When Billy Corgan was 9 years old, he stuck his head in the speakers to get closer to the terrible, godlike sound emerging from them. The record on the turntable was Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality, but the frightening sound wasn’t coming from Ozzy Osbourne, who sounded as panicked and awestruck singing on record as young Corgan felt sitting listening. Tony Iommi’s roaring guitar sounded inhuman, like the primeval source of all childlike terror and wonder. Yet it sat obediently on its haunches behind Osbourne, whose frail voice, doubled up onto itself, seemed to restrain it. Corgan needed to feel that sound rumble inside his skull. He couldn’t get close enough.
By the time Corgan and his bandmates in the Smashing Pumpkins checked into Triclops Sound Studio to record 1993’s Siamese Dream, he’d been chasing that sound for more than a decade. Over the years, the album has come to be known largely for the tiresome and oft-repeated strife that surrounded its creation—Corgan’s emotional volatility and autocratic leadership, bassist D’arcy Wretzky and rhythm guitarist James Iha’s romantic entanglement and breakup, Jimmy Chamberlin’s struggle with addiction. But the real story of Siamese Dream is the story of a sound. Judging by its lingering resonance 30 years later, it might be the single most iconic sound produced in the alternative rock era, one where everything transmuted into an idealized version of itself. “The thing about recording is, the essentials really are basic,” Corgan told Creem in 1994. “Drums sound like drums, guitars like guitars. So they have to be embellished, and that’s what I enjoy the most, the things you can do so that a drum sounds like something more than a drum, or a guitar sounds like something more than a guitar.”
Corgan was devoted to making an album that would ring in your ears like it was the only sound that had ever been made, one that would blast into your cranium like the platonic idea of every rock record you remembered hearing in your youth. One early clue for that sound came from Kevin Shields, the leading force behind the totemic shoegaze band My Bloody Valentine, in whose guitar manipulations Corgan heard glimmers of his own dreamed music: “Just playing these big chords with 7ths and 9ths but blasting the shit out of them through Marshalls,” he said years later, the wonder still palpable in his voice. He and Iha mimicked those lush wavelike tones, but they played in the style they’d learned imitating the gods of cornfed FM radio rock—they stacked the guitars in octaves, and instead of using the whammy bar to induce vertigo, as Shields did, they relied on good old-fashioned string bends, making the guitars mewl in pain.
Another cornerstone of their sound came when Corgan and Iha heard a band called Catherine playing its guitars through Electro-Harmonix Big Muff pedals. They brought the pedals to producer Butch Vig, who scoffed, saying they were impossible to record. But Corgan was adamant, and he and Iha stacked guitar overdubs, one on top of the other, tuning them to brighter or deeper frequencies, until they spread out like an irradiated sunrise. The sound swallowed everything, including Chamberlin’s ride cymbals, and everything in the mix existed to serve it. It had a heavy, dark bottom and a bright top, with Corgan’s tiny keening wail surfing along it, like a child riding in a barrel over an ocean.
This was a sound that rewarded an obsessive mindset, and by the time the record label dispatched someone to the studio to record a quick promotional interview, the band was already thoroughly miserable. No one remembers the sessions fondly: “They were not necessarily a happy bunch of campers,” Vig told the Chicago Sun-Times. Facing the cameras, Wretzky, Chamberlin, and Iha were doleful, meek, silent. When the interviewer, sensing an opening, asked, “What keeps a band together?” they collapsed into shrill, manic laughter, the only shared moment of levity.
Leaving the band behind, Corgan gave the guy a bashful tour of all the gear he’d assembled in pursuit of the album’s sound. Gesturing half-heartedly at multiple guitars, all meant to capture different tones, he held up various pedals and described their effects (“Imagine screaming your guts out,” he said helpfully of the Mu-Tron BiPhase); he pointed to a Mellotron in the corner and unzipped a case containing a sitar, gamely attempting a hangdog, apathetic air. This was the demeanor of rock’s antiheroes of the day, like Kurt Cobain or Eddie Vedder—you were supposed to appear bewildered and aggrieved in the face of public attention, to mumble answers like excuses.
