Thinking about it now, it’s hard to even imagine how it could have happened.
Somewhere in the not-to-distant past, it became cool for bands to not know how to play their instruments. True, most groups struggle with their technical inability to play at first, compensating with imagination until they are eventually able to overcome those initial limitations (as U2 famously did). But those limitations usually become part of a group’s back story after the fact. In today’s landscape, the correct formula for success requires a lack of ability from the get-go: those who are most lauded tend to make a specific point of informing the public that they’ve only been playing their instruments for about a week and half, but by golly — they’re so damn artistic and inspired that the awesome tunes just leap from their souls regardless — like some sort of re-imagining of the Athenian creation story from Greek mythology.
And while it would be easy to accuse American Idol of being the purveyor of this unfortunate phenomenon, an examination of early press rushes from the likes of The White Stripes and Kings Of Leon make it evident that being a musical retard has become a mainstream front-line selling point for “real” bands in general.
Enter The Smashing Pumpkins, one group which wasn’t altogether innocent of those same charges when they appeared on the scene in the late 80s. While Billy Corgan played almost all the instruments on the Pumpkins’ albums, bassist D’arcy Wretzky and guitarist James Iha were initially little more than window dressing for live proceedings and PR opps. But at least Corgan (and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin) could play. There was no attempt at the crown based on musical ignorance, feigned or otherwise. Anyone’s lack of proficiency became an embarrassment for sheepish admission down the road after they’d grown into their instruments.
Ironic then that The Smashing Pumpkins were tapped to play the release party for Guitar Hero: World Tour – with Guitar Hero being the video game sensation that is more than a little responsible for deluding those without musical chops into thinking they are, in fact, guitar virtuosos (the hook here is that the Pumpkins’ latest single, “G.L.O.W.” can only be found on Guitar Hero: World Tour, and is not commercially available in any other form). Corgan, a bona fide guitar hero, must have smirked all the way to the bank to cash the fat corporate check inked with that same irony.
Of course, knowing how to play your instrument provides no guarantee of quality, and the Pumpkins suffered greatly from that failure in the late 90s as their output grew more dreary, meandering and distant from the hard-rock pop goodness that made Gish, Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness required listening for alternative radio fans and aspiring musicians. Met with widespread critical and commercial indifference, last year’s Zeitgeist continued the trend.
However, there was something incredibly redeeming about seeing the Pumpkins live at a Hollywood sound stage in the midst of a corporate shindig populated by girls who were pleased with themselves for being almost someone enough that they got in to the private affair and the dude-bro’s who were pleased with themselves for being in the same room with those girls. Chamberlin wasn’t playing a drum kit with three pieces, he was playing a percussion installation with dozens of facets. Corgan and James Iha replacement Jeff “Shredder” Schroeder wore their guitars low and played intricate, dexterous parts while bassist Ginger Reyes demonstrated in no uncertain terms that she was far from the token “chick bass player” with fierce lines of her own. Two keyboard players fleshed things out, and nearly everyone sang. The Pumpkins weren’t afraid to play — nor were they afraid to not please the crowd (Corgan took a minute mid-set to acknowledge them, mocking his own piñata-like trousers (“they were $600 at Neiman’s”) before leading his cohorts back into their amorphous set (“and now, back to The Darkness,” he joked).
When it grew apparent that no hits of any kind were going to be performed, the majority of the crowd retreated into an adjoining room, where an open bar, free food and all the Guitar Hero they could ever want to play awaited, minus the inconvenience of having to listen to actual musicians.
The Pumpkins rocked on regardless, grinning as they played unfamiliar tunes which were increasingly epic and noodle-y in scope, culminating in something monstrous which I’ll call “Jazz Odyssey” wherein Corgan played kettle drums — first with mallets and then with the neck and body of his guitar — as Schroeder sourced otherworldly creepiness from a Theremin. As the number approached a miasmatic climax, the whole thing culminated with – I kid you not – the band simultaneously going quiet and holding chirping, stuffed toy birds to their vocal mics as a pair of timid children joined Corgan on stage, flanking him on each side.
Say what you will about indie-pop trumping the rock establishment, but you’re not likely to see that anytime soon on a Monday night at Spaceland. It remains to be seen if The Smashing Pumpkins v2.0 will achieve any of the relevance of their predecessor, but in the meantime, they’re making it safe for kids everywhere taking music lessons.