“Helena (So Long & Goodnight)”
When Gerard Way formed My Chemical Romance, he was 24 and already pursuing his first dream as a visual artist, writing comic books and interning at Cartoon Network. But when he did start the band, he was sure to give them a perfect comic-book-hero origin story: after witnessing the 9/11 attacks while working in New York, the New Jersey native had an epiphany and decided, strangely, to “make a difference” in the world by… writing rock songs. Even stranger, it worked, and quickly — the band that formed in late 2001 had its first cult-building independent album out the next summer, and by the end of 2004 had released Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge, the major label debut that rocketed the band to MTV fame and platinum sales.
My Chemical Romance’s swift rise, penchant for eyeliner, and very young and heavily female fanbase made them the biggest band to come out of Jersey since Bon Jovi, and also afforded them comparable levels of respect from indie rockers and “serious” music fans. But the pale, deathly makeup, dourly melodramatic lyrics about vampires, and histrionic vocals betrayed a band that also had a wicked sense of humor, an irrepressible ear for hooks, and an impressive vocabulary of all the ’70s proto punk and classic rock that their creatively inbred Victory Records contemporaries were completely unaware of.
Sometimes My Chemical Romance laid on the influences a little thick. Way and the Used frontman Bert McCracken refashioned themselves as the David Bowie and Freddie Mercury of the Warped Tour for a cover of “Under Pressure” that became one of the biggest radio hits by either band. And a few years later, MCR covered Dylan’s “Desolation Row” for the Hollywood adaptation of the classic graphic novel The Watchmen, paying homage to both the band’s baby boomer forebears and the their comic book-influenced visual aesthetic.
Ever faithful to their classic rock DNA, they began the reinvention cycle pretty quickly — the follow-up to their major label breakthrough was 2006’s The Black Parade, a bombastic rock opera in the narratively hazy Pete Townshend tradition, which refashioned My Chemical Romance as a lonely hearts club marching band of black-clad skeletons, ushering a cancer patient into the afterlife. Such an abrupt shift would’ve slowed down other bands — in fact it did slow down the Killers, whose own flip from guyliner to Springsteen that same fall was far more divisive — but My Chemical Romance parlayed it into a five-minute, tempo–shifting crossover pop hit, “Welcome to the Black Parade.”
Way and company seemed to grow tired of their Black Parade persona even more quickly than the original band image they’d invented it to escape. In the last six years of the band’s existence, they released only one proper album, which was plagued by numerous delays and changes in direction: first, it was to be their back-to-basics garage rock record, with no costumes or concepts. Then, after discarding one producer and a couple dozen songs, they wound up with 2010’s Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys, a post-apocalyptic narrative complete with radio announcer interludes and a new alias for each member of the band. A leopard can’t change its spots, especially if constant change is the essence of its nature.
Last year, vague reports came and went of My Chemical Romance writing songs, even building their own studio to facilitate round-the-clock sessions. But instead of new music, they issued Conventional Weapons, a series of two-song singles that trickled out from October to February, adding up to ten of the songs they recorded in 2009 before shaking the Etch A Sketch to get to Danger Days. At first, the songs registered as merely an enjoyable stopgap release, but now that it stands as the band’s Let It Be (always with the classic rock parallels), one savors them more, and realizes how potent the stuff they just let sit on the shelf for years is. In a more just world, Conventional Weapons could’ve been the start of the next phase of the band, a series of viral micro-EPs that open up new doors for their art and their fanbase like Miguel’s Art Dealer Chic (can we say “Arms Dealer Chic”?). But it’s not a just world, and the band knew that.
The band’s brief, upbeat breakup announcement on Friday night was soon followed a longer missive from Gerard Way himself, which did little to illuminate any specifics of the end of the band, while still putting a charmingly elliptical spin on its entire existence. It’s unclear what his plans are for the future, and if they involve music, although he tells an anecdote about buying a vintage tube amp. Last year, Way uploaded an apparent solo track, “Zero Zero,” to SoundCloud under the alias Danny the Street, and guested on Deadmau5’s single “Professional Griefers.” We’re hoping his next project involves more fuzzed out riffs like the former and less garish EDM like the latter.
My Chemical Romance’s announcement comes at an interesting time: next month will bring comeback albums from two of their biggest contemporaries in the mid-‘00s explosion of platinum emo bands. Fall Out Boy are coming off of a sharp commercial decline and years of “indefinite hiatus” with an album titled Save Rock And Roll. Paramore, meanwhile are debuting a new lineup after frontwoman Hayley Williams’s original bandmates jumped ship from what they claimed was merely her glorified solo career.
A less self-possessed band would have wanted to get in on this action for a trendpiece trifecta, but My Chemical Romance didn’t win the hearts of millions of scene kids by obsessing over “the scene” like Fall Out Boy did. Their topic was mortality: vampires and ghouls who defied it, as well as unabashedly touchy-feely anthems for Gerard’s late grandmother or 9/11 victims or cancer-stricken kids… and speedy, sarcastic punk songs that featured a Tarantino-esque number of bloody shootouts and merciless murders. They took more publicity photos in Kevlar vests than 50 Cent, and released a concert film on a bullet-shaped USB drive.
Given the band’s penchant for violent imagery, it’s amazing they sold as many records as they did without ever becoming embroiled in Marilyn Manson-level controversy — the closest they got was when a teen fan committed suicide in 2008. When “Teenagers,” the darkly funny Black Parade standout, was released as the album’s last single, they were cautious to close the video with a “violence is never the answer” PSA message. Three weeks before the Sandy Hook tragedy, the band dropped a Conventional Weapons track called “Gun.” that rhymes “a pistol is a lot of fun” with “the government wants your gun,” something that probably would’ve raised a lot more eyebrows if it wasn’t a quietly released outtake recorded in 2009. We wouldn’t be too surprised if Way had a full clip of murder songs ready to go for the next MCR album when the events of the last few months convinced him that the band’s particular brand of gallows humor would not be very appreciated at this moment in American history.
Humor, though, was always My Chemical Romance’s greatest weapon. Their songs about vampires were always a little tongue-in-cheek, but nothing was funnier than how ruthlessly “Vampire Money” from Danger Days poked fun at peers who recorded songs for the Twilight soundtracks when vamps went mainstream. Instead, the band happily allowed “SING,” the biggest hit from the album, to be covered by the cast of TV’s Glee, at a time when bands like Kings of Leon and Foo Fighters made an empty rock cred gesture of turning down the kids from William McKinley High. This is a band, after all, whose big name guest star for the first album they made after hitting it big was Liza fucking Minnelli — they rocked hard, but weren’t afraid to let you see their jazz hands.
People who wanted to believe My Chemical Romance were emo prettyboys or goth grumps never seemed to notice the band that wrote song titles like “You Know What They Do to Guys Like Us in Prison” and the fast, funny tunes to back them up. Even when Way earnestly writes “I believe in rock and roll” in his letter about the breakup, he follows the statement with a self-deprecating aside: “I often watched the journalists snicker at mention of it, assuming I was being sensational or melodramatic (in their defense I was most likely dressed as an apocalyptic marching-band leader with a tear-away hospital gown and a face covered in expressionist paint, so fair enough).”
We won’t have any shortage of self-aggrandizing world-saving rock stars without MCR around — there’s a new 30 Seconds to Mars album right around the corner — but who we get instead will almost certainly lack Way’s wit and self-awareness. My Chemical Romance were ridiculous, but on purpose, and with purpose.
Read on for our take on MCR’s 10 essential songs.