WASHINGTON, April 22, 2016 – Smashing Pumpkins is Billy Corgan. Billy Corgan is Smashing Pumpkins. A lot of time and energy have been wasted trying to either dispute this notion or agree with it. But when Corgan stands on stage at DC’s Lincoln Theater – as he recently did – playing various stripped-down versions of songs from “Siamese Dream,” it’s an indisputable fact.
As early as the recording sessions for the band’s first album, “Gish,” rumors swirled about concerning Corgan’s iron control over the band’s sound and image. Even though the band was billed as a congenial ensemble, it was hard not to notice Billy Corgan was always front and center.
When stories concerning the production process of “Siamese Dream” leaked out, claiming Corgan and producer Butch Vig had decided to recording all the guitar and bass parts as well as the vocals themselves, it was hardly a surprise for those involved. James Iha, D’Arcy Wretzky, and Jimmy Chamberlain – still drumming with Corgan and the last remaining member of the rest of the classic Pumpkins – were involved, of course. But it was always clear that the Smashing Pumpkins existed at the behest of Billy Corgan.
That makes Corgan’s eventual decision to break up the band and venture out under new projects both confounding and understandable at the same time. He formed Zwan, then eventually dove into a solo career, which had always seemed natural and inevitable, since he’d always existed behind the pretense of a band anyway.
Corgan’s moves didn’t really work out, though. Zwan enjoyed some commercial and critical success, and his one solo album was critically well received. But neither career path ever reached the heights of Smashing Pumpkins. That’s what resulted in the band’s curious 2007 comeback, which confused fans and pundits alike. Audiences had thought that part of Billy Corgan’s career was over, and the reception to the newly revived Smashing Pumpkins proved tepid.
Some years passed before Corgan created any new music. Then he suddenly doubled down on the moribund Smashing Pumpkins comeback, releasing over time a concept album called “Teargarden by Kaleidyscope.” While the album didn’t achieve the success of those early Smashing Pumpkins recordings, it was critically well received.
As the concept album is wrapping up in 2016, this sprawling effort is being looked at more kindly than the 2007 album “Zeitgeist.” That’s because it feels more like Billy Corgan. After all, the original Smashing Pumpkins was never an easy band. Despite the rocker singles they issued in the early to mid ‘90s, they always fit into a much more complicated tapestry.
That notion became increasingly clear with their double album, “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” – the band’s high point –but also with “Adore” and the two-part “Machina.” Both were clearly attempts by Corgan to push Smashing Pumpkins.
And that’s why disbanding the band in the early ‘00s didn’t make much sense, though it gave us a look into Corgan’s psyche. By the turn of this century, the concept of Smashing Pumpkins had splintered to the point where it obviously wasn’t a “real” band. But on a certain level, Corgan needed that pretense in order to exist as a musical entity.
It seems as if, in our current decade, Corgan’s finally discovered the middle ground between himself as a musician and his need to have Smashing Pumpkins to be the vehicle for his musical ideas. Because of this, the return of Smashing Pumpkins is now met with warmth instead of the cynicism that stymied his initial attempt to give life to the band once again.
Which gets us back to our opening point. This strange, complicated dynamic was clearly on display as Billy Corgan stood on stage in front of the sold out crowd at Lincoln Theater. But when Corgan was playing selected cuts from “Siamese Dreams” – the era he purportedly meant to highlight during this show – it was hard to imagine any of this history was on his mind. It’s all become integrated with the idea of Smashing Pumpkins.
The current band, as it exists in the mind of Billy Corgan, is a noticeably more subdued affair. The songs that really work now were always on the more delicate side of the band’s discography. Songs such as “Disarm” and “1979” not only don’t sound out of place today, but are actually enhanced by the evolution of Corgan’s tastes.
When the band played songs from “Adore,” the combination of rock and electronics sounded lusher, fuller bodied and closer to their initial intent than when they were originally conceived, as if the interlocking parts are fitting into Corgan’s head at last.
Perhaps more interesting is that the musical landscape Corgan has found himself in, by working through the Smashing Pumpkins catalog both new and old, has left him in a precarious spot with regard to the band’s most popular material.
At the Lincoln, he was able to perform “Today” – arguably Smashing Pumpkins’ most recognized tune – but it felt off-kilter compared to the more familiar version. It’s as if his current sound concept has made him somewhat incapable of playing some of the harder rockers like “Cherub Rock” and “Zero” with all of their modernist, glam rock appeal. It’s possible that some of the old songs might have to be left in the past for Smashing Pumpkins to feel like a comfortable musical concept once again.
But that’s probably a good place for Billy Corgan. Bringing back Smashing Pumpkins for a second time was met with considerable skepticism and looked cynical, as we noted earlier. But the band’s current tour, and its show at the Lincoln Theater in particular, have reframed Smashing Pumpkins, putting it in a new light.
To Billy Corgan, this might be the same thing as it’s always been. But for his audience and fans, the current Smashing Pumpkins is perhaps more an idea than a band, creating a space where Billy Corgan can let his musical ideas flow rather than feeling like he’s out on his own in uncharted territory.
Whatever the case, as he proved here in DC, when he’s up on stage performing songs that reflect any era of Smashing Pumpkins, the current setup allows him to feel insulated and comfortable, allowing his creativity to flow out and envelop the audience.