1996 was the beginning of the end for the Smashing Pumpkins. On 21 July, midway through their 14-month, 173-date, world-straddling Infinite Sadness tour in support of their over-blown opus Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, the band’s touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin overdosed on a potent mixture of heroin and alcohol known as ‘Red Rum’. He and Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlain had been injecting the drug at the Regency Hotel in Manhattan. Attempts by Chamberlain to revive Melvoin by putting his head under a running shower came to nothing. Melvoin was pronounced dead at the scene by paramedics.
It would later transpire that this was the third time Chamberlain and Melvoin had overdosed on the tour. Chamberlain was sacked from the band with immediate effect and checked in to rehab.
Prior to Melvoin’s death, on 11 May at a date at the Point Theatre in Dublin, 17 year old fan Bernadette O’Brian was crushed by the surging crowd. Her life-support was disconnected shortly after. Four other fans were also injured at the show. During the same year, Chamberlain’s father passed away, Billy Corgan separated from his wife (they would divorce in ‘97), and in December his mum Martha died from cancer.
The spectre of death, drugs, divorce and drama would drape themselves around the Smashing Pumpkins like a ghostly veil and directly influence the making of the band’s next LP, Adore.
With Chamberlain now out of the band and replaced for live duties by Matt Walker (previously of Filter, now with Morrisey), the stubborn and single-minded Corgan dragged the limping, patched-up Pumpkins through the remainder of the tour in to early 1997.
In aftermath of the Infinite Sadness tour Corgan started experimenting with ecstasy, downers, and magic mushrooms. But, perhaps most distressing of all, became best pals with schlock-rocker Marilyn Manson - surely a sign that Corgan, if he hadn’t done so already, was slowly unraveling and starting to lose his mind. Instead of taking a much needed break, he dived straight in to writing the band’s next album.
With his closest musical ally, and the band’s powerful beating heart, Chamberlain no longer on the scene, Corgan wanted to craft an album that welded together acoustic sounds with his love of electronic music. Adore is unlike anything else in the Smashing Pumpkins discography: dark, brooding and quiet; the sound of a bald, early 30-something megalomaniac gently sobbing to himself by candlelight. Corgan was a man whose world was falling apart around him and he wanted the world to know.
If fans of the band’s first two albums, Gish and Siamese Dream, were put off by the outrageous indulgent extravagance of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, then its follow-up would send the majority of fans running away in their millions, with many never returning. Where were the dreamy power chords? The monster drums? That nasal whine? The things that had made the Pumpkins and defined their sound were now been banished from their music. This would be a brave move and one that would go on to cost the band and from which they would never recover.
Like Neil Young and his ‘ditch trilogy’, Corgan was at the peak of his creative and commercial powers, and reacted to close personal tragedy, as well as the pressures of creating a follow-up to a multi-platinum selling album, by creating music that was unlike anything he had produced before. Previous albums had seen Corgan full of rage and spitting venom against a barrage of thick, juggernaut-sized riffs. Now he was writing songs dripping with heartache that tried to get to grips with his emotional turmoil and make sense of his changing world.
Out of this mess and chaos came music that was enriched with beauty and honesty, elements that you could argue had never really been present in Corgan’s songwriting before, and haven’t been in his music since. Adore was a brave record and it’s telling that Corgan would never again make an album like it ever again.
The band moved to LA to record the album at the legendary Sound City Studios. But instead of sun-soaked harmonies that channeled Fleetwood Mac and Tom Petty, what the listener got instead was sadness and sorrow, a rainy autumn afternoon of a record that tipped its hat to bedsit indie of The Cure and early New Order. And it was glorious.
Always one of the most dysfunctional bands, Corgan had wanted to the band to live together while they recorded the album, but only D’arcy Wretzky was up for this and joined him in a rented mansion in the Hollywood Hills. Significantly, James Iha opted to stay away and lived on his own in a hotel. The band were drifting apart and would eventually split in 2000.
Recording sessions followed a similar pattern, with Corgan working on his own most of the time, with Wretzky and Iha only dropping by when needed. While much of Gish and most of Siamese Dream was made in this way, without his buddy Chamberlain by his side and behind the drum kit, Corgan had become a loner in his own band. This feeling of loneliness and solitude seeped in to the sound of Adore.
