“The Black Parade became much more than just an album. It became a way of life that changed the cultural landscape of the world. Fashion, public psyche and mainstream understanding of alternative culture were altered forever but, despite all of this, the legacy of The Black Parade will always be the outstanding music.” -Terry Bezer of Rolling Stone Magazine
“One day your life will flash before your eyes, make sure it’s worth watching.” -My Chemical Romance lead singer Gerard Way
It was the 2000’s, a fresh start, the beginning of a new millennium, and it didn’t take long for things to go sideways. Plenty of good things happened early, including increasing availability and usage of the internet, Vermont becoming the first US state to allow same-sex couples all of the benefits of marriage, and apple releasing the iPod allowing for easy, portable, digital music. However, none of these things seem to stick out in the minds of most, the atrocity and disaster seem to overshadow everything. I was too young to remember it, but everybody is painfully familiar with what happened in New York City on September 11th, 2001. Once those planes hit the World Trade Center, the world as we knew it changed forever. This prompted the war on terror and, shortly after, the stock market crashed. In America, things were bad, and in the UK things were similarly bad. Rioting in Brixton, a pair of bombings, and the torture and murder of a 7 and 8 year old were in the news within 1 year of each other. For some reason, though, we didn’t stay down long. The resilience of the people of the west shone through, what didn’t kill us made us stronger, and we came out the other side of everything tougher for it.
While all of this was happening, pop-culture found something of a balance. Sure we had our fair share of mindless pop songs and blockbuster movies, but artists weren’t exactly slacking either. Rock and Roll was on something of a decline while Hip-Hop was on an upswing led by the contrasting but incredible efforts of Marshall Mathers (better known as Eminem) and Kanye West. Meanwhile, Rock split into the artsy alt sect, led by the efforts of The Strokes, Radiohead, and Arcade Fire, and loud commercial rock, championed by the renewed success of Green Day, Linkin Park, and Nickleback. Pop-rock really comes into its own led by Blink-182, and of course metal rode on with a dedicated fanbase like it had since 1970. To nobody’s surprise, a new style of music and cultural movement was gathering power and it was fueled by, you guessed it, teenage angst. The time of black eyeliner and body piercings was on the horizon and while die hard classic rockers didn’t like it, no form of Rock and Roll ever really cared what the haters thought. This new movement resembled punk, again to nobody’s surprise, but made use of more complex arrangements and dealt with more emotional subject matter. As such, it took on the name “emo” (short for emotional) and rock fans were sufficiently split. In the early years of emo, a few kids from New Jersey shared a love for music and this new movement, so they formed a band. This band would come to be known as My Chemical Romance, and their 2004 debut is still a favorite of emo fans, but in 2006 they really earned their stripes. Their sophomore album is not only the defining moment of their career, but the defining moment of emo music as a whole, and the entire emo movement for that matter. Just like a number of albums we’ve heard this week, My Chemical Romance were able to transcend their genre and make an album which influenced all of Rock going forward while also firmly placing itself in the history of Rock and Roll with only their 2nd effort. That album is called The Black Parade, and it is my selection for today’s addition to the Musical Training Plan.
First things first, The Black Parade is a Rock Opera. For those of you who are unaware of this term, it is exactly how it sounds. Rock Operas are a sub-genre of Rock and Roll which tell a story using Rock songs in the same way an Opera tells a story through its music. Rock Operas are often goofy, shameless, over the top, and good God do I love them. Rock Operas are nothing new, with most accepting Sorrow by The Pretty Things from 1968 as the first of the sub-genre. Rock operas were more or less perfected and popularized in the 70’s by the likes of The Who, David Bowie, and Pink Floyd. They are rare and challenging but when done right they are so awesome. My Chemical Romance seems to think so too as their sophomore album not only makes a brand new Rock Opera, but draws palpable influence and inspiration from the greats of the past. From the very opening moments of The Black Parade the trained ear will be able to pick out My Chemical Romance’s heroes which can be clearly heard in the album’s first track, cleverly titled “The End”. The Black Parade tells the story of a man known only as “The Patient” who is dying of cancer, alone in his sadness. Gerard Way sets the tone very clearly singing the lyrics “Come one come all to this tragic affair// Wipe off that makeup, what’s in is despair” while simple acoustic guitar chords play. These aren’t just any chords though, it starts by alternating G’s and A’s following the exact same chord progression that can be found in the opening moments of David Bowie’s legendary Rock Opera The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Both “The End” and Ziggy Stardust‘s opener “Five Years” share a similar sentiment as well, lamenting on an inevitable demise, almost in disbelief. “The End” goes on and drops into some powerful chords driven by a dense composition of electric instruments, and at this point the trained ear will pick up a resemblance to the opening moments of Pink Floyd’s 1979 Rock Opera The Wall. Already, hardly a minute into the album, inspiration from and homage to a pair of the greatest Rock Operas of all time are wide out in the open. My Chemical Romance does this tastefully, though. At no point does “The End” feel like an imitation, but My Chemical Romance was hyper aware that they stood on the shoulders of giants. This kind of respect for the past is hardly finished though. It runs through the entire album, start to finish.
