Under the Influence – The Billy Corgan Albums, Pt.1

Three bands. Three albums. One man. At a very crucial time in recent memory, an initiative was made to return rock back to its glory days of flamboyant icons that challenged the idea of celebrity while also wallowing in it. It failed. And in the wake of said failure, one band was changed beyond recognition and two of them no longer exist. Today we are going to look at what has been referred to as the “Billy Corgan albums”

Billy Corgan, the mastermind behind the Smashing Pumpkins, oversaw the work on three highly anticipated albums in 1998; Marily Manson’s “Mechanical Animals,” Hole’s “Celebrity Skin,” and his own bands “Adora.” The resulting effots split the fan base as well as critics and removed the polish off the luster that was never fully restored.

For the first part of this look, we will be looking at album that has the least amount of Corgan influence/interference. Although his name does not appear on much of the albums credits, Marilyn Manson had stated in many interviews at the time that Billy Corgan played a large hand in the sound and direction of Mechanical Animals, the follow up to his smash Antichrist Superstar.

1998 was a transitional year for rock music. The proliferation of hip-hop on the national consciousness took away most of the edge that rock had prided itself on. Modern rock radio was playing bland, one-hit wonder acts that had no real potential for longevity. This era saw America’s brief flirtation with ska music (which gave us No Doubt) as well as the swing revival, brought about by the movie Swingers and some well placed Gap ads. Look at any radio festival show(always a good barometer for the state of mainstream music)of the period between the years 97-99 and you will see come and gone acts such as Dishwala, The Refreshments, K’s Choice, and The Verve Pipe. Another “one-hit wonder” called Radiohead released what is considered by many as the greatest album of all time, but people on this side of the Atlantic weren’t really paying attention yet.

The great bands that characterized the early nineties were away due to legal hassles (Tool), drugs (Alice in Chains), inter-band strife (Rage against the Machine), or all of the above (Stone Temple Pilots). The only band that truly carried the torch was Korn, who were coming into their own and begat the next wave of rock. But that is another article for another time. Indeed, it was a bad time for rock, and music in general.

Another early 90’s giant taking a long sabbatical was Nine Inch Nails. The hugely successful Nine Inch Nails gave its mastermind, Trent Reznor, the power to sign and produce his own acts under his own Nothing imprint for Interscope Records. Being the first act signed to the imprint, Manson set the tone for the material Nothing would be producing; abrasive, challenging music that made you think as well as piss you off. Portrait of an American Family spread due to word of mouth and an intense stage show.

Manson’s first glimpse with the spotlight came from his haunting cover of the Eurhythmics “Sweet Dreams,” one of the best and most inventive covers of all time. This set the stage for Antichrist Superstar, which gave Marilyn Manson a notoriety that hadn’t been seen in rock for years. Picketing, rally’s, and the press followed Manson’s every tour stop, driving up record sales. Sick of being called a product of the Reznor machine, Manson lashed out at his friend in the press. A very public falling out occurred between Manson and Reznor, and they stopped talking to one another for several years.

With an urge to strike out on his own, he turned to one of the most domineering men in recent rock history, Billy Corgan. Although the band all stated to the contrary, time has proven that the Smashing Pumpkins were essentially a one man band, even going so far as Corgan playing all the guitars on Siamese Dream, and even some of the drums. Manson has admitted that he doesn’t deal with the direct technical aspects of songwriting with his music, only ideas and concepts, which he then relays to his bandmates and producers who realize his vision.

Both growing up Bowie and Priest fans, one thing Manson and Corgan agreed was missing in rock were rock stars. The alternative rock revolution and the birth of the politically correct “anti-rock star” created a vacuum of bravado that opened audiences (i.e., young males) to look at other avenues, such as gangsta rap. Is it a coincidence that while Eddie Vedder is writing “pro-choice” on his arm that Snoop Dogg is involved in shooting altercations? Sure, members of Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Nirvana were taking drugs and sleeping with as many groupies as bands past, but they never talked about it and they certainly didn’t flaunt it. Manson, for one, found their approach to be pretentious and disingenuous.

