In 1995, Billy Corgan’s dream of being on top of the rock world finally came true. His band The Smashing Pumpkins hit the topper-most of the popper-most with the release of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness that year. It changed everything for them, and the title becomes more ironic as the years tick by. Mellon Collie represented an artistic and commercial peak for the Chicago-based foursome; the infinite sadness would follow soon enough.
Besides the singing, guitar-playing, and songwriting talents of Billy Corgan, the four-piece band who recorded the 28 songs that make up the double-disc set were James Iha (guitar), D’arcy Wretzky (bass), and Jimmy Chamberlin (drums).
This was the band’s fourth release, following Gish (1991), Siamese Dream (1993), and the compilation Pisces Iscariot (1994). I find it a little odd that Corgan chose to remaster and release a deluxe version of the album on its 17th anniversary, rather than waiting for the more customary 20-year mark. He has always played by his own rules though, and there is no reason why this should be any different. Regardless of the timing, this edition just confirms the fact that Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness was one of the finest albums of the Clinton era.
Corgan spoke for the group, whether they liked it or not. Much like his spiritual forefather Pete Townshend, Corgan’s mouth often got in the way of the legitimate respect he and his fellow bandmates deserved. His jealously of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana was well-documented, and turned a lot of people off. I mention this because I was one of those who got extremely tired of hearing about it. As a matter of fact, I had gotten so sick of the whining that I was prepared to hate Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness without ever even hearing it.
Good music cannot be denied though, and Corgan won me over. Although Flood (Mark Ellis) and Alan Moulder were the main producers, Corgan is credited as well. I have a strong feeling that he had major input into the final running order of the 28 songs, and this is a big reason the whole thing works so well. We once took it for granted, but by 1995 the art of the placement of songs on a disc for maximum effect had practically been abandoned. In the age of the “shuffle” feature on CD players, the idea of programming a record to tell a story had become outdated. Corgan understood this concept extremely well. He even subtitled the discs, with the first titled “Dawn to Dusk,” and the second “Twilight to Starlight.” Each CD contains 14 songs.
The title track opens the set, and is a gorgeous solo-piano piece. With this introduction, it is clear that the album is intended to be the band’s magnum-opus. The song contains a wonderful melody, but more than just being “pretty,” it very effectively serves notice that this is an album which is meant to be listened to from top to bottom. I almost wish that Corgan had posted a notice on the cover to the effect of “Turn off your shuffle feature!” It definitely would have been in the form of a command, and I’ll bet he considered it.
There is really no need to shuffle songs though, because these 28 tracks go from highlight to highlight. From the gentle introspection of “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” we move to one of The Smashing Pumpkins’ finest tunes, “Tonight, Tonight.” Despite all his rage, Billy Corgan was capable of writing some wonderful songs, the type of which made listening to the radio enjoyable again. I have always felt that his radio-friendly tunes were his best, but that is personal preference. The Smashing Pumpkins had plenty of fans who dug the angry young Corgan as well.
Speaking of the angry side of the songwriter, I sometimes wonder how many people out there still think “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” is titled “Rat in a Cage.” It contains one hell of a catchy couplet, “Despite all my rage/I am still just a rat in a cage.” Snarled in that oh-so-Billy way, with the band’s frenzied noise surrounding him, the cut is unforgettable.
As a matter of fact, there are a plethora of unforgettable songs here. The one that turned out to be their biggest hit single of all time comes on disc two, “1979.” For this remastered edition, Corgan wrote new liner notes, and his comments about “1979” kind of threw me. He says that there are elements of krautrock bands such as Can in it. For the life of me, I do not hear that influence at all.
Then again, Corgan has been known to overcompensate. I realize that krautrock is the apotheosis of hip in some circles, and I am guilty of clearing rooms with the sounds of Cluster and Guru Guru myself. But he really does not need to pump up the credentials of this hit single. It stands as an excellent tune entirely on its own merits.
Besides the remastered two-CD version, there is a massive deluxe edition available as well. The mega-Mellon Collie is a six-disc affair, with five CDs plus one DVD. The three bonus compact discs contain 64 previously unreleased songs and alternate takes, while the DVD features live material shot on their 1996 tour. For vinyl aficionados, the 2012 edition is a triple-LP set, with 30 tracks.
In 1995 I was working for a music distributor in Seattle. Our warehouse manager had a basic rotation of three double-albums. They were Exile on Main Street by The Rolling Stones, London Calling by The Clash, and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. In the liner notes, Corgan compares his album to Pink Floyd’s The Wall or The Beatles’ White Album. At least he has the presence of mind to say “Yes, those are crazy groups to compare yourself to, but as they say, you have to aim high.”
No matter what major double-album you match it up to though, there is no doubt that with Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, The Smashing Pumpkins created a classic. If they do get inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in a few years (possibly the class of 2016 when they are first eligible), it will be this album that ensured they get there.