on 9 October 2012
Unlike Nirvana and Pearl Jam, The Smashing Pumpkins never had all the angst about success that the aforementioned bands had. Sure, they had angst. It was the mid 1990s and it was grunge. Most bands had angst. But Billy was smart enough to market it. For Billy, he wanted to be a rock star, and that's what he got to be.
And not only that, he was the most prolific songwriter of the whole grunge movement. I have assembled my own Pumpkins' B-Side/Rarities CD-R collection, which is a full five 80 minute cds, comprised entirely of material that was released officially but never released on their six studio albums. This box set is a testament to his prolific writing. What's also a testament to Corgan is just how GOOD all these B-sides are. He's kinda like Dylan in that Corgan's outtakes, at least in this period, is just phenomenal.
For their third album, MELLON COLLIE AND THE INFINITE SADNESS, the band turned in one of the most ambitious (and some say indulgent) albums rock ever saw. It was a double album with a two hour running time (long even for a double album), and Corgan and Company did everything from folk, dreamy pop, jazz, heavy medal, hard rock, and new wave. Listening to Corgan was somewhat akin to listening to an amalgamation of David Bowie, Husker Du, and a good number of 1970s rock bands. For my money, MELLON COLLIE is a flat-out masterpiece, easily the best album the band ever did, and on par with Soundgarden's BADMOTERFINGER, Alice in Chains' DIRT, Pearl Jam's TEN, Mudhoney's, and even the critical darling Nirvana's NEVERMIND. In my view, MELLON COLLIE really is my generation's version of Pink Floyd's THE WALL. It's that good.
But here's the amazing thing. After the band released the double album in 1995, they released this box set just a little over a year from MELLON COLLIE. As good as MELLON COLLIE is, and even given its rather abnormal length, listening to this sounds like the band actually cut quite a bit of incredibly entertaining material here. In fact, they could have followed MELLON COLLIE up with a new album in 1996 or 1997, and it would have been just as big a hit as their magnum opus.
But the band didn't do that. You see, Corgan, kinda like Ryan Adams (though that comparison may be a bit unfair to Corgan), is very much about the rock star image, and AEROPLANE FLIES HIGH is designed just as much for the retro throwback to 1960s and 1970s record releases and that era's rock culture as it is to release new material.
Rather than assembling a second album (or, as I like to think of this box set, a third disc to MELLON COLLIE), Billy supplemented each of the five singles drawn from MC with 4 to 6 new songs, gave each disc its own kind of mini-album continuity, and released it in a rather cumbersome box set. All told, there's about one hundred and forty minutes of music here, longer than the original album, which is already something of a monstrosity when it comes to length.
Each disc follows its own flow.
Disc 1, the "Bullet with Butterfly" single, has the lead track, a great mellow acoustic number sung by James Iha and D'arcy and then several covers.
Disc 2, the 1979 single, is the rock/pop EP, and has some of the best songs on the entire set.
Disc 3, the "Zero" single, is the more hard rock and metal EP. The single has the only really bad song here, the twenty three minute "Pasticho Medley". Esentially, the song (if you can call it that) is a bunch of roughly edited snippits of all these unfinished songs and recordings the band made during the album sessions. In fact, the medley is rather jarring to listen too, as it feels like Corgan was going to make an epic instrumental of all his unreleased songs, but rather than write interconnecting instrumental parts and transitions, all this music just butts up against each other. I've listened to AEROPLANE for a long time, and I only made it thru "Medley" once. Trust me, life's to short to listen to it any more than that, and even once is questionable.
Disc 4, the "Tonight, Tonight" single, focuses more on the ballad, dreamy pop sound, and has one of their all-time definitive songs ("Rotten Apples").
Disc 5, the "Thirty Three" single, is the most wide ranging in sound, featuring winding guitar epics to rather experimental cover choices.
Now, lets look at THE AEROPLANE FLIES HIGH had the band chose to release this as a regular album. First off, dispense with the already released songs. That knocks out about twenty minutes. Then knock off the utterly disposable "Pasticho Medley". That's roughly forty five minutes gone. Then delete all the covers. After this musical exorcism, you're left with roughly seventy five to eighty minutes of original music. And it's some of the best music of the Pumpkin's career.