On a mainstream level (excluding the major labels brief flirtation with death metal in the early 90’s) Manson was the most dangerous act in America in quite some time. In an era that produced the Lilith Fair and popularization of “skanking,” Manson noticed that the great irony about Ziggy-era Bowie was despite the alias being a satire of the rock god, Bowie in effect became one. He felt the time was ripe for another being from outside our atmosphere to come down and save rock’s soul. Taking a cue from Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, the former Marilyn Manson and the Spooky Kids became Omega and the Mechanical Animals

Gone was the harsh, industrial-light sound that characterized the Reznor-produced Manson, and in its place was a clean, crisp sound. Zim Zum’s distorted guitar thrash was replaced (figuratively and literally speaking, as John5 was brought in as a replacement) and a higher priority was placed on the keyboards of Madonna Wayne Gacy, the longest member of the band beside Manson himself.

Another radical, but crucial, change was Manson’s image, a very important aspect to the band’s success. Out were fishnets, ballerina outfits, long stringy hair, and the influential Floria Sigismondi videos. In was an emphasis on light (natural and artificial) as well as a neon aesthetic and overall plastic look. This new Manson was glammed out to the hilt, and was a complete rejection of his previous incarnation.

The album itself is actually a combination of two e.p’s. One e.p. was the storyline regarding Omega’s arrival on Earth, as found on the tracks “Great Big White World,” “Speed of Pain,” and “Coma White.” The second was the fictional record by Omega’s band, which became the singles “I don’t like the drugs but the drugs like me,” “Rock is Dead,” and “The Dope Show.” There is enough of a thematic shift between the storyline tracks and the bands tracks to notice the difference, but the album is cohesive throughout.

Mechanical Animals gave Manson and Corgan a platform to live out their rock star dreams. Corgan himself had always flirted with the concepts that Bowie brought to the table (like the ZERO t-shirt he always wore, which he was quoted as saying “every superhero needed a costume”) but he never took the plunge. Maybe it was because of the time his band grew in prominence, or fearful it would not go over. With Manson, however, he had a willing guinea pig who wanted to become the ideal of what a rock star was, unable to comprehend that they were rock stars already perhaps.

In the end, reaction was mixed. The concept was lost on most of the demographic Manson appealed to; teenagers. His “Antichrist Superstar” alias, despite its own high ideals, was easier to grasp. With an open affiliation with the ultimate rebel, Satan, and pseudo-Nazi imagery (influenced by Bowie) the “kids” had easily identifiable imagery that was easy to piss off parents. Although he was still attacking god in his lyrics, it was done in a more metaphysical or mathematical manner, a theme that ran throughout Mechanical Animals.

There was also less of a homoerotic element on Antichrist Superstar, save for the back album picture with an allusion to Manson performing fellatio on Twiggy Ramirez and Madonna Wayne-Gacy. Not so for Mechanical Animals, whose album cover proudly displayed an androgynous Manson, complete with breasts. Sexual politics was an issue Manson always broached, but its higher emphasis on Animals turned off many boys looking to live vicariously through their idols. Fittingly, rap-rock would create an avenue where sexually frustrated men can unironically live their rock god fantasies without any sexual ambiguity.

Sales were disappointing. Antichrist Superstar sold 4 million copies; Mechanical Animals sold half of that. I normally don’t look at sales as a measure of artistic success, but Manson had bragged about debuting at number 2 with Antichrist, so once he opened that window the he exposes himself to criticism.

While Antichrist Superstar will always be seen as his definitive album, I find Mechanical Animals to be a stronger effort, song by song. There is a lot of space between any actual music on Antichrist filled with odd effects and sounds. As a 16 year old kid, it may have added to the effect, listening to it again as a 25 year old, it just sounds a little pedestrian. By the time Animals rolled around, Manson was able to incorporate those aural themes into the music without having to break away from the songs.

Also, Mechanical Animals allowed the public to see another facet of Marilyn Manson. Although the reception was mixed by fans, music critics were impressed with his versatility and his ability to craft a pop song. Manson was intelligent enough to know that if he released another Antichrist Superstar it would have sold well but he would have been seen as a one trick pony.

With the release of his greatest hits package, Lest we Forget, Manson has announced that he is done with music as a medium, save for the occasional movie score. Manson is in a position to do that and maintain a serious, relevant career in art because of the road he paved on Mechanical Animals. 2006 will mark the ten year anniversary of Antichrist Superstar, and I believe there will be revival of sorts for Manson and a better understanding and appreciation for what he accomplished. He started out as a childish boogeyman, and then became the son of Satan, where does one go from there?

There will be no Lets get known this week as this has been a pretty long article and I am on vacation. I will say this though; Communiqué puts on a pretty good show and you should definitely check them out.

Next time we meet, we will look at another of the Billy Corgan albums; Hole’s Celebrity Skin.

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