Today marks the 30th anniversary of Smashing Pumpkins debut album, Gish. Released on 28th May 1991, the hard-rocking, psychedelic opus introduced the world to visceral Chicago four-piece. Gish would eventually be certified platinum and was co-produced by ubiquitous producer Butch Vig.
The album’s name comes from silent film star Lillian Gish. In an interview at the time, frontman Billy Corgan explained: “My grandmother used to tell me that one of the biggest things that ever happened was when Lillian Gish rode through town on a train, my grandmother lived in the middle of nowhere, so that was a big deal.” In 1998, Corgan alleged that the album’s working title was ‘Fish’, but they changed it to avoid comparisons with every stoner’s favourite band, Phish.
The Pumpkins’ triumphant debut was recorded from December 1990 to March 1991 at Butch Vig’s Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin. With a budget of $20,000, Billy Corgan co-produced with Vig, who at the time was still relatively unknown. This album would do its bit in changing Vig’s fortunes, as his next project that year was Nirvana’s decade-defining record Nevermind.
The extended recording period and Gish’s large budget were newfound prospects for Vig. In 2008 he remembered: “[Corgan] wanted to make everything sound amazing and see how far he could take it; really spend time on the production and the performances. For me, that was a godsend because I was used to doing records for all the indie labels and we only had budgeted for three or four days.”
Vig expanded: “Having that luxury to spend hours on a guitar tone or tuning the drums or working on harmonies and textural things … I was over the moon to think I had found a comrade-in-arms who wanted to push me, and who really wanted me to push him.”
This dense production was indicative of the classic rock acts of the years gone by, and not a relatively unknown, independent band from Illinois. Part of Gish‘s attraction is the quality of the production. While it has been lumped in with the nascent grunge movement, it is so much more. The influence of psychedelic rock acts of the past can be heard, and a lot of this stems from the warm, organic production that was not reliant on sampling or processing.
If anything, in sound, it is closer to the neo-psychedelia of Jane’s Addiction’s Ritual de lo Habitual – which was released a year earlier in 1990 – than the grunge movement of which the band are often associated. Gish was also the first time the expertly dovetailing guitars of James Iha and Corgan would grace our ears – regardless of the fact Corgan performed the vast majority of guitar parts on the record.
The recording of the album took 30 days. The band were also largely inexperienced with the processes of laying down a full LP at the time. Typically Smashing Pumpkins, the sessions put a massive strain on the band. Bassist D’arcy Wretzky commented that she did not know how they survived it. Furthermore, frontman Billy Corgan’s demons came to the fore, and he suffered a nervous breakdown.
Thematically, Corgan has said that the album concerns pain and spirituality, confirming its psychedelic nature. In a 1995 MTV documentary, he contended, “The album is about pain and spiritual ascension. People ask if it’s a political album. It’s not a political album, it’s a personal album.”
The larger than life frontman added: “In a weird kind of way, Gish is almost like an instrumental album—it just happens to have singing on it, but the music overpowers the band in a lot of places. I was trying to say a lot of things I couldn’t really say in kind of intangible, unspeakable ways, so I was capable of doing that with the music, but I don’t think I was capable of doing it with words.”
Ultimately, Gish is a fantastic first outing. It contains all the raw elements that the Smashing Pumpkins would hone on the following two albums Siamese Dream (1993) and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995). Gish is a well-executed opus; visceral, psychedelic guitars, dynamic rhythms and dark, introspective lyrics make it an underrated entry in the Smashing Pumpkins back catalogue. Oh, and the in-fighting that marked its recording would soon become another classic hallmark of the Chicago guitar heroes.