21 Years Ago: Smashing Pumpkins Release ‘Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness’
After breaking through with major success behind their sophomore set Siamese Dream, how would Smashing Pumpkins top that? By going bigger, much bigger! On Oct. 24, 1995, Smashing Pumpkins did exactly that with the release of the ambitious, epic two-disc collection known as Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.
The seeds of Mellon Collie began to sprout during the summer of 1994, as the band began to wind down their support of Siamese Dream while partaking in Lollapalooza. Bassist D’Arcy Wretzky told the Chicago Tribune, “We all had our own head things going on that summer. Not so much tension within the band, but just being able to deal with other people in general.” Guitarist James Iha added, “It was time to make another record or disband. Nobody wanted to go through the high dramatic b.s. anymore. It was totally necessary for everyone to do the next record.”
So rather than take a break, the band powered forward with a desire and drive to do something special, all while feeling the pressure that most bands feel after their breakout disc. “If you don’t sell more than the last record, it means you’re going downhill,” stated Wretzky, while drummer Jimmy Chamberlin added, “And that would be very discouraging to us. That is a vibe we want nothing to do with.” Frontman Billy Corgan stated, “I happened to be having dinner with Michael Stipe when Siamese Dream went platinum, and he turned to me and said, ‘Welcome to the deep waters, kid.’ And he’s right, because once you’re there, you have to keep treading and treading or you drown.”
There were some changes to be made. First off, the band stepped away from working with producer Butch Vig, choosing instead to have Corgan co-produce their next effort with fellow producers Flood and Alan Moulder, who had both found success working with Trent Reznor on past Nine Inch Nails albums. Corgan told Guitar World, “To be completely honest, I think it was a situation where we’d become so close to Butch that it started to work to our disadvantage… I just felt we had to force the situation, sonically, and take ourselves out of normal Pumpkin recording mode. I didn’t want to repeat past Pumpkin work.”
Jumping from touring to writing for a few months, the band began to gather material and by April 1995, they entered a rehearsal space to start working through what they had. Flood challenged the band members to devote a section of their day to jamming and songwriting and that practice yielded results. “Working like that kept the whole process very interesting — kept it from becoming a grind,” Corgan told Guitar World. In addition, Corgan took a step back to allow more input from Iha and Wretzky. The guitarist stated, “The big change is that Billy is not being the big ‘I do this — I do that.’ It’s much better. The band arranged a lot of songs for this record, and the songwriting process was organic. The circumstances of the last record and the way that we worked was really bad.” Chamberlin stated of the sessions, “After putting everybody’s egos and personal shortcomings aside, you have what you love to do, which is to make music … It was the sound of four people together.”
Soon the material started to grow. “We almost had enough material to make Siamese Dream a double album,” revealed Corgan. “With this new album, I really liked the notion that we would create a wider scope in which to put other kinds of material we were writing.”
As for what they were compiling, Corgan told the Chicago Tribune that it was a record that was written for people between the ages of 14 and 24 because “that’s the age group that’s really listening.” He added, “It will be totally misunderstood by the plus-30-year-old rock critics. I’m not writing it for them, even though I’m on the edge of losing my connection to youth, as is anyone entering their late 20s, and you’ve got a house, you get married and the things that are important in your life begin to change. But I wanted to communicate from the edge of it, an echo back to the generation that’s coming, to sum up all the things I felt as a youth but was never able to voice articulately. I’m waving goodbye to me in the rearview mirror. Tying a knot around my youth and putting it under the bed.”
Corgan was committed to seeing the idea of the double album through to its conclusion and making it the best it could be, despite being aware of the track record of double albums being successes. He told the Chicago Tribune, “If you do something as ambitious as a double record and it doesn’t sell, it will be viewed as an artistic failure. And I will not have that hanging around my neck. If is considered a failure, it’s time for this band to be gone. It’s 1995, it’s a media driven world and I’m sorry, I’m not going to have everything this band does cast in the shadow of this big failure.”