Before getting into more music, let’s just appreciate the aesthetic the band selected for this album. They donned black and white marching band uniforms to compliment the album’s title and the event referenced in their greatest song, the titular “Black Parade”. Remind you of anything?
Of course, everybody who played Rock music post 1967 owes something to the Beatles for what they did on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and My Chemical Romance owns it. The marching band attire coupled with the idea of stepping outside of the confines of your band to make something bigger are both welcomed by My Chemical Romance, and again it doesn’t really feel like copying to me. Everything they borrow is done very intentionally and in the spirit of honoring the past to help make the future better. As the album progresses into its 2nd track “Dead!” the main character receives the news that he has 2 weeks to live from a doctor. The band’s lead singer Gerard Way provides the vocal performances for every character on the album, and he really cranks it up. He’s operatic, theatrical, over the top, and effective. In moments on this second song, and especially later on “Mama”, we hear shades of Pink Floyd’s The Wall again, reminding one of the theatrics on display during “The Trial”. Even better we feel the influence of singers like Elton John and especially Freddie Mercury during Way’s vocal performances, but again, everything he does is still decidedly his own. He isn’t doing a Freddie imitation, he’s just taking what he learned and applying it to his own music.
As the album progresses we hear a number of musical influences come through in the soundscape. The Sex Pistols, Black Sabbath, Metallica, Nirvana, and a variety of other bands influences can be heard, but there is no moment on the album quite like its 5th track, “Welcome to the Black Parade”. At this point in the narrative, I find myself reading the song as depicting the main character dying, and instead of his life flashing before his eyes he is transported to the best moment of his life: seeing a parade in the city with his father. This song has been described as the “Bohemian Rhapsody of its generation”, and I think that the description fits. Not only its affecting nature and recognizability fit the description, but the song’s composition and emotional power echo Queen’s masterwork as well. As the song starts quiet and slow, driven by a stellar vocal performance and a simple piano, we can really hear Queen’s influence kick in. Once the song builds up before breaking into a high energy hard rocking optimistic anthem I’m all in and can’t help myself but turn it up. Once again, you can feel My Chemical Romance’s love and respect for Queen in this song, but in no way is it copying anybody. “Welcome to the Black Parade” much like the entire album, is purely My Chemical Romance’s work, but everything is inspired by something else.
The album progresses one song at a time as we follow the main character into the dark afterlife and along an emotional posthumous journey as the songs provide a shifting and interesting soundscape. Overall, this album is very dark, concerned primarily with death and aloneness. The best song of the back half is the extremely punk , high energy, emo anthem “Teenagers” which is just so damn fun. In the narrative’s final track, “Famous Last Words”, we are left with some hope. The patient gathers himself saying “I am not afraid to keep on living// I am not afraid to walk this world alone” and the listener is left wondering if the patient accepts his fate in the afterlife, or chooses to fight his way back to life to face a lonely life. Neither seems that good, but hey, at least he’s got the drive now to make the best of his situations, no matter how bad they may seem.
Start to finish The Black Parade is a wonderful listen. It defined the emo movement and most of Rock and Roll since 2006 owes a lot to My Chemical Romance. They let their influences shine through without shame on this album, weaving Rock History into this album and placing themselves firmly in the record books. Rock may have been on the way down, but damn, MCR sure gave it a shot in the arm to carry on for a little while longer.
As the world entered a new millennium and things seemed to take a turn for the worse, the people of the west rolled up their sleeves and decided to carry on as best they could. As Rock and Roll seemed to be on a steady decline, Rockers seemed to take a similar stance, letting it rip and rocking out all the same. A highlight of Rock music in the 2000’s and the defining moment of the emo movement came in the form of The Black Parade, and album which has stood the test of time so far and had as much influence on Rock moving forward as My Chemical Romance’s heroes had on them. This one was not on my radar before preparing for this Musical Training Plan, but it is safe to say that I was pleasantly surprised.
And if you haven’t heard this album, I hope you are too.
Only 1 more day…