Director and former rock journalist Cameron Crowe opens his new Pearl Jam documentary PJ20 with a fantastic riff about moving to Seattle in the mid 1980s and encountering the city's burgeoning grunge movement. "I became aware of a whole scene of musicians that really worked together to create their own world of influences and bands and community," he says, reflecting on bands like Green River, Mother Love Bone and Soundgarden. "I immediately realized how much this was different from the places I grew up in and the music I listened to in Southern California. This is music that came from guys who stayed indoors a lot. They had a lot of time to play and a lot of time to listen. And they listened to everything: hard rock, hair metal, glam, R&B, soul, disco, blues. All of it Cuisinart'd together into this majestic mix of great, melodic hard rock."
Though Billy Corgan's Smashing Pumpkins hail from the Midwest, another region in this country whose harsh weather traditionally spawns a lot of indoor activity, their music has very much been a parallel manifestation. It's not grunge per se, but definitely, in the words of Crowe, "a majestic mix of great, melodic hard rock." This is particularly true of the group's debut album, Gish, originally released in 1991 and just reissued as a deluxe edition packed with bonus material. The record's alternative influences are obvious: Bowie, The Cure's doom-n-gloom, the mighty Dinosaur Jr., Hüsker Dü and the Pixies' brash blister-pop, Sonic Youth, Jane's Addiction's Zep-stained art metal and all the wonderful wall-of-sound indie from the U.K. (The Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine in particular).
But like their peers in the Pacific Northwest, the early Pumpkins were-- underneath all that underground cool-- red-blooded American longhairs raised on the big riffs, massive hooks and prog-rock pretense of classic-rock radio. Corgan, right around the time of the band's now-legendary 1991 tour with Pearl Jam and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, was quoted as saying he dug Boston's debut album. At the time, when the "punks vs. classic rock" culture war still carried weight with some, this was considered quite an eyebrow-raising comment, yet wholly appropriate when considering how much of Gish is given to densely layered guitars and arena-sized hot licks. Moreover, one can detect powerful echoes of the arty power pop of Cheap Trick and Queen, Led Zeppelin's monolithic groovery and, of course, Pink Floyd's penchant for high-concept bombast. After all, what is Billy Corgan, if not the Roger Waters of the Alternative Nation?