Australian suburbia, 1996

1979 opens with mumbling. Or at least it sounds like mumbling. This mumbling wafts through the track, always threatening to drown out the distinctive guitar riff and Billy Corgan’s tender growl.

That mumbling continues to assail me, unexpected but never unwanted, more than 20 years after the song’s initial release. There I’ll be, pushing a trolley down a supermarket aisle or kicking back in a café, when the strains of early 1996 purr out of unseen speakers.

Shakedown 1979

Cool kids never have the time

 The tune is deeply nostalgic. Not nostalgic in the cloying, graduation ceremony-ready way of Green Day’s Good Riddance (Time of Your Life), which was released a year later. Listen to 1979 closely, though, and you’ll see what I mean.

There’s a reason for this nostalgia. As one writer  puts it: “Corgan was 12 years old in 1979, and considers it to be the year that he transitioned into adolescence.” The lyrics reflect on those awkward, excitable, restless teenage years (the word “restless” appears in the song).

That we don’t even care

As restless as we are.

The nostalgia persists in the video, in which attractive young things (whose threads and haircuts are more redolent of the mid-1990s rather than the late 1970s) frolic in the sunshine. Can you have nostalgia without sunshine? The video’s grainy, Camcorder cinematography gives it a hazy, long-ago aesthetic that’s quite befitting a yearning for the past.

The shots of youthful bliss are merged with shots of the band’s frontman travelling around in the backseat of a car, his face the picture of wistfulness. It’s his coming of age we’re reliving, after all.

 And the nostalgia persists, too, in each listen. This author had already transitioned into adolescence when 1979 was released. I was never a huge Smashing Pumpkins fan, but they always had a place on my Walkman. There was a reason for this. Corgan and crew were described by the music press of the day as “alternative” and, ­ hell, Wikipedia continues to apply that label.

And for a 15-year-old in the twilight of the 20th century, living in the heart of Australian suburbia, being “alternative” was a helluva lot more desirable than being “mainstream”. Being alternative meant not being a member of the pack; it meant striking out on your own. The Pumpkins weren’t quite grunge, and certainly not post-grunge. They weren’t any kind of metal. But thank God, neither was the band Top 40.

In 1996, 1979 was cool kid capital.

There I was, sprawled out on my bed, decked out in flannelette jeans and a Charlotte Hornets jacket, listening through headphones to Corgan’s forlorn paean to times past. I misheard the opening line as “checked out in 1979”, or perhaps that line was my own projection. Teenage Jay wanted to check out from his surroundings. Teenage Jay wanted to check out from the suburbs, with their order and disdain for difference, and from school, with its in-crowds and cliques.

And there I was, in class, discussing Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (the album that spawned the tune under focus) with Triple J-loving classmates. Those same classmates who I was apparently trying to wish myself away from. Those classmates knew I never had the time for the manufactured tripe showcased on  Rick Dees’ internationally syndicated radio show or on the pastel-coloured panoply of Video Hits.

And there I was, in a parallel universe, within the 1979 video: rolling down a hill inside a tyre, jumping around at a party, trashing the local convenience store. All the while being trailed (not at all creepily …) by a famous bloke in a limo.

The reality, of course, was more complicated.

The Pumpkins were described as “alternative”, yes, but in the 1990s, unless you were Matchbox 20 (and even then …), that label was always going to be bestowed by a deadline-approaching journo. The band were emblazoned on the front cover of Rolling Stone, sans the necessary “corporate magazines still suck” T-shirts. 1979 was played on Top 40 programs (and yep, I listened to those, too. Secretly, of course.).

Anyway, what is “alternative”? Alternative to what, exactly? And who the hell matched flannelette jeans and starter jackets?

At 15, though, nuance mattered little. At 15, I could throw off the school uniform and fire up the mixtape and be transported to somewhere un-suburban (urban?) and fun. Until, of course, it was time for dinner. Or Home and Away was about to begin.

There’s been a 1990s revival in pop culture these last few years. This revival has exposed the Pumpkins’ oeuvre to a new generation, one that wasn’t born when Melon Collie hit record store shelves. This is a generation for whom the record store is a relic of a distant, ­ dare we say, quainter ­ era.

The 1990s revival has also encouraged those who came of age during that decade to reassess Corgan and co’s back catalogue. This is a welcome opportunity. This is something that cool kids will always have time for.

 

Dr. Jay Daniel Thompson lectures in Professional Communication in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University. He came of age in the 1990s, and remains a fan of the pop culture spawned during that decade.