But you can tell from Corgan’s hunched shoulders and shy demeanor that he knew, deep in the bones of his gangly 6'3" frame, that all of this stuff amounted to a confession of sorts. The pervasive stereotype of the early-’90s rocker was that of the slacker, but slackers didn’t collect Mellotrons and sitars. Corgan was inviting the world into his childhood bedroom, and it was filled with posters of all the old, embarrassing rock bands he was meant to have left in his youth: bands like Queen, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin, yes, but also bands that didn’t even have the benefit of having Satan, drugs, or sex on their side: Rush, ELO, Boston.
To a degree that overwhelmed and defined him, Corgan craved rock-god grandeur, fame, adulation, redemptive heavy-metal thunder. Growing up in a series of broken homes around Chicago, with a drug-dealer musician father and a mentally unstable mother, Corgan was entranced by anyone willing to adopt a larger-than-life persona to escape their circumstances. He watched the scrappy tough-guy wrestler Dick the Bruiser will himself to folk-hero status on flickering televisions, and he was drawn to heavy-metal bands that made theme music for a more vivid and less disappointing world. “As long as I can remember, since I was a little kid, I wanted to be famous,” he recollected to Rolling Stone. “My myth was rock god-dom. I saw that as a means to become one who has no pain.” Any time a guitar swooped into an arrangement like a comic-book hero coming down from the mountain to save the villagers, Corgan found solace. When he was nine, he’d stuck his head into the speakers, and now he was going to curl up inside them forever.
In the first 30 seconds of Siamese Dream’s first track, “Cherub Rock,” Corgan laid all these furtive childhood dreams bare. The song proceeds with the showy deliberation of an opening argument, or a magician’s trick. After two playful introductory snare rolls from Chamberlin, the equivalent of a spotlight on a closed curtain, Corgan strums that pulsating octave riff. He’s joined first by Iha, then Wretzky, both doubling him, while Chamberlin builds steadily. Then Corgan stomps the distortion pedal, and those guitars, the summation of his dreams, blot out everything, just as they did in his childhood memory of Sabbath. This was guitar music as an obliterating wave, one that Corgan summoned as if it could wash away all his childhood scars, petty grievances, personal failures, and inescapable weaknesses.
The song’s central riff, he would later reveal, was stolen, more or less wholesale, from the Canadian prog band Rush—specifically the breakdown at 3:55 in the song “By-Tor and the Snow Dog.” Nobody in the alternative era but Corgan would have had the impulse to imitate Rush, a name other alternative rockers teased each other with—as in, “Fuck, you guys sound like Rush now,” a real note that Mudhoney’s Mark Arm sent to the members of Soundgarden after they released 1991’s Badmotorfinger. Corgan insisted that “Cherub Rock” be the album’s first single, and must have relished the irony of watching Gen-X kids moshing to a song that was influenced by the least cool of his many uncool heroes.
Guitar rock, still the law of the land on MTV and in popular culture, was in a curious place at the beginning of the new decade. The distinctions between ’90s “alternative” rock and ’70s and ’80s “dinosaur” rock were nebulous, when you got down to it: “We play loud hard-rock guitars, yes, but not those loud hard-rock guitars” is a thin line to walk, which meant the borders were ever more rigorously patrolled. The very idea that you might strike an unironic guitar-hero pose, that you could peel off a wailing solo, was so rife with sociopolitical portent that it is impossible to imagine now. Liking the band Queen, for instance—in the tortured psychic arena of the early-’90s alternative-rock explosion, liking the band Queen was an intriguing enough position for Corgan to answer several interview questions about it.
He was more than happy to oblige. From the outset, Corgan relished his role as the outsider in a community meant to welcome the self-described outcasts. He made all the wrong moves, and drew attention to their wrongness: Instead of refusing a major-label contract to record for Greg Ginn’s SST, like his colleagues in Soundgarden, Corgan signed the Smashing Pumpkins to Caroline, releasing their 1991 debut, Gish, on an “indie” label that was really a subsidiary of Richard Branson’s Virgin Records. Instead of tipping his hat to the punk bands of the previous decade, he namechecked Tom Scholz, the stonecutting studio perfectionist behind the FM rock project Boston. He understood, instinctively, that cool was not a currency that guaranteed immortality. Mere humans concerned themselves with cool, a consolation prize for their pitifully short lifespans. Did Ronnie James Dio care about cool? Did Ozzy?
And yet, to his ever-expanding chagrin, Corgan himself was not a rock god. He was a regular human, and a particularly thin-skinned one who cared deeply about what people thought of him, and told them so publicly, in mortifying detail. “You hurt me,” he pouted infamously to Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil, in Soundgarden’s 1994 SPIN profile. “You hurt me deeply in my heart.”
