For this edition of Dusting ‘Em Off, CoS staffers Megan Ritt, Dominick Mayer, Killian Young, and Dusty Henry re-channel their teenage angst and don black marching band uniforms and plenty of guyliner as they aim to put My Chemical Romance’s sophomore album, Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge, in perspective a decade later. (FYI: Former staff writer Winston Robbins also took a stab at the album four years ago, which you can revisit here.)
Megan Ritt: My Chemical Romance is a hard band to dust off in some ways. Nowadays when you think of them, the image that comes to mind is all-black marching band uniforms and excess eyeliner. But Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge was a really important record for me when it came out, and it’s worth re-exploring if only to clear away the intervening haze.
The unique thing about Three Cheers was the sound: It was my first MCR record, and I’d never heard anything quite like it. There’s emo, obviously, but there’s also this fusion of harder punk, hardcore, and guttural screaming. There was nothing else happening at the time that sounded anything like it. That’s the part that I really feel when I play this record now—how hard the sound hit me then and how well it still holds up today.
Dominick Mayer: The thing about its genre-bending sound is that when Three Cheers dropped in the summer of 2004, punk as understood at that time by mainstream culture had exploded, and in hindsight, I’ll argue that this period was up there with the late ’70s as one of its great boom periods. The music may or may not have been on point (that’s a whole different discussion, really), but the aesthetics and the sentiment were both there. Outlets like Alternative Press were a huge deal at the time (I believe Spin jumped on the train pretty hastily as well), and in general labels had become really amenable, in the wake of Blink-182 exploding, to bands that gave people the snarl of punk with fewer of the tricky political implications that made it historically such a hard sell.
So having a record with roots in punk and hardcore embrace the pageantry of glam-rock with such open arms was a super-controversial stance at the time. People were already wringing their hands over the death of punk (again), and these guys singing about how “the bride wore black to the murder scene” wasn’t really helping. But it was that theatricality that, I’d argue, made Three Cheers such a good record, one that holds up long after third-wave emo sort of died down. They were in a transitional phase here between the screamo tinges of I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love and the full-bore Queen-level grandeur of The Black Parade. The tension between the two is a big part of what makes this record so interesting.
Killian Young: Speaking as someone who grew up as a teen in New Jersey, My Chemical Romance were legendary. From humble beginnings—check out this grainy video of Gerard Way thrashing to a mostly empty room in my hometown’s American Legion, circa I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love—it was amazing to see them in heavy rotation on MTV. (Yes, this was a time when MTV still played music and also had a channel dedicated solely to music videos.) With Three Cheers, My Chemical Romance became arguably the biggest rock band to emerge from the Garden State since Thursday and Saves the Day.
The album produced three incredible, Marc Webb-directed music videos: “Helena”, “The Ghost of You” and a great homage to John Hughes’ style of teen movies in “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)”. Who can forget that opening line (“You like D&D, Audrey Hepburn, Fangoria, Harry Houdini and croquet/ You can’t swim, you can’t dance, and you don’t know karate/ Face it, you’re never gonna make it”) or the climactic showdown between the lacrosse jocks and croquet geeks?
Dusty Henry: The music videos are really what made the album for me. They’re probably the last band I can remember watching on MTV and feeling impacted by. In hindsight, they’re all a bit heavy-handed, but that tone is absolutely perfect when you’re a mixed-up teen. “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)” felt like a revelation. Sure, it was a parody of John Hughes movies, but at the same time, it felt like something my friends and I could relate to (I can’t be the only one who yelled the line “I’m not oh-fucking-kay” when their parents weren’t around). It’s riddled with dejection and depression. Plus, Gerard Way looks like the quintessential enigmatic frontman. The makeup, the dancing, manic eyes… he looked like I imagined a rock band leader should.
