Of all the bands that emerged in the 1990s alternative goldrush, the Smashing Pumpkins left perhaps the biggest legacy – not just in quantity, but also their breadth of sound and style.
While the cliched image will always be of a tall, awkward bald man in a tight black skivvy screaming about typical ’90s shit, Billy Corgan’s talent extended far beyond that – the Pumpkins’ output including synthpop, psychedelia and industrial influences.
But this list’s not about those. It’s laser-focused on what Corgan did best – riffs.
After the pianos and strings of the opening Mellon Collie pair, Jellybelly showed the Pumpkins had lost none of the bite that won them fans on Gish and Siamese Dream.
One of the heaviest songs the band ever recorded, Jellybelly is also one of the best – the riff sent screaming into space by Jimmy Chamberlin’s career-best drumming and Corgan somehow figuring out how to write a memorable tune over the top of the absolute carnage going on around it.
How it isn’t one of the Pumpkins’ best-known songs, I’ll never know.
WHERE BOYS FEAR TO TREAD
Perhaps the polar opposite of the previous song, Where Boys Fear to Tread doesn’t kick right out of the blocks. For the first minute, you could be forgiven for thinking it wasn’t a song at all, the band screwing around like they’re waiting for the singer to show up.
Then the riff appears.
From there, the song – at least on the album – grinds at what could be considered a plodding tempo, but the deep sound and dry, raw production makes it more menacing than meandering.
Barred powerchords have never sounded so good. A perfect example of the Siamese Dream sound – layers of OpAmp Big Muff guitars and Harmonizer effects, matched with a melody simple enough for Corgan to effortlessly cut through the wall of sound.
There are better songs on Siamese Dream, but this is a list about riffs – and Quiet is little more than a mighty riff, bludgeoned to an inch of its life, for our enjoyment.
Condemned to a b-side in 1992, Starla was Corgan’s “first true epic” according to Rolling Stone magazine.
Corgan said it was a last-minute song recorded when it was only half-written to meet UK chart guidelines, and probably would have ended up on Siamese Dream had he known at the time just how good it was.
But is it a riff? Sometimes a chord progression, repeated enough, becomes a riff. If it can’t be duplicated elsewhere without sounding lifted, it qualifies.
THE AEROPLANE FLIES HIGH (TURNS LEFT, LOOKS RIGHT)
There were a few inexplicable trends in the 1990s – cargo pants and the Macarena come to mind.
But the habit of bands putting out their best material as b-sides has to be the most unexplainable. Suede did it, eventually releasing a double album of them, Sci-Fi Lullabies, which ranks among their best work.
Oasis did it too, The Masterplan also better than most of what followed.
Smashing Pumpkins were on a roll in the mid-1990s – not just releasing double album Mellon Collie, but a five-CD boxset of their singles, each of which had about five b-sides each. The special edition released two decades later had more than 100 tracks. Insane.
The best of the bunch remained The Aeroplane Flies High (Turns Left, Looks Right), an eight-minute epic with all the drama and escalation of Starla, but with more than one riff – but it was left off Mellon Collie, apparently recorded too late. Clearly wouldn’t have fit on Adore…
You could call this entry cheating, and I’d probably agree.
Pistachio Medley is less a song, than it is six dozen songs. It’s the Pumpkins’ answer to Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond – but rather than being a nine-part elegiac masterpiece, it’s a four-score-and-seven medley of binned riffs, noise and discarded ideas from the band’s apex, played one-after-the-other with no consideration for flow, melody or coherence.
There are more classic guitar riffs in Pistachio Medley’s 23-minute running time than most guitarists will ever play in their lifetimes, let alone write.
Let’s pick a few – skip to 0:24 for what the Pumpkins would sound like if they took on the Stone Temple Pilots; 1:57 for a Nirvana/Sabbath attempt; 2:27 for some future Tame Impala; 4:20 for an alternate universe version of XYU; 13:05 for what’s clearly an early go at Aeroplane Flies High… the list goes on. The last seven minutes though… wouldn’t make this list.
It’s not controversial to say the Pumpkins – or Billy Corgan’s Flying Circus, if you’d prefer – have had a rocky time of it since he resurrected the name in 2005.
But 2012’s Oceania is an exception. It has its flaws, but few are evident on the opening track, Quasar. It borrows a bit from Cherub Rock, and could have done with some of that song’s Butch Vig production, but expands on the 1993 classic’s psychedelic feel – particularly in Corgan’s lead guitar parts.
The most evil riff in the Pumpkins’ discography underpins the climax of the band’s mid-1990s golden age – after Corgan’s final ‘bye bye’, there’s nary a fuzz guitar to be heard not just on the rest of Mellon Collie, but the entire album that followed.
X.Y.U. is perhaps the purest example of Mellon Collie‘s live-in-the-studio approach, just four people smashing it out of the park in one go. It’s raw as hell, long, noisy and
Genius.com puts it this way: “The screeching noise-rock textures and brutal metallic riffing which, while it is repetitive in a sense, undergoes a constant evolution to propel this harrowing standout to dizzying heights.”
That’s why it’s the last entry on this list. Nothing can follow it.
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