On Oct. 24, 1995, the world received 28 brand new tracks spread over two discs known as Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. The same week, Smashing Pumpkins also released the aggressive single “Bullet With Butterfly Wings,” which would become one of the biggest songs of their career. “The world is a vampire / Set to drain” painted a visual that connected with a lot of listeners. Corgan stated, “Somewhere I have a tape of us from 1993 endlessly playing ‘The world is a vampire’ part over and over.” It took until 1995 before he would finish the track, bringing the “despite all my rage, I am still just a rage in a cage” lyrics over from an acoustic session and bringing the ideas together. The track reached No. 2 on the Modern Rock Chart, No. 4 on the Mainstream Rock Chart and cracked the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 22. It would also go on to win a Best Hard Rock Performance Grammy.
By January 1996, the band was ready to change the pace a bit from the heavy angst of their lead single. “1979” was the song to do it. Speaking with Greg Kot, Corgan revealed that the track almost never came to fruition, as producer Flood felt the track was not fully realized enough to make the cut. “I had a gut feeling about this song from the very beginning,” said Corgan. “It was almost like I was afraid to go where this song was taking me. It’s the kind of song that if I thought about doing it on previous albums, I’d have questions about whether I’d sound s–tty doing it. It’s just not a typical Pumpkins song.” But when the producer decided to cut the song, Corgan took it as a challenge to make it the song it deserved to be. “It really inspired me to finish it and prove him wrong,” said the singer. “So that night I wrote the entire song in about four hours. The next day Flood heard it one time and said, ‘It’s on the album.'” That proved to be very fortuitous as the melodic rocker shot all the way to No. 1 on both the Mainstream and Modern Rock charts and climbed all the way to No. 12 on the Hot 100.
The third single off the album, “Tonight, Tonight,” also found the band throwing out the playbook, welcoming the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to provide a very key string backing. According to Corgan, the idea for “Tonight, Tonight” came during the touring for Siamese Dream, and he booked some studio time to get the idea down. Speaking about the track on the Howard Stern Show, the vocalist revealed that the track’s lyrics pay homage to fellow Illinois rockers Cheap Trick with a bit of black humor. Meanwhile, the lyrics are addressed to his younger self, reflecting on escaping an abusive childhood and believing in himself. Speaking about the session with the Chicago Symphony orchestra, Corgan would call it “probably one of the most exciting recording experiences I have ever had.” The song would reach No. 5 at Modern Rock radio, No. 4 at Mainstream Rock radio and cracked the Top 40 at No. 36 on the Hot 100 chart, in addition to yielding one of the more standout videos of 1996.
Before the album was complete, it would yield two more singles — the hard-driving alienation anthem “Zero” and the lilting, melodic “Thirty-Three” — while “Muzzle” would also garner some attention as a live favorite.
Though the singles ruled radio for the better part of a couple of years and the accolades came rolling in, not all was cheery during the album cycle. In May of 1996, a fan was crushed to death in a mosh pit in Dublin. The band ended the show early and canceled the next night’s performance. Then, in July, the group’s touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin overdosed on heroin and died in a hotel room while drummer Jimmy Chamberlin was charged with drug possession. A day later, Chamberlin was fired, and the band moved quickly to find replacements so they could finish out their touring.
Still, the Mellon Collie era was a successful one for the band. They received seven Grammy nominations, including nods for Album and Record of the Year, the album debuted at No. 1 and Mellon Collie defied the odds as one of the best selling double discs in history, reaching diamond status.
When asked if the album turned out as he envisioned, Corgan told Rolling Stone, “We finally managed to manifest everything I always thought we could do. Somehow we managed to get a lot of blood out of the stone.” He added, “There’s a part of me that cannot describe what it feels like, because how the f–k do you do something like this? It’s such a mountain. It was literally more than double the work. There was no cutting corners. Comparing how I felt exhaustion-wise after Gish and Siamese Dream, I was like ‘I can’t believe it.’ People were going, ‘How are you still standing?’ And I’m still going now. Shows, interviews. Maybe one day I’ll just die [laughs]. But it won’t be glamorous or mythological. I’ll have a Twinkie in my hand, take a bite and fall over.” Corgan is very much alive and still generating vital music with a reconstructed Smashing Pumpkins lineup, but for a period in the mid-’90s, Smashing Pumpkins ruled the rock world.
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