Letter Perfect

We analyze Billy Corgan's catalog, count our Ps and Qs with They Might Be Giants and remember Joe Strummer's humble beginnings

Jul 6, 2005 at 4:00 am
In a recent interview with Pitchforkmedia.com, Billy Corgan -- who just released his first solo album, TheFutureEmbrace, but also announced he was reuniting his former band, Smashing Pumpkins -- expressed displeasure over the way the press and other academic eggheads treated the Pumpkins.

"I mean, there are books on Radiohead, theories," he said. "As far as a theoretical point of view for my generation, I'm probably the most successful theoretician. I mean, double albums and concepts and dresses and major disasters and wonderful successes and yet you don't see the critical review of my work. Why? Because it's all focused on the persona. Billy Corgan."

We here at B-Sides always aim to please, so in lieu of writing about the synthpoppin' TheFutureEmbrace -- which wants desperately to be the Cure's Disintegration, so much so that Robert Smith shows up to sing -- we're indulging Corgan's narcissistic whining. Here's a review of the Smashing Pumpkins' catalog using the highfalutin jargon he apparently craves.

Album: Gish (1991)

Highlight: An Achtung Baby-meets-Red Hot Chili Peppers rave-up, "I Am One"

Analysis: An embryonic attempt to forge a unique identity, thwarted by early-'90s production values and the type of proto-grunge squalling and neo-psychedelic dreamscapes that its peers executed much more successfully. The band clearly is desperate to find its niche and knows no other way than to ape the nuances of its predecessors.

Album: Siamese Dream (1993)

Highlights: The fuzzy chords and joyful Corgan mews on "Rocket"

Analysis: Using a photo of children on the cover is a manipulative device aimed to garner sympathy and attention but perfectly suits the album's tunes, which strike the perfect balance between post-adolescent angst and future-looking hopefulness.

Album: Pisces Iscariot (1994)

Highlight: A delicate cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide"

Analysis: Releasing a rarities album so soon after a sophomore disc hints at an inflated sense of self-importance. At the same time, Iscariot smells of fear -- that if the band moves out of the public eye for too long, its fans will forget about it.

Album: Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness (1995)

Highlight: The brooding metal jag "Zero"

Analysis: The very concept of a double album connotes delusions of grandeur, which the band attempts to camouflage by filming fantastical videos and conjuring nostalgic remembrances that convey innocence.

Album: Adore (1998)

Highlight: The trembling, Depeche Mode-inspired synthrock of "Daphne Descends"

Analysis: The Pumpkins' teenage-rebellion album, where the band is clearly embracing pretentiousness to banish its child-like whimsy and cover up ever-increasing insecurity. Adore also exhibits tendencies of gender confusion -- i.e., promo pictures featured male members of the band wearing skirts -- although the similar outfits the band sported hint at pressure to nonconform in a conformist way.

Album(s): MACHINA/The Machines of God (2000)

Highlights: The soft, New Order-esque thrum of "I of the Mourning"

Analysis: Abstract song titles and meandering tunes signal that the Smashing Pumpkins lost their unique identity when they strayed from the formula that first brought them success -- which happened as they started to take their music way too seriously. -- Annie Zaleski

Punk Rock 101
Take an icon of a major pop movement and pretend the movement never happened. Consider, say, Ice Cube without gangsta rap, Ken Kesey without LSD or John Lydon without punk. What's left over? Would we have ever even heard of these guys? Like Lydon, Joe Strummer rose with punk and will always be associated with it. But if punk had never happened -- or if his band the Clash had never happened -- Strummer would have. At least, that's the possibility presented by Elgin Avenue Breakdown Revisited and Walker, two long-lost Strummer documents reissued this month by Astralwerks.

Elgin Avenue Breakdown Revisited is a gussied-up version of the original post-breakup LP by Strummer's first band, the 101ers, which Strummer abandoned in 1976 to form the Clash, despite the 101ers' strong London following. "I lost a mate, my musical cohort and my band when he left," says 101ers drummer Richard "Snakehips" Dudanski, from his home in Spain. "For a year or so I was well angry with him, but after a time, we renewed our friendship and worked together on bringing out the first edition Elgin Avenue Breakdown in 1981."

It was in this quartet of pseudonym-loving London squatters that John Mellor became Joe Strummer and helped make some of the most interesting music of the so-called "pub rock" scene. Like the music of Graham Parker and Dr. Feelgood, these recordings are meaty, beaty and soaked in the mythos of early rock & roll. But the 101ers sound like a junk shop come rollickingly to life, with Strummer's gravelyard vocals balanced on a pile of Telecasters, saxophones and pots 'n' pans.

Like a lot of songwriters more concerned with communication than introspection, Strummer's first instincts were crowd-pleasing ones, from the catchy "Keys to Your Heart" to the grooving metaphor for the clap in "Rabies (From the Dogs of Love)." The Astralwerks edition includes live tracks that show Strummer forming his lifelong obsession with Americana (a blazing rendition of Chuck Berry's "Maybelline") and Caribbean music (his first stab at the Jamaican rarity "Junco Partner").

"I think that there's a lot of curiosity and depth in the 101ers that other pub-rock acts didn't aspire to," says Astralwerks general manager Errol Kolosine, who helped leverage the American release of both albums from parent company EMI. "To me this is a welcome opportunity to understand Strummer's roots certainly, but it's also just a great, rockin' record."

Amateurishness may be part of the 101ers' charm, but the soundtrack Walker -- Strummer's first work after the Clash's split -- shows a man with the tools to express his vision. The setting of the 1986 film, nineteenth-century Nicaragua, provided a musical context for Strummer's political interest in Latin America. Far more accessible than most "world" music, the album is a cascade of bright Latin piano, flamenco guitar and horns, and hints of the rockabilly that Strummer always admired.

"He had such an ability to embrace all styles of music, immerse himself in the culture, sociology and sounds of that music, and then deliver his own brand," says Kolosine. "In my opinion, it came from a fundamental respect, rather than a desire to exploit."

The album is dominated by gorgeous instrumentals, complemented by several ballads in which Strummer's one-time growl cools down to a rough croon. And even with its eclecticism, Walker is purely Strummer, his most satisfying solo work next to 2001's excellent album with the Mescaleros, Global a Go-Go. It's never pretentious, never a stretch, but rather the sound of Strummer's own infectious fascination.

"He was very passionate about what he was doing, very interested in people and everything around him," recalls Dudanski. "Joe was always a special geezer. -- Andrew Marcus

Your Band Is Now Free to Move About the Country
So we see that the current (and possibly last) Destiny's Child tour is traveling under a McDonald's-sponsored banner: "Destiny Fulfilled... And Lovin' It."

Tacky? Yes. Crass? All the way. A total sellout maneuver? You betcha.

Still, we're, ahem, lovin' it. Why should those sponsors have to settle for having their banners festoon every flat surface for a square mile around the venue, their logo printed on every article associated with the shows or a few shout-outs from the stage -- when they could have even more? Like, why shouldn't the tour be named after one of the sponsor's slogans? After all, corporate sponsorship is what America's all about, isn't it?

We thought it would be fun to go back through the annals of both music history and that of America's highest art form -- advertising -- and come up with some new, improved tour names.

Corporate CEOs, you're welcome -- just send me my consultancy fee in a plain brown envelope. I'll take it in hundreds. -- John Nova Lomax