Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness: A Bullitt train to the 90s

On the evening of March 4, 1996, I picked up my old mate Al and we drove through Hungry Jack’s for dinner before the Smashing Pumpkins concert in Perth, Western Australia, and I say to him, ‘What did you do today?’ You know, as you do.

He says, ‘I went and bought the Steve McQueen movie, Bullitt.’

‘Why?’ I says.

‘Haven’t you seen it?’

‘Yeah, but why d’you buy it?’

‘For the Mustang scene.’

‘The car chase?’

‘Yeah, best car chase ever filmed.’

I couldn’t disagree with this. It was. The sound of that Mustang’s engine alone made it the best ever.

We took our seats in the Perth Entertainment Centre. The lights went out. The Pumpkins had a movie screen above the drum stage. It lit up. And the Mustang scene from Bullitt came on, to introduce the set. No word of a lie. Were we surprised? We were gobsmacked.

And remained gobsmacked for the rest of gig. Smashing Pumpkins, the original lineup, playing their historic Infinite Sadness concert. I mean, come on. What a time to be alive.

The house is empty today, which makes it the perfect day to get Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness back on the turntable. As ever, the needle drops and I’m taken back to that night.

The vinyl version of Mellon Collie is a massive four-album boxset, each record housed in a solid cardboard sleeve with individualised artwork. There are two books, one a history of the album’s development and recording, the other a libretto. The records themselves are immaculate. The sound as full and rich as you could hope for. It’s a thing of beauty.

The Smashing Pumpkins were never really about beauty though. They were weird and they were raw and somehow they made it cool to be those things. Billy Corgan’s obsessive, controlling literary and musical vision (he was desperate to record the grunge era’s version of Pink Floyd The Wall). James Iha’s mysterious reserve and blistering talent. D’arcy Wretzky’s gothic, hovering presence. And Jimmy Chamberlin’s heroin-fuelled polyphony. They were too hard and heavy to be beautiful. They were closer to circus performers than rock stars. Sure, they did pop as well as anybody (1979, for example, the last song recorded for the album on the very last day of recoding, and one of the biggest hits of that decade) but they were as hard-rocking as anyone in the ’90s. Just listen to the opening tracks of the second half of the album: Where Boys Fear to Tread, and then Bodies:

The empty bodies stand at rest, Casualties of their own flesh, Afflicted by their dispossession, But no bodies ever knew, Nobodys, No bodies felt like you, Nobodys, Love is suicide

See. Ugly. Says Billy about the track: ‘At this point in my life there were bodies everywhere, and it would have titillated me then to know there were many more to come. To sing the song the full-range speakers were lit on fire in the control room; loud enough to make my ears ring. Garble razor blades and scream-scream until it makes sense. I wondered then how I’d ever be able to sing the song in front of a room full of strangers.’

Well, he did sing it in front of strangers, at least in Perth in 1996, nine songs into the set. And our ears did indeed ring as he scream-screamed at the 8000 of us who sat there astonished by the lights and the energy and the senseless waves of sound that held us there, like stormchasers in a hurricane.

Even when the Pumpkins approximated beauty, they didn’t really. In the Arms of Sleep is as close as it comes, a song that sounds like a lullaby (‘sleep will not come to this tired body now’) but is really about drug use and infidelity after a sleepless night on the town. Billy again:

Unhappy in love meant long nights on the town, undertaken without my bride in tow. l was spared the need to make up excuses why l didn’t want her along because she worked a normal job. Vanity and attention called me to many a mirror, but this was not because I wanted to see myself in the gaze of another. I was looking for something while the rest of the world slept, and the zombies and parasites that roam the midnight world do have some answers in their pockets if you can get past their well-worn stories. A beautiful little song that by keeping quaint says more about disunion and disloyalty than any symphony of noise could point to.

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That’s the allure of the Pumpkins though. There’s tragedy and pain, brutality and cruelty in the so-called quiet tracks, and there’s reflective poetry in the ear-pounding heavy metal bangers. They don’t come anymore blistering than Tales of a Scorched Earth:

Everybody’s lost just waiting to be found, everyone’s a thought just waiting to fade, so fuck it all cause i don’t care, so what somehow somewhere we dared, to try to dare to dare for a little more, i lie just to be real, and i’d die just to feel, why do the same old things keep on happening? because beyond my hopes there are no reasons

I could go on forever. Because the album does. That’s the beauty of revisiting an opus like this on vinyl. You slow down. You savour the music. You ponder the words. As Geri the Cleaner says in Toy Story 2, ‘You can’t rush art.’

You can rush the years though. It’s more than 22 years since me and Al sat open-mouthed, watching the very car chase from Bullitt that we’d just been talking about. As clear as it is in my memory, it could have been last week. Which probably says as much about the timelessness of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness as it does about the fond musical reveries of middle age.