When Kurt Cobain committed suicide in 1994, no one had any reason to believe that the alternative music scene he popularized would fade away soon after. But within a few years the entire scene was in shambles, as most of its important bands were dealing with career threatening disasters: Pearl Jam lost a grueling legal battle against Ticketmaster, R.E.M.’s Bill Berry collapsed on stage with a brain aneurysm, and Layne Staley and Scott Weiland were both in and out of rehab for heroin addictions that would ultimately take their lives. Alternative rock could survive Kurt’s death, but it couldn’t survive every other important band in the scene struggling to stay afloat.
By the spring of 1995, only a year after Kurt’s death, it was all over — the public had by and large moved on from alternative rock. Perhaps they were sick of waiting for their favorite bands to solve their issues and release new material, as ‘95 was basically a lost year for most alternative bands. But maybe it was bound to happen. Popular music tends to shift every few years and after hearing lines like “I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black” and “got my pills against mosquito death” every day on the radio, it seems inevitable that the public was going to get sick of alternative rock’s obsession with misery. And if fans wanted less depressing music they certainly found it in artists like Live, Alanis Morrisette, and Hootie & The Blowfish, who dominated 1995 with a mellow, pop rock sound that was influenced by alternative rock, but had none of its rage or musical experimentation.
But as alternative rock was quickly slipping into the past, The Smashing Pumpkins released Mellon Collie and The Infinite Sadness, arguably the genre’s last great album. It’s the perfect swan song. While rock music was going towards a friendlier, but slightly fatigued sound, Mellon Collie was a whirlwind of energy — even its ballads were dynamic and exciting. To do so they drew from the entire history of the alt-rock, which seems impossible considering the genre itself is so diverse. But somehow the Pumpkins captured all of it and made what could be considered their generation’s White Album: a final recap of the movement made by the only band who was both egotistical and talented enough to take on the task.
It’s ironic that the band who released an album summing up alternative rock was in many ways an outsider to the rest of the scene. Many of the bands came out of a punk tradition where the ultimate sin is acting like pompous, self-centered rock stars. But that’s exactly what they were — especially Billy Corgan, the band’s dictator of a leader, who rivals Kanye West for having the most bloated ego in music history. Unlike the other alternative bands who eschewed fame, or at least wanted to look like they didn’t want to be famous, Corgan was explicit about his desire for the Pumpkins to be recognized as the best and biggest band in the world. And they certainly looked the part, being the only alternative band to fully embrace the glammed out rock star look.
Musically, the difference between Corgan and his peers was just as apparent. On their previous album, Siamese Dream, he famously layered dozens of guitar tracks on each song to make the album sound as grandiose as possible —Mellon Collie co-producer Flood calls this the “Pumpkin Guitar Overdub Army” tactic. When asked about this in a Guitar World interview, Corgan said “When you are faced with making a permanent recorded representation of a song, why not endow it with the grandest possible vision?” But his peers thought the exact opposite. Most alternative bands wanted their records to sound exactly how they performed live, without any studio frills. For those bands this was an important sign of authenticity that they learned from their punk rock upbringing. But Corgan was a maximalist at heart, growing up inspired by flashy arena rock and metal bands rather than the punk rock that inspired most of the scene.
Corgan’s “grandest possible vision” philosophy is laid out in full display on Mellon Collie — it’s an incredibly long and bloated journey. It opens with a three minute piano intro saturated in strings and woodwinds that makes it sound like its straight out of an old Hollywood cinema classic. And over the next 27 songs they do everything from electronic ballads (“Beautiful”) to pop-rock (“Muzzle”) to obnoxious, borderline unlistenable, metal (“X.Y.U.” and “Tales of a Scorched Earth”). Even the album’s most subtle moments sound like they’re added in to make the big moments sound absolutely huge.
This kind of sprawling epic wasn’t what typically sold in 1995, but it became a sensation because of Corgan’s ability to balance out his experimental side with the ability to write different kinds of hit singles that appealed to different audiences. Songs like “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” and “Zero” were as nihilistic and heavy as any Soundgarden single, while the soaring ballads “Tonight Tonight” and “1979” fit perfectly in the new softer landscape they found themselves in. As different as these songs are from one another, they all became smash hits. This diversity is how they managed to become the most successful band in the world — if only briefly — in such a wildly transitional year for music.
Unfortunately, everything fell apart for the Smashing Pumpkins, just like it did for every other important alternative band. Tragedy struck on the Mellon Collie tour and what was supposed to be the band’s victory lap became their darkest hour. Touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin died of a heroin overdose the night before what was supposed to be the band’s victory lap in playing Madison Square Garden for the first time. To make matters worse, it became widely believed that drummer Jimmy Chamberlin — who was arrested after using with Melvoin that night — was the one truly responsible for Melovin becoming an addict in the first place. A few days later the band fired Chamberlin and chose to go on without a permanent replacement. In a 2013 interview with Uncut, Corgan admits that he should have broken up the band at that moment rather than try to continue without Chamberlin:
“Did Jimmy being sacked cripple the band? Oh, absolutely, I should’ve quit right then. Instead, I doubled-down on a bad situation, and it got worse. The band went into a Cold War vibe. People stopped talking… I was burning my bridges.”
Yet the Smashing Pumpkins soldiered on as a trio. In 1997 they released Adore, a drum-machine heavy album that lacked any of the power that defined their music up to that point. At that moment, the Pumpkins stopped being alternative rock’s last hope and became just like every other band from that era, releasing underselling comeback albums that alienated fans — Pearl Jam’s No Code, Stone Temple Pilots’ Tiny Music, and R.E.M.’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi were just a few of the commercially underwhelming records released during that period. All of these albums were an attempt to move away from the energetic, alternative rock the bands were famous for. But after the trials they went through and the public’s sudden shift in taste, who could blame them?
No one could imagine when Kurt Cobain committed suicide that it would be the first of many catastrophes that would destroy alternative rock. But that’s precisely why the collapse of the alternative scene is one of the most disastrous periods in music history. It wasn’t caused by one thing. Instead, so many terrible events transpired, one tragedy after another — from Cobain’s suicide to Melvoin’s death — that in just two short years, it went from being one of the most successful movements in modern music history to being completely irrelevant.
Mellon Collie is the perfect swan song for the alternative rock era because it embodies the creative fearlessness that made the genre so great. More than perhaps any other movement in rock history, alternative rock proved that commercially successful music could be experimental, diverse, and intelligent while still being incredibly catchy. And the Smashing Pumpkins are the only band who could have made such a perfect send-off for the genre. In contrast to so many other alternative bands, whose punk rock inspired humility would never allow them to take on such a grandiose task, the Pumpkins were arrogant enough to believe they could explore everything the genre had to offer.
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To see more of Matthew Reyes’ work, check out his website The Earlier Stuff, where he explores the fun, interesting, and occasionally weird world of music.