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26 Years Ago: Smashing Pumpkins Release Debut Album ‘Gish’

Caroline Records
Caroline Records

Smashing Pumpkins would achieve international fame with their second and third albums — Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness — but they first caught some attention with the release of their debut disc, Gish, which arrived on May 28, 1991.

The talented Billy Corgan had begun his pursuit of music in his teens, gravitating toward the guitar and taking a job at a record store to continually be around music. He would eventually put together a band that featured James Iha on guitar, D’Arcy Wretzky on bass and Jimmy Chamberlin on drums. But it was clear early on that Corgan was the driving force in the band.

Chamberlin remarked on VH1’s Rock Icons, “I was very OCD when it came to my instrument and I met someone who was equally OCD about his songwriting and equally OCD about his guitar playing. And when you meet someone who can articulate a vision, it’s easy to buy in.”

Even from the earliest days, Corgan strived for something different. He stated, “As a guitar player in my mind, I wanted something to frame what I was doing. So just playing a solo seemed to be worthless unless there was some context, so then I would start making these little songs. I took these little snippets of things. Like what if I took the lyricism of Bob Dylan and combined it with the riffs of Black Sabbath then the atmosphere of a Love and Rockets — can I put these things together? So I just kind of built my own world to where I had enough information and enough of a logic system that I started from a point of I don’t want to do anything that anyone else is doing. And it’s only going to work for me if I go down this path.”

With a clear vision of what he wanted, Corgan joined Butch Vig as a co-producer on the band’s debut disc, Gish. The group started recording in December 1990 at Smart Studios in Madison, Wis. Vig told EQ Magazine, “[Corgan] wanted to make everything sound amazing and see how far he could take it; really spend time on the production and the performances. For me that was a godsend because I was used to doing records for all the indie labels and we only had budgets for three or four days. Having that luxury to spend hours on a guitar tone or tuning the drums or working on harmonies and textural things . . . I was over the moon to think I had found a comrade-in-arms who wanted to push me, and who really wanted me to push him.”

The band powered through the recording sessions in record time, but the pursuit for perfection took its toll. Wretzky stated that she wasn’t sure how the band survived it and Corgan told MTV that he suffered a nervous breakdown trying to finish.

As for the disc, Corgan told MTV, “The album is about pain and spiritual ascension. People ask if it’s a political album. It’s not a political album, it’s a personal album. In a weird kind of way, Gish is almost like an instrumental album — it just happens to have singing on it, but the music overpowers the band in a lot of places. I was trying to say a lot of things I couldn’t really say in kind of intangible, unspeakable ways, so I was capable of doing that with the music, but I don’t think I was capable of doing it with words.”

The first official single off the album was “Siva.” The track had a long history with Corgan, who once considered naming the band Siva. He initially titled the song “Shiva,” unaware of the connotations of the name’s usage in Hindu culture, but he removed the “h” to lessen the association. The song would also be the muse for the band’s first music video.

Next up would be “Rhinoceros.” The song would go on to become a live favorite for the group over the years. Before the album cycle was over, the group would also release “I Am One,” the only song on the album with a co-write between Corgan and Iha. The latter track would often include an improvised rant by Corgan within the live performances. “Tristessa” would also become a favorite from the album.

While none of the singles made significant strides at mainstream radio, the buzz at college stations and positive reviews generated by the album paved the way for bigger things and set the stage for their breakout on the follow-up disc Siamese Dream. The album also did pretty well sales-wise. It initially peaked at No. 195 on the album chart, but was the highest selling independently released album until 1994, when The Offspring‘s Smash surpassed it. In 2011, the band re-released the disc for its 20th anniversary and it topped out at No. 146 on the Billboard Album Chart. In the end, Gish was certified platinum.

Reflecting on the album, Corgan stated, “Gish represents our first foray into the deep waters of rock and roll. In the music within, I still hear our naivety and fresh spirits asking to be heard, and I miss the times that helped make this music so earnest.”

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