Inside the Song: A Screaming Strat Solo Shocks Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘Soma’
Dive into Billy Corgan's crack-the-sky solo that is perhaps the guitarist's best ever.
By Mike Duffy
While “Today” and “Disarm” generally get the most attention from the Smashing Pumpkins’ 1993 sophomore album, Siamese Dream, the epic, ebb-and-flow balladry of “Soma” should definitely share in that praise.
It boasts a heart-wrenching backstory that so many great songs have—frontman Billy Corgan got inspiration for “Soma” after breaking up with ex-wife Chris Fabian.
It features an all-star guest spot—Mike Mills contributed a prominent piano figure (“Soma” was recorded in Atlanta, only an hour from R.E.M.’s Athens, Ga., home base)—and bears the distinction as one of a handful of Pumpkins tracks co-authored by guitarist James Iha.
But what really sets “Soma” apart is a blistering guitar solo from Corgan that is practically unmatched in the Chicago icons’ catalog.
Listed at No. 24 among Rolling Stone’s “25 Coolest Guitar Solos” list, the 40-second gut-punching outburst features Corgan’s Fender Stratocaster (likely the trusty ’57 reissue he used all over the record) exploding like a bottle rocket.
On the whole, Siamese Dream was a daunting project. The band had decamped to Georgia with producer Butch Vig (Foo Fighters, Muse, Nirvana) following the surprise success of their debut effort, Gish. As the story goes, they wanted to get away from the Windy City to avoid distractions and remove drummer Jimmy Chamberlin—who was in the grips of an intrusive heroin addiction—from local drug connections. At the time, bassist D’Arcy Wretzky and Iha were in the throes of a failed romantic relationship, and for his part, Corgan was facing roiling personal demons.
As such, Siamese Dream reflected that turmoil by tackling somber subjects like suicide, abuse and breakups. Musically, however, it was a sonic masterpiece, with lush arrangements and wave after wave of overdubbed guitars.
Nowhere was that more present than on “Soma,” which Vig once noted carried 40 individual guitar parts compressed into it.
The song starts softly, with clean guitars playing an ethereal arpeggio underneath a feathery lead and whispered vocals. Momentum builds slowly until everything changes just beyond the 4:00 mark, when Corgan blows the doors off the shadowy dream sequence, snapping ears to attention by cranking his amp and unleashing a legend-maker that is equal parts pure noise and melodic ingenuity.
After the final chorus, “Soma” glides back into graceful vulnerability, but for those 37 seconds, Corgan showed what a towering leviathan he could be with a Strat in his hand.