By Brian Ives
Adore is the misunderstood and underappreciated gem of the Smashing Pumpkins‘ catalog. After the rage and beauty of the band’s first two albums—1991’s Gish and 1993’s Siamese Dream—the band flipped the script and went full-on arena rock with their 1995 double album opus, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Propelled by percussion loops instead of Jimmy Chamberlin’s powerhouse drumming, the Mellon Collie track “1979” was a huge departure for the Pumpkins that ended up becoming the band’s highest charting single, hitting No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100.
But, despite the success of “1979,” the reaction to 1998’s industrial-tinged Adore was mixed, something that has always surprised head Pumpkin Billy Corgan. While he remembers the album getting a critical drumming, in reality, Rolling Stone gave it three and a half stars, Entertainment Weekly gave it a B+ and Spin reviewed it positively. But somehow, this still wasn’t good enough for Corgan. Though, the frontman has historically been, shall we say, overly sensitive to criticism.
The truth of the matter is that the times they were a-changin’, as they always are, and the zeitgeist was shifting. The giants of ’90s alt-rock, who always acted so cavalierly towards the press, were now getting the same treatment back. Blowing off the establishment is cool, until that establishment no longer cares whether you blow them off or not. By the end of the decade, the world had moved into the Total Request Live-era of boy bands, pop princesses and nu-metal. Adore didn’t quite fit in to any of those categories.
During Radio.com‘s interview with Corgan, he was honest and thoughtful about Adore—the latest Pumpkins album to get the deluxe reissue treatment—and about the last days of the “alternative nation.” As for Corgan’s take on Adore in 2014, he says he can finally separate himself from the reaction that it got at the time. “I’ve kind of finally made peace with it,” Corgan says. “I feel that it’s on the level of all the other albums.”
Radio.com: In the liner notes of the Adore box set you say that other artists started namechecking Adore about seven years ago. How did you notice that people were talking about it?
Billy Corgan: That’s a good question. Sometimes I just throw these figures around! [Laughs] I guess it was when the Pumpkins started touring again in 2007. I think I just expected a lot of Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie requests, and I found that there were a lot of Adore requests. And then you think, ‘Well, these are just the hardcore fans.’ And I’m that type of guy too, I’ll claim a band’s record that no one likes as my favorite. But that has consistently kept up over the years. And then I meet people who are not particularly fans of the band’s rock side, but they love Adore. It’s strange and totally unexpected.
I know that at the earliest Smashing Pumpkins gigs, you didn’t have a drummer and you used a drum machine. Given your history, were you surprised that fans had such resistance to the drum loops on Adore?
Well, [Mellon Collie‘s] “1979” was a massive hit song, and it’s literally the same [type of] production. A little New Order bass, a drum machine, some drum loops. It wasn’t like some people liked it and some didn’t. Generally speaking, the record was rejected on the whole. Of course, I’ll say these things, and some journalist will say, ‘Well, I read a four star review,’ but I don’t remember it like that. I remember trying to call the record label and no one there would get on the phone! That’s what I remember.
You also said in the liner notes that your feelings about the album for a long time were intertwined with people’s opinions about it. Is that something you have been able to grow out of?
I think in the last couple of years, going through all the old material, and where I’m at now with my life and my music, I think I’ve kind of finally made peace with it. I feel that it’s on the level of all the other albums. With the five quote-unquote ”90s albums,’ that was the one that was always the thorn in my side. That album was made coming off of my mother’s death. She was 49. I’m 47 now. So I think, ‘My God, when my mom was 47, she was probably already dying.’ But when you combine a personal loss and a lot of insanity that was going on at that time, with the reaction… it’s like this: ‘It’s a person that you love, but maybe the relationship didn’t work out.’ I walked around for a lot of years with that feeling, like, ‘Can we not talk about her? Yeah, I know I went out with her, but can we just kind of forget about that?’ That was the feeling that I had. It’s only been recently that I feel like [Adore] is an equal experience to any other [album].
You seem a bit less concerned with what other people think of you now than you were in the ’90s.
Yeah, that’s just maturity. Part of it was, and I say this with some irony, the idea of ‘integrity’ in the ’90s was much more of a hot button topic. People throw the word around now, but it’s almost like it’s laughable.
Like it’s a quaint idea today.