Upon first listening to the record, as soon as the plucked acoustic guitar and hushed vocals of To Sheila started you realised that this was the Smashing Pumpkins like you had never heard them before. Gone was the bombast of old and in its place was a new found intimacy, with Corgan gently singing in to the mic as if he’s whispering in to you ear.
The release of Adore was preceded with the release of kind-of title track and single, Ava Adore. Its mechanised percussive pulse and clanging guitars, with Corgan wailing “We must never be apart” like a man in the midst of a full-blown existential crisis, was far cry from the grunge behemoths of a Zero or a Bullet With Butterfly Wings. The music video for Ava Adore was the first time the wider world got a glimpse of the Adore-era Pumpkins. Gone were the silver trousers and ‘Zero’ t-shirts, and instead we saw Corgan stalking around something that looked like the set to an Eastern European porno shoot like Uncle Fester dressed in Count Dracula’s pyjamas, while his bandmates reluctantly milled around in the background like a pair of mardy teenagers who have been dragged along to their parent’s swingers party. Not a smile is cracked, Corgan wanting us to know that this was music to be taken seriously.
The band didn’t make life easy for themselves by coming across as po-faced goths who had had a sense of humour transplant. This was a long way from making out on trippy ice cream van journeys or playing guitars with toy guns, so there’s no surprise that huge swathes of the public turned their backs on the band and Adore ended up selling noticeably less than Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. But those fans that jumped ship missed out on the finest music the Smashing Pumpkins and Billy Corgan would ever produce. Adore is the sound of a stripped-back Smashing Pumpkins, the band taking their music apart and re-building it from the ground up. The music was uncertain and brittle mirroring Corgan’s worries and fears.
Adore often feels like an elegy to the recently departed. Corgan dealing with the death of his mother in the rolling acoustic of Once Upon A Time, Crestfallen’s tear-stained lament, and the sombre epic For Martha. Perfect, its electronic beat going over similar terrain to 1979, is quite clearly a lover-letter to abandoned drummer Jimmy Chamberlain. The squelching stomp of Pug is a bitter riposte to his ex-wife.
Chamberlain’s absence allowed the band to open up their sound to different elements and textures, doing away with any real drums and injecting many of the songs with electronic percussive crunch that sounded like jackboots marching over gravel.
The parts of the album that shy away from the more processed elements are focussed around Corgan and his piano. It’s these songs that provide the real, stark, stand-out moments on the album. The desperation of Annie-Dog (took me years to figure out what ‘Hong Kong glue’ meant – I was naïve) and the heartache of Blank Page (which features live drums by Matt Walker); these are songs without their make-up on - raw and exposed to the world. Corgan’s voice is dry and croaky as he plays simple chords on his piano.
The name Smashing Pumpkins may have been written on the sleeve of the album, but for all intent and purposes Adore is pretty much a Billy Corgan solo album, more so then any other Smashing Pumpkins record (we are talking pre-reunion here). Even still, there are a couple of moments that feature the band playing together and sounding, well, like a band. Shame is one of those rare moments. Corgan on piano, Iha on E-bowed guitar, Wretzky on bass, huddled around a simple drum machine like they would have been when they first started out. It’s no coincidence then that this is one of album’s standout moments, proper shivers down the spine territory. The other is For Martha, another special moment where the whole band are present, pulling together to create something magical that lifts the album towards the heavens.
Adore may have been a strategic re-think by Corgan, an attempt to re-focus the band’s music after the departure of Chamberlain, but fragments of the elements that are ‘typically’ Smashing Pumpkins can still be found littered throughout the record. The distorted sonic abuse of Pug is the closest Adore gets to that classic Smashing Pumpkins wall-of-sound; Tear is the band at their melodramatic best, indulgent, dramatic and over the top; and even on this most downbeat of records there is still room for the Smashing Pumpkins trope of intentionally misspelling words or inserting puns in to song titles – Appels + Oranjes, Behold The Night Mare, Tear.
By 1998 grunge was dead. Pop, R’n’B and Nu-Metal reigned supreme. Adore was an album out of step and out of time and found itself lost in the cracks of this shifting musical landscape. To paraphrase Sharon Osbourne, Billy Corgan might have been a bald twat in a dress, but for a short period of time he channeled his sadness, loss and heartache in to a record of genuine emotional integrity and crafted a collection of songs that were beautiful, elegant, and above all else, honest.
Smashing Pumpkins release the Adore box set on Monday 6 October 2014.
Smashing Pumpkins website