SMASHING PUMPKINS – GISH May 28th, 1991, The Smashing Pumpkins released their debut album Gish on Caroline Records. In 2021, Billy Corgan said “What’s interesting, and what I like to say about ‘Gish’, is it shows our influences and it shows who we were as people before the real pressure came in. ‘Siamese Dream’ is the representation of when the pressure came in. It was like, ‘OK, now we need to really figure out who we are”
Gish is what all great debut albums strive to be. It’s packed with dynamic songwriting, “mellon collie,” introspective passages that give way to fuzz drenched mania. Soaring guitars and thunderous drums melt into sublime ambience and gorgeous, gossamer thin melodies. Nothing sounded quite like Gish, or The Smashing Pumpkins circa 1991.
Arriving several months before Nirvana’s Nevermind, the Smashing Pumpkins’ debut album, Gish, which was also produced by Butch Vig, was the band’s the first shot across the bows of the alternative rock revolution that transformed the music landscape of the ’90s. While Nirvana was essentially a punk band, the Smashing Pumpkins drew influence from shoegaze, new wave, goth, psychedelic, hard rock and even metal.
Sonically Gish has a deep, textured sound, but like all Butch Vig albums, it feels direct and in your face. The then unknown producer from Madison Wisconsin had hit upon a sound that sat perfectly with the more natural aesthetic of rock bands plying their trade in the ’90s. Vig chose to harness the organic sound these bands were producing rather than implementing the overly produced, saccharine, reverb drenched recording style of the previous decade. In the Smashing Pumpkins case, the combination of their sound and Vig’s approach fit like a glove.
“I Am One” opens proceedings with Jimmy Chamberlin’s drums followed by the band crashing in with beautiful sustained guitar chords. Billy Corgan’s vocal sounds dream-like and distant, made even more enthralling by D’arcy Wretsky’s gorgeous backing vocal. Billy deserves some credit for the seering solo he unleashes at 2 mins 50.
“Siva” is a raging slab that gives way to an ambient, dream-like section. Other bands may have separated these two sections due to their stark differences. The Smashing Pumpkins ability to meld loud-soft dynamics which feel like natural fluctuations is to their eternal credit. Nothing seems out of place, no matter how dramatic the change of pace. As honest as a racing heartbeat, slowing to a relaxed murmur, Corgan follows his feelings wherever they take him.
Billy has admited he was tripping balls when he wrote the psychedelic goth ballad “Rhinoceros” about a mystery girl, an ice-cream party he’s planning for June, and the “mustard lies” he wishes to reveal. “She knows, she knows, she knows,” he sings over a crisp jangle that gives way to otherworldliness and sheer beauty. Billy has said that “Rhinoceros” was a real turning point for him as a writer and it’s easy to see why. The song is invested with all the hallmarks of the Pumpkins sound they would explore throughout the ’90s.
“Bury Me” is a blistering shape-shifter. It starts with slithering bass and guitar with pounding drums. Corgan sings “Bury Me in Love”, with the band holding up, leaving his voice to hang alone like an exclamation point, before exhaling and returning to the riff. Tight guitar riffs punctuate throughout with some more beautiful, fuzz laced soloing.
Gish was recorded from December 1990 to March 1991 in Butch Vig’s Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin with a budget of $20,000. Vig and Corgan worked together as co-producers, at the time Vig was still a relatively unknown producer. The longer recording period and larger budget were unprecedented for Vig, who later recalled:
“Billy wanted to make everything sound amazing and see how far he could take it, really spend time on the production and the performances. For me that was a godsend because I was used to doing records for all the indie labels and we only had budgets for three or four days. Having that luxury to spend hours on a guitar tone or tuning the drums or working on harmonies and textural things… I was over the moon to think I had found a comrade-in-arms who wanted to push me, and who really wanted me to push him…”
This dynamic between musician and producer, egging each other on to achieve something more, is on display throughout Gish. Songs like the beautiful acoustic introspection of “Crush” and “Suffer” sit side by side with pummelling rockers like “Tristessa” in a completely natural way. Corgan said “through the years, I’ve talked to many, many people who really pointed to ‘Gish’ as the game-changer in their mind about how to approach guitar and how to record.” The duo of Corgan and Vig would take the sonic excellence to new heights on the next album “Siamese Dream”, but the blueprint was written on Gish.
The album ends with “Daydream” sung by D’arcy Wretzky. The influence of My Bloody Valentine and the Cocteau Twins haunt this gorgeous song. D’arcy’s beautiful, captivating and earnest singing is just what the song needs, and when the strings seep in beneath the acoustic guitar, the Pumpkins end on a real high note.
For any other band Gish would have been hard to top. Some might say Siamese Dream took up where Gish left off and improved the formula, others believe Gish is beyond reproach and is the band’s finest hour. Either way, what the Pumpkins went on to produce during the rest of the ’90s was nothing short of stunning. Gish is where the journey began. It’s a perfect calling card.
It’s easy to understand why Billy would think the album “shows who we were as people before the real pressure came in”. There’s a joyous naivete to Gish that isn’t there on subsequent releases. In retrospect, it’s remarkable how coherent Gish is. How confidently it shifts between guitar-revving bombast and dreamy soft seductions. It’s also beautifully compact and concise, eons removed from the bloated double and triple album rock opera follies that would drag latter day Pumpkins albums into the mud. Gish is a perfect, timeless album, a snapshot in time.