July 27th, 1993, The Smashing Pumpkins released their second studio album, Siamese Dream, through Virgin Records. For many, Siamese Dream is peak Smashing Pumpkins. It’s an album so perfectly realised in concept and sound that, barring a few other releases within the alternative rock sphere in 1993, everything else pales in comparison. The Pumpkins had set the bar incredibly high for themselves; for 99% of bands, topping a blistering debut like Gish would be nigh on impossible.
Siamese Dream is an album that feels like a juggernaut of glorious rock songs, careening across the landscape of ’90s alternative rock, gleefully brushing aside the competition with its undeniable power and beauty. And while the band certainly did elevate everything they achieved on Gish, the birth of Siamese Dream was anything but the joyous experience listening to it is.
Speaking about Siamese Dream in 2011, Billy Corgan noted the record’s duality and uplifting tone despite its bleak conception. “Even though it wasn’t the one that sold the most, it’s the one that has come through the best. As dark a record as ‘Siamese Dream’ is, there’s a lot of fun in it; it’s almost like we’re kind of laughing at how stupid the whole thing is. It’s like, here’s my pop song about suicide, here’s my epic song about child abuse, and here’s my big middle finger to the indie world.”
After Gish’s release and tour schedule were over, the band found themselves at breaking point. They were ill-equipped to navigate their newfound status. The punishing schedule and pressures they were placed under only amplified the deep fissures within the band. Guitarist James Iha and bassist D’arcy Wretzky had just recently ended their romantic relationship; drummer Jimmy Chamberlin was struggling with heroin addiction.
Not to mention Billy Corgan, who was deep in a pit of writer’s block and depression. Billy later revealed his mental state going into the recording of Siamese Dream was at an all-time low. “I was suicidal, and I’d been plotting my own death for about two months, and if you’ve ever read anything about the warning signs of suicide, one of them is you give away all your stuff, and I’d given away all my stuff, I gave away all my records, I started giving away my guitars. I was fantasising about my own death; I started thinking what my funeral would be like and what music would be played, I was at that level of insanity.”
Siamese Dream was recorded between December 1992 and March 1993 at Triclops Studios in Marietta, Georgia. The band partly chose the location to avoid any distractions they may have incurred recording in more familiar areas. Butch Vig was again on board to produce. Vig and the Pumpkins had formed a productive relationship with the recording of Gish. In Vig, Corgan met an ally—someone whose ambition was equal to his own and whose vision was as expansive.
Vig recalls, “It was one of the most difficult albums I ever made and one that I am very proud of. After the success of Nevermind (which Vig also produced) and Gish, we were pressured to deliver something special. I pushed Billy hard, and he pushed me. There were days when it was fun, but also when we felt like we had gone into the abyss. At the end of the album, we were both physically and emotionally exhausted. Alan Moulder (who mixed the album) had to leave on the last day of mixing after we had kidnapped him for six straight weeks without a day off!..”
Vig continues: “Billy and I finished mixing the last song Luna about 4 AM. There was no champagne, no high fives, no cheering…we just looked at each other and said “holy shit, are we finished?” and dragged ourselves back to the hotel. I woke up at noon the next day at the Beverly Garland Hotel on Vineland with all the curtains closed and listened to the album all the way through in pitch black. I couldn’t see anything, only listen…and knew we had something special.”
Corgan’s desire for musical perfection further strained the already-frayed relationships between the band members. Vig recalled, “D’arcy would lock herself in the bathroom, James wouldn’t say anything, or Billy would lock himself in the control room”. Corgan often overdubbed James Iha’s guitar parts and D’Arcy Wretzky’s bass parts with his playing. Wretzky, somewhat diplomatically, stated that Corgan only performed most of the guitar and bass parts because he could lay them down more quickly and with far fewer takes. Corgan admits there was some truth to accusations of his tyrannical behaviour.
While Corgan re-recorded sections of both Iha’s and Wretzky’s parts on Siamese Dream, over the years, it’s D’arcy Wretzky who’s suffered the most from insinuations and factual inaccuracies surrounding the situation. Corgan’s motivations for re-recording Iha and Wretzky’s contributions had little to do with their abilities as musicians. Instead, it had everything to do with the maniacal, perfectionist visions of a man in the fog of a severe nervous breakdown, trying to bring his magnum opus to fruition.
After its release, stories of the album’s recording had circulated in the music press. Always on the lookout for a salacious headline, they singled out the girl in the band and went with the distortion that D’arcy was incapable of playing her parts, so Billy had to play them for her—conveniently leaving out the fact that the same fate had befallen James Iha.
