Although they emerged alongside grunge acts like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, the Smashing Pumpkins were the group least influenced by traditional underground rock. Headed by principal songwriter and frontman Billy Corgan, their sound was an amalgam of progressive rock, heavy metal, goth, psychedelia, and dream pop, a layered, powerful style driven by swirling, distorted guitars that churned beneath Corgan's angst-ridden lyrics. One of the most visible alternative rock bands of the early '90s, the Smashing Pumpkins achieved mainstream success over the decade with classic releases Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, then entered an uneven and often tumultuous chapter that carried them into the 2000s. After a misunderstood foray into electronic rock on Adore, Corgan issued a final pair of efforts before putting the group to sleep for an extended early-2000s hiatus that ended with 2007's Zeitgeist. Along with an ever-changing lineup, he continued to churn out albums under the Pumpkins moniker before reuniting with most of the original lineup for a 2018 reunion.
The son of a jazz guitarist, William Patrick Corgan grew up in a Chicago suburb, leaving home at the age of 19 to move to Florida with his fledgling goth metal band, the Marked. After the band failed down South, he returned to Chicago around 1988, where he began working at a used-record store. At the shop he met James Iha (guitar), a graphic arts student at Loyola University, and the two began collaborating, performing, and recording songs with a drum machine. Corgan met D'Arcy Wretzky at a club show; after arguing about the merits of the Dan Reed Network, the two became friends and she joined the group as a bassist. Soon, the bandmembers, who named themselves the Smashing Pumpkins, had gained a dedicated local following, which included the head of a local club who booked them to open for Jane's Addiction. Before the pivotal concert, the band hired Jimmy Chamberlin, a former jazz musician, as their full-time drummer.
In 1990, the Smashing Pumpkins released their debut single, "I Am One," on the local Chicago label Limited Potential. The single quickly sold out, and in December the band released "Tristessa" on Sub Pop. By this point, the Smashing Pumpkins had become the subject of a hot bidding war, and the group latched onto a clever way to move to a major label without losing indie credibility. They signed to Virgin Records, yet it was decided that the group's debut would be released on the Virgin subsidiary Caroline, and then the band would move to the majors. The strategy worked; Gish, a majestic mix of Black Sabbath and dream pop produced by Butch Vig, became a huge college and modern rock hit upon its spring 1991 release. The Pumpkins embarked on an extensive supporting tour for Gish, which lasted over a year and included opening slots for Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam. During the Gish tour, tensions between bandmembers began to escalate, as former couple Iha and Wretzky went through a messy breakup, Chamberlin became addicted to drugs and alcohol, and Corgan entered a heavy depression. These tensions weren't resolved by the time the group entered the studio with Vig to record its second album.
Toward the beginning of the sessions, the Pumpkins were given significant exposure through the inclusion of "Drown" on the Singles soundtrack in the summer of 1992. As the sessions progressed, Corgan relieved himself of his depression by working heavily — not only did he write a surplus of songs, he played nearly all of the guitars and bass on each recording, which meant that its release was delayed several times. The resulting album, Siamese Dream, was an immaculate production and was embraced by critics upon its July 1993 release. Siamese Dream became their first blockbuster, debuting at number ten on the charts and establishing the Smashing Pumpkins as stars. "Cherub Rock," the first single, was a modern rock hit, yet it was "Today" and the acoustic "Disarm" that sent the album into the stratosphere. The Smashing Pumpkins became the headliners of Lollapalooza 1994, and following the tour's completion, the band went back into the studio to record a new album that Corgan had already claimed would be a double-disc set. To tide fans over until then, the Pumpkins released the B-sides and rarities album Pisces Iscariot in October 1994.
Working with producers Flood and Alan Moulder, the Smashing Pumpkins recorded as a full band for their third album, the double-disc set Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, which became an even bigger hit than Siamese Dream, debuting at number one on the charts. On the strength of the singles "Bullet with Butterfly Wings," "1979," "Zero," and "Tonight, Tonight," it sold over four million copies in the U.S., eventually being certified platinum over eight times. The Pumpkins had graduated to stadium shows for the Mellon Collie tour, and the band was at the peak of its popularity when things began to spiral. On July 12, prior to two shows at Madison Square Garden, the group's touring keyboardist, Jonathan Melvoin, died from a heroin overdose; he was with Chamberlin, who survived his overdose. In the wake of the tragedy, the remaining Pumpkins fired Chamberlin and spent two months on hiatus as they recovered and searched for a new drummer. Early in August, they announced that Filter member Matt Walker would be their touring drummer and Dennis Flemion, a member of the Frogs, would be their touring keyboardist for the remainder of the year. They returned to the stage at the end of August and spent the next five months on tour.