Yeah. Every time we’d turn around, there was somebody kind of sticking it to us, that we weren’t ‘this’ enough or we weren’t ‘that’ enough. And even when we had more success, there was a tendency on my part, which is never attractive, to kind of gloat. ‘See, I told you so!’ Which, of course, created more enemies. And then, when the band wasn’t as successful, or I wasn’t as successful, the knives came out. These days, I think the work holds up. I think the reissues help make that point. And I think simply enduring is something that Americans, in particular, just appreciate. They don’t have to like you, but they appreciate the fact that you’ve taken it on the chin enough times and you’ve stuck around.
In the early ’90s, I was wondering if any of the bigger bands would ever do an Achtung Baby, and I felt that Adore was at close to that sort of stylistic departure. Few of your contemporaries did anything that was such a radical sonic change.
That’s a good point. I loved the album that followed U2‘s [1991’s] Achtung Baby, [1993’s] Zooropa. I think that is one of the most under appreciated and most fantastic albums ever made. I was obsessed with that album. And of course, I was lucky enough to work with Flood, who was part of the U2 machine. And it was kind of a machine. And Flood would tell me how they would play some stadium, and then get on a Learjet, and fly back to the studio, and record through the night, and get back on the Learjet and fly to play some other stadium. The fact that a band, at their peak, their second peak, was willing to take this insane chance, which a lot of the fans didn’t appreciate, made an impact on me. I still think it’s some of the best work they’ve ever done. Even the weird stuff is fantastic, and it really shows you, and this is kind of my own point, it really shows you how commerciality and the pressures of commerciality take people who would be fantastic avant-garde artists, and kind of twists them into something that they’re probably not naturally. I think it says something about the power of U2 that they were able to make such an incredibly sublime album, and then go on to make, literally, pop [music] for the world [Ed. note: U2’s follow up to Zooropa was 1997’s Pop]. It says something about their greatness, you know? And in my own way, I kind of always tried to balance those points, and be an artist first, a marketer second. Unfortunately, in the business that we’re in, it has to be the other way around.
For a few years there, the mainstream seemed to be dominated by bands who were influenced by left field stuff like Joy Division or punk rock, and on the other hand powerful bands like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. Then, things seemed to split. you had indie rock which was believed to have no testosterone at all, and on the other side, “nu-metal,” which people felt had all the testosterone, but without the brains or heart.
Yeah, well, the way I looked at it at the time, and I think this theory still holds up, there’s very few periods in the 20th century, particularly in music history, where you have that moment. Before the kind of “grunge” moment, let’s call it ’91 to ’95, the last time a moment like that had happened was 1965 to 1970. I used to say, ‘People are going to remember this time much more than they think.’ Because it’s so rare that you have that melding of forces. And it is kind of like a perfect storm. You need the right personalities peaking at the right moment, and, with my generation, we had stars. We had people who were legitimate stars that fostered movements that are still going. Even somebody like my on-again off-again pal Courtney [Love], you have to give her credit for cracking open a door that nobody had ever really cracked open. And it stayed open ever since.
There were so many great bands on Lollapalooza every summer, on both the main stage and the second stage. I don’t know if there are still as many great bands.
That’s a common thing that people say, I say it too. Having played in a band with a millennial, this is a general comment and I don’t mean it as criticism, I think that their goal of what they’re looking for is far different than ours. I think their qualification for what a peak moment [at a concert] is, is different. I think they look at things far differently than we did. Sometimes I have to step back and say, ‘If that’s what they want, and that’s the way they want it, I shouldn’t be the one judging it. But it’s communicating whatever it is that they need to communicate.’ At the end of the day, they need the right band on stage so that they can take the selfie, then maybe that’s what a peak moment is for them. For us, in our generation, it was about 60,000 people in a field moving in one cloud of f—ing insane energy. Those are memories… to this day, I still can’t believe that I stood on a stage and watched that happen. And not only watched it happen, encouraged it to happen! Playing music that would make people want to do that, with that level of violence. And then everyone would walk away, and no one would die! It was crazy that that went on.
Unfortunately, in our case, we had a girl who was crushed at a concert. It was one of the most horrible things. I think about that often. Even with the ’60s, there was Altamont. Things start to happen, those movements don’t happen for free. Eventually people do die. People OD’ed. People killed themselves. There was a price for all of that release of… whatever it was. And so, now we can look back, and see it for what it was. The beauty of it, but also the shadows.
