Great Fucking Albums #24: Siamese Dream

Well, I said it was probably time to do this and so it looks like I’m a dude of my word.

The 1990s were a good time to listen to rock music, because the radio actually managed (on occasion) to play music that was good. In Oregon, we had Portland’s 94.7 KNRK, the station that first introduced me to the Smashing Pumpkins. That introduction, crucial as it was to my transition from person who owned Hysteria on vinyl to person who owns albums of which he’s unashamed, came in the form of “Today,” the hit single (I believe the first among many) from Siamese Dream. I was all of thirteen years old and living with the first of two alcoholic step-dads that would make Hamm’s-swilling appearances in my adolescence. I still listened to my music on cassettes back then, and a friend of mine copied Siamese Dream onto a blank cassette for me (he had the CD and it can be safely inferred that he therefore had the better childhood); I promptly wore the cassette out (a disadvantage of the format. Come to think of it, portability was probably the only real advantage of cassettes). I must confess that, at first, I pretty much listened to “Cherub Rock” and “Today” over and over.

But I’m older and wiser now, and I can safely say that Siamese Dream was one of the best albums of the 1990s (yes, I know about Nevermind. I know. Settle down). For one thing, few albums of that decade announced themselves with the authority of “Cherub Rock,” a song that should be included in every video game that dares to place the word “guitar” anywhere near the word “hero.” That riff burned its way into my psyche when I was a teenager and it’s one of the few things I like to remember from that time in my life.

Like many of my favorite rock albums, Siamese Dream sounds better the louder you hear it (assuming you don’t push your speakers to the point of distorting the sound) and the one thing my sad little thirteen-year-old self managed to get right was listening to this album with the volume cranked up in my shitty Walkman headphones until I was practically swimming in Billy Corgan and Jame’s Iha’s über-distorted guitars. I didn’t know it at the time, but Siamese Dream got its dynamics from the Pixies and its guitar style from Dinosaur Jr.. That combination is as winning today as it was back then, although the modern incarnation of the Pumpkins doesn’t seem to be able to pull it off.

Was Siamese Dream pretentious? You bet your ass it was pretentious! Two songs approach seven minutes in length and one (“Silverfuck”) gets dangerously close to the nine minute mark. Length alone doesn’t make a song pretentious, but if a band is willing to linger that long in a tune, it suggests to me that said band may be overestimating the importance of their art. Billy Corgan definitely overestimated the importance of his art (to the point that he was deeply, apparently permanently offended when Pavement made a half-hearted, one-line crack about the Smashing Pumpkins in “Range Life”) and he continues to do so to this day. But that doesn’t change the fact that Siamese Dream is fucking awesome.

There’s the aforementioned guitar tone; I mean, holy shit. Yeah, it’s J. Mascis-aping, but it also somehow turns Mascis’s frenetic, furious playing up to eleven while giving it a lot more focus. Even at its wildest (like, say, the guitar solo on “Cherub Rock” or the one on “Geek U.S.A.”), there is not a single note on Siamese Dream that hasn’t been fussed over, largely by Mr. Corgan, who frequently overdubbed James Iha and D’arcy’s parts with his own playing (and then overdubbed his parts with himself – between forty and one hundred times, depending on the song and who you ask). According to some sources, Corgan and producer Butch Vig could spend hours working on one 45-second section of a song.

And, though I don’t have much interest in looking up the lyrics that I can’t understand on this album (and there are many), Corgan’s vocal melodies are uniformly excellent on Siamese Dream. They’re catchy but not overly simplistic, possibly because Corgan controlled nearly every second of the recording process with an iron fist.

The result of all this fisting and fussing (sorry, couldn’t resist) was a bloated, pretentious, $250,000 over budget masterpiece. Though the 1995 follow-up, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness was quite well-received, I don’t think the Smashing Pumpkins ever made an album as completely great as Siamese Dream. It swung for the fences on every single track, and the number of home runs it managed to hit in 62 minutes is astounding. In a decade that would see a steady and precipitous decline in the quality of Big Rock Records, Siamese Dream was a brilliant Big Rock Record, which was exactly what Billy Corgan wanted it to be.

In a week when massive lead singer ego has been on my mind, Siamese Dream forces me to consider the possible benefits of having a self-obsessed, tyrannical asshole for a vocalist. There’s little argument that Billy Corgan’s ego was the driving force behind the album, but was it worth it? As a selfish listener, I’d rather have Siamese Dream in my record collection than have Billy Corgan be a nice person, but I don’t have to deal with him. As a musician, I’d definitely be the kind of guy to get in fist fights with someone like Corgan; I like bands that I play in to be democratic and Corgan, like Axl Rose, seems like a musical fascist. After Siamese Dream was released in 1993, Corgan, in a move that must have been deeply inspiring to a young Julian Casablancas, told Spin, “I’m surrounded by these people who I care about very much, yet they continue to keep failing me.” Fortunately, the most Siamese Dream-like band I’ve heard in 2011, The Joy Formidable, shares Corgan’s desire for an epic rock sound but not his flagrant disrespect (bordering on seething disdain) for their fellow band members. At least, I haven’t read any interviews with Ritzy Bryan where she’s shit-talking the rest of the band.

So, bands like The Joy Formidable and friends, take Siamese Dream as a cautionary tale: naked ambition (which is the name of my Madonna cover band) and a lot of ego can get you far, but if you follow Billy Corgan’s swan dive (or is it a Zwan dive?) from awesomeness since making this album, you might do well to stop and consider whether or not it’s worth it. Performer discretion is advised.

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2 thoughts on “Great Fucking Albums #24: Siamese Dream

  1. Pingback: The Foo Fighters Help 2011 in Its Effort to Sound as Much Like the 1990s as Possible « Bollocks!

  2. I would just like to say that no matter the ego, no matter the motivation, no matter anything, I believe this(siamese dream) to be one of the best albums i have ever heard or experienced. No questions or criticisms just rock and fu**ing roll at it”s finest. I would say in the top 5 of all time as a whole. No disrespect to the old standards just damn good rocking stuff. Attitude or ego I do not care, the album is fantastic and probably will never be challenged. (as and entire album)
    Just my completely biased opinion.

    J. Marshall Payne

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