In spring, the Smashing Pumpkins recorded two songs for the soundtracks for Batman & Robin (the Grammy-winning "The End Is the Beginning Is the End") and Lost Highway ("Eye"). The latter track hinted at the direction of their next album, which took a surprise turn into subdued electronics. Shrouded by the death of Corgan's mother and a divorce, Adore followed a few months later. Despite topping international charts and peaking at number two on the Billboard 200, the effort's sales and reviews were disappointing, with many critics confused by their new direction. The band embarked on a tour, contributing 100 percent of the earnings to charity, and returned to the studio.
Prior to the release of their fifth album, Chamberlin returned to the group and Wretzky made her exit, replaced by Hole bassist Melissa Auf der Maur. Bringing the band back to its early rock roots, MACHINA: The Machines of God landed in early 2000. Peaking at number three, MACHINA included the singles "Stand Inside Your Love" and "The Everlasting Gaze." In the midst of album promotion, Corgan announced his intention to dissolve the band that year with a farewell tour. Fans received one last treat when Corgan and company finished tracks that were left over from the MACHINA sessions. Surprisingly, Virgin Records balked at the idea of releasing the 25-track set so close to the release of their previous album, so the band put the entire album (going by the official title of Machina II: The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music) on the Internet for fans to download for free. On December 2, 2000, the Pumpkins played a mammoth show at Chicago's Metro (also the venue at which the group played its first show back in 1988). Booked as a final farewell, it would actually just be their first official hiatus, the start of an uneven period for Corgan when the Pumpkins would become known as much for lineup and status changes as the music itself.
During the break, former members of the band didn't wait long before carrying on with other projects. Corgan spent the summer of 2001 playing guitar with New Order on select concert dates, and later in the year unveiled his new band, Zwan, including Chamberlin on drums (as well as former Chavez guitarist Matt Sweeney and bassist David "Skullfisher" Pajo). He also released a book of poetry. The other two former Pumpkins, Iha and Auf der Maur, began putting together an alt-rock supergroup dubbed the Virgins. Iha also began playing with A Perfect Circle. A pair of postmortem Pumpkins collections were also issued as a double-disc/DVD, both called Greatest Hits (aka Rotten Apples). Corgan released his first solo album, The Future Embrace, in 2005, and on the day it came out, he took out a full-page ad in The Chicago Tribune to announce that the Smashing Pumpkins were reuniting just five years after splitting. However, he hadn't informed any of his past bandmates, and only Chamberlin joined for the ride. The resulting album, Zeitgeist (Reprise Records), was issued in 2007. Although it peaked at number two, the effort continued the band's late-era decline in sales and critical acclaim. The new lineup — which added guitarist Jeff Schroeder, bassist Ginger Reyes, and keyboardist Lisa Harriton — embarked on a successful international tour, despite lukewarm reception to Zeitgeist.
Corgan and Chamberlin released an EP, American Gothic, at the start of 2008, before Corgan shook things up once again by announcing that the group would no longer record albums and would instead only issue singles. Chamberlin parted ways with the band once again in March 2009 and Corgan was joined by Schroeder, bassist Nicole Fiorentino, and drummer Mike Byrne. Once the dust settled, Corgan followed through on his promise to issue only short-form releases, putting out the track "A Song for a Son" in December of 2009. Scattered songs from the band's Teargarden by Kaleidyscope concept were released over the next two years as free downloads, with physical collections of the tracks released in 2010 by way of the EP box sets Songs for a Sailor and The Solstice Bare.
In 2012, Corgan decided to take a break from the single-centric concept and released Oceania, the Smashing Pumpkins' official eighth studio album. A live companion, Oceania: Live in NYC, was released the following year. In 2014, Corgan announced that he would be releasing two albums the following year under a new deal with BMG, which would tie up the Teargarden concept; these would be titled Monuments to an Elegy and Day for Night. By this point, Fiorentino and Byrne had left the band, and drums on Monuments to an Elegy were played by Tommy Lee of Mötley Crüe. Monuments was released on December 9, 2014 and debuted in the Top 40 of the Billboard 200, making it their lowest-charting effort since their debut. Chamberlin returned to the band for a 2015 tour, although the promised Day for Night failed to materialize on schedule.
In early 2016, Iha reunited with Corgan and Chamberlin for a performance in Los Angeles, their first together in almost two decades. Subsequent live shows followed, leading to an eventual reunion of the original lineup (sans Wretzky) for a 2018 tour. The Shiny and Oh So Bright Tour featured the three founding members and bassist Jack Bates (son of Peter Hook). To coincide with the summertime trek, the Pumpkins released "Solara," the first single from their reunion album Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1/LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun. Produced by Rick Rubin, Shiny and Oh So Bright appeared in November 2018. Iha and Chamberlin were also on board for the group's 11th studio album, 2020's Cyr. Produced by Corgan in Chicago, the double LP also featured contributions by longtime guitarist Schroeder and included the songs "Cyr" and "The Colour of Love." The album was released in conjunction with a five-part animated sci-fi series, In Ashes. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine & Neil Z. Yeung