Albums Revisited: Smashing Pumpkins ‘Gish’ Turns 25–celebrating the Pumpkins indie début album on its 25th anniversary.
May 28th marks a Gen-X musical milestone: on that date 25 years ago, The Smashing Pumpkins released their début album Gish, the highest selling indie record at that time (until 1994’s Smash by The Offspring…ewww… let’s keep’em separated).
Gish can really stir up emotions in hardcore SP fans. A bittersweet nostalgia. It shows the band in all their nascent glory, before their behind the scenes soap opera made frontman Billy Corgan one of the most polarizing figures in music.
The album would also become overshadowed by the band’s multi-platinum follow-ups Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie & The Infinite Sadness. But for those who got in on the ground-floor, Gish was special.
I first heard it in college, the same week I discovered Nirvana’s Nevermind. I don’t think I’ve been the same since.
I dubbed them on flip sides of a cassette, which I wore out between rotations in my boombox and car stereo. Even though both albums are quite different (and neither band were fond of each other, primarily because Courtney Love dated Corgan before marrying Cobain), the yin and yang was established via mutual producer Butch Vig.
When I first heard Gish, I was kinda bummed. Mainly because I was an aspiring guitarist with visions of joining a band that could go from heavy to fragile in one song, fusing multiple genres in the process. And they beat me to it.
But after I got over my butt-hurt, I was hooked, entranced by each songs use of dynamics and atmosphere.
Corgan described the band’s creative process at the time as “flow arrangements.” Songs like Siva and Rhinoceros aren’t your typical rock compositions. They transition from pulverizing riffs, to quieter bridges, to orgiastic guitar solos and psychedelic atmospherics. Songs within songs, executed with graceful precision.
Corgan explained as much in the 2011 Gish reissue liner notes:
“I took these little snippets of things. Like what if I took the lyricism of Bob Dylan and combined it with the riffs of Black Sabbath then the atmosphere of a Love and Rockets — can I put these things together?” He had no interest in purism, which rankled his more musically conservative alternative peers.
Gish also showcased Vig’s talents for crafting sounds both brutal and delicate. It shares that sense of artful damage with Nevermind, along with his skill recording singers with limited range.
That’s why it was so jarring the first time I heard Corgan’s sharp nasal delivery on Mellon Collie. But Butch put his voice lower in the mix, sounding deeper and full-bodied.
This also made his lyrics hard to decipher, but as Corgan noted: “Gish is almost like an instrumental album—it just happens to have singing on it, but the music overpowers the band in a lot of places. I was trying to say a lot of things I couldn’t really say…I was capable of doing that with the music, but I don’t think I was capable of doing it with words.”
In many ways that makes the track Bury Me as a sort of mission statement, with the pummeling mix burying band and listener alike.
Corgan has distanced himself from the album, saying: “The thing about Gish is that there really aren’t a lot of great songs, it’s really more of a dynamic statement.”
I couldn’t disagree more. Gish is more than an experiment in dynamics and labyrinthine guitar acrobatics. The songs are fully formed and potent.
Corgan performed almost all guitar and bass duties for the album, fracturing relationships with bassist D’arcy Wretsky and guitarist James Iha in the process. This leaves the album a two-man affair. But you’d never know it by listening to it. In many ways its their most “live” sounding album, centered around Chamberlain’s amazing drum performances that hit you square in the chest.
Wretsky did get her chance to shine on Daydream, a lovely Beatles-sque string laden ballad with cello. It’s psychedelic tinge and lyrical content help encompass the album’s dream-like quality.
But it’s I’m Going Crazy, the epic hidden track, that perhaps signaled troubled waters ahead, while also epitomizing Generation X’s disaffection with Corgan singing: I’m going crazy/I don’t want feelings/Your feelings.
After Gish‘s success, the band signed to Virgin Records and released Siamese Dream, arguably their best. But Gish is one hell of an opening statement with a purity missing in all their work to follow.
Or as Corgan said in the liner notes: “I still hear our naïvety and fresh spirits asking to be heard, and I miss the times that helped make this music so earnest…when I listen to Gish what I hear is beautiful naiveté.”
It’s not easy being a fan of Billy Corgan. He almost makes an intentional effort to provoke discord, be it crazy conspiracy theories or an ego left unchecked. But if I blast Gish high and loud enough, I remember the music before the persona, which is how it should be anyways. I’m still hoping for a full band reunion. A tour playing Gish from start to finish would be a nice touch.