There’s three things I love about The Smashing Pumpkins.
First, Billy Corgan’s look – watch the videos for “Ava Adore” or “Stand Inside Your Love” – he’s mesmerizing, a modern rock Nosferatu.
Second, their name – it’s hilarious!
And third, “1979” – their best song.
There are other songs I like but “1979” has this thoughtful, yearning quality that I find endlessly playable.
Apparently it was the last song to be recorded for their third album, Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, and was subject to a frantic overnight overhaul after producer Flood dismissed the original version he heard as “not good enough”. Once he heard the improved version, it was immediately included on the album.
Corgan had written the song from the perspective of his 12-year-old self when he was crossing from childhood into adolescence; in his own words, “a feeling of waiting for something to happen, and not being quite there yet, but it’s just around the corner”.
“1979” arrives gently with a skittering faded-in drum loop before the real drums kick in. The guitars are much less explosive and fuzzy than one would expect from a Pumpkins song and a strange little sample which sounds like a cross between a mutter, a shudder and a chuckle (it’s Corgan himself, but significantly manipulated) rings out and recurs throughout the song.
The lyrics are snippets of memories of moments, thrown together but often disassociated from each other, like nostalgically remembered fragments of that carefree childhood he’s trying to evoke:
Cool kids never have the time
On a live wire right up off the street
You and I should meet
Junebug skipping like a stone
With the headlights pointed at the dawn
We were sure we’d never see an end to it all
The gently driving verse gives way to a fuller beat 42 seconds in and continues as a lightly intriguing premise until the song blossoms into life in the chorus. Synth lines worthy of the album’s title flicker around like fireworks as Corgan’s reedy voice cuts through:
And I don’t even care to shake these zipper blues
And we don’t know just where our bones will rest
To dust I guess
Forgotten and absorbed into the earth below
They are expertly chosen words to accompany the wistful sounds in the chorus and to hammer home the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it impermanence of life.
And so it continues.
The song doesn’t change much from there but when something sounds this heartbreakingly beautiful you don’t want it to. To break up the song slightly, they use their signature fuzzy guitar sound to get slightly heavier during a middle 8 and then break down again to the light synthetic original backing and create a nice transitional quality to the end of the song that sounds like someone is driving into the distance, into the next part of their life.
It sounds different to all that came before in their catalog and Corgan himself seemed to see the song as a precursor to what the Pumpkins would do next.
I would argue that they never bettered it, before or since.