Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘1979’ is still the greatest music video of all time

Go on – what's better?

Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘1979’, the dreamy pop masterwork from their infamous (and maybe a teeny bit overblown) 1995 double album ‘Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness’, is a track that aches with nostalgia, hope, a touch of regret and the inimitable freedom of youth. It’s a strange composition, a guitar track that feels like it works from a low-key electronic palette, the central guitar refrain a warm, low buzz that opens out in a beautiful, chiming chorus. It’s delicate, serene, knowing and – fittingly – melancholy.

The lyrics are non-specific. Like all the best lines in pop music, they invite you to project your own meaning onto them. As a depiction of adolescent longing, though, “On a live wire right above the street, you and I should meet” is up there with “I’ll dig a tunnel from my window to yours”, taken from Arcade Fire’s ‘Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)’. Ultimately, this is a track about teenage restlessness, boredom and the burden of your adolescent freedom, as childhood recedes and the shadows of adult responsibility edge into your life. The video is a quietly surreal collage of the swirling emotions this evokes.


Its premise: a bunch of teenage muck about in their hometown, chucking around car tires, causing chaos in the off-license, attending a house party that the Pumpkins are raucously performing at. It’s this final part that’s relevant today, given that Billy Corgan has this week announced a show that will recreate the memorable scene; fans must enter into a sweepstake in order to qualify for tickets to the small capacity knees-up in a Los Angeles residence. The show, which will be held on June 28 as part of the band’s upcoming North American tour, is not likely to capture the freewheeling feel of its inspiration, but it’s a fine opportunity to revisit the video – a classic.

And it almost didn’t happen. The band shot the video, directed by duo Jonathan Dayton and Valeria Farris (who went onto make the 2006 indie movie smash Little Miss Sunshine), before they went on tour, but footage of the party scene was left on a car roof and declared lost forever – not before ‘wanted’ posters with a $1000 reward were pasted up around Los Angeles. Eventually, the band returned to reshoot the section so iconic that the Pumpkins will soon return to it for a second time. (The video was almost directed by Spike Jonze, who wanted the band to spend over a million dollars on a video in which they hung about a space hotel in masks meant to convey elephant aliens.)

No wonder they’re returning to ‘1979’: the video is utterly mesmerising, threaded-through with shots of Corgan in the back seat of car, an omniscient observer of teenage pandemonium the world over, offering a wry smile as the characters’ adolescent rebellion gets more and more out of control. The fish eye lens puts the video in the midst of the action; we’ve all been there, to varying degrees. The sense of anarchy is heightened when the cops – one played drummer Jimmy Chamberlin – show up with comedy moustaches, reinforcing the notion that there are no authority figures in this teenage landscape.

It’s doesn’t celebrate the fact that the teenagers are wrecking the off-license, causing turmoil for the clerk (portrayed by guitarist James Iha) but the viewer is not encouraged to disapprove, either. This a judgment-free zone, a simple acknowledgement that, in life, we’ll do good and bad, and the world will keep turning, before “our bones will rest – to dust, I guess – forgotten and absorbed into the earth below.”


The composition carries a home video quality, as though we’ve stumbled on the teenagers’ camcorder creations. This is a moment in time, reflected in a poignant comment one fan wrote on Reddit in relation to the track: “I can remember thinking how 1979 felt like a strange and distant time to me as a 14 year old in 1995. The thought of a 14-year-old seeing 1997 in the same way now is a strange thought indeed.” The Pumpkins themselves captured the passage of time with the video to the 1998 track ‘Perfect’, which caught up on the characters from ‘1979’ as they made their through adulthood, bringing up their children, falling in love, attending parties that attempted to recreate the rush of adolescence.

There’s something a little sad about the new competition Smashing Pumpkins have launched – reunited minus original bassist and key member D’arcy Wretzky – given that it’s an unashamed grab at the past (offering winners a brief chance to escape adult routine with a two-night stay in a Hilton hotel). It’s the kind of nostalgia that those teenage punks would balk at. Yet the stunt serves serves a purpose in reminding us of the indelible power of adolescent freedom represented by the original, timeless video.