rock double albums

Make Mine a Double #11: The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” (1995)

Throughout their peak years, the Smashing Pumpkins were often as belittled as they were beloved. The Chicago quartet, led by the ambitious and troubled Billy Corgan, made their first album in 1991, the same year that saw the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind. But while the Pumpkins were contemporaneous with the grunge-rock movement, they always had a bit of a street-cred problem with alt-rock purists. The ready-for-prime-time debut Gish had arena-rock production values and betrayed an affinity for pyschedelia and Sabbath, an approach that used just as much luster as grit. The formula was refined on the blockbuster Siamese Dream and, with the help of some memorable videos, cemented their popularity and fixed their darkish image for the general rock public. Never afraid to aim high, Corgan and Co. had rocketed to fame with grandiose personal statements where the vivid peaks and valleys of their music were as emotionally charged as their leader’s lyrics. “Despite all my rage/I’m still just a rat in a cage” was a (sometimes mocked) catchphrase for the decade and the refrain of “Bullet With Butterfly Wings”, as blistering a chunk of speed grunge as you’d ever want to hear. It was the lead single when Corgan went widescreen in 1995, spearheading the band in this two-hour collection of songs that found him at his restlessly creative peak.

The exceedingly earnest catharsis of many of these tracks struck a chord with millions of young people in Generations X, Y and Z. In a skeptical age, it also left Corgan open to detractors, who could point first at the album’s overwrought title, with its limp play on words. The curtain does open with the titular prelude (thankfully “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” turns out to be an instrumental) and this piano-and-mellotron introduction gives way to a sudden surging crescendo and the dramatic plea for personal connection that is “Tonight, Tonight,” one of the Pumpkins’ most elegant showpieces. (The group seemed to have this thing with silent movies: the first album was named after Lillian Gish and the video for this song was heavily inspired by early French filmmaker/fantasist George Melies, as was the handsome cover art).

But much of the first disc (titled “Dawn to Dusk”) is a lot harsher, with metallic riffing predominant and Corgan plumbing the depths of his inner torment. This domineering a frontman usually overshadows his colleagues and the band was long known for its internal vexations. In the obsessive pursuit of sonic perfection, Corgan had often played the parts of second guitarist James Iha and bassist D’arcy Wretzky in the studio. The group was also known for its constant infighting and drug problems, especially those of drummer Jimmy Chamberlin. Mellon Collie benefited by a shift in strategy suggested by co-producer Mark “Flood” Ellis (Alan Moulder and Corgan were also at the controls) that had the group hashing out material in rehearsals beforehand, making for a looser sound than on some of their earlier airtight productions. They also employed two studio rooms concurrently—while Corgan honed his vision in one space, the others could be working out the foundation of the next number. Iha and Corgan team up for some soaring guitar passages here and Wretzky’ bass along with Chamberlin’s thunderous drumming stoke the fires underneath a long line of emotionally fraught songs. This is generational angst music and, especially for those outside the realm, the effect can seem oppressive. But there’s plenty of room for the Pumpkins to show their spaced-out side as well. The first CD ends with the nine-minute dream voyage “Porcelina of the Vast Ocean” and Iha’s acoustic “Take Me Down”, both reminiscent of the underappreciated Meddle-era Pink Floyd of the early Seventies.

But we’re never far from the notion that these 28 songs serve as a platform for Billy Corgan to properly exorcise all his demons. As a child, he was abandoned by his mother and ill-served by his substance-abusing father (he bailed out his incorrigible dad on a drug bust as late as New Year’s Day 2008). Corgan also asserts he was physically abused by his stepmother. His battle with depression was fated to be long lasting. For every reflective gem like “Thirty-Three” there are a few others where Corgan’s adenoidal wail cuts through the wall-of-noise with lines like “I never let on that I was down”, “Peace will not come to this lonely heart”, “I’m in love with my sadness” and even “Love is suicide.” The band’s image, crafted by their leader, also became more complex: the promo shoot for the scorching single “Zero” was one of the first showing Corgan’s famously shaved head and newly feral visage, before long he was appearing in videos as Nosferatu. But it was a diverse look rounded off by the Japanese-American Iha, Wretsky’s goth-chick allure and the quarterback good looks of Chamberlin (intact despite the heavy heroin use). The four come together to take turns singing on the concluding “Farewell and Good Night”—comparable to the Beatles’ soft landing for the “White Album”—a quiet coda for this stormy testament to an era of self-regarding uneasiness.


