In We’re No. 1, The A.V. Club examines an album that went to No. 1 on the charts to get to the heart of what it means to be popular in pop music, and how that has changed over the years. In this installment, we cover Smashing Pumpkins’ “Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness,” which spent a week at No. 1 on the Billboard’s album charts beginning November 11, 1995.

Ambition is a fretful thing. Just the right amount can propel you to heights that others wouldn’t have thought possible. With too little, you might never make it off the starting blocks. With too much, you’re liable to go off the rails. By 1995, The Smashing Pumpkins were already one of the biggest groups in the world, well on their way to becoming the de facto torchbearers of the ’90s alternative rock movement. But that wasn’t enough. The members of the band, with singer/writer/guitarist Billy Corgan leading the charge, wanted more. They wanted to create something that would solidify their place as one of the music’s great immortals. And so they did, but doing so proved to be the beginning of their end.

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“[W]e were reaching the end of a creative cycle,” Corgan told Rolling Stone’s David Fricke in 1995. “So I said, ‘Let’s approach this like it’s our last album.’ Because it either will be our last album, or it will be our last album as people know the Smashing Pumpkins.” Corgan’s interview with the magazine took place amid the painfully long process of mixing what would end up as his group’s third record, Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness. Looking back on it 20 years later, it’s almost startling how prescient Corgan’s mission statement was.

In the years that followed the release of Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, band members would either quit or be dismissed by their frontman, while Corgan’s own personal life would devolve into seemingly never-ending turmoil. At the same time, a turn toward a more electronic sound would confuse many in the band’s massive fan base as the Smashing Pumpkins’ cachet dwindled. In that regard, Mellon Collie is the dividing line between the band’s celebrated early triumphs and its years in the wilderness.

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Before the recording process for the album even began, the band members—following the lead of Corgan as the main songwriter—decided that they wanted to create a double album and cited works like Pink Floyd’s The Wall and the Beatles White Album as sources of inspiration. They seem to have either forgotten or simply dismissed the fact that both of those releases could almost fit on a single CD. To put the larger point into perspective though, both of the group’s prior efforts, Pisces Iscariot and Siamese Dream, would have been double albums in the older vinyl format.

For Corgan, more meant better, and as he apparently saw it, more was also the only way he could ever hope to top what the band had already accomplished with the otherworldly success of Siamese Dream. So he pushed. He pushed himself and the rest of the Pumpkins to their near breaking point. He became obsessed with the idea of perfection. “It’s such a mountain,” he told Fricke. “It was literally more than double the work. There was no cutting corners. Comparing how I felt exhaustion-wise after Gish and Siamese Dream, I was like ‘I can’t believe it.’ People were going, ‘How are you still standing?’ And I’m still going now. Shows, interviews. Maybe one day I’ll just die.”

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The ’90s were an odd time to be a rock band. In the wake of the success of Nirvana, there was a unspoken code that musicians were expected to follow in order to navigate the commercial world. In order to really “make it,” you had to outwardly project that you didn’t give a shit about what people thought about you and your music, while also creating music that you hoped a whole lot of people really gave a shit about. That’s the pressure that Kurt Cobain could never reconcile, and it helped doom him and many of the bands coming up behind him.

This dichotomy is evident in an interview Corgan gave to Addicted To Noise around the time Mellon Collie hit the shelves. From one side of his mouth he proclaims, “I really reached a point in my life where I don’t care what the preconceptions are about what a rock band should be because I think we’ve, at least in some ways, proven that it’s not about sticking to any kind of rules.” While on the other side he admits, “I don’t want this album viewed as an artistic failure publicly. And the way that it will be viewed as an artistic failure publicly is if it doesn’t sell. Because people will say if you’d just done a single album and written some hits, you would have been fine. But you had to go and do this… your self indulgent album… and look what it’s done. And that is why you deserve to be beaten over the head.”

As a double-CD set, Mellon Collie is a great collection of songs, but it can also be an interminable slog to get through the work in one fully invested and intent listening session. By its nature, it’s more easily digestible when broken up into two distinct CD-length doses. Disc one begins with an eponymous instrumental, a puffy, almost sentimental, piano-driven song that acts kind of as a head fake for the rest of the record, which is at times jarring and at times uplifting but altogether bombastic.

A shade under three minutes later, the first track cedes the stage to the real opening number, “Tonight, Tonight.” This song carries hallmarks of the Pumpkins’ two biggest hits up to that point, “Today” and “Disarm,” and it’s one of the album’s most solid offerings overall. It combines the optimism of the former track—“The impossible is possible tonight, tonight / Believe in me as I believe in you”—with the anthemic feel of the latter. The adoption of a full string orchestration in “Tonight, Tonight” goes a long way toward elevating the choruses in spots where, in a different era, the band might have instead stomped down hard on their overdrive and fuzz guitar pedals to do the same heavy lifting. It’s a critical choice that sets you up for the wide array of sounds the band incorporates across the rest of this record.

