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How the Smashing Pumpkins' Cover of Fleetwood Mac's 'Landslide' Brought New Life to Both Bands

'I was shocked when this song became a hit,' Billy Corgan later said of his stripped-down Fleetwood Mac cover.

Source: MEGA

Billy Corgan and Stevie Nicks became unlikely intergenerational allies.

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Back in the early 1990s, so many of the bands in the nascent grunge and alternative rock scenes had an ambivalent relationship with the 1970s. Which was odd, because with just about every major rock band who broke big in the early part of the decade, one could almost always find Nixon-era antecedents. Pearl Jam’s Ten was essentially a ‘70s arena rock album with more socially-conscious trimmings; Nine Inch Nails went on a joint-headlining tour with Trent Reznor's hero David Bowie; and the Black Crowes were practically a walking AM Gold compilation.

And yet, with the jaundiced eye that so many of the period cast on the rock star excesses of previous decades, and with a natural distrust of the Baby Boom generation's ever-growing cultural hegemony, there was often an attempt to hold the era at arm’s length. Nirvana titled a song "Aero Zeppelin" as a gag. Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil once described his band’s style as “Black Sabbath without the parts that suck.” And Eddie Vedder put it most plainly, singing (in the words of Mike Watt): "the kids of today should defend themselves against the '70s."

The Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan, on the other hand, embraced his ‘70s influences with unabashed sincerity. And that was hardly the only thing that made his band unique.

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Source: MEGA

The Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan and James Iha, looking nonplussed in the mid-1990s.

With so much press coverage dominated by Seattle in the early part of the decade, the Pumpkins were always something of an outlier. The group hailed from Chicago, the city that also produced Liz Phair and the Urge Overkill, but they were rarely seen as being a part of any nationally-recognized scene, or representing any particular movement. The group seemed to feel the same way. As Corgan recalled of the Pumpkins' early days in a 1995 interview with David Fricke: “We didn’t have any indie credentials. We weren’t friends with anybody. We didn’t have anybody talking about us. Then Nirvana happened. Before Nirvana we were considered a retro band. After Nirvana we were considered a riding-the-coattails band. So we went from ripping off the past to ripping off the future. Whatever. We’ve never been very good at spin control.”

And while the Pumpkins’ Pacific Northwest contemporaries were citing inspiration from the critically-beloved likes of the Stooges, Neil Young and the Pixies, the Pumpkins often gravitated toward less-glamorous influences, from the deceptively cheery melodies of Cheap Trick to the proggier studio indulgences of ELO and Rush. And, of course, Fleetwood Mac.

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Fleetwood Mac's classic 1970s lineup had splintered over the course of the 1980s.

By the early '90s, Fleetwood Mac's hipness credentials were in dangerously short supply. After spending much of the previous decade in gradual commercial decline and perpetual interpersonal turmoil, the group were now perhaps most prominently associated with Bill Clinton, who had used their 1977 hit “Don’t Stop” as his unofficial campaign song. With their fellow Baby Boomers now settling into comfortable middle-age and seizing the levers of power, Fleetwood Mac looked exactly like the sort of '70s dinosaur that the kids were supposed to defend themselves against — overindulged relics from the age of key parties, polyester, cocaine and kooky New Age spirituality.

The song “Landslide,” however, was a relic from Fleetwood Mac's happier days. Written by Stevie Nicks before she and then-partner Lindsey Buckingham joined the band, the introspective ballad was released on the group's self-titled album in 1975. Though it became a staple of Fleetwood Mac's live shows, the song was never released as a single, and a Rolling Stone review actually pegged it as the album's weakest track, calling Nicks' singing "callow and mannered." With 1977's Rumours making Fleetwood Mac one of the era's biggest bands, "Landslide" tended to get a bit buried in the deluge of hits that followed. But Corgan loved it.

At the end of a recording session at the BBC, Corgan cut a solo acoustic cover of “Landslide" as a last-minute afterthought. It would end up as a b-side to “Disarm,” the third single off the band’s breakthrough 1993 sophomore album, Siamese Dream. This being the early 1990s, with singles primarily the domain of superfans and collectors, no one took much notice of it at first. Then came Pisces Iscariot, a b-sides collection the Pumpkins released in 1994 to buy a little time as they prepared to start work on their mammoth third album. (It was a very '90s move to release a full-length odds-and-sods album while still in the early stages of your career.) To almost everyone's surprise, Pisces was a smash success, mostly due to "Landslide." The song took off on rock radio, rocketing to No. 3 on Billboard’s Alternative Airplay chart, which was the group’s highest placement on any chart at the time.

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Corgan recalled the cover’s offhand genesis in the liner notes to a Pisces Iscariot reissue in 2012.

“By the time I got around to recording this I had only 20 minutes left (in the studio),” Corgan wrote of "Landslide." “I did rhythms in one take playing a solo without knowing what key the song is to the track barren with vocal. I sang two takes, listening back in the control room and summarily declaring, ‘use the front half of take one and the second half of take two,’ before walking out the door… I was shocked when this song became a hit."

The success of "Landslide" had an obvious impact on the Pumpkins, and not just because of its chart position. While much of the early talk around the band had zeroed in on Corgan's meticulous, at times maniacal obsession with guitar overdubs and sonic textures, here the focus was on his stripped-down sensitivity. (If anything, his gossamer vocals were far more delicate and vulnerable than Nicks’ original recording.) For all of Kurt Cobain’s avowed feminism and Vedder’s Rock for Choice advocacy, there was still a degree of chest-beating machismo in so much of the alternative era's music, which only made the undeniable femininity of Corgan’s "Landslide" take all the more striking, and it would help set the stage for the expansive melodrama of the band's blockbuster third album, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.

(Incidentally, Corgan claims he wrote the chorus for that album’s first single, “Bullet With Butterfly Wings,” during the same studio session that he recorded “Landslide.”)

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Source: MEGA

'Landslide' became the Pumpkins' highest-charting song prior to the commercial juggernaut that was 'Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.'

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But the cover's success also had an effect on Fleetwood Mac...or at least on the younger generation’s perception of Fleetwood Mac. For her part, Nicks raved about the cover, and later even struck up a friendship with Corgan. (“Over this song, there’s been this incredible connection," Nicks said in 1998. "I believe that my poetry is really meant for everyone, no matter what age.”) Two years later, Fleetwood Mac's classic 1970s lineup reunited, setting aside years of public acrimony. Their first order of business was to release a live album full of the band's old chestnuts, titled The Dance. The first single they released from that album: “Landslide."

In a 1997 interview, Nicks’ bandmate Christine McVie credited the Smashing Pumpkins' cover (and Hole’s rendition of “Gold Dust Woman” from a year later) with changing the way Gen X listeners viewed the group. “Obviously, in the late ‘70s Fleetwood Mac was considered a big machine, and you had people, not that much younger than us, rejecting [us],” she said. “Now there’s this cyclical look with people like Billy Corgan and Courtney Love saying Fleetwood Mac isn’t really the enemy anymore. There’s an ability to look with renewed clarity at how well that stuff holds up.”

And hold up it does. Another cover of "Landslide," courtesy of a very different group, would bring the song yet another wave of rediscovery in the decade that followed, with even more lucrative results... But that's a story for a different installment.


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