The Pumpkins’ young and innocent days? From left: Darcy, James Iha, Billy Corgan, Jimmy Chamberlin

Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness debuted as a Billboard #1 and would go nine times platinum. The Smashing Pumpkins did not see this high a mountaintop again, either in terms of artistic scope or popular success. Touring behind this album, their supplementary keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin died of an overdose after an all-night drug binge with Jimmy Chamberlin. The drummer survived but was fired (he later returned) and the band’s next couple of records never struck the same chord with fans. Since disbanding in 2000, Billy Corgan has had little to do with Iha and Wretsky, becoming estranged, as it were, from his second dysfunctional family. When he revived the S.P. name in 2006 in a fitful comeback attempt, only Chamberlin was back from the original lineup. While still trying to discover a new winning formula in early 2010, Corgan, in a Rolling Stone article called “Rock Star, Interrupted”, said “Do I belong in the conversation about the best artists in the world? Yes, I do.” There are many who would beg to differ—one could imagine the reaction of former Big Black leader (and fellow Chicagoan) Steve Albini, who once said the Pumpkins were about as alternative as REO Speedwagon.

In an age of a million ironic hipsters, where musical integrity is seen to be in direct proportion to its obscurity, Corgan was bound to be the whipping boy of certain factions. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness reaches heights that most modern bands wouldn’t even bother looking up at (“an Icarus with wings that worked” said Time magazine, naming it top album of 1995) but its best quality may end up being Corgan’s knack for seeing life’s smaller defining moments and merging it with the panorama. The shimmering “1979”, modestly tucked away in the middle of the second disc (“Twilight to Starlight” for those keeping score at home), turned out to be the record’s biggest hit song and one of the great singles of the Nineties. In thirty lines of nearly uninterrupted verse, Corgan paints an impressionistic portrait of his generation as they see life spread out before them, all the way to its inevitable passing (“With the headlights pointed at the dawn/We were sure we’d never see an end to it all”). In a Middle America of diminished expectations, these carousing young teens, living “beneath the sound of hope”, are nonetheless touched with a grace that can’t be negated even “in the land of a thousand guilts.” As fitting to its era as Kerouac’s On the Road was to baby boomers, the Samshing Pumpkins’ “1979” is one of those works where the intimate and the universal co-mingle as one—which is about as epic as it gets.

Make Mine a Double #9: Marvin Gaye’s “Here, My Dear” (1978)

“I guess I’ll have to say this album is dedicated to you/though perhaps I may not be happy/This is what you want, so I’ve conceded.” Musical dedications and poison pen songs are well-established pop conventions but it’s doubtful anyone else combined the two with such chutzpah as Marvin Gaye did in 1978 with the divorce-themed concept album that began with those lines. While in the legal process of ending his marital union with Anna Gordy Gaye, the sister of Motown boss Berry Gordy for whom he recorded, the financially and psychologically troubled Gaye was ordered to funnel much of the proceeds of his next album to his wife and son as part of the settlement. Gaye resisted his initial temptation to toss off a “lazy” record. Instead he dug in his heels and crafted a highly personal and idiosyncratic exploration of his failed marriage—some of the lyrics could have been lifted from the pages of a court deposition—and “wedded” it to some of the strongest instrumental tracks of his later career. Here, My Dear is not the easiest record to warm up to. It initially sold well enough to his loyal fan base (peaking at #4 on the soul charts and at #26 on the pop) but likely left a lot of bemused listeners in its wake. Originally derided by many critics as self-indulgent, its reputation has improved over time as a fascinating (if troubling) late chapter in the rocky life and times of one of R&B’s most beloved singers.


Marvin and Anna Gordy in happier times (I’m assuming).