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The Smashing Pumpkins’ heralded buzzsaw guitar sound makes its debut on the next song, “Jellybelly,” and reaches an early high point one track later with “Zero.” It later became apparent that this song meant a lot to Corgan personally: His black T-shirt emblazoned with “ZERO” in white became one of the iconic looks of the decade. The song itself is a sonic soundtrack to Corgan’s self-flagellation: “Emptiness is loneliness, and loneliness is cleanliness / And cleanliness is godliness, and god is empty just like me.” The guitars move at a galloping yet pinched clip, devoid of beauty but hair-raising nonetheless, until the solo, which is tossed off as a high-pitched orgasm of dissonant wailing. It’s alt-rock at its most enchanting and disconcerting.

It’s hard to deny that the record’s first disc is stronger than its second. It’s arguable that the back half’s perceived inferiority might simply be the result of listener fatigue, but having listened to the album in reverse order, I’m comfortable saying that isn’t the case. In addition to the aforementioned “Tonight, Tonight” and “Zero,” the first disc also contains the beautifully stripped-down “To Forgive” along with the caustic “Love,” the unabashedly rockist “Muzzle” and the highest point of the record, “Bullet With Butterfly Wings.”

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Of course, that’s not to say that the second disc lacks its own gems. “Thirty-Three” is a lovely, phased-out ballad that ranks among some of the best of the band’s gentler material. Then there are the twin peaks of filth, fury, and discord in “Tales Of Scorched Earth” and “Bodies,” plus the ultimate ’90s nostalgia anthem, “1979.”

It’s hard to classify any singular song as “inessential” within the confines of an artist’s greater vision, but there are a few tracks on Mellon Collie whose exclusions might have brought more cohesion or immediacy to the whole. At the top of that list is “Porcelina Of The Vast Oceans,” which, while wondrously melodic and gratifying on its own right, is an energy-sapper at over 9 minutes long (especially placed as it is near the middle of the record). “Thru The Eyes Of Ruby” on the second disc is also a slog, and while “X.Y.U.” is a vital track, it has a plodding, overlong tail end.

The twin pillars of this album are “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” on the first disc and “1979” on the second. They are the first and second singles that Mellon Collie spawned, respectively. Taken together, they are remarkable in the way that they combine and distill the flavors, themes, and viewpoints of the album.

“Bullet With Butterfly Wings” is imbued with with the angst, anger, and self-loathing of the best songs to emerge from the ’90s alt-rock movement. It’s styled as self-recognition of individual futility, set in the searing loud-quiet-loud dynamic best popularized by the Pixies the decade before. It helps that James Iha provides some of the most thrilling guitar accents of the Pumpkins’ entire discography on this song. “Bullet” ended up winning a Grammy for Best Hard Rock performance in 1997 and deservedly so.

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The flip side to that is “1979,” which is more aligned with the tradition of rock and pop songwriting in its simplest form than any contemporary influences. It’s simple, sweet, and reflective. It’s wholly uncomplicated, but it contains multitudes. The lyrics themselves are borderline corny—“Junebug skipping like a stone / With the headlights pointed at the dawn / We were sure we’d never see an end / To it all”—but they manage to touch a nerve, delivered as they are with Corgan’s unabashed sincerity.

“1979” was the last song that the band recorded for Mellon Collie, and it was only included at Corgan’s insistence, defying the record’s producer Flood, who seemed more inclined to leave it on the cutting room floor. It’s the most remarkable example of where the singer’s inclination to go for more fully paid off.

When it was finally released on October 24, 1995, Mellon Collie was the critical and commercial success that the Smashing Pumpkins had hoped it would be. It went to #1 on the charts while “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” became the group’s first single to crack the Top 40. “1979” did even better, almost making it to the top 10 before peaking at #12—the highest showing the band would ever reach. Plaudits and awards piled up as the band assumed its place as the most culturally vital and important rock band on the planet. They even logged an appearance as themselves on The Simpsons. But then the success began to crumble.

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The band embarked on a massive world tour to support the record following its debut, an undertaking that was nearly derailed early on when a fan was killed at one of its shows in Dublin. Two months later, an even more devastating blow was struck when the band’s touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin and regular drummer Jimmy Chamberlin overdosed on heroin together in a hotel room in New York City. Chamberlin survived but was quickly fired from the Pumpkins. Melvoin died.

From that point on, acrimony swelled between the members of the group as Corgan, who was going through a nasty divorce all while dealing with the devastating loss of his mother, became more a dictator than a director. And as time rolled forward, styles and tastes changed, and the alt-rock revolution ceded ground to a wave of up-and-coming rappers and boy bands. By 2000, just five years after releasing its magnum opus, The Smashing Pumpkins fulfilled Corgan’s premonition and folded.

Ambition can only take you so far. Long-term success depends not so much on how you make it to the top as how you weather the onslaught that ensues. In 1995, the Smashing Pumpkins had a vision of creating one of the decade’s singular records: “The Wall For Generation X.” On that count they undeniably delivered. They also managed, for a time at least, to fulfill their larger goal of becoming the biggest band in the world. But in the end, Corgan discovered that treating your next album like your last album, fittingly enough, is a creative mentality that can’t be sustained.

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