19. Smashing Pumpkins – 1979

Justine never knew the rules, hung down with the freaks and the ghouls

As I listened to 1979 in preparation to write this, I discovered something about the song that I hadn’t noticed before; I don’t know any of the lyrics. Billy Corgan sings “1979” somewhere at the start but that’s about the limit of my knowledge. Maybe there’s a “we” somewhere in the chorus.

This is a song that I know well and I love to listen to it, but I have never been able to sing along. Somewhere in his Chicago penthouse, Billy Corgan chose to write the song this way. The old guys who write the songs for Britney Spears craft lyrics that you can sing along with by the second verse, but Billy did the opposite. You can hear 1979 a hundred times and still have no idea what he’s going on about.

Did Billy write this one for the people who read the fan sites and memorize the lyrics? If you ever see someone singing along to 1979 then you’ve found a genuine Pumpkins fan-girl. Or perhaps he did it for himself. He loved the melody so much he didn’t want to distract from it with perceivable words. I like that explanation, I think it is the romantic in me.

I had to look up the lyrics so I could put something at the start of the post. As you read them you see that there are no repeated lines. How rare is that? Every other song in my Top 40 list has something I can sing along to, with the obvious exception of U.N.K.L.E. since it doesn’t have any words. I know more of Rammstein’s Wohllt Ihr Das Bett In Flamen Sehen than I do of 1979 and my German is otherwise limited to, “Kaffee mit schlagobers, bitte”.

My conclusion: The melody owns the song. My proof: As usual, Corgan’s lyrics are great, but he buries them. His singing is lovely and he puts it down in the mix. When the second chorus gets to its break, the high point of the song, Corgan’s voice gets mixed down even further. He sings this around 2:32, but you can barely decipher it even when you know the words in advance.

To the lights and towns below, faster than the speed of sound
Faster than we thought we’d go, beneath the sound of hope.

This is a beautiful song with a touch of melancholy, of remembrance for those crazy teen things you did. But is that the song or the video? I have no way of knowing any more. The video merges in my mind with the song. Since there are no discernable lyrics, as soon I hear the music I see the video. I see them throwing the lawn chairs in the pool, TP-ing the neighbours tree, driving in an old V8, headbanging to the chorus. At the end of the song I am sad for my long gone childhood even though these aren’t images of my teenage years. But they are generic; they could be anyone’s.

We all pulled some dumb stunts in someone’s pool, or fell for a gorgeous girl we met at a party, or felt the fuck-you joy of driving in a friend’s car, but we don’t get those feelings as much as we used to. We’re older. We’re looking for wealth or promotion or dealing with children or divorce. We don’t joyride any more.



I saw Smashing Pumpkins at the Big Day Out in Sydney in the mid-90s and they were the best act of the day, better than Björk, better than Soundgarden, even better than The Ramones. It was a lovely summer afternoon and Billy said between songs, “You know, I’m actually enjoying this.”


Next: 18. Squeeze – Cool for Cats

Previous:  20. Muse – Knights of Cydonia


4 Responses to “19. Smashing Pumpkins – 1979”

  1. August 7, 2009 at 07:48

    For a long time, this was the only Pumpkins song I liked. Billy Corgan’s voice just grates on my nerves. In my old age, though, I’ve come to realize that the music under his singing is brilliantly textured and layered and should be appreciated on its own merit. I’m still waiting for the other three horsemen to arrive.

  2. September 14, 2010 at 22:18

    I also liked ‘Quiet’ from Siamese Dream, mostly because it wasn’t quiet at all. But I think 1979 has stood the test of time the best. Where’s your song list, Jenna?

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