Coming to Get You—The Most Overwhelming Rock Sound: Smashing Pumpkins, “Pissant” (1993)

Musical sound always makes a grab for your attention. Even wind chimes are assailants. But music always makes a peace with you, too. Even drums and electrified guitars and shrieking vocalists can be lived with comfortably once you get used to them. In rock as in any other idiom, a hook of sonic aggression has to rise above the baseline of the expected experience.

This particular idiom has been much affected by escalating sonic attacks, from the blaring of jazz instruments to the electrically overloaded sound of Chicago Blues pioneered by Muddy Waters (“Hoochie Coochie Man,” for instance, in 1954) to the damaged amps used by Willie Kizart (Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm, “Rocket 88,” 1951), Paul Burlison (Johnny Burnette, “Train Kept A-Rollin,” 1956),  Link Wray (“Rumble,” 1958) and Dave Davies of the Kinks (“You Really Got Me,” 1964) to get a deliciously “dirty” guitar sound, to the competition within The Who to be heard over Keith Moon’s drum racket that resulted in John Entwistle’s fuzzy and then more trebly Marshall-amped bass sound (“I Can’t Explain” and “My Generation,” 1965). With The Who we arrive at the paradox of the ultimate rock orchestra as a mere trio of drums, bass, and guitar:  instead of piling on more and more players to get a bigger sound, we have a minimal ensemble with each player piling on more and more notes, effects, and amps, each commanding an army of tones.[1]

Cream and The Jimi Hendrix Experience perfected the power trio model in 1967. It was the Experience that had the hottest, thickest, busiest, most physically stunning sound; their debut album Are You Experienced? made every other sound in the history of music seem thin. “Foxey Lady” is the most assaultive example. As befits its theme of seduction, it comes after you like a heat-seeking missile in its opening and then crashes around inside your house—your bedroom—you—like Godzilla, vibrating everything, jetting flame. Hendrix says at 2:23, “Here I come, baby—I’m coming to getcha.” By this time we know he can.

The one time I heard the Experience live, at Gulfstream Park in May 1968, was also my opportunity to hear Blue Cheer, a much-touted new band whose whole point was to play überloud—right at the threshold of pain, rumor had it, around 120 decibels. I suspected there might be a target of an even-beyond-Hendrix stunning rock sound to hit, but Blue Cheer didn’t hit it, they only caused pain, making me run until I got the stadium in between me and their speakers. Blue Cheer was loud but not rich, domineering but not ravishing.[2]

Twenty-five years later, I heard someone hitting that target at last: the Smashing Pumpkins in Siamese Dream (1993). There had been some close approaches. Public Image Limited had a great bashing drums and bass attack on Album in 1985. Dinosaur Jr.’s albums You’re Living All Over Me (1987) and Bug (1988) were rather stunning in a trashy, implosive way that would later be called “lo-fi.” Nirvana’s Nevermind came really close in 1991, with Kurt Cobain’s frayed vocals contributing hugely. (The band said the sound was cleaned up too much in the mastering.)[3]

What exactly constitutes the musical hook here, the sonic rock sublime, a quality of overwhelming that impresses us even at low volume? Part of the story, as often in rock, is that we’re discovering how a nonmusical value can be twisted (not tamed) into music after all—the deafening into the explosive or implosive, the irritating into the energizing, the crash in the sense of car crash into the crash in the sense of crash cymbal. There are several qualities we hear specifically in Hendrix’s epochal guitar sound in “Foxey Lady” that make it so grabbing. Thanks to compression and adroit use of feedback, there is sustain: his notes are unstoppable, siren-like, almost liberated from natural decay, implying supernatural energy. Thanks to turning up the signal power too high and using a fuzzbox, he is savagely clipping, that is, the natural crests of his soundwaves are being cut off in unpredictable patterns by the electronic limitations of his system, which brings out a wilder and richer array of overtones added to the notes he’s playing, including rhythmic interferences between his various tones—outbursts of unexpected musical information from the one-man orchestra.[4] Using delay or echo, multiplying every note he strikes, adds to the madness. Even if we know Hendrix’s music well, we continually discover, we don’t really already know, that a guitar can sound like this, that is, sound like a guitar and an industrial plant emergency at the same time. There is a “hot” sense of saturation of sonic possibilities both natural and unnatural, of more-than-plenitude—an invasion from every sonic direction.

