It’s strange knowing that the newfangled Smashing Pumpkins have been together for nearly as long as the original lineup of Billy Corgan, James Iha, Jimmy Chamberlin and D’arcy Wretzky. Like so many other rock bands, in-fighting, drugs and egos tore apart what was one of the best live bands of the ’90s, but nostalgia and a yearning for better times (also giving the audience what they want) have seen various members of the original Pumpkins reuniting.
In recent months, head Pumpkin Billy Corgan has been hinting at a Pumpkins reunion album with the original lineup which will surely coincide with a tour, so there’s no better time to look back at the best live shows from the original Pumpkins that we can watch and enjoy right now. Ah, technology.
We’ll go in chronological order by album with some oldies, goodies, and rarities. Some of these performances can be found on the remastered and reissued original catalog albums, while others have simply survived the test of time (VHS).
This is the earliest full iteration of the Pumpkins. Jimmy, the last member to be added to the band, is on drums, but the sound is still new-wavey/goth jams which would evolve into their unique alternative rock. This isn’t the best, but it’s decent for fans of psychedelic music with lots of feedback. These are the seeds that would grow into the Pumpkins we know and love.
Arguably the best track on their first album, “Rhinoceros” is a slow tempo, brooding groove that eventually builds into a rocker that would set the template for their later work. You can hear producer Butch Vig’s influence, as well as the whole loud quiet loud that the Pixies introduced to the world years earlier. This is an interesting version because it’s shortened for TV, but doesn’t lack the noise that would propel the Pumpkins to fame in just a few years.
Siamese Dream (1993)
Despite Billy’s suicidal depression during recording, the Pumpkins were enjoying massive success following the release of Siamese Dream which propelled them into alternative stardom. Around this time, discontent within the band grew as reports of Billy playing every instrument on the record (besides drums) painted him as a control freak and a tyrant. On the road, you couldn’t tell anything was wrong. The Pumpkins were carving out a niche as the alternative of the alternative. While Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam were wailing on that Seattle sound, the Pumpkins were just beginning to refine theirs.
This MTV Live performance from 1993 starts off with Soma, one of the best songs on “Siamese Dream” and one of the best song’s Billy’s ever written in general. It’s these shows in 1993 that truly show of the synergy of the band, who behind-the-scenes may have been dysfunctional, but on stage were putting on the best rock shows of the era. Remember when MTV showed music on TV?
This performance from The Metro is taken from the Siamese Dream reissue. You can find the entire fantastic concert online (or better yet buy the reissue), but this rendition of “Starla” off Pisces Iscariot is pure unfiltered Pumpkins goodness. If there’s one Pumpkins song to sum up the Pumpkins, it could be “Starla.” This is also Billy’s best solo. I challenge anyone who thinks differently to link a better Billy solo in the comments.
Here’s “Soma” from a 1994 show. This is a particularly good rendition of a track you usually don’t hear from the Pumpkins highlighted by Billy either guiding or yelling at D’arcy. It’s classic Billy!
Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995)
The Pumpkins started this particular, legendary show in their pajamas for a subdued acoustic set, then segued to their iconic getups of this era before amping up the jams. Billy put on his Zero shirt, ran his hand over his now bald head, and the Pumpkins rocked England. There are a lot of shows to watch from this era, but this is one of the best.
For my own enjoyment, here’s “Porcelina of the Vast Oceans” during the Mellon Collie tour, at Brixton. It’s one of the best performances of the tune from this era, and more in line with the album version compared to the one you’ll see later on this list.
This Dusseldorf show from 1996 holds a special place in my heart because it was the first bootleg I ever purchased in my life. It’s a solid show, not the best, but a good representation of what the Pumpkins were doing on their massive world tour. All of the hits are here, and obviously, it’s heavy on the Mellon Collie with all of the must-haves from Siamese Dream. You can see that even in their most minimal setup, they were still that band from Pulse Basement Jam in 1988 — psychedelia and feedback would never leave their hearts.
The Mellon Collie tour took a lot out of the Pumpkins, mentally and physically. They went around the world for nearly two years, lost their keyboardist to a fatal overdose — which in turn led to Jimmy being ousted from the band — and the result was the subdued and electronic Adore. Their live shows featured plenty of the new songs, but the addition of a larger backing band with additional percussionists brings their new and old songs into a different sonic stratosphere. This era gave us the best version of “Bullet With Butterfly Wings.”
Simply put — Adore is extremely underrated, and even if you couldn’t get into the album’s mellow sounds, the live renditions are different beasts altogether. They are strange toe tappers-draped in a brooding, darkness that summed up Billy’s style to a tee.
Machina/Machines of God (2000)
Melissa Auf der Maur joined the band on bass after D’arcy left following the recording of the underrated Machina/The Machines of God. Jimmy came back to sit on drums, and in turn, this led to arguably the best live shows the Pumpkins ever put on. Unfortunately, and ironically, crowds were starting to dissipate just as the Pumpkins were ascending into rock gods. The shows, which would begin with “Glass and the Ghost Children” were unforgettable, experiential concerts. These Pumpkins were themselves. They weren’t a young band bringing clowns onstage or smashing guitars, they were pros and you can hear it in the music and the expert forming of their setlists.
This recording of “Porcelina” is a good example of how they were changing up old songs to fit the themes and flow of the “Sacred and Profane tour, which featured a soft front half of the concert, only to pack a wallop in the back half. This piano-heavy version is absolutely one of the best versions of the song.
You can find plenty recordings of their “final” show at the Metro in 2000, but it’s harder to find the concert that was professionally recorded and edited. This was performance was included on Judas O, their greatest hits DVD that collected all of their music videos into one handy place, which has teased us for 15 friggin’ years. All we want is the entire 3+ hour show to watch, Billy. Please.
For now, just let your ears be blown off with this blistering version of “An Ode To No One” which is reminder #41820537201 that Jimmy Chamberlin is the best rock drummer of the last 25 years. This “final” performance is the only way to go out.