Reissue Review: Smashing Pumpkins, “The Aeroplane Flies High”

Written by Music, Reissue Reviews

Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness was one of the most popular (and epic) rock albums of the ‘90s, but it still feels kind of underrated. It was a double-disc, but it wasn’t bloated. It’s not really a concept album in that a clear story isn’t telegraphed, but it does bring the listener from one place to another, at least emotionally, or possibly metaphysically. It’s not just a collection of songs is what I’m saying; there was meat to it.

As Smashing Pumpkins were the perfect ‘90s band—a mixture of grunge and shoegaze—Mellon Collie likewise produced five disparate singles—the grungy, verse-chorus-verse, “Bullet With Butterfly Wings,” the synth-poppy “1979,” the hard rock “Zero,” the orchestrally proggy “Tonight, Tonight,” and the tender, near-shoegazy “Thirty Three.” Mellon Collie was so sprawling, there could have been more singles. Still, it never felt quite done, which was alleviated somewhat with the physical release of those singles. It was the end of the maxi-CD era, and each single completed the Mellon Collie experience with unused tracks, covers of songs that inspired the band, and more that didn’t make the cut. Ultimately, they were collected and sold in a groovy box and named The Aeroplane Flies High, which was released at the end of the Mellon Collie cycle in 1996. I was a teenager then, and as such could not afford The Aeroplane Flies High, but wanted it oh so very much, and was deeply envious of my friend Marie, who had a job, and bought the box, and oh how I fawned over it. But more than just a tangible piece of fandom, The Aeroplane Flies High completed the epic Mellon Collie experience. Or so we thought.

In a noble attempt to navigate the bizarre music industry of 2013, EMI is going the reissue route, serving up truckloads of unheard material to hardcore fans and completists. This summer, they’ve given us The Aeroplane Flies High (Deluxe Edition). I’m very glad I didn’t buy (or couldn’t buy) The Aeroplane Flies High back then, because I get to have it now. And it’s wonderful. All five original discs are here, arranged and titled by single (“1979,” “Zero,” etc.), with all of the original extra tracks, plus much, much more.

It’s got all the original five discs, with all of their original extra tracks, plus more. So much more. This is some hardcore fan shit. Prince-vault-level shit.

• B-sides

• Demos of B-sides

• Unused versions of Mellon Collie tracks

• Unrecognizable early versions of Mellon Collie tracks

• Rehearsals

• Demos

• James Iha singing! D’arcy singing!

• Vocal-free versions

• A 35-minute version of “Silverfuck”

• A complete live set

• A bonus, all-new sixth disc of live tracks from 10 separate shows in 1997

What’s remarkable is how good everything sounds. Yes, it’s been remastered, but it’s all so crisp and clean and digital-sounding. It was probably all fine to begin with because Corgan is an obsessive gearhead, but still.

The thematic arrangement of the discs demonstrates the Pumpkins’ versatility, and how they are very much deserving of a second look—to both appreciate the music and reflect on how maybe they kind of took themselves a little bit too seriously (which was the style at the time). The “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” includes a bunch of ‘70s and ‘80s covers (“Clones,” “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight”), along with a bunch of demos that could have been album cuts (“Rings, “Ugly”). I suppose this is the “work in progress disc.” The “Tonight, Tonight” disc features songs with the best, and most Pumpkins-y song titles, such as “Medellia of the Gray Skies” and “Jupiter’s Lament.” This is the “mission complete disc.” These songs help to show how much work goes into an album, which is something we as music fans probably don’t think about enough. But box sets, especially this box set, demonstrate the transformative power of editing (for better or for worse), as well as the fun of undiscovered gems.

One big change from the original is the booklet. In 1996, the set included a book of Billy Corgan’s thoughts and pictures he’d drawn (which was the style at the time). This time around, we get a mini 33-1/3 from rock writer David Wild with lots of long quotes from Corgan. Both agree that Aeroplane is the “existential backwater” behind Mellon Collie, and says far more about the set than I can. It looks back on Mellon Collie mania, and the inexplicable success of the original Aeroplane (it sold 300,000 copies, initiating an unplanned second pressing). It’s a nice thing to read as you listen to this massive and wonderful beast of a box set. It’s important to view Aeroplane in its own right, and not just leftovers, ephemeral, or a marketing ploy. The 2013 Aeroplane Flies High really demonstrates how it was, and is, it’s own thing, and that is as a behind-the-scenes document of a time in an artist’s life, and how a masterwork is made.