1979 - The Smashing Pumpkins
Tim Coyle, on the podcast, suggested that ‘1979’ was the best New Order song since the mid-80s. And I mean, New Order are there (Corgan clearly loves New Order, and he later went onto sing on ‘Turn My Way’ from the New Order album Get Ready; he also did a version of Joy Division’s ‘Isolation’ on a compilation which very clearly was meant to be New Order-esque). The intro, in particular, is a bit reminiscent of the intro to ‘The Perfect Kiss’. But there’s a certain…guitar band understatedness/smoothness to ‘1979’ that New Order never quite had; New Order liked there to be a certain jarringness to their electronic sounds.
I think, to me, ‘1979’ still sounds basically like a rock band (apart from a sample here and a loop there), which is why it doesn’t sound like New Order, who went pretty deep into the world of keyboards and drum machines. There’s probably more of The Cure in ‘1979’, too - maybe the closest reference is ‘High’ or ‘Just Like Heaven’, especially in the guitars on the song. But there’s a certain sense of theatre to The Cure, in the swoops and rushes of Uncle Bob’s voice, that’s absent in ‘1979’.
In any case, the electronic sounds of the 1980s were pretty uncool in the alternative rock world in 1996. Anything with a drum machine was uncool, and anything with that gated snare sound was uncool. The 80s jangle of the guitars in stuff by The Cure was nowhere near as cool in 1996 (to me, at least - Casey may disagree) as guitars going through a fuzz pedal. I mean, The Cure were just about acceptable because of how gloomy they could get, but even The Smiths were a bit embarrassing - I remember hearing ‘How Soon Is Now’ on JJJ every now and often and thinking how dated it sounded.
'1979', though, somehow managed to sound very 1980s, without alerting me to that fact; I had no idea it was inspired by stuff that I would have rolled my eyes at. I didn't really know much of the alternative music of the 1980s at that point; I didn't have much context. I guess I assumed it was meant to sound like the music of the year 1979. I also didn't know enough about the actual music of 1979 to know that it didn't sound like the actual music of 1979. Of course, I know now that new wave in 1979 was pretty spiky and jerky a la 'Pop Muzik' by M or Talking Heads or 'My Sharona' by the Knack, and the pop charts were absolutely dominated by disco, by Donna Summer and the Bee Gees, and in the US by the likes of REO Speedwagon and Journey. 1979 didn't sound like '1979', in this universe at least. I suspect that the Smashing Pumpkins song here is mostly called '1979' because it wasn't a year in the eighties.
I, of course, came around to the alternative/indie/etc music of the eighties in the end. I now love Robyn Hitchcock’s Element Of Light and XTC’s Skylarking and The Church’s Starfish. Etc. I can cope with keyboards and gated snare sounds these days. Mostly.
In my Smashing Pumpkins fan days, I remember reading an article written by Corgan supposedly taken from his school newspaper in 1983, when he was 16 and probably about to graduate soon (surely, if Corgan was being totally honest about his own experiences, ‘1979’ would be called 1983 or 1985 or something). In the article, written in 1983, he predicts that three bands that released early albums in 1983 are going to go on and become absolutely massive: U2 (based on War), Metallica (based on Kill Em All) and REM (based on Murmur). Ding ding ding! It’s probably a measure of Billy Corgan’s instincts about pop music that he was correct about all three (if managing to get to #1 in the album charts in Australia with a proggy double album in 1996 while singing in what very many people thought was an annoyingly whiny voice didn’t clue you in on his pop instincts). There are some interesting common threads between Metallica, U2 and REM in 1983; most notably that all three albums basically kickstarted entirely new subgenres (War is the first U2 album that really starts to sound like widescreen anthemic stadium rock, Kill Em All basically invented thrash metal, and, well, Tim Coyle could write a novella about how influential Murmur was), all three albums had strong pop instincts and all three albums pretty much avoided drum machines, obviously-artificial gated snare sounds, and keyboards.
I guess the thing about ‘1979’, in the end, is that it is just absolutely suffused with longing. For Billy Corgan, writing it in 1995, it’s a song of nostalgia, of longing for an easier, more carefree time. For me, writing this in 2013, it definitely hits that button as well, doubly so; it’s filled with that nostalgic longing, and I mean, I’m on a podcast devoted to the 1990s, I’m all retromania’ed up to the eyeballs. But I listened to the song so much in 1996 that - even if it didn’t have that sense of nostalgic longing to it - it would still give me pangs of nostalgia anyway. For me now, every note - from the little guitar figure in the middle 8, right before he sings “faster than we thought we’d gone”, to the effects on the guitar - sound like 1996 to me.
So why did I identify with it so much in 1996? I was a teenager! I didn’t need nostalgia about teen years - I was one already!
…in a funny way, what ‘1979’ sounded like to me at the time, I think, was a sort of idealised teenage experience. I knew I was meant to do the stuff they did in the video - being carefree, partying, daring people to do possibly stupid things…doing the borderline sociopathic and short-sighted things that people basically expect teenagers to do, in other words. That’s what teenagers seemed like they were meant to do. It’s what they did on TV (especially in the video clip above). But I wasn’t that teenager - in 1996, I was a shy nerd who was far too uptight for that kind of thing. I had piano lessons to go to and science fiction books to read, and the world outside my window was sort of scary. And so I suspect that my love of ‘1979’ in 1996 represented a sort of longing for a kind of teenage experience that I never had.