Gaye met Anna Gordy, seventeen years his senior, soon after he signed on with her brother in the early days of Motown. By the singer’s own account, she lit a fire under a promising but underachieving young talent. They were together through Gaye’s remarkable string of over twenty major hit songs in the Sixties, either on solo records or with duet partners like Tami Terrell or Mary Wells. But as the decade turned and Gaye reached new artistic heights with What’s Going On, a landmark album of black social protest, the marriage had hit the skids. After the table-setting title track of Here, My Dear, Gaye proceeds with his highly-personalized dissection on the second song with “I Met a Little Girl”, a bittersweet recalling of love’s early bloom that abruptly jumps ahead to 1976’s very public falling out. This is directly followed by “When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You” (Gaye is so locked into his lyrical quest to get at what went wrong that he doesn’t get around to the titular refrain until the song has nearly exhausted its six-minute running time) and “Anger” (an candid internal conversation where he strives to overcome his inner demons and “reach that wiser age”).

For Gaye, that last task always would prove a tough one. Raised in Washington, D.C. by a strict and domineering minister father, the higher aspirations of a Christian faith were pitted against an abusive home environment. The effects of this would appear to carry over into his tumultuous adult relationships, both personal and professional. Typically, Gaye doesn’t shy away from the fact that his life often resembled a lurid soap opera (“What I can’t understand is if you love me/How could you turn me into the police?”) and while he may vent about his wife’s expensive tastes inflating the alimony (“You’ve got a flair for style and you’re styling all the while”) he does not ignore his own exorbitant drug habit. With this much blame to go around, the atmosphere can become a bit oppressive but Gaye takes a recess from the musical divorce court of his own making for three consecutive tunes halfway through. Here’s a return of the more altruistic Marvin of the early 70s with the thoughtful yearning of “Sparrow” and the dogged self-encouragement of “Time to Get It Together”. And “Everybody Needs Love,” with its quiet-storm instrumental vibe and buttery vocal overdubs, could have been the hit song that Here, My Dear needed. But the only single released from it, the entertaining “A Funky Space Reincarnation,” did not fare well. It’s a bit of a departure from the classic-sounding soul jams that filled most of these four sides. With its slinky bass line, trebly rhythm guitar and Gaye’s own fulsome synthesizer fills, it suggests that the man was familiar with the jaunty sci-fi funk of George Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadelic collective. In this escapist fantasy, Gaye may be liberated by time travel, getting down with a new lover on his “space bed,” but the cold reality of his tangled affairs on the home planet soon come creeping back.

A review of Here, My Dear would not be complete without mentioning the exceptional (if suitably downbeat) cover art. Painter Michael Bryan had done album sleeves for the likes John Lennon, Rod Stewart and Bootsy Collins and his idea of incorporating Rodin’s sculpture The Kiss was met with approval by Gaye (“Put me in a toga”). The singer solemnly stands aside the iconic couple whose image is repeated on the back—this time they’ve caught fire inside the ruins of a columned courtyard while another statue, a grinning beast, sits on a pedestal bearing the legend “Pain and Divorce.” That’s only half of it. The inner gatefold shows a man’s hand giving over a token-sized LP to a woman’s hand above a Monopoly-like game board. Below her hand are gobs of cash, a house and a Cadillac. The male hand presides over a piano, a reel-to-reel tape recorder and a single dollar bill. Ouch!


A 1978 TV commercial for the album gets you up close and personal with Michael Bryan’s distinctive artwork.

In this tangled web of personal grievances and court orders, Here, My Dear was fated to be a flop. First off, if Berry Gordy was unenthusiastic about What’s Going On (and still professed to not understand it even after it became a worldwide smash) what was he going to do with a double album that all but declared open season on his own sister? Secondly, Gaye seemed to lose interest in the record once he got it off his chest, while Anna Gordy (perhaps paradoxically) pondered an invasion-of-piracy lawsuit to stop the LP that was mandated to make her hundreds of thousands of dollars. After the initial sales spike, Here, My Dear died on the vine and was quickly out of print. A couple of years later, his brief second marriage to Janis Hunter (the inspiration for “Let’s Get it On” as well as this record’s “Falling in Love Again”) also hit the rocks. Dogged by the scourge of a hard drug habit and pursued by the IRS (he owed a fortune in back taxes) he relocated to Belgium and recorded his final big hit, the sublime “Sexual Healing.” But the old demons quickly caught up with him on his return to the States and, a day before what would have been his 45th birthday, Marvin Gaye was shot dead by his father after a domestic dispute, the last terrible chapter in a life filled with destructive personal relationships.

