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(Credit: Billy Corgan)

Music

The Hole album that Billy Corgan contributed to

If I told you that Courtney Love and Billy Corgan worked on an album together, would you believe me? Well, it happened, and it happened on the album Love is best known for: Celebrity Skin. The record demonstrated the contempt, calculation and admiration Love held for the world media and exhibited anger that was equal parts fury, as it was acidity.

The album boasted a collection of blinding hooks that raised Love’s profile, but the work is as much Hole’s as it is hers. As a band, Hole prided themselves as the voice of a newer, more disenfranchised generation, flitting between angst and angular. Smashing Pumpkins vocalist Billy Corgan co-wrote five songs and played the bass guitar on two of them, showing that there was an interest in the artistic continuum from 1990s alternative rock.

But it’s hard to say how much the success of the album rested on Corgan, considering that it was the lyrics and themes that people gravitated to. “That’s the whole problem, and I think I addressed this lyrically on the record,” she said. “There’s a huge problem with people in my generation about this conflict about ‘What is selling out?’ She continued with the sentiment: “People between the ages of – I don’t know, 23 to 33? You know, in that zone – certainly amongst my peers in songwriting, tend to not be ambitious, because then they’re somehow going to be selling out.” And then she put the knife in: “To me, it’s sort of ridiculous, because we were now coming to the end of the millennium where there aren’t that many classic records by people in my age group.”

To his credit, Corgan’s bass playing on ‘Hit So Hard’ is brimming with invention, and Love praised the songwriter’s patience, comparing him to a maths teacher who is determined to let the learner uncover the answers by themselves. Music is a process and needs intense concentration to get the required results. It bore little in common with the music Nirvana issued, but that was entirely the point. Love may have been in a relationship with Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain, but that didn’t mean she had to carry on his legacy.

Instead, the music hewed closer to the ragged, rollicking blues numbers of Smashing Pumpkins, which likely explains why the songs were so dynamic in their ambition, and further explains why Corgan was invited to join the band for 12 days. Like many bass players, Corgan’s influence was more subdued, as he focused on the frame, while Love coloured in the picture. The resulting album still holds up with the best of 1990s American rock, creating a soundscape that managed to capture the ennui of the teenage market. They were as fiery as Manic Street Preachers, as nihilistic as Radiohead and as punchy as Smashing Pumpkins.

Celebrity Skin curates a collection of burning electricity, every riff brimming with tangibility, elasticity and fire, as the band welded a series of burning elegies, every song tackling a new avenue to chip into. Consider the lyric, “No second billing ’cause you’re a star now; Cinderella, they aren’t trash like you,” cautioning listeners to the barbed, bucolic lyrics that represent the jagged forms of the world we sit in.

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As it happens, the band were happy to play second fiddle to the romance and rebellion that soaked the tunes, the melodies servicing the themes and taut, tightly produced vocals. The album was brilliant, and it might have gone a long way to help Corgan regain his conceptual muse. Celebrity Skin was a deserved critical smash, and its influence can still be felt in the sounds of musicians, both male and female musicians soaking the imprints.

Interestingly, Corgan and Love were in a relationship when she met Kurt Cobain in the early 1990s. Invariably, she left Corgan for the Nirvana frontman, but they were mature enough to put their differences aside to work on Celebrity Skin. The two rekindled their relationship in 2006, and Corgan moved in with the Hole frontwoman in her Hollywood mansion. The relationship lasted two years, but it didn’t end happily, as Corgan described Love as an “abyss”.

They weren’t a very successful couple, but they were a successful songwriting partnership. His chords, bass and countermelodies fleshed out Love’s words, and Love could curate a museum of sound with the help of the frontman from Smashing Pumpkins. Celebrity Skin stands with many of the best albums from the decade, and in this writer’s opinion, it’s a more interesting album to listen to than Nevermind. Where the Nirvana album is laced in the trappings of the decade, Celebrity Skin broke through the barriers to creating an entirely new sounding record, in an effort to create an entirely new lexicon of rock music. Brilliant.

Stream Hole’s Celebrity Skin on Spotify below.