Publicity photo courtesy of Capitol Records

The Effect of the Beatles’ White Album on 1988-1995’s US Alt-Rock Explosion

The Beatles’ White Album was the single biggest influence on US alternative rock as it burst into the mainstream in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

Pavement – Wowee Zowee / The Smashing Pumpkins – Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness

Pavement - Wowee Zowee

California band Pavement further evoked the White Album in their offering of a wilfully anti-corporate third album, Wowee Zowee, on 11 April 1995. The band, like Nirvana with In Utero, sought to reject the responsibility of mainstream acceptance with this LP, having come close to it with the faintly successful Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994). That record had been a coherent set of fully formed and tuneful songs, with solid riffs and hooks which were showcased by a major MTV favorite and alt-rock hit in “Cut Your Hair”. Now they dabbled in punk, country, folk, blues, and rock across 18 tracks, demonstrating a more experimental and looser side. The result was an album on which nearly all the songs have the feel of being works in progress.

Many have put the fragmentary nature of Wowee Zowee down to the fact that Stephen Malkmus, the band’s singer-guitarist and songwriter, had been a keen smoker of pot while making the record. But whatever the reason, Pavement succeeded in epitomizing the whole White Album idea of releasing an unpredictable and non-compromising LP that was a true and honest representation of the band.

They appeared to do exactly as they pleased on the LP, whether playing with distortion and feedback here, or dropping in a bit of pedal steel guitar there, while interjecting a nonsensical rhyme or two, or simply changing the whole mood of a song halfway through. As a consequence, Pavement would have to wait a considerable length of time for the songs to grow on people, before Wowee Zowee could achieve the status of “their White Album”. The immediate reviews were mostly negative, in a hugely entertaining way.

Chicago’s Smashing Pumpkins similarly offered their third album, Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, as their true sound and therefore “their White Album” in October 1995. It is also fair to say that they provided, in this landmark work, the culmination of the alt-rock fixation with the Beatles’ two-record set and an endpoint to the movement’s crossover to the mainstream, being a big statement on a big, major label, Virgin. Indeed, Billy Corgan, the chief creative force and (some might say) egotistical leader of Smashing Pumpkins, ticked practically all the White Album boxes with Melon Collie. He firstly made it a double album, after having whittled down 56 tracks to a slightly more manageable 28, the clear result of a songwriting frenzy. He secondly spent an extremely long time in several different studios working on the record, alongside James Iha (guitar), D’arcy Wretzky (bass), and Jimmy Chamberlain (drums), which encompassed the period March to August ’95.

Corgan also took a mighty step back from the commercial sound of the previous album Siamese Dream (1993), with its sonic grunge sheen again courtesy of Butch Vig. Furthermore, instead of taking on most of the guitar and bass parts himself (as he did on Siamese Dream), he implemented a more collaborative approach, involving the other band members a lot more. He additionally worked with co-producers Flood and Alan Moulder, who were amenable to this new band ethic, encouraging the four musicians to play live in the studio and attempting to capture their energy and chemistry. And to top it all, Corgan viewed this album as “the end of an era”, on which, at age 28, he was consigning to the past his group’s “basic format of up-and-down guitars [and] pounding drums” (Rolling Stone, November 1995).

In Melon Collie, Smashing Pumpkins delivered the ultimate alt-rock White Album in a daring display of musical talent and fearlessness in tackling a range of styles that grunge bands previously had no business with. They included in the mix an instrumental piano piece (the title track), a lullaby (“Tonight, Tonight”), a heavy metal epic (“Porcelina of the Vast Oceans”), and a slice of electronic pop (“1979”) that New Order would have been proud of.

Corgan also owed a particular debt to White Album-era Lennon in terms of the “confessional” element to many of his songs, having since expressed sympathy for the Beatle’s supposed plight leading into that period: “He went through something of a public disintegration, starting in 1965 with ‘Help!’ and then going up till the end of the ’60s when he was this bearded guy singing ‘Yer Blues’, talking about how lonely he was and that he wanted to die”. He has said: “John’s fearlessness as an artist has really had an impact on how I can let people inside my own head and not be afraid about what they’re going to think” (Music Radar, 6 October 2010).

After Corgan filled Melon Collie with a profusion of his own personal hangups, the Pumpkins scored a highly unlikely number 1 spot on the Billboard 200 with the album. The band subsequently had to make room for a new breed of artists, however, as alt-rock ultimately gave way to different musical fashions that didn’t give such regard to the Beatles’ musical legacy of 1968. Audiences particularly turned against the rage and self-loathing of grunge and sought the perhaps lighter relief of trip-hop, hip-hop, and Britpop (the latter of which paid regard to the Beatles’ legacy of 1967).

But for a while there, the White Album provided the model for alt-rock bands to merge punk with the seemingly opposing styles of country, folk, blues, and metal, to hugely popular effect. They, in turn, paved the way for the likes of Elliott Smith, who would go on to release “his White Album” in the form of XO in 1998. Just don’t ever call them “self-indulgent”.

This essay was originally published on 19 November 2018. It’s been reformatted for our latest CMS.