Back then we called this quality “psychedelic,” which no longer seems very illuminating.[5] Now I think we are talking about a sound quality that dramatizes the whole dangerous side of “quality” as such. G. W. F. Hegel, one of the greatest of those brave or foolish thinkers who would try to answer a question like “What is ‘quality’?,” had the insight that quality involves disturbance. The German word Qual for “torment” (compare our verb “to quail”) points to quality’s “own internal unrest by which it produces and maintains itself only in conflict.”[6] Have you ever wondered how a rose smells so sweet, how a red is so red, how Morgan Freeman sounds so much like Morgan Freeman? Your sensory system is trying to process a package of information that “produces and maintains itself in conflict.” You’re quailing. The riot that is Hendrix’s guitar tone is one of the most intense conflicts you could perceive as a unified being-like-that. It gives you all the dissonance and tonal uncertainty you can handle; the difficulty factor makes your listening face draw up into a distinctive hurts-so-good rictus.

The other most striking track on Are You Experienced? soundwise, “Purple Haze,” has the same ingredients as “Foxey Lady” but with a different effect. Because it is a little more electronically filtered, it has some of the quality of a late-night radio signal from far away. This version of the sonic invasion could be from outer space or “underground,” making it potentially even more scary-overwhelming than the insolent address of “Foxey Lady.”

Twenty-five years later, the richly stunning sound of Siamese Dream is achieved partly with electronic processing (as how could it not), but an important role is played also by layering multiple performances of the guitar parts.[7] This makes the guitar sound both thicker and more active, as with a multitracked vocal. It’s important, too, that everything in the sound is exquisitely adjusted to everything else: a penetratingly warm bass line feels as though it’s pummeling us under as well as above the threshold of audible frequencies; the drum-and-bass assault on our bones and sinews blends with the nerve-tingling of that hyperactively-edged guitar sound and the dramatic alternation of Billy Corgan’s vocals between harshly searing and unnaturally smoothed phrases.

The Siamese Dream sound is indeed so well calibrated that there is a danger of hearing it as a prefabricated product. “Cherub Rock” sounds fabulous, but you turn it on like a faucet. That is why my favorite specific song hook that sets the Pumpkins’ general sound hook comes in “Pissant” (from the Siamese Dream sessions, released a little later on Pisces Iscariot) around 0:25. The awesome sound has been unleashed from nearly the very start, and as we’re taken through the basic riffs, the question begins to arise whether the Pumpkins are simply bashing out any old beats and chords to get their sound out there one more time. But at 0:25 there is a crazy-sounding high vibrato guitar and bass note combination that intentionally plays the wild riot that is the recipe for the sound. Similar thrusts are all over the track, including some more subtle ones prior to 0:25; this is just the first clear statement of that purpose, and as such it lifts the whole experience to the level of highest sonic stimulation.

“Pissant” sound

Twenty-five years after Hendrix, we couldn’t have asked for another playing of the discovering of the rock sonic sublime, but we could still hope for a masterful playing of the knowing of it, and we got that from the Smashing Pumpkins.

What belongs in the Overwhelming Sound mix?

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[1] On Jimmy Page’s “army of guitars” concept and his role in the history of the fuzzbox see Erik Davis’s book on [Led Zeppelin IV] (New York:  Continuum, 2005), p. 50.
[2] There is a Wikipedia entry, “Loudest Band in the World,” covering several record holders. A friend has told me he similarly had to put walls between himself and the  loudness of Z Z Top ca. 1973.
[3] Michael Azerrad, Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana (New York: Doubleday, 1993), pp. 179-180.
[4] For analysis of harmonics in distorted guitar tones see Esa Lilja, Characteristics of Heavy Metal Chord Structures (Licentiate Thesis, University of Helsinki, 2004), pp. 12-23. The Wikipedia entry on “Fuzzbox” makes an important point: “As clipping is a non-linear process, intermodulation will occur, leading to the generation of an output signal rich in extra harmonics of the input signal. Intermodulation distortion also produces frequency components at the various sums and differences of the frequency components of the input signal. In general, these components will not be harmonically related to the input signal, leading to dissonance.”

An entirely different but undoubtedly relevant line of interpretation of distorted sound is that it mimics the highly arousing distress cries of living beings. See Austin Dacey’s post on this subject.

[5] See Sheila Whiteley, “Progressive Rock and Psychedelic Coding in the Work of Jimi Hendrix,” Popular Music 9 (January 1990), pp. 37-60.
[6] G. W. F. Hegel, Hegel’s Science of Logic, trans. A. V. Miller (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities, 1969), p. 114. Hegel claims to be inspired here by Jacob Boehme.
[7] “One of [band leader Billy] Corgan’s main goals was to create a sense of sonic depth, but, as Corgan said, ‘without necessarily using delays or reverbs—to use tonalities instead.’ For the album, the guitars were layered multiple times. Corgan has stated that ‘Soma’ alone contains up to 40 overdubbed guitar parts. [Producer Butch] Vig stated that as many as 100 guitar parts were compressed into a single song” —“Siamese Dream,” Wikipedia.

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About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Arrangements and Sounds, Rock Aesthetics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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