You don't get better music in the grunge genre than "Set the Rays to Jerry", "Ugly", "Pennies", "Believe", "God", "Medallia of the Grey Skies", and the rest. I fully believe had they released the music in a more user-friendly format, the resulting album would be as highly regarded as SIAMESE DREAM and MELLON COLLIE, and as it is, of all their B-sides AEROPLANE sounds most like MELLON COLLIE, enough to be a third disc of that album. While I've never been a fan of the title cut (gets a little monotous for my taste, and strangely enough they cut almost a minute off it on ROTTEN APPLES), "The Aeroplane Flies High" certainly does have an epic guitar feel to it, and would have fit in well with MELLON COLLIE.
And of course, we have one of the Pumpkin's best songs, the aforementioned "Rotten Apples". The song's so good they even named their greatest hits package. It's one of my top five favorite songs of not only the Smashing Pumpkins catalogue but the whole grunge scene indeed. What the hell Corgan was thinking (for you know he is the band, as evidenced by ZIETGIST) when he cut the song from MELLON COLLIE I'll never know.
As evidenced by how popular the band was in 1996, when Virgin Records released the set it sold tremendously well. A limited edition release, the box reached #42 on the Billboard charts, and sold 300,000 units (1.5 million discs in all), generating a platinum disc for the band. Originally intended to be limited to 200,000 copies, Virgin Records produced more after the original run sold out due to overwhelming and unexpected demand
Overall, the set has some of the Pumpkin's best songs here, and this is the closest thing we have to the great lost Pumpkins album. Well, this, and the Reel Time demos they cut before GISH.
EDITION NOTIES: This set is now unfortunately out of print, and has been since 1996. You'll have to buy it used or ebay it.
*For the smart consumer, you should know this box set curiously omits one officially released recording from the MELLON COLLIE era. This is the instrumental "Infinite Sadness", available now on their Rarities/B-Sides digital downloads. The song was originally released on the vastly reconfigured MELLON COLLIE vinyl album, which also included the "Tonight, Tonight" reprise found here.
The Smashing Pumpkins created a sprawling, rich rock masterpiece with "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness." They also created a lot of songs that didn't make it to the final cut, but ended up being attached to the singles as a series of EPs. "The Aeroplane Flies High" collects those five EPs together, and creates a B-side/single collection that is well worth having.
The first song on each disc is a song from the "Mellon Collie" double album, but the five or six songs that come after each single are unique to the EPs, originally from various recording sessions. These songs are often as good as -- sometimes even better -- than what did make it onto the albums.
Each EP has its own mood, and its own self-contained flow, keeping the B-sides from feeling tacked on. One is hard and angry, one is bitter, one is soft and sweet, one is feel good, and so on. As a result, the full range of what the Pumpkins were able to do -- rock, pop, metal, ballads and experimental -- got put on full display, in all their glory.
For example, in the "1979" disc, the Pumpkins get to explore their alt-pop side, while the "Zero" disc explores bitterness and loneliness, sticking to their hard-rock sound. Not to mention the orchestral/acoustic flavor of the "Tonight Tonight" EP, with its subtle strings and laments, and a lo-fi reprise of the title song.
But there is no lag in quality, just because the B-sides didn't make it to the final cut of "Mellon Collie." Songs like "The Aeroplane Flies High (Turns Left, Looks Right)" prove that Pumpkins B-sides are still exceptional, including covers of bands like Blondie and the Cars (yes, that IS Blondie's "Dreaming" you hear Corgan singing, strange as it is).
The heart of the Smashing Pumpkins was Billy Corgan, and Corgan's talents shine in most of the songs here. He delves into orchestras, distortion, lo-fi acoustics and jazz, all in the name of experimentation. Corgan's complex songwriting resembles poetry set to music, and his high, slightly offbeat vocals seem well-suited to the songs he sings. James Iha also wrote and sang a bit on these collections, including a pretty duet with Nina Gordon of Veruca Salt.
If fans have the EPs already, then they will already have the content of "The Aeroplane Flies High." But if they don't, this exceptional collection is definitely worth getting and keeping. A wonderfully overblown collection of B-sides and singles.