Monday, June 27, 2011
To my knowledge, a straight line has never been drawn between Jimmy Page and Billy Corgan. Yet, from the first time I heard Gish (which, admittedly, wasn’t until ’94, right around the time I got into Siamese Dream), I had the thought that what Billy Corgan was doing in the recording studio was an extension of what Page was doing in the studio in the 60s and 70s. It’s the artful layering of guitars— what Page used to call the “guitar army”— that constitutes the similarity of Smashing Pumpkins (and I refuse, for sentimental reasons, to call them “the” Smashing Pumpkins) and Led Zeppelin. Layered guitars, if properly used, create compelling textures and fill up massive canvases of space. Is it possible to articulate what these canvases look like if you don’t play guitar yourself? Possibly. But it’s interesting to note that layered guitars have a snake-charmer quality, which can attract millions of fans without anyone being quite aware of what they’re attracted to. You also won’t hear many rock pundits talk at any length about the collusion of studio and six-string the produced the best of Corgan’s and Page’s music. They wouldn’t be able to talk about what happens when you layer a Fender over a Gibson, or, in Page’s case, a Danelectro over strategically miked drums. A further nuance that Corgan shares with Page is the luck to have at their disposal a powerhouse drummer (John Bonham and Jimmy Chamberlain, respectively), to build a rock-solid foundation into their guitar armies.
The whole issue of guitar armies brings up an issue and a sub-genre not often discussed in larger rock magazines— that of “Advanced Rock Guitar” or “Guitar Oriented Rock” music. This sub-genre, which is extensively covered by musician-oriented publications, took off in earnest in the early 80s. The advent, through Eddie Van Halen, of “finger tapping” and other nouveau techniques created a demand, in certain circles, for complete technical proficiency as a basis for rock guitar innovations. By the end of the decade, performers like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani emerged, who were elite technicians, competent to play rock, metal, jazz, or classical, and who appealed to the niche group of other guitar players. General pop consonance (and pop-level record sales) was not their forte. Jimmy Page and Billy Corgan took off from opposite sides of this movement; Page did enough innovative guitar work to set the stage for it (he even used bits of finger tapping in “Heartbreaker” from II), Corgan went through some rigorous training to achieve this level of technical proficiency before migrating more towards song orientation. One of the fascinating aspects of Smashing Pumpkins music, for similarly inclined guitar players, was the brief appearance, here and there, of bits of Vai, Satriani, and the rest. Yet, with a larger vision in mind, Corgan always held back from demonstrations of technical proficiency. The guitar army textures he created served his songs, which melded pop, rock, and metal in such a way that a large audience responded. It is also worth noting that the technicians did not appear to influence the generation preceding them— that Clapton, Beck, Page, and the rest have never (in public) reacted to Malmsteen, Vai, and Satriani. The sub-generic niche they created remains an isolationist one.
Smashing Pumpkins ’93 opus Siamese Dream stands as one of the monuments of the Alternative Revolution. It is the record that made them a household name. It’s also an important musical step forward for rock music, which few critics in the 90s noticed. They chose to dwell, instead, on Corgan’s melancholy lyrics and confrontational persona. But on Siamese Dream, Billy Corgan created a new vocabulary for how a guitar army could be used in a pop-consonant context. On the record, Corgan (with the assistance of James Iha) used octaves in a way that they had never been used before. Corgan’s octaves (usually played on the A and G strings of his guitars, and an octave is the musical equivalent of a “double”) took what Jimi Hendrix did in “Third Stone from the Sun” to the point that they dominated the musical textures of the songs in which they were employed— “Cherub Rock,” “Hummer,” “Rocket,” “Silverfuck,” etc. As a musical gesture in rock, an octave fills up space in such a way that a large expanse of canvas is instantly filled in, and in a satisfyingly rich way— fans were able to feel “enclosed” in the Pumpkins music. It’s a comforting sound, which can lean towards limpness when jazz musicians like George Benson use it. In Corgan’s hands, it both comforts and pulverizes. In that dichotomy (comfort vs. force) is the essence of the Pumpkins’ music. It’s a difficult trick to pull off, especially in the context of an entire album. For its duration, Siamese Dream never really drops the ball. Siamese Dream also begs an intriguing question— would Corgan have gotten to his effective usage of octaves if he hadn’t gotten through at least some Satch/Vai training? Did he have to get complex to get effectively simple later? I think so. Often musical breakthroughs are simple, and seem obvious in retrospect. To the extent that Corgan hasn’t been credited with this musical breakthrough heretofore, it’s appropriate that he is now.