For many, D’arcy Wretzky was the soul of the Smashing Pumpkins in the ’90s. Her sophisticated vocal harmonies beautifully elevated Corgan’s nasal howl to greater emotional heights, and her strident bass playing stood toe to toe with Jimmy Chamberlin’s powerhouse drumming night after night, not to mention her bewitching, magnetic stage presence, which added so much intrigue to the band.
Siamese Dream kicks off with its first single, “Cherub Rock.” A punctuated octave riff follows the marching roll of Jimmy Chamberlin’s snare. As the snare rolls build in intensity, the guitars steadily gain dirt before the song blooms into a thickly fuzzed behemoth. Corgan sings, “Freak out, And give in, Doesn’t matter what you believe in, Stay cool, And be somebody’s fool this year..” His voice shifting from a soothing murmur to a banshee wail within a single line.
“Quiet” is monstrous. Chamberlin’s devastating drums propel its gargantuan ascending riff. Again, Corgan shifts from blissed-out hushed vocals to insistent wail. The album’s second single, “Today” follows. It’s a clean, picked intro, giving way to massive chorus guitars and hushed verses. It’s a quintessential Pumpkins tune. On the surface, it’s optimistic and joyful as Corgan sings, “Today is the greatest, day I’ve ever known” but on closer inspection, it’s sarcastic at its core. “I was suicidal. I just thought it was funny to write a song that said today is the greatest day of your life because it can’t get any worse.” Corgan revealed years later.
“Hummer” has some of the most incredible guitar tones committed to tape. Its huge sounds envelop the listener in a blanket of fuzz. Dreamy, heavy, bright and life-affirming, it’s a masterclass in ’90s alternative rock songwriting. The fourth single, “Rocket”, is centred around a fuzzy pedal point guitar riff. The song glides and pulsates, smudging verses and choruses into a gorgeous haze with many traits in common with the ascendant shoegaze movement of the time.
The album’s third single, “Disarm”, is absolute perfection. “Speaking personally, ‘Disarm’ is probably one of the most important songs I ever wrote for myself,” Corgan said. “It’s hard sometimes, when a song is so close to you and personal, to understand how other people see it. The song was successful. We had a big hit with it. And through the years, many people have come up to me and expressed how this song helped them deal with the loss of their mother or brother that got killed in the war, or something like that, which is always flattering….”
“Soma” drifts like a cloud, its dreamy, hushed tones and languid feel eventually intensifying to a mid-paced hammer of immense beauty. “Geek USA” rips with a gigantic groove, sharp, energetic riffing, and a masterclass drumming performance for Jimmy Chamberlain. “Mayonaise” is another high watermark of Pumpkin’s songwriting. Glacial guitar chords cascade like a waterfall throughout this mid-tempo triumph. Each movement of the song adds more and more pathos and emotion. A masterpiece.
“Silverfuck” roars passionately for three minutes before descending into a spaced-out ambient midsection only to return to its original din. “Spaceboy” is all shimmering acoustic guitars and cinematic strings. “Sweet Sweet” bounces in a 3/4 waltz, shot through a ’90s alternative rock canon. The album closer, “Luna”, brings Siamese Dream to an end. It pulls up the sails and drifts away into a sea of mellow beauty. D’arcy Wretzky’s vocal harmonies perfectly compliment Corgan’s closing refrain: “I’m in love with you, So in love, I’m in love with you, With you, I’m in love with you, and you…” As the song dissolves into the ether. Thus ending one of the truly great albums of the 1990’s.
Siamese Dream is flawless. It takes up where the impressive Gish left off, upping the ante, the inventiveness, and the passion. With Siamese Dream, Smashing Pumpkins and producer Butch Vig reached into their enormous trick bag and pulled out an album for the ages. Credit has to go to the mixing of Butch Vig and Alan Moulder, who corralled layer upon layer of thick fuzz-drenched guitars and beautifully sat them in the mix. It’s a unique-sounding album that hasn’t been matched to this day.
Though the Smashing Pumpkins wouldn’t reach their commercial heights until the release of the double album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness two years later, Siamese Dream is a more concise offering. It wastes no time going directly for your heart. The anger and sorrow here are visceral and real, as if writing and performing these songs reopened Corgan’s wounds for all to see.
Harrowing themes are expressed and turned into acts of self-empowerment. With Siamese Dream, The Smashing Pumpkins showed the world they weren’t just purveyors of ’90s psychedelic rock; they had grown into a far more cerebral, elegant band, capable of writing raw, emotional songs of blistering beauty.