Review: Smashing Pumpkins Shepherds Bush Empire, London: view: Grown-up grunge in crushed velvet
Nick Hasted has been a film journalist since 1986. He writes about film, music, books and comics for The Independent, Sight & Sound, Uncut and Little White Lies. He has published two books: The Dark Story of Eminem (2002), and You Really Got Me: The Story of The Kinks (2011), both from Omnibus Press.
Wednesday 27 May 1998
Shepherds Bush Empire, London
When the last great American rock-'n'-roll band left alive hit the stage, it's like Britpop never happened. By the time the start their second song, "Tear", from an album (Adore) which almost no-one here has heard, the ritual riot of grunge's glory days threatens to smash through everything. The first crowd-surfer hurtles towards bald-headed, black- suited singer Billy Corgan, his body straining in the grip of two burly security men, as he tries to touch his hero's hem. Behind him, bodies fly through the air, gantry cameras zoom in close. It's a snapshot of bedlam. But it's soon apparent that the crowd-surfers are pleasing themselves, not really listening. It's their loss, because what Corgan's here for is grunge's last, late act, a finale designed to transcend these teenage kicks for good.
Even at the genre's height, the Pumpkins always seemed too good for grunge. When they played here in 1992, at the apotheosis of the shabby checked shirt, their fans were the ones in crushed velvet. They had more in common with Suede than Nirvana. Their last, epically-conceived triple-album, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, was based on Corgan's angst at abandonment by both parents. But it ended in a spirit of resolve. Adore, made after the death of Corgan's mother - with whom he'd been reconciled - is filled with emotions which grunge's breast-beating excesses never understood: humility, and forgiveness.
The riot takes a while to die down. But even before it does, Adore's strange new sentiments are seeping through. "She loves you, you love her", Corgan sings gently on "Daphne Descends"; "love is good and love is kind", he adds, on "Shame". It's almost incredible to hear such words in a musical form that was once so consumed with self-pity. Several of the songs seem to be for his mother. But the most moving is made to reach wider. Corgan dedicates their biggest UK hit, "Tonight, Tonight", to "our friends in Northern Ireland. Remember them?".
It might have been better if the Pumpkins had settled for such direct emotional challenges. But that would be too easy. Instead, the powerful melodies of older songs like "1979" are crushed by the weight of massive improvisation. The point seems to be to sublimate anything created on record, even the most intimate confessions, into something sonic. The effect often verges on the shapeless, but rather that than dull repetition. The Pumpkins' sense of humour, however, seems mislaid - until, that is, a guest vocalist appears, and it's Simon Le Bon.
There's been an element of punishment tonight, of testing how much we will stand for. But there's a feeling, too, that however much their audience hurl themselves at their feet, however few of their lyrics are listened to, the credit their fans with brains. Corgan has said that, in its most angst-laden days, he saw the band as an art experiment. Perhaps it's a social experiment too. He's already written some of the best songs of his insistently inward-fuming generation. Now he's showing them a way to look out; to grow up.
`Adore' is released on 1 June.
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