14 May 1998: The headlines of the German media are dominated by the affair of the then US President Bill Clinton with a former White House trainee, the ban on tobacco advertising in Europe, and the introduction of the Euro currency that had been decided a few days earlier and which Helmut Kohl agreed to against the will of a broad majority of the population.
In Hamburg it is one of the first promisingly warm spring days of the year. In the afternoon, the Spielbudenplatz fills up with an audience eagerly awaiting the opening concert of the Smashing Pumpkins' European tour entitled "An Evening with the Smashing Pumpkins".
This tour was preceded by three impetuous years: 1995 saw the release of their third LP "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness". If the no less brilliant predecessor "Siamese Dream" had suffered too much from the media's hunger for a new Nevermind, "Mellon Collie" was the right record at the right time and the second big album of the '90s. A double album filled with 28 songs, which moved wonderfully naturally in the spectrum of wild, brilliant, pretentious and delicate.
The album hit number one in the US charts and the band played 165 concerts all over the world. During that touring cycle a girl died at their concert in Dublin. The life of their tour-keyboarder John Melvin ended four months later in New York due to an overdose of heroin.
Jimmy Chamberlin, the drummer of the band, was not only the drug companion of Melvin, but was also present during the incident. He called 911 and tried to resuscitate the keyboard player, unfortunately without any success.
After the incident and because of his ongoing drug abuse, the other three band members kicked Jimmy Chamberlin out of the band. It doesn’t matter if you classify this reaction as heartless or necessary, but it’s safe to say that through this, frontman Billy Corgan lost his musical soulmate who could interact with him and complement him as an equal. In addition, the singer lost his mother, and his wife filed for divorce. A short time later the band was sued by the widow of John Melvoin.
In the light of these facts it’s understandable, that the band took a break to reflect and evolve when they returned to Chicago after the end of their World Tour in February 1997. During the following summer they played a handful of festivals, a small concert under a fake name, and play as support act for Jane’s Addiction, the Rolling Stones and Neil Young. Guitarist James Iha freed himself from the restrictions of the band and released an almost unnoticed solo album in the spring of 1998. During that time the only acoustic sign of life since Mellon Collie was the song “The beginning is the end is the beginning“, which was used for the soundtrack of Batman & Robin.
Finally, at the beginning of winter 1997, the process of working on new material began.
Although previous recording sessions of The Smashing Pumpkins had been dramatic, this time round was a whole new challenge for the band. “That this was the first time I was ever seriously doubted“, said Billy Corgan in an interview with the Chicago Tribune.
Catalysed by the loss of Jimmy Chamberlin, the sound of the band changed during the recording. They moved away from the punchy guitars and organic drums. What was left was beautiful melodies, embedded in a new, more quiet and dark-electronic atmosphere.
The concert audience could only suspect this, as the upcoming album and “Ava Adore“ as the first advance single had yet to be released. Nevertheless through their visual appearance alone some suspicion arose. As soon as they played their first songs it became clear: the band had changed.
In their first years the band dressed gaudily, but still casually. Floral prints, coloured stripe shirts and bleached out, distressed denim. It wasn’t until Mellon Collie that their visual appearance changed into a new direction. Billy put on the iconic ZERO T-Shirt, and shaved his head, not only to highlight his facial features, but also the fact that grunge was dead.
For Adore, the colour spectrum of their clothes had decreased to black and white. Their appearance in leather or a see-through shirt blended perfectly with their new songs, but also distanced them from their live support band.
Kenny Aronof, dressed in a cycling jersey and yellow circle, was their live drummer during that touring cycle. For the recording of the songs the band didn’t even try to find a successor and relied on a drumming computer for most parts, as in their early days. The result was a more quiet, electronic sound image. Around the time of the release of the album, it seemed that it had fallen out of time and didn’t satisfy a lot of the fans. Listening to it today, Adore has aged with dignity.
“Perfect”, often unfairly criticised as a poor sequel to 1979, was the first song that I heard and it made me dive into the 74 minute long album. At the time of writing these lines, “Ava Adore” with its revealing chorus, “Apples + Oranges” despite or because of his simple lyrics or the beautiful-sad “Behold the Nightmare” and “Once upon a time” are on the often changing list of my favourite songs from the album.
Put into the context of the dramatic history of this important band of the nineties, this album shows the Smashing Pumpkins in free fall. The album acts like a retarding moment and to me is a quiet, sad question for a time after the peak. It’s a magical moment and fortunately captured on video at the concert. They play not only the fragile songs of Adore but also phenomenal live versions of older songs such as a hardcore-punk version of their hit ‘Bullet With the Butterfly Wings”. However, the live version of “Thru the Eyes of Ruby“ is my personal highlight of this concert. Looking at the crowd, I share this opinion with everyone who was able to experience the concert.
Hamburg seems to be a receptive, thankful audience who could ignore the fact that the album was much less successful than expected. Unfortunately, the path that the band chose with this album soon reached a dead end.
While Jimmy Chamberlin returned to the band after rehab, bass player D’Arcy left the band, ironically due to drug problems. Shortly after that an already foreseeable official announcement of their break up was released. Their last album at that time ”Machina: The Machines of God“ put even more fans off. It should have been a stage play where the band played themselves as they were depicted in the media. Perhaps it was due to the incomplete concept or the missing explanation that nobody understood the joke. What was left was an album that, despite of a handful of good songs, felt like a puzzle you cannot solve. Perhaps Adore was too much ahead of the times and therefore couldn’t keep up with the commercial success of Siamese Dream or Mellon Collie.
Perhaps due to their melancholy the band got lost in the shift of people’s taste from alternative to happy and simple pop or Nu Metal.
Despite a half-reunion in 2007, the band hasn’t played together in their original line-up until today. However, last Friday their album „Shiny and oh so Bright Vol.1“ was released, and it combines all of the original members except for D’Arcy. It remains exciting to see if the band is able to inject their sound into the present, or if for a time the question after the peak will remain unanswered.