I remember seeing you headlining Lollapalooza at Randall’s Island in New York, and you seemed uncomfortable, not only with the size of the audience, but also who you perceived to be in the audience.
Oh yeah! I have a distinct memory of making fun of a guy in a Knicks jersey, and calling him out and making fun of John Starks, who’d gone one for 14 against the Bulls. I know it’s terrible. I’m a sports fan! And of course, most of the kids are thinking, ‘Why does he know about sports?’ It wasn’t the greatest time in my life, personally, I was not in the best state of mind. And I think, for me, that was a weird kind of dawning moment. Here we are, we’re headlining what turned out to be the biggest Lollapalooza of them all, the Beastie Boys were on it, George Clinton, it was insane. It was packed with great bands. And looking out, and going, ‘Wait, these are the people I ran away from in high school. We’ve’—the collective ‘we’—’We’ve created a success here, and we’re really not prepared to meet it head on.’ Yeah, we’ll take their money, we’ll take their tickets, but then backstage people would kind of make fun of the audience. Because they looked like the people in high school who used to make fun of them. And I felt this weird thing, which feels silly to me now, but at the time I felt that ‘we’ —the collective Lollapalooza ‘we,’ or maybe just the Smashing Pumpkins ‘we’—need to show them what alternative culture is. Alternative culture is not, ‘Put your hands in the air, and wave them like we just don’t care.’ And I did, at times, have problems with different artists’ willingness to kind of coddle the general public. You know, just because you get a mohawk and put on a leather jacket, it doesn’t make you ‘punk.’ So, every night I’m playing to 20,000, or 40,000, who are literally doing that. And those people are putting on their clothes and going, ‘I’m punk!’ No, that’s not really what this culture is about. It felt weird. And I felt like I was supposed to go out and represent for the culture, which was really dumb. Because, now that I understand these dynamics better, the crowd was there because it was the car crash of the day. And when they got bored with that car crash, they just went on to another car crash.
Another way to look at it might be that they really liked the music and that it was the best music of its time. But, I might be more optimistic than you.
Naaaah. I think you’re more optimistic. I think what we saw there was… it was about musicians hosting a party that was more about culture than it was about music. That was strange to me, from where I came from. Watching the Pixies at the Metro, with Happy Mondays opening. Watching that culture slowly move forward, and then it explodes, and we’re a part of that tide. And then you’re standing there saying, ‘Wow, this really doesn’t have anything to do with music.’ Music is, excuse my French, sort of the lubricant to get people through the gate. That kind of offended me in a weird way. And I couldn’t understand why more people from our collective culture weren’t sort of taking this on. What I saw was other people kind of saying, ‘Hey, I’m not gonna fight it. Cool, “Put your hands in the air wave them like you just don’t care!”‘ OK, that’s really not alternative culture. And it was stupid of me to think that I was going to educate somebody [who was] standing in a field all day. But that was the hubris and the stupidity that I had at the time. But also, you have this sense that it’s going to last. That you’re going to have more Sundays to proselytize. I didn’t realize that this thing was about to end… really fast. For all of us. I think the ’90s was, in terms of rock music, about somebody taking a counter culture movement and figuring out a way to sell it. Unfortunately, most of us were too naivë to understand that we were being sold. We thought that we were the ones selling the lemons, not the other way around. And then MTV went off grunge, Rolling Stone went off grunge, Spin even went off grunge! When that happened, we had no answer. Because we weren’t designed to be pop stars, we weren’t designed to get in there with a writing team and write a “whoa-we-whoa” chorus. So we were all caught flat-footed. And particularly, and I’ve said this before, when you take an immense talent like Kurt Cobain, his very will could sort of change the direction of culture. When he took himself out of the equation, there wasn’t anyone to step into that position. It certainly wasn’t going to be me.
In their eyes, the industry created you. So when you go back to the label, or to MTV, then they act like, ‘Hey, you better start crawlin’, you ain’t on the A-team anymore.’ And you’re a punk rocker so your natural reaction is to go ‘F— you!’ Which only makes it worse. And that’s where the sociopaths in our industry do better. Because they go, ‘Yes, sir, no sir, what do I gotta do?’
