Week Six: Siamese Dream

Ah, the soundtrack to my teens… This is a very adolescent record in its lyrical concerns. On the opening track, Corgan snarls “let me out” repeatedly and implores the song’s subject to “tell me all of your secrets”. Not, perhaps, quite to the cartoon caricature extent of Rage Against the Machine or Therapy? (My choice of examples probably does rather date me. What do sullen teenage boys listen to now? I mean, surely they have something on the stereo while they’re playing Call of Duty?) but all the same, this is a record that really meant something to me at the age of 16, but which I can’t help thinking wouldn’t have anything like the same impact if I were hearing it for the first time this week. Not that the Daily Mash touched a raw nerve yesterday, or anything…

I first heard it when a friend from my maths class had lent me his copy. He was a big fan of grunge bands of the time like Nirvana, Mudhoney and Dinosaur Jr, but for all that I rather liked them, I did find them a bit stripped down, a bit sparse. So Siamese Dream could have been made for me. Because, for all that, because the Smashing Pumpkins were an American rock band of the early 90s who made liberal use of their distortion pedals and had Butch Vig on board as a producer, they tended to get lumped in with the grunge movement, they were really something quite different. Their 70s touchstones were not the Sex Pistols and the Stooges but rather a desire to merge the brute force of Black Sabbath with the ambiance of Pink Floyd. The title Siamese Dream is appropriate, for the music suggests something not quite of the waking world.

It begins with Jimmy Chamberlin’s drum rolls calling the listener to attention before Corgan launches into an opening riff that reminds me not a little of Mogwai’s Mogwai Fear Satan (it might just be the use of the droning E string). A few years back Guy Garvey did a themed show on 6music about ‘great album openers’ and he chose Cherub Rock as the first track to play. I can’t disagree. Years after we last were acquainted, it’s still an impressive wall-of-sound opener. Melding the loud/quiet/loud dynamic of the Pixies with the dynamic range and willingness to experiment with effects pedals and post-production that marked the best of shoegaze and dream-pop.

Emily’s review at Mookbarks compares Siamese Dream with My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless and points out that this is really a shoegaze record. And though the thought had never really occurred to me (perhaps just because I thought of shoegaze as a British thing, although on the other hand, I always thought of Beaster as a shoegaze record) that’s what this record is. It’s about sonic textures and the wonders of what can be achieved with a vast bank of effects pedals. It is probably for the best that the vocals are low enough down in the mix that much of the time, I can’t really make out what he’s singing. Odd lines that do jump out sometimes sound really rather silly (“life’s a bummer, when you’re hummer”?)

And that, for the most part, is what I like about this record. It’s not really about anything but itself. It’s all about the sound, the chord progressions, the often beautiful lead guitar parts, Chamberlin’s drumming. In particular, I loved the dream-like noodling of the final two minutes of Hummer, the sonic assault of the opening of Geek USA, the massively multi-tracked guitar parts in break-up ballad Soma or the finger-picking at the beginning of Mayonaise By the by, did the Pumpkins just throw darts at a dictionary to arrive at their song titles? And if so, why didn’t they even spell mayonnaise correctly? Come to that, what sort of a name for a band is the Smashing Pumpkins anyway? Crushing Butternut Squash? Disintegrating Yams? At least it’s not Crispy Ambulance, I suppose

There are moments that don’t work at all. I had all but forgotten about the 8 minute over-the-top wig-out of Silverfuck because I’d deleted it from the version of the album I’d saved to my hard drive years ago. Of all the songs they could have chosen to drag out to eight minutes, this was really not the one. And while I like the bells on Disarm, it sound horribly over-wrought and desperately in need of a more appealing vocal performance than Billy Corgan can provide. It’s like Queen without the knowing wink and sense of irony.

Oh yes, the vocals. A cruel description of the Pumpkins might be Pink Floyd meets Black Sabbath with Kermit the Frog on vocals. Corgan is not one of the world’s great singers. Indeed, on the basis of D’Arcy Wretzky’s occasional backing vocals, he’s not even the best singer in the Smashing Pumpkins. It would become more of a problem later (Ava Adore is best avoided, Mary, Star of the Sea likewise) but for the most part, on this record, his vocals are low enough in the mix so as not to be too obtrusive. All the same, I can’t help but think that what prevents Spaceboy from being a great ballad is the sound of Corgan straying beyond the boundaries of what he can sing.

It ends on a high note, and one that gives a hint as to the band’s future direction. Sweet Sweet takes that most basic of chord structures: G, D, Em, and does something rather beautiful with them (the trick, I figured out after playing about a bit with my guitar, is a slightly unusual tuning), while Luna is a moment of serene calm after the musical storm, and a nod to the neo-Victoriana that would colour the ambitious if flawed follow-up, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. I can’t quite believe that it was over twenty years ago now that I set off on my bike to the nearest record shop, some fifteen miles away, one Saturday morning (money from my Saturday job not stretching to both the cost of the album and the train fare) to get my hands on the new Smashing Pumpkins record. At the time I loved it, I’m not sure that I’d want to listen to a two hour 28 track Smashing Pumpkins concept album now, though.

All in all, the experience of revisiting Siamese Dream felt not dissimilar to meeting an old friend I hadn’t seen for twenty years. Beforehand, the worry that perhaps we would have absolutely nothing to talk about, that our lives would have diverged too far. And afterwards, the sense that they were from a very different time in my life and we couldn’t just pick up where we had left off. But at the time, in the moment, it was great to make acquaintance with an old friend again.

Highlights: Cherub Rock, Mayonaise, Sweet, Sweet, the first three minutes of Soma and the last two minutes of Hummer.

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