It didn’t take long for Corgan’s reputation as a punching bag and mouthpiece to establish itself: Like the wrestlers he grew up idolizing, he couldn’t resist a chance to grab the microphone and deliver a good heel speech. He started out by ridiculing the city that he came from—“Chicago is a dead music town,” he proclaimed to the Spiral Scratch zine in 1992. “[We’ve] got eight thousand Replacements, and two thousand Hüsker Dü’s. Nobody cares”—and soon moved on to his colleagues in the ascendant alternative boom. Whether it was Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction, Pearl Jam, or, most famously, Kurt Cobain, he barely let an interview go by without mentioning one of his bêtes noires.
Soon, he had acquired the reputation of being the pain in the ass at the office party, the “not here to make friends” reality-show contestant, and his colleagues began sniping back at him, freely. Out of all the people who skewered him in the press in the ’90s—and it became something of a sport—perhaps no one took measure of him so empathetically, or nailed him as shrewdly, as his ex-girlfriend, Courtney Love: “People that Billy’s jealous of, he’s particularly vicious about,” she told SPIN. “And those are the only people he’s jealous of, really—people that are successful, that have archetypes. He’s faceless—he doesn’t have a place. He thinks he’s going to be Roger Waters, which is probably true… He’s the only one among them who can write a catchy song… but what makes him so depressed is that he has no cultural significance.”
It was a toxic stew of all of these resentments and unprocessed childhood traumas that Corgan brought to bear on the writing of Siamese Dream. Never has an album more grandiose been inspired by such a niggling concern as what the local scenesters might think of your new music. But that anxiety drove Corgan—or so he told scores of reporters—past the point of despair, straight into suicidal ideation, and out again. “I’m like the fugitive… running from the one-armed indie-rock community,” he joked to Michael Azerrad in Rolling Stone in October 1993. “If I continued on the path I was on, which was being overly conscious and worried what the indie-rock hierarchy was going to think of our new album, we were going to fail,” Corgan told Azerrad. “I don’t have the proper indie credentials,” he fretted to The Los Angeles Times. “I didn’t play in some seminal band where five people bought the record. I wasn’t a roadie... that kind of rags-to-riches story.”
As cris de couer go, “I wasn’t a roadie” might prompt more giggles than sympathy. But his anguish was real, and as he started trying to write material for Siamese Dream, he sunk into a depression so deep he came scarily close, he later revealed, to taking his own life. One night, he decided that he was either going to go through with it or “get used to it, work, and live, and be happy.” Instead, he wrote a song about the lowest he’d ever felt, and gave it an ironic chorus. “Today is the greatest day I’ve ever known/Can’t wait for tomorrow, I might not have that long,” he sang, his voice a coo instead of a howl.
By 1993, alternative rock had already earned its reputation for excessive self-pity and pained bellowing. The “loud-quiet-loud” formula—clean tones for the verses, stomp the pedal for distortion at the chorus—was clear to even casual radio listeners. Yet “Today” felt like a celebration. When Corgan sang about bottoming out, he did so over music that sounded like a sunrise. When other grunge outfits hit the pedal, the guitars usually dragged the song into the muck, thrashing. But Corgan’s songs, from the outset, rose on glittering wings. Somehow the heavier his music grew, the lighter he got.
His lyrics, just like his interview quotes, are always about the punishing crucible of self-belief. They were a hair’s breadth from the Christian rock of the same period, even though at the time of Siamese Dream, he had renounced his Catholic childhood faith. But the lyrics were all religious catechism, barely disguised—tongues and shame, crowns of thorns, “God sleeps in bliss,” “I torch my soul to show the world I am pure deep inside my heart.” Corgan’s songs shared with Christian rock a naked yearning for transcendence that could make the sincerity-avoidant squirm: “When I came to a line that made me cringe with embarrassment, that’s the one I would use,” he said of his writing process for Siamese Dream. It worked for him.
This was another way in which Corgan differed from his contemporaries: He had no protecting veil of irony to hide behind. He was the kind of guy who could name a song “Hummer” and profess zero awareness of the word’s sexual connotations. On “Luna,” he sings with no trace of irony or embarrassment about singing “moon-songs to your babies.” “If you really listen to my record, you’ll know that I’m a real wimp, and a hopeless romantic,” he told SPIN. This guilelessness was his Achilles heel and his gift. He could stumble upon a lyric that would pierce like a five-year-old’s unanswerable question: “Happiness will make you wonder/Will I feel okay?"