Back to Adore, one of the bonus tracks is “Let Me Give the World to You,” which was produced by Rick Rubin. How did you come to work with him? And why didn’t you release the song?
It was just that one song. I knew Rick a little bit. My management were very alarmed with the direction of the record, and I think they called him to help.
What did he think about the record?
He thought it was a bit strange, but he’s not a person who judges. He’s very gifted. He came in, and I played him some stuff and he was like, ‘Wow, you’re on a very interesting trip there.’ The idea was put forward from management: would you like to do a song with Rick? ‘Sure, I love Rick!’ Rick influenced the production style on [Smashing Pumpkins’ 1991 debut] Gish. And I listened to a lot of the things he did in the ’80s. But then suddenly, it’s a different dynamic, and I’m not running the show. Rick’s kind of a hands-off producer, he just kind of sits in the back and doesn’t say a lot until he’s excited. Rick’s world was different, it was a little more L.A. It’s a bit more… candles in the studio and lamps and stuff like that. The track turned out OK, I didn’t love it and I didn’t hate it. It wasn’t really the song as I’d envisioned it. [Ed. note: Smashing Pumpkins later re-recorded the song for 2000’s Machina II/The Friends & Enemies of Modern Music.] I had every intention of putting it on the record, it was mastered with the record, it was going to be the last song in the sequence. And the true story is, I handed in the record to the record company. And I get the call, they want to make ‘Let Me Give the World to You’ the first single. And I was like, ‘Hell, no.’ And the only way I could stop them was to take it off the record. Someone asked me about this, ‘It sounds like it could have been a hit song at that time, so why take it off the record?’ And I said, ‘Because I spent a whole f—ing year trying to make this avant-garde thing.’ ‘Perfect’ or ‘Ava Adore’ were more representative [of the album], and now we’re gonna release the song with the dry, milquetoast production. And it isn’t even as avant-garde as the stuff on Mellon Collie, much less Adore! I didn’t want to step back to simple pop [on the single], and then try to sell this avant-garde record! It wasn’t that I hated it, or even that I hated what Rick had done. He did a great job. It was more that I didn’t want to blow up everything I’d done for this one song. So the song had to go. And in the basement it went, for sixteen or eighteen years.
Before I saw the tracklist, I wasn’t aware that Puff Daddy had done a remix of “Ava Adore.” How’d that happen?
I was living in New York at that time, and I’d run into him at the Versace mansion. [Laughs] And he was always really kind to me. I liked him as a person. I found him to be very smart. We went to dinner at different times, with different groups of people. And one time I asked him, ‘Hey, would you be interested in remixing a track?’ and he said ‘Sure.’ I really liked what he did. I have somewhere in the vault a video of me, the first time I heard the remix and I was like, ‘Wow, I really like it!’ But it was this weird thing, so much was going wrong at that time and some fans had gotten word of the rumor, maybe MTV News said something [Ed. note: they did], and the fan reaction was immediate, ‘Hell no. No way!’ I was like, ‘What else can go wrong this year? Everything I’ve done has blown up in my face.’ Again, I loved the track, I thought what he did was really cool. But, boom! Into the basement. I thought he and his production team really drew out the romance of the song. They took out the coldness and made it a bit warmer with the Spanish guitar. I thought it was really cool. With hindsight, I can look at this stuff unemotionally. I don’t have the same reaction of ‘Oh my God, what are people going to think?’ At that time, there was just so much negativity, I just couldn’t handle it. I just was not equipped to deal with it. To put this in context, eighteen months earlier, I could do no wrong! We were selling out arenas, we were on television, the cover of Rolling Stone. And the next thing you know, eighteen months later, you’re persona non grata. It’s not just persona non grata to the world, when you’re persona non grata with the record label, that’s a cold wind that blows up your back.
You’ve done deluxe reissues of Gish, Siamese Dream, Pisces Iscariot, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, The Aeroplane Flies High and now Adore. Is a Machina I and II reissue next?
Oh yeah. We’re going to remix the entire album and sort of put it back together the way it was originally conceived, which is kind of this rock opera with a story that I never got to finish for a whole host of political reasons. And personal. So, the idea is to finally finish the work. That’s gonna be a massive undertaking.
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