My Chemical Romance’s latest has made the band a favourite of the Facebook generation.
Entirely justifiably, no rock release was more gushed about in 2006 than My Chemical Romance's The Black Parade. Part of what made the album such a revelation was that, despite plenty of warning, no one really saw it coming. The world should have been prepared.
When the New Jersey five-piece first crashed the mainstream with its 2004 sophomore release, Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge, it was obvious MCR had more on the brain than emo supremacy. In a scene flooded with acts that both look and sound alike (can anyone really tell the difference between Silverstein and the Academy Is...?) My Chemical Romance actually stood out. MTV–blessed videos for Three Cheers singles like "Helena" and "I'm Not Okay (I Promise)" announced frontman Gerard Way as a genuine showman, a rarity in the post–Kurt Cobain world of alternative rock 'n' roll. And if raging live performances found him either staggeringly loaded or confrontationally cocky, at least they were never dull.
Even back then, Way was clearly a man with ambitions. When My Chemical Romance made its Vancouver debut right after Three Cheers' release (opening for now-defunct pop-punk footnotes Face to Face), the singer told the Straight that his band hadn't even begun to peak. Proud as he was of the album, he promised that the follow-up would be bigger and bolder, adding: "I can see us moving even more into a rock-type realm, with lots more melody and an overall largeness."
Such boasting is hardly uncommon in the self-aggrandizing world of pop music. A decade ago, Oasis loudmouth Noel Gallagher loudly proclaimed he was bored to the tits with Britpop, announcing he was going to start fusing the Stooges and Public Enemy. Unsurprisingly, Oasis today sounds no different than it did when Tony Blair was still the most beloved man in Britain. And as much as Green Day trumpeted American Idiot as a sweeping rock opera, the reality is the album is basically Dookie with a bigger budget.
What made The Black Parade a rarity was that MCR actually delivered something that seemed fresh and revolutionary. A concept album featuring 12 wildly varied ruminations on death, the disc ricochets from buzz-bomb hardcore to acid-test psychedelia to tear-streaked MOR. Ever wonder what the reign of Queen would have been like if Freddie Mercury and Brian May had grown up hot-knifing System of a Down's "Tox icity"? The answer lies in the gypsy-cabaret thrash of "Mama" (which, quite insanely, features a guest appearance by show-biz horror show Liza Minnelli). You want a tide-me-over until Chinese Democracy is finally deemed fit for release? The metal-glazed strutter "Dead!" revisits Guns N' Roses back when Axl Rose was still on drinking terms with Slash and Izzy Stradlin.
But forget all the ink that's been spilled over The Black Parade because, really, who cares what the critics think? To get a true sense of what My Chemical Romance achieved with the album, you're better off going to the band's peers. You won't find many more in awe than Patrick Stump. As the singer and main songwriter of Fall Out Boy, Stump is as close as one gets to alt-rock royalty at the moment. His group's past two albums (this year's Infinity on High and 2005's From Under the Cork Tree) have gone multiplatinum, which partially explains why a recent Rolling Stone cover story declared FOB "America's hottest band". But get Stump talking about My Chemical Romance and you get the feeling that millions of Facebook kids aren't the only ones who were dumbstruck by The Black Parade. In fact, Stump seems very much convinced that MCR might be the first great genre-smashing heroes of their generation.
"When I hear Gerard sing," he tells the Georgia Straight on his cellphone from Los Angeles, "I know exactly who he is. He's not just another faceless singer in some knockoff rock band. His band is doing something that I really respect."
When Gerard Way talks about writing The Black Parade, it becomes crystal clear that the members of My Chemical Romance were determined to renounce their status as emo poster boys.
"It was almost like you were playing with matches with your career," says the raspy-voiced singer on the line from a Charlotte, North Carolina, tour stop. "If you have a positive attitude, that kind of recklessness can be very fun. You end up going, 'Fuck it–we're going to light this whole thing on fire,' and there's something very liberating about that."
The Black Parade indeed finds MCR torching the bridge that once linked it to the emo nation. Assuming the roles of multiple characters–terminally ill patient, Virginia Tech–style psycho, drowning-in-blood soldier–Way leads his bandmates through everything from glam-spackled stompers ("The End") to ozone-crackle metal ("This Is How I Disappear") to sweeter-than-Sweet classic rock ("Teenagers"). Ultimately, the album finds My Chemical Romance announcing that it's gunning for more these days than a package tour with Taking Back Sunday and Story of the Year.
