I recently wrote about the concept of most major recording artists having a single song that would be the dominant answer in a Family Feud style situation where 100 regular people are asked to name the first song that they think of when a bands name is mentioned. You can read the Pearl Jam edition of this here.
At a time when music was undergoing a stripped down revolution in the form of a bunch of bands from Seattle spreading their sound to the world, a band out of Chicago was trying to carve a similar but distinctively different path of their own. In spite of this, they spent a large portion of their formative years being dubbed ‘the next…’ whoever the current big alternative rock band was.*
It was kind of ironic then that Butch Vig, who made his name by producing the breakthrough album Nevermind, would record the Smashing Pumpkins debut album Gish in between the 2 recording sessions for that world beating Nirvana record.
The lead singer and predominant song writer for the band Billy Corgan had a distinct voice in more ways than one. His nasal tone would go on to gain him as many fans as were turned off by his specific twang but he also had a bigger flair for the dramatic than most of his contemporaries and the band’s second album would show as much.
Siamese Dream came out in the middle of the Grunge craze and the critically acclaimed album helped bring the Smashing Pumpkins to the attention of the world with some solid commercial success. The 3 singles showed the wide range of the band. From the pop sensibilities of Today (set against its lyrics about depression) to the dramatic orchestral sound of ballad Disarm to the straight rock of the aptly titled Cherub Rock.
Ultimately it was the void left by Kurt Cobain’s death that allowed the Smashing Pumpkins to stop being the next anyone, and be the first of themselves.
The ambitious Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness double album was an instant number 1 hit – which was a rare achievement at the time – and while in this humble writer’s opinion it could comfortably have cut enough of the filler from its 2 hour run time to be a single album, it was really built on the strength of the singles**.
The album initially wasn’t as critically acclaimed as their previous effort with Pitchfork only giving it 6.8/10 and Rolling Stone only giving it 3 out of 5 stars. Interestingly the album went on to be nominated for 7 Grammys, and has since been re-reviewed by both publications with significant increases in score.
The success of the album ensured that the band remained in the public consciousness for many years to come, but they were never able to replicate that critical or commercial success again.
So we come to the question of which song is the first one that comes to mind when you hear the Smashing Pumpkins mentioned.
The contenders –
Today (1993) – The second single off the second album, was their first real breakthrough song for them to get strong radio airplay and had a popular music video
Bullet with Butterfly Wings (1995) – This is the one that REALLY broke the band through to the mainstream and won them their first Grammy award
1979 (1996)*** – Their highest selling single to date and the first hint of the shift in their sound that was to come
Tonight, Tonight (1996) – The orchestra that was sprinkled through the album is on full display here and the film clip follows a similar theme as the album cover art
Zero (1996) – Released a week after the Tonight, Tonight single (which felt like a failsafe from the record company), the title matches Corgan’s shirt in the Bullet with Butterfly Wings clip.
The cases -
In spite of having the honour of being featured on the Simpsons’ Homerpalooza episode with the oft quoted line “Homer Simpson, smiling politely” as well as having the memorable bridge of “Emptiness is loneliness. And loneliness is cleanliness. And cleanliness is godliness. And God is empty just like me” it just doesn’t quite have the crossover appeal of the others on the list so it drops off.
Next to go has to be Tonight, Tonight. When I think of the Smashing Pumpkins, one of the first images that pops into my head is the Mellon Collie album cover, which leads me to the image of the lovers on a rocket flying past the moon with a face etc, but the song? The song doesn’t stick as much. It doesn’t have the catchiness of any of the other remaining three, and simply hasn’t had enough staying power to go any further here.
In third place I have Today^ for the sole reason that the other 2 left are too big to topple. It is a great song, one of the catchiest they have ever written, as well as being one of the songs that does the best job of capturing the full spectrum of what the band had to offer in their early days but, and this isn’t a deal breaking deciding factor, but it isn’t in their top 5 most played songs on Spotify, and isn’t in the top 5 songs that come up when you Google the band. That makes me feel like my personal taste for the song may be projecting on to these results which I am trying to avoid.
That leaves us with 2.
Bullet with Butterfly Wings is the last glimpse of Billy Corgan hair that we are ever likely to get and from the time you hear “The world is a vampire…” all the way through to the first chorus the relentless sound of dread oozes through the song. The film clip in the quarry contrasted against the way the band is dressed in their shiniest silvers gives a solid image to hang on to. The now meme worthy “Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage” in the chorus was, at the time, pretty iconic. In the Google search for Smashing Pumpkin songs, BWBW is the third result and it has been played 75 million times on Spotify making it the second most popular song.
1979 somehow manages to feel like a Summer evening after a really good day, which isn’t a thing that I knew was possible to do with drums, bass, a couple of guitars and a vocal. The filtered film clip helps create the hazy feel of the title year. The opening “shakedown, 1979” is probably more iconic than the chorus cry of “we don’t even care” but this song is more about a feel than a message. It is the first song in the google search and it has a whopping 130 million plays on Spotify – almost as much as the second and third most popular songs combined.
And yet... I think it goes to Bullet with Butterfly Wings. It’s a terrible title, which makes it SO much harder to give it this award (given the technicality of the question), but in the end the song that TRULY brought the band to the masses is the one that endures as distinctly more Pumpkinsy than the rest, and therefore gets the vote from me.
But feel free to tell me where you think I got it wrong!
*Billy Corgan once famously said "We've graduated now from 'the next Jane's Addiction' to 'the next Nirvana', now we're 'the next Pearl Jam'."
**Controversial opinion time, but I don’t think that any of the Smashing Pumpkins albums are particularly great, and their best release is Rotten Apples, their “Greatest Hits” record. I will not be taking questions at this time.
***Yes that was weird to write
^I have always found it curious that 2 of their biggest singles were Today and Tonight, Tonight