The story of My Chemical Romance’s The Black Parade: “When it was done, I knew that we’d created a monster”

As reluctant emo standard-bearers, in 2006 My Chemical Romance set out to make an album for the ages. Amid controversy, great suffering and obsession, they pulled it off. But it almost killed them…

The story of My Chemical Romance’s The Black Parade: “When it was done, I knew that we’d created a monster”
Sam Law
Paul Harries

In spring 2006, Gerard Way found himself gazing out over the City Of Angels as demons raged inside his head. Behind him, the infamous Paramour Mansion, into which his band had retreated, loomed like a physical manifestation of the pressure that had been mounting since they first shacked up in Los Angeles two years earlier. An iconic landmark in the city’s oft-romanticised Silver Lake district, nestled deep amongst the Hollywood Hills, it was built in 1923 as the opulent residence for silent film star Antonio Moreno and his oil-heiress wife Daisy Canfield Danziger, but took on a darker reputation when Daisy died a decade later – her home-bound car plunging off Mulholland Drive. In the years that followed, the 22-room estate saw tenants come and go: a home for girls, an order of Franciscan nuns. Rumours persisted, however, of hauntings and an eerie atmosphere about the place.

“I was staring at that cityscape, wondering what the hell I was doing with my life,” Gerard said, unpacking an almost irrational dread that was far more bothersome than bumps in the night. “It wasn’t the happiest time. I was extremely tense. The band had gotten really big and so there was a lot of pressure. A lot of people thought we’d be a flash in the pan. That was hard for us. I went through a crisis [and] was examining every awful thing about myself. I became very susceptible to depression.”

Gerard would start to experience these “Frankenstein moments” frequently, asking himself with alarming regularity whether he was legitimately “nuts”. Having shifted over three million copies of second LP Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge, it was perhaps understandable that MCR had undergone something of an identity crisis. Making that record, they had positioned themselves up against the Hollywood elite to feed on the stark contrast, but now they were welcomed as guests of honour at glitzy parties, sampling all of LA’s dark delights. It had become a new, uncomfortably warm form of alienation.

“There’s a fine line between being treated like a demigod and a circus monkey,” the singer would expand, having holed-up in a Portland hotel room to decompress after an intense tour cycle. “When people don’t treat you like a human being, it gets very odd. That happened a lot.”

There is a perilously fine line, too, between genius and insanity. In confounding new-formed expectations of MCR, it was one he invited his bandmates to walk. Gerard’s vision had always been that the band’s third LP would be their ultimate triumph. As expectations had soared around them, he dared to dream of an era-defining masterpiece. Departed drummer Matt Pelissier was replaced by Bob Bryar. Superstar producer Rob Cavallo – famed for elevating the likes of Green Day and Jawbreaker – was brought aboard to demolish any preconceived limitations. A skeletal concept was devised: the unprecedentedly bleak tale of a cancer victim dying and revisiting the events of his life. There would be the parades he visited, the wars fought, the loves lost. The band retreated within these haunted walls, knowing they’d need to eviscerate themselves to put flesh on the bones.

A space inside was designated The Heavy Room. It was here that the band would go to confront one another and thrash out their feelings – often hurtfully so. “There were times when we really cut ourselves open,” Gerard reflected on how those cuts bled black. “We had our souls drained out. I’m serious – this record tried to kill us.”

Obsession took hold. Gerard spoke of going to bed at 6am, then rising four hours later to dive back in, every wall covered in notes and mood drawings. This wasn’t just a case of putting together a collection of songs. It was about building a whole new world.

“I was a fucking lunatic,” he recalled. “I was trying to oversee everything. We went fucking crazy. I got obsessed with death. For days, I played The Passion Of The Christ with the sound off. I couldn’t get things grim enough. I ended a relationship. In fact, I was so obsessed that my entire personal life got destroyed. It really felt like something was coming after us.”

“We were always on the brink,” Frank Iero confirmed. “Always…”

“We were festering,” Mikey Way, who temporarily left the band to go into therapy for depression and addiction, said less delicately. “This is the sort of time in a band’s career when people might lose their mind. [For me] it all came to a head, I couldn’t stop it. I had to go away and fix myself. There were some screws loose upstairs that needed tightening.”

Emerging from the process, though, there was a feeling that from such psychological savagery, they had wrung a dark masterpiece.

