pumpkins made exquisite music but did not radiate stability, and so their breakup, at least when viewed in hindsight, reads like a forgone conclusion
But while the Pumpkins' demise makes sense from the vantage of today, what’s far more difficult to comprehend is why the band has, in the years since its initial breakup, become something of an afterthought in critical circles. Spin magazine first recognized the phenomenon of the Pumpkins' declining stature in November 2005, noting “the band’s reputation seems to erode every year.”
When Rolling Stone issued a special issue on '90s music, it neglected to even list the group on the cover alongside less eminent alt-rock acts. And this week, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced the nominations for the 2017 class and the list of nominees failed to include the Pumpkins, who are now eligible for induction.
The exclusion of the Pumpkins from the 2017 Hall of Fame nominees list is puzzling to say the least. This is a band that in the words of music critic Jim DeRogatis — whose mediocre reviews of certain Pumpkins albums preclude him from accusations of vapid fanboyishness — was a vaunted member of “alternative rock’s holy trinity.”
Nirvana and Pearl Jam, the two other members of that trinity, have not seen their reputations diminished whatsoever in recent years. Nirvana memorably entered the Hall of Fame in 2014; Pearl Jam leads this year’s class of nominees and is a near surefire bet for getting in.
The Pumpkins still maintain a high level of popularity with fans: In 2011 Rolling Stone asked readers to choose the best albums of the 1990s and the Pumpkins was the only group with two entries on the list. But those tasked with enshrining certain pop musicians for perpetuity appear to have little interest in remembering this echt alternative rock group.
The Pumpkins exclusion from this year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ballot is not the first time the band has found itself on the outside looking in. Throughout the group’s heyday, despite the myriad accolades it received from fans and critics alike, there always was a chorus of alternative and indie-rock insiders who made a habit of questioning the band’s artistic legitimacy.
The Pumpkins always self-identified as alternative artists and hit all the key touchstones of the early ’90s alternative scene: They released a single on Sup Pop, headlined Lollapalooza, made music videos that regularly appeared on MTV programs like “Alternative Nation,” and contributed songs to the “Singles” soundtrack and “No Alternative,” two exemplary alt-rock compilation albums.
But these accomplishments did not prevent certain indie-rock heroes from pillorying the band’s music and questioning whether the group could credibly lay claim to the alternative label. Pavement, a California quintet celebrated for its extremely spare slacker rock, included a verse in the song “Range Life” that questioned whether the Pumpkins served any sort of purpose, a slight that within the purpose-obsessed alt-rock community cut far deeper than directly criticizing the band’s music would have. Hüsker Dü guitarist Bob Mould derisively called the Pumpkins “the grunge Monkees.” And Steve Albini, the hardcore rocker cum record producer, tore the Pumpkins and several other Chicago-based artists to shreds in an immensely readable ice pick of a diatribe.
The dislike conveyed by individuals in the anti-Pumpkins camp seemed to stem from one of several reasons. First, the Pumpkins as a whole and Corgan in particular always held the punk-rock tradition at arm’s length, while simultaneously cultivating an aesthetic more akin to those of art and prog rockers from the 1970s. And the band’s collective disavowal of punk orthodoxy felt like a slap in the face to those alternative artists who saw their music as nothing more than a newfound brand of punk palatable to mainstream audiences.
Second, the Pumpkins traded in meticulously produced songs that reeked of AOR respectability as opposed to the sort of indie rawness other alt-rock groups tried to capture on record. As music journalist Michael Azerrad noted in in a Rolling Stone article, “while alternative hipsters were embracing ‘lo fi’ — minimal overdubs, CD-unfriendly sound and a general disdain for technical perfection — the Pumpkins sprinted as hard as they could in the other direction.” The band spent hours in the studio crafting intricately layered tracks, and this pursuit of such polish drew the ire of alt-rock purists, even though the band’s motivating factor was a genuine desire to realize their specific artistic visions.
Third, the band was often stereotyped as “careerist sellouts” because of a persistent refusal to shroud its ambitions in transparent anti-commercial postures, a stereotypical ’90s pose other alternative artists gleefully struck.
Whether these characterizations are valid or should have any bearing on how a particular band’s music is judged is up for debate. Music fans who align with Albini and believe that excessive guitar overdubs defile the spirit of rock music are preordained to hate any album that swims in studio profligacy before they’ve even heard the songs. And indie-rock fans who turn up their noses at bands that refused to go the Fugazi route by releasing all their music on independently owned labels will have no love lost for the Pumpkins — or Nirvana, R.E.M., Pearl Jam and all the other ’90s alternative bands that willingly engaged with the corporate mainstream.
