Monday, January 19, 2009

The Smashing Pumpkins - "Cherub Rock" from the Album Siamese Dream

The Smashing Pumpkins Siamese Dream CD coverI have no idea if anyone might agree with me on this, but whatever, it's true for me, and more importantly, germane tonight, that a relationship with music--caring about what you listen to to the extent that you groom your iPod playlist, or take pains to ensure that you have something good to listen to during lunch break or while driving, or while shopping--can sometimes be just like a relationship with your honey, with your sweetheart, with your lover.

Clearly there's an investment, and you always love them, right? But sometimes you just have a bone to pick--and you gotta pick it. Doesn't mean you don't love them, it means you do.

Like with "Cherub Rock." Not that it's not a great song, not that it's not an interesting one. But track one from Siamese Dream and I are gonna have a heart-to-heart, and I guess you, dear reader, are invited.

What's interesting lyrically is that the song overtly addresses the question that The Smashing Pumpkins--by the very nature of their career and the music which filled it--posed perhaps more directly than any other band in la historia de la musica rock: where exactly should the interface between perceived indie cred and mainstream success lie?

Billy Corgan would have it that the song is ironic, but I'm not so sure. Veneration from the underground is seemingly sweet, but when they turn on your sellout ass, wouldn't you rather have the green crispy?

Far be it from me to take issue with that. It was apparent to me as soon as I bought an album by SWA or Gone from SST back in the days when indie/major meant much more than it means today: There were too many bands on independent labels who sucked, and too many good ones on the majors, for me to find fault with anyone selling out.

So I'm glad you made your money, Billy. And if Steve Albini finds y'all distasteful, well, I'm sure you're not losing sleep.

No, the real issue I have with "Cherub Rock" is not what it sold, but how it sounds.

Even that's not right, of course the tune sounds awesome. I hear the snare drum crackling, the sweet little chiming intro and bam! I'm cranking Jr. way the fuck up. Gain increase is the natural and immediate response. The song is incredibly visceral, and at the right volume level the thing just sends waves and waves of dynamic force across your body.

But goddamnit--and usually I'm realizing this yet again by the time Billy's telling us "hipsters unite"--it's too perfect. Goddamnit, it's too fucking perfect.

Nothing fucking sounds like this. No matter how hard you practice, you can't plug in your scarred-up Les Paul copy and sound like "Cherub Rock." You can't do it.

And that's because the whole song is built on artifice. It's built on Butch Vig doing 40 overdubs, each having been tweaked in their sound curve in some way or the other, and it's built around a solo that was constructed more by messing with audio tape, not guitar strings. Shit, even Vig realizes the problem; he's told people that he and Corgan and the rest of the band just didn't care if anyone thought Siamese Dream was overproduced.

And why the hell not, would be my question to him.

I'm no purist. I like a raw sound, I love the Replacements' records on Twin/Tone, I love Exile on Main Street, I love Tonight's The Night, I love dirty crankin' rock 'n' roll with nothing but an empty picture window between me and the guitar, between me and the bass. But I can dig me some production values, too. I love King Crimson and prog rock and I like a good bit of The Cure and '80's New Wave and some of the slicker stuff from the Beatles, too. Shit, I love Psychocandy and even some of the shoegaze it spawned.

Mostly I'm about what sounds good.

So why does "Cherub Rock" leave me with such an uneasiness? Why does the lead single from the second Pumpkins album bother me when the entirety of Loveless doesn't? Hell, when (No Pussyfooting) doesn't?

After a little thought, I think it goes back to our song's theme, preferring the money over the honey, not that there's anything wrong with that. All Billy Corgan ever wanted to do was be in lead an arena rock band. Albini derisively compared the Smashing Pumpkins to REO Speedwagon, but it's a good comparison. That's what Corgan wanted them to be. 200 nights a year in front of 15,000 kids every night, playing the number one song from the number one album.

Only problem is, you can't play "Cherub Rock" live, or you can't play a meaningful version of it, because most of it is stuck in the studio. So 200 nights a year, you gyp 15,000 kids a night.

Although there are a few select parts of their discography that I love, I was never, not even as a teen toting my pipe and clad in my concert jerseys, that much into Queen. I certainly never attended one of their shows. But a friend had gone to see Queen when they were touring off Live Killers, and he told me how the band simply left the stage during the operatic section of "Bohemian Rhapsody." And I was like, what a fucking rip-off, I could listen to it at home for that.

And when I later became familiar with "Death on Two Legs" or "Brighton Rock," while I loved the way the tunes sounded, a part of me could only think of how crappy they would sound live with the massive overdubs stripped away.

So while Kurt Cobain made the most famous '70's band/90's band comparison of all when he said that Nirvana were nothing but Cheap Trick 20 years later, I might suggest that it is even more apt to call The Smashing Pumpkins, Queen Redux.

It's one thing for a couple of heroin scuzzballs to record some dark, achingly beautiful chainsaw in a hurricane record that swirls through a bespeakered room like their own opioid dreams. No-one goes to see those bands, anyway, at least not until they do a reunion show at Coachella.

But when you decide to become the biggest touring band in the world, don't you at least owe it to your fans to record music that you can actually play live with some sort of authenticity?

The Smashing Pumpkins - Siamese Dream - 01 - Cherub Rock.mp3

This file was removed March 2, 2009. If you're still way interested in coming up with a copy of this--and really can't figure out where you might get one--drop me an email and I'm sure I'll be able to figure something out for you.

File Under: Overdub Rock


Anonymous said...

I agree!!! Music has become way over-produced, over- hyped and over played. What ever happened to music for music. I wonder how some of todays music would stand up without the production techniques allowed with modern music production. What if the 90's "indie rockers had to make it in the 60's by playing live gigs, being instumentally coherent as well as innovative to impress crowds- not teeny boppers listening on their CDs.... You're the man!

Jester said...

Great reading, and I tend to agree, I found myself researching cherub rock tonight, and came across this blog in my travels.. The reason i'm looking into it, after hearing again tonight for the first time in a while, is how much the intro reminded me of a chili peppers song, or vise versa to be precise, otherside, I believe it is that sounds similar, any thoughts?...

rastronomicals said...


Thanks for the comment although I'm sure you're long gone by the time I'm seeing it.

But to respond, there IS this one Chili Peppers song, and every time I hear it, I think it's gonna be "Cherub Rock" and then it's not and I feel gypped. Not sure what it's called though, the Chili Peppers mostly leave me cold, so I'm no expert.