“When it was done,” Gerard grinned, “I knew that we’d created a monster.

“This band has always had a desire to achieve greatness. It’s always loved the taste of victory, it loves winning, and it loves beating the odds. I feel like we’ve put everything on black and spun the roulette wheel. But you know what? If you’re not risking everything, you might as well not play at all.”

Few fans will ever forget the first time they heard those iconic piano notes tinkling into lead single Welcome To The Black Parade. There was nostalgia in there, and the excitement of the new. In a sense, it felt like some patchwork pop-punk explosion. The piano-led dirge. The singer-songwriter emotion. The cathartic payoff and that incredible ascending outro. It’s a cliché, but it still feels like a Bohemian Rhapsody-sized achievement for that generation of musicians and fans.

The music video was as important as the song, pivoted around the band as ghoulish grand marshals, leading a march down some Hadean main street. Donning monochrome military jackets, they might have looked like Sgt. Peppers as styled by Hot Topic, but they owned it. Gerard’s decision to buzz-cut and bleach his trademark barnet as a form of method acting his lead character was an instantly iconic masterstroke. These were no longer the underdogs from the underground. These were generals ready to lead the charge.

When the full record followed, it did not disappoint. This was an album meant to blindside listeners. It was an album meant to set MCR apart from the rest of an emo scene in which they had little interest. In fact, it redefined what emo was. Once a genre fixated on downtrodden bedroom sounds and the defeat of heartache, it had been supercharged and injected with stadium-rock showmanship. No longer were My Chemical Romance happy to toy with comic book imagery. They had become dark superheroes – complete with an alter ego incarnation of their band.

There was no nihilism in their approach to death. Instead, they saw it as the final statement that makes life beautiful in the first place. In the evolving contrast between guitarists Frank Iero and Ray Toro, they had a new energy, too. Although Ray’s swaggering pyrotechnics – increasingly calling to mind icons like Queen and Led Zeppelin – caught the attention of many, it was Frank’s buzzsaw energy that gave this music its additional edge. Rob Cavallo reckoned that if you isolated out the six-strings, you could hear them smashing into each other.

Beyond that, there was something cross-generational about The Black Parade, with the band fearlessly repurposing the performative rock’n’roll tradition for modern times. This was to be the soundtrack for a first generation of teenagers whose personal lives played out on social media: messy feelings and spilled guts plastered up for all to see. The youth had always craved the freedom to express themselves and feel connection. MCR were proving that they understood better than anyone else the difference between theatricality and inauthenticity. That they had the ability to present a larger-than-life image without being fake. This was high-performance, sure, but it was theatre for which they would endure injury (as Gerard, Ray and Bob did while shooting the Famous Last Words video) and with a beating heart beneath.

It also became a war against cynicism. Contemporaries in their own scene rounded on the band for daring to smash boundaries so authoritatively. “People were passionately pissed off that we had achieved so much so fast,” Gerard would shrug of the jealousy and resentment of a thousand scenesters lacking the ambition and self-conviction to bring a vision like this to life.

Many mainstream critics saw The Black Parade as a gimmicky reheat of ideas the likes of David Bowie, Queen and Pink Floyd had explored decades earlier. Punks and metalheads railed against the band infiltrating the mainstream and daring to mix such dark subject matter with such accessible sounds. A main stage bow at Reading & Leeds 2006 and their crowning headline at Download 2007 both suffered from audience bottling, but felt all the more thrilling for it. The Daily Mail even declared the band to be a “death cult” from which “no child is safe”, ridiculously insinuating that there is a suicidal message in a record that ends with the line, ‘I am not afraid to keep on living / I am not afraid to walk this world alone.’

Brilliantly, even as superstardom took hold, My Chemical Romance – and their burgeoning MCRmy, who turned out in force against the tabloids – were only driven on by such vitriol. “I don’t think we’ve ever been accepted,” Frank admitted. “It’s always been that way. I don’t think this band will ever be on top, because we’ll always have to fight to survive.”

Gerard went further, nailing the central spirit of this music that still endures.

“I like things around us to be challenging and chaotic – almost as though there’s some dark force fighting us. It reminds us that we have to keep battling. It charges us. This band needs adversity. If we don’t have that, then we’re not doing any good. We need something to fight against. We need to be winning people over and changing their minds. The second we lose that, we become normal, we become mundane.”

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