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Smashing Pumpkins

Biography

Smashing Pumpkins
K Burns
Arriving on the national scene a couple years after Nirvana and Pearl Jam, the Smashing Pumpkins made music that was bigger, shinier and more stuffed with sounds than most alt-rock competitors. Their dense, layered sound and dynamic songwriting, alternately angst-ridden and dreamy, made the Pumpkins a chart-topping success in the Nineties.

Pumpkins leader Billy Corgan grew up in a Chicago suburb with his guitarist father and moved to Florida at age 19 as leader of goth band, the Marked. Returning home, he worked in a record store and formed Smashing Pumpkins with guitarist James Iha, focusing on Cure-inspired mope-rock. Soon, the duo added bassist D'arcy Wretzky and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin and—mostly on the strength of Chamberlin's dexterity and bombastic style—explored heavier material.

The band's first single, "I Am One," on Chicago imprint Limited Potential led to a deal with indie super-label Sub Pop, who had launched Nirvana and Soundgarden. In 1991, the band's debut album, Gish, produced by Butch Vig (Nirvana's Nevermind), became a college-radio favorite and eventually went gold in 1994. The 1993 major-label follow-up, Siamese Dream, fared even better, debuting at Number Ten and ultimately selling more that 4 million copies, largely on the strength of "Today" — which peaked at Number Four on the Alt-Rock chart—and making the group alternative-rock stars.

Emphasizing both the virtuosic interplay of Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlin and Corgan's confessional lyrics, the Pumpkins employed a Mellotron, strings, and multiple guitar parts on Siamese Dreams, as they continued to edge closer to progressive rock than to punk or grunge.

Corgan indulged his prog-rock jones full-on with 1995's Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (Number One, 1995), a double-disc set that proved enormously successful, selling over 9 million copies and launching four singles onto the pop chart, including "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" (Number 22, 1995), "1979" (Number 12, 1996), and "Tonight, Tonight" (Number 36, 1996).

During a 1996 summer tour, Chamberlin and touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin both overdosed on heroin at the same time. Melvoin died and Chamberlin was arrested and subsequently fired. Filter's Matt Walker filled his seat for the remainder of the tour, but the band's quietly intimate next album, Adore (Number Two, 1998), was recorded using session percussionists and drum machines. When Adore stalled at platinum and failed to produce to a single that charted higher than Number 42 ("Ave Adore," 1998) it was considered a commercial failure compared the band's previous sales.

Chamberlin was brought back on board in 1999, and MACHINA/the machines of god (Number Three, 2000) represented a return to hook-laden guitar rock. Wretzky quit shortly before the album's release, and was replaced for the ensuing tour by Melissa Auf der Maur of Hole. Sales of MACHINA proved no better than Adore's, and during a radio interview on May 23, 2000, Corgan announced that the band would break up at the end of the year.

As the Pumpkins finished their tour commitments through the end of 2000, Corgan revealed plans for one final album of unreleased material from the band. He also hinted at a solo career, an avenue James Iha had already tested via Let It Come Down (Number 64), his 1998 album of singer/songwriter-style love songs. The Smashing Pumpkins officially broke up on December 2, 2000, following a four-hour show at Chicago's Cabaret Metro, where the band had debuted in October 1988. In early 2001, the album Machina/Friends and Enemies of Modern Music became available on the band's official Web site.

Corgan and Chamberlin reunited in 2001 to form the short lived Zwan, which recorded one album, 2002's Mary Star of the Sea. Though the record debuted at Number Three, it quickly fell off the charts and didn't nearly as well as any Smashing Pumpkins album. A Corgan solo album, 2005's TheFutureEmbrace also sold poorly.

Days after TheFutureEmbrace came out, Billy Corgan announced his commitment to reviving the Smashing Pumpkins through a full-page ad he placed in the Chicago Tribune. "For a year now," the ad read, "I have walked around with a secret, a secret I chose to keep. But now I want you to be among the first to know that I have made plans to renew and revive the Smashing Pumpkins. I want my band back, and my songs, and my dreams."

In May 2007, the "reunited" lineup debuted, with Corgan and Chamberlin augmented by guitarist and bassist Jeff Schroder and Ginger Reyes respectively (Corgan said Iha and Wretzky had decline the opportunity to reunite). Later that month they released new single "Tarantula," and in July, the new album Zietgiest. The hard-rocking collection debuted at Number Two, selling 145,000 copies its first week and ultimately selling over 500,000 copies. Since then, the band has released sporadic single and Corgan had said the band will not likely release any further full-length albums.

Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Evan Serpick contributed to this article.

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