What's funny is that Way isn't exactly sure how he, along with brother-bassist Mikey Way, guitarists Ray Toro and Frank Iero, and drummer Bob Bryar, ended up enlisted in the emo army in the first place. Early in the band's career–when the group was playing house parties and grungy hall gigs in its native New Jersey–no one pegged My Chemical Romance to drag emo into the shopping malls and suburbs of North America. The word back in the day was that the members of MCR were hardcore-savvy rock-stars-in-waiting shooting for something big. Indeed, the group's 2002 debut, the vampires-and-bloodlust-fixated I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love, delivered a metal-tinted strain of screamo more aimed at hockey-rink audiences than sensitive emo boys and the girls who love them.
Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge rebranded My Chemical Romance, toning down the rage in favour of more musically varied musings on lost love, self-doubt, and the general emotional torture that is day-to-day life. As much as gothic-flavoured hits like "Helena" fell under the increasingly mean-nothing umbrella of emo, touches of fluttering electronica and funereal postpunk served notice that My Chemical Romance was destined for something much more ambitious. That might explain why the band's decision to abandon the movement that made Pete Wentz famous didn't take a lot of agonizing.
"What for us would have been worse would have been to be stuck in some kind of genre that we weren't even part of anyway," Way explains. "For the early part of our career, we literally couldn't get booked on bills because we didn't fit the [emo] mould. To find ourselves having to be statesmen for that genre was terrifying to us."
My Chemical Romance responded by drawing on the past for The Black Parade. Way has made no secret of the fact that, in addition to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the group's touchstones included such monsters of classic rock as Queen, Kiss, and T. Rex. Fittingly, then, the disc can be every bit as punishing as anything by Led Zeppelin, and as bombastically audacious as Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody".
Ultimately, The Black Parade is all about musical excess. (When's the last time you heard a tuba on a rock record?) That's somehow appropriate when you consider that the '70s, which inspired the album, were a time when booze and blow were dietary staples of every self-respecting rock star. Way is no stranger to getting loaded, making one think he would have enjoyed the Me Decade. When MCR started getting noticed after forming post–9/11, it was for performances that suggested there was no such thing as too much liquor before a show. By the time Three Cheers had found an audience, Way had developed an appetite for cocaine. When the party never seemed to stop, he slowly began to accept that he had a problem.
"It was the point where I was thinking about suicide–and I don't think that I would have actually done it–that I got really serious about doing something," he says candidly. "So I said, 'You know what? This ain't making me happy now.' I was taking drugs and drinking to feed my depression. That's when I realized, 'Well, it really sucks without the booze and drugs, but the morning after I use booze and drugs is when it really sucks.' I was happy maybe 10 hours a day and miserable for the rest. So I realized I had to take a shot, say, 'This is enough,' and quit."
Way acknowledges that, ironically, most of the landmark '70s albums that inspired The Black Parade were birthed in a haze of narcotics and hard liquor. With that in mind, cleaning up meant taking a risk that all artistic types will be able to relate to. When alcohol and/or drugs are part of your creative process, there's always going to be the fear of the spark not being there when you're not in an altered state.
"That's a really good point to bring up," Way says, "and it's something that I thought about quite a bit. I'll be honest: for a good four or five months, I wasn't creative at all. I actually had to fight to get creative again when I was sober."
The fight of his life paid off more handsomely than Way could have dreamed.
"The Black Parade is the proof that it was all worth it," he offers. "It's a way more creative, over-the-top, coherent-yet-ridiculous record than anything we've ever done. And it was done completely sober."
It would probably be stretching things to suggest that, these days, the members of My Chemical Romance are high on the adulation they received for their unexpected masterpiece. In fact, Way admits there's been a downside to all the raving, namely the loss of privacy that comes with being a public figure. Considering that MCR has arrived at a place that it's been working toward since forming a half-decade ago, that's a tradeoff he'll gladly take.
"This is a group of private people and loners," he reveals, "so in some ways this has all been very jarring. The bottom line is that we are very open about who we are, but we don't give it all up to the public. I kind of have this belief about this thing that I call 'the circus'. When someone gets even mildly famous, they start showing up to the circus, acting like a buffoon, making headlines, and meeting famous people just to meet famous people. If you don't show up to the circus, though, you don't get a lot of negative attention. My Chemical Romance doesn't have to worry about the paparazzi because they know we aren't going to give them anything interesting."
Except, that is, gushed-about marvels like The Black Parade.
My Chemical Romance headlines the Virgin Festival at Thunderbird Stadium on Sunday (May 20).