Make Mine a Double is an ongoing series that explores the wild and woolly world of rock’s most notable double album’s. Up next: “Layla.”

Make Mine a Double #8: The Minutemen’s “Double Nickels on the Dime” (1984)

Double Nickels on the Dime is a landmark post-punk album that was reportedly inspired by another brilliant two record set, Husker Du’s Zen Arcade, recorded earlier that year. The Minutemen, a trio that proudly hailed from the working-class San Pedro area of Los Angeles, were an aptly named group—-both for the brevity of their songs and their readiness to confront the forces of oppression with the chosen weapons of their day. On Double Nickels, singer/guitarist D. Boon rails against government malfeasance and media brainwashing as if on a set schedule. But the group’s dry sense of humor never abandons them through these four dynamic sides and the overall feel is more conspiratorial than preachy. This is an album treasured by a considerable number of 1980s indie/underground rock fans and is essential for younger listeners of a similar bent. Besides, it’s hard not to love a record with such song titles as “There Ain’t Shit on TV Tonight”, “Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing”, “The Roar of the Masses Could be Farts” and “Do You Want New Wave or Do You Want the Truth?”

The Minutemen directly followed the first column of punk rockers and they give shout-outs to Joe Strummer, Richard Hell and X’s John Doe in “History Lesson-Part II,” perhaps the most well-known song here. But they are no back-to-basics purists. Boon’s fleet-fingered fretwork is as skillful as many of the Sixties’ axe heroes and the versatile rhythm section of bassist Mike Watt and drummer George Hurley are as adept at swinging as they are at pile driving.

There were forty-five tracks on the original vinyl, though CD editions usually omit a couple to shoehorn it onto one disc. Only one cut was more than three minutes long and most were under two, meaning more than the usual amount of opportunities for double-album stretching out. There’s a countryish song, an acoustic guitar interlude, passages that resemble free-form jazz and several numbers of slam-poetry-with-musical-backing featuring acute social commentary, often emanating from the pen of Mike Watt.


The album’s much-loved cover photo (and its title) was a snarky reference to the recent Sammy Hagar hit “I Can’t Drive 55.” It shows Mike Watt driving his VW Beetles at exactly 55 MPH, heading for the San Pedro off-ramp.

Casual listeners may be put off by what seems more like underdeveloped sketches than full-bodied songs. But the Minutemen’s minimalist mindset reveals its skewed genius gradually, whether it is the hazardous intersection of romance, religion and workplace politics depicted in “Jesus and Tequila” or the great deadpan cover of Steely Dan’s “Doctor Wu.” The symbolically charged year of 1984 saw President Ronald Reagan get reelected and the deep discontent of the creative underclass with that topdog-loving society infuses much of the material here. This is made crystal clear in the fantastic video the band did for the fist-pumping anthem “This Ain’t No Picnic.” Footage of Reagan the actor as a World War II fighter pilot is used to make it look like he’s strafing the band with machine-gun fire. He finally resorts to bombing but our rock heroes emerge from the rubble, little the worse for wear and still shouting the chorus.

“Our band could be your life,” the opening line from the autobiographical “History Lesson-Part II” (and later used by author Michael Azerrad as the title for his great book about that musical era), at first pass sounds like a boast but stands as a message of solidarity to all those who would come after them. And though the Minutemen would prove to be influential, their own career would come to an end with the tragic death of D. Boon in a van accident just before Christmas 1985. A depressed Watt and Hurley thought about leaving music but were encouraged to return, forming the well-regarded fIREHOSE. Mike Watt in particular has remained active over the next two decades and eventually joined the re-united Stooges in 2003. He’s dedicated every project he’s been involved with to the memory of his childhood friend from San Pedro, where he still resides.

For those who want to see the story of the Minutemen on film, I would recommend the excellent documentary We Jam Econo. I also would, as usual, recommend my own book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey. Click on the book cover above to see a 30-page excerpt.