It also allowed him to write “Disarm,” a ballad with no precedents for an “alternative” band. Even within a songwriting climate that encouraged bloodletting, only Corgan sang something as bald-faced as “Cut that little child/Inside of me and such a part of you,” a line so uncomfortably direct it led to a temporary and ill-advised ban from the BBC. It was also a daringly soft, melodramatic song, full of the kind of flowery and fluttering gestures that no one else in the small scene had even tried.
Despite a few surface provocations to heavy metal’s machismo, “alternative” was still largely masculine, defined by heavy, menacing sounds and bellowing vocals. Pearl Jam had dared to soften up on Vs. with rough acoustic strummers like “Daughter,” and Kurt Cobain threw a cello into Nirvana’s discordant sound for In Utero, but Corgan arranged “Disarm” like he was furnishing the drawing room in an 18th-century castle: a string arrangement, church bells, a tympani. The result had more in common with Kate Bush than Soundgarden, and Corgan leaned into the whine in his voice, which tended to elude easy gender coding. Whining, as Sasha Geffen noted in 2020’s Glitter Up the Dark, a survey of pop music’s history of gender transgression, is “gender neutral.”
It was this softness, underpinning all the noise, that made the Pumpkins special. “I send a heart to all my dearies/When your life is so, so dreary/Dream,” Corgan whispered on “Mayonaise,” his phrasing straight out of a Victorian children’s novel, as the guitars bloomed overhead. His voice barely cuts through, just like Ozzy on the Sabbath records, but he doesn’t sound overwhelmed by the sound; he sounds swaddled in it. “I just want to be me/And when I can, I will,” he declares, not a master of reality but a refugee from it.
The two words most often used to describe the Pumpkins were “fluid” and “powerful.” Those two adjectives found their locus in Chamberlin’s drumming, which transformed the band’s songs into rivers. His touch was light—he rarely broke a stick on tour—and his idols weren’t the usual Godzilla stompers like Bonham and Moon, but jazz and swing players like Gene Krupa, Elvin Jones, David Garibaldi. He understood that true ferocity required as much delicacy as muscle. Whenever Iha and Corgan bent a string, he’d play a fill, turning each squeal into a hairpin turn. Chamberlin crafted his drum parts along with Corgan’s rhythm guitar, which meant you could hear the song’s melody in just his isolated drum track, and which infused the songs with a swaying, gentle cadence. Corgan liked to complain about his bandmates, but in Chamberlin, Corgan found a musician at whom he could throw everything—all his imperious demands for perfection, all his wildest ideas for where his music might go—and be rewarded.
Siamese Dream was a breakout success for the Pumpkins, eventually going 4x platinum. Suddenly, Corgan was a spokesperson, no longer sniping from the sidelines but uncomfortably the equal of his peers. The band headlined Lollapalooza, which Corgan was vocal about hating. He griped about not being “the cute one,” relegated to standing in the back on the band’s magazine covers. He carped ceaselessly about Iha and Wretzky, calling his band “these people I care about very much yet they continue to keep failing me.” He professed boredom with rock’n’roll, professed misery at its trappings. The minute Corgan left the studio or the stage, his dreamland vanished, and he sounded like a man who had crawled across the desert toward a mythical fountain only to taste saltwater. Corgan grimaced, wiped his mouth, and was left unsatisfied.
He already had his eye on the next horizon: a double album. His generation’s answer to The Wall. Only he could do it, he was convinced. Surely that would slake his thirst. “Nobody’s got the balls to take the pretentious ‘how dare you?’ move,” he said. “If I’m going to do it, now’s the fucking time. I’m already starting to hear minor grumblings about mortgages and stuff. It won’t be long before I start having children. Now is the fucking moment.” Better to exist in the dreamland, where perfect sounds could be made, and manipulated. On “Cherub Rock,” he howled “Let me out” from inside that sound, but he was barely audible—already a rat in a cage. Then he closed his mouth, and the guitar solo arced up from the center of the song. It was the purest sound of yearning he’s ever captured—a single high D, streaking like a flare gun into the night.
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