But what should not be up for debate are the indelible contributions the Pumpkins made to the alternative rock scene of the early ’90s. If you strip away all the peripheral chatter about the Pumpkins methodology and aesthetic and concentrate on the music, then there’s no question that the band deserves to be remembered as one of the defining acts of that all too fleeting era.
Starting with “Gish” in 1991 and continuing through “Siamese Dream” in 1993 and “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” in 1995, the Pumpkins married grunge’s pervasive dysphoria and acute self-loathing with psychedelic guitar play and a grandiosity of vision not seen since peak Pink Floyd, creating a sound that expanded the sonic territory alt-rock could credibly occupy without betraying its tacit ethos of inchoate nihilism, ironic detachment and weirdly celebratory masochism.
The Pumpkins drew from an eclectic well of musical inspiration that included bands as different as Judas Priest, ELO and The Cure, but still made music that, to paraphrase a line from music critic David Browne’s review of “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness,” was wholly original and very much of the era in which it was released.
This was and continues to be true. Despite the fact that many alternative bands including Nirvana positioned their work as a punkish antidote to lascivious ’80s metal, equating ’90s alt-rock with punk has always been incredibly misguided. Alternative artists may have felt the same sense of social alienation and disenchantment expressed by the punks of the ’70s and the hardcore artists of the ’80s, but under their direction these feelings curdled into something far more sullen and unassured.
Alt-rock replaced the irrepressible verve of punk with a sense of gloomy introspection and a morose emotional tone. This was the exact form in which the Pumpkins worked, even as the band reflected that period’s abject cultural mood through intricately crafted albums that balanced noise with beauty.
Tracks like “Plume,” “Drown,” and “Today,” are as grungy as anything any of the Seattle bands recorded, and in many respects Corgan was a much closer analogue to Kurt Cobain, alternative rock’s poster boy and the poet of an allegedly feckless generation, than Eddie Vedder or Chris Cornell.
The Pumpkins music, for which Corgan served as the primary songwriter and chief creative force, consistently utilizes the equivocating, soft/loud dynamics popularized by Nirvana. And Corgan, like Cobain, practices lyrical self-immolation on song after song. Both men were musicians whose emotionally honest music revealed and exacerbated the pain caused by personal flaws and a dismal worldview.
Cobain always conveyed these emotions through direct, caustic music while Corgan took a more circuitous route, dabbling in song constructions and production values that were far more luxurious. “In Utero” and “Siamese Dream,” the two greatest rock albums of the ’90s, exemplify how the two bands achieved similar results using disparate methods: Nirvana recorded “In Utero” over the course of a week while the Pumpkins worked for months on “Siamese Dream,” but each album conjures the same ambient moodiness and inwardly directed angst.
Alt-rock fans always recognized that the similarities between the Pumpkins and other alternative artists far outweighed any differences and rewarded the band by buying its albums in bulk and requesting that its songs be played on the alternative-rock radio stations that sprang up all around the country. Critics also gave the band the credit its work merited: Spin named the Pumpkins the Artist of the Year for 1994; Time listed “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” as the best album of 1995. These are just a few of the accolades the press conferred.
But nowadays it’s difficult to find significant mention of the Pumpkins or the role they played in shaping ’90s music culture. It appears as if the Pumpkins detractors are having the last laugh. This is unfortunate because it’s impossible to fully appreciate that decade’s alternative music scene without examining the Pumpkins music in detail.
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame voters had the chance to set the record straight, to present a picture of the ’90s rock pantheon that accurately reflects how those of us who lived through the decade remember the real-time pecking order. And honestly what else is the point of having a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame if not to redress the indefensible disintegrations of certain bands’ legacies and correct inaccurate ideas and indefensible media narratives that have creeped into the discourse? But by excluding the Pumpkins from the list of this year’s nominees, the voters failed to do that.
The best alternative artists from 1990s wrote songs that feel gloomy and exhilarating. And aren’t those the emotions that best express the human condition — the melancholy that springs from life’s propensity for falling short of expectations, the ecstasy that emerges in the precious moments when it does the opposite? The Smashing Pumpkins catalog fits squarely within this vein. The band’s music sends the cadences of those very different emotions ricocheting off one another in innumerable and unpredictable ways; its albums simultaneously evoked and evolved the contemporary musical zeitgeist. Let’s hope voters come to their senses next year and put the band where it belongs.