Yasi Salek is joined by The Ringer senior staff writer and 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s host Rob Harvilla to talk about gloomy alt-rock heroes the Smashing Pumpkins. In the first part of a two-episode dive into the band’s discography, they break down their origins, discuss Billy Corgan’s songcraft, and more.
Bandsplain is the newest addition to the Ringer Podcast Network. Each week, host Yasi Salek and an expert guest go deep on your favorite artists’ entire catalog. (And we do mean their entire catalog.) This week, Yasi welcomes The Ringer’s Rob Harvilla to talk about the Smashing Pumpkins. In the excerpt below, they discuss Billy Corgan, and specifically his connection—or lack thereof—to punk music.
Yasi Salek: So here’s where I wanted to get your take and continue to get your take. But one thing that’s really interesting about Billy Corgan is that his musical sensibility is forged in the fires of Boston, and Cheap Trick, and Queen, and Jimi Hendrix and stuff.
But this is the thing, I think, and I guess I’ll just say it early on: The Smashing Pumpkins have no punk background. And it’s funny because, duh, but also it’s the biggest thing that sets them apart when we get into the ’90s, and it’s this quote-unquote “rise of grunge” and whatever, and everyone hates them also on top of it.
A lot of it can be boiled down to the fact that unlike almost every other band that comes out in the ’90s that has popularity, they don’t have any punk background. They weren’t inspired by punk. I can’t really speak for the rest of them, but I mean, they’ve talked about it. Billy Corgan was really into those aforementioned bands: Led Zeppelin, et cetera, et cetera, and he was into the Cure, Bauhaus, and more goth and shoegaze stuff.
And he says this: “In ’88, I was listening to the Cure and Bauhaus. That’s another important stage in anyone’s life when you disconnect from the music of your adolescence. A lot of people gravitated toward the Dead Kennedys and all that stuff. I gravitated toward Echo & the Bunnymen; that seemed to strike a chord with me. I sold all my Black Sabbath records, then ended up buying them back. Did I force myself to listen to the Dead Kennedys because the guy down the street wearing combat boots thought they were cool? No. I tossed them in a corner and went on listening to whatever it was that appealed to me.”
Rob Harvilla: I think you’re absolutely right that there’s no punk in him. I think there’s no punk, musically. But more importantly, I think there’s no punk attitudinally. There’s something very specific about the Guitar Hero rockstar origin story requiring a ton of time alone. There’s this dichotomy where you have this megalomania and you have this charisma and you have the desire to and the ability to command tens of thousands of people at a show, millions of people who buy your records. But you have to start out by sitting in your room alone and playing guitar because you’re angry at your dad. There’s this isolation that comes with that specifically. And why I say attitudinally there’s no punk, because the whole idea of punk is that anyone can do it. And Billy Corgan is very much of the opinion that that’s not true. He is upset at the notion that anyone can do it.
Salek: He’s “gatekeep, girl boss,” for sure.
Harvilla: Exactly. The virtuosity was very important and we’re going to get into the Pavement of it all. But one of the roots of that is just the idea that not caring, not being good at your instruments, slacking. The fact that you don’t give a shit about what you’re doing being central to your charm is just not the Billy Corgan way of operating. That’s not the way that Alice Cooper worked, or Kiss worked, or ELO worked, or the Cure worked, or whatever.
You have to care and you have to be really good. And to care and be really good, you have to sit in your room alone for X years. And what that does to your personality, on top of this terrible family situation that already leaves you feeling isolated and abandoned in the world.
That’s just the entire thing for me with Billy Corgan is just the two halves of him. The person who just commands these legions of fans and has the desire and the ability to do that, coupled with this person who feels like no one understands him, no one cares, no one’s got his back. Like he’s completely alone. And I just—again, the punk rock idea. You can hear punk rock in some stuff that he does, but just the idea that anyone can do it and you just pick up a guitar and you don’t know what the fuck you’re doing, but it’s great anyway, just that fundamental punk idea is just not Billy Corgan’s fundamental idea.
This excerpt was edited for clarity. Subscribe to the Bandsplain feed on Spotify and listen to the entire episode here.
Host: Yasi Salek
Guest: Rob Harvilla
Producer: Dylan Tupper Rupert
Editor: Michael Hardman
Production assistance: Casey Simonson and Kelli Kyle
Executive producers: Gina Delvac and Yasi Salek
Theme song: Bethany Cosentino and Jennifer Clavin