The “Helena” video stands as an all-encompassing relic of what mid-2000s emo looked like. The dichotomy of having funeral mourners dance in front of an open casket captures the drama of that era so succinctly. This video should’ve been a litmus test for emo kids: you either got it or thought it was bullshit. I loved it secretly. Living in a Navy town, being “emo” was considered the worst thing you could align yourself with. But really, despite the stereotypes, it’s hard to understand why people wouldn’t have been into this band. As Dominick mentioned, it’s very theatrical—and this is before we even get to The Black Parade. That over-the-top aesthetic is what really set My Chemical Romance above the rest. They pulled it off well and had a vocalist with the chops to make it work.
MR: It’s funny that you say that the videos are “heavy-handed” in retrospect, Dusty, as that’s always been the reason I didn’t enjoy them as much, but I think I might be older than you are. I was in college when the album came out, and when I saw MCR on the Three Cheers tour, I remember feeling marooned in a sea of teenagers. I don’t know if that says more about the music or about the type of people who were willing to listen to emo in public at that time, but there’s definitely something about that gut-level expressiveness that really resonates, particularly with young people. I remember reading that Way recorded some of the vocals while locked in an attic, just screaming into the rafters—that’s exactly how being a young person feels sometimes. I think I just appreciate some of the subtler moments a bit more, especially when I listen now. My favorite tracks are the (comparatively) lower-key rockers, particularly “Give ‘Em Hell, Kid”, “Thank You for the Venom”, and “You Know What They Do to Guys Like Us in Prison”. (That guitar intro to “Thank You” still kills me.)
Does anyone find that the high drama interferes with your enjoyment of the album 10 years on? Do you still listen to MCR with any kind of regularity?
DM: I can’t say I do with regularity, but they’re one of the few bands from that period of my life that I can and do genuinely go back and enjoy on more than a nostalgic level. Sure, I can also remember “Ocean Avenue” word for word to this day, but Yellowcard isn’t a band that’s stuck with me the way MCR or Taking Back Sunday or even Say Anything did. And I think part of what you said, Megan, about the primal teenage fury of MCR is telling in discussing why they hold up. For all the goth marching band getups and the fact that most of their songs were, at the end of the day, the same lovelorn laments for implied women that many of their contemporaries were putting out, they were purging their anxieties about their scene and themselves and leaving them on record for other people to sort out. (I do think the scene transition is important here as well, because I remember Gerard Way mentioning in an Alternative Press cover story how he was saddened by the lack of sex and excess and, perhaps more implicitly, theatricality in modern rock music.)
They’re also an interesting corollary to a lot of what constituted third-wave emo in that a lot of bands were getting signed who didn’t sound like Jawbreaker or Sunny Day Real Estate around that time, and yet MCR were spiritually if not musically tied to those bands. There wasn’t quite the same sense of raw self-disclosure, but beneath all the veneers, they were a vulnerable punk band composed of young guys obsessed with comic books and horror movies who wanted those things to not just inform but become part of their output. In that way, the high drama feels a lot more honest than whatever platitudes The Used had to offer around that time. (Shade thrown, I realize, but if we’re going to have a chat about highly dramatic bands that haven’t stood the test of time…)
KY: I think “high drama” is a good way to characterize the feel of Three Cheers. I tend to agree with that sentiment, especially on the lyrical front. I wouldn’t say that I listen to MCR a ton anymore, but if I were to give any album a spin, it would most likely be The Black Parade. Otherwise, I just play individual songs from the other three studio albums here and there.
Part of this is a personal preference for albums that tell a cohesive narrative from top to bottom, but the other part is that I think The Black Parade was a pinnacle in terms of songwriting and storytelling for the band. Three Cheers had MCR on the threshold of great writing; on The Black Parade, they crossed that threshold. Listening back to both those records, sure, some of the lyrics are a bit overwrought. But I think in the grand scheme of things, The Black Parade will hold up better than Three Cheers because the lyrical themes are more accessible. There were more thoughtful meditations on death, disease, and love lost, like “Sleep”, “Cancer”, “Disenchanted”, and even the first half of “Welcome to the Black Parade” (lower-key rockers, as you said, Megan). That being said, I think some of the Three Cheers tracks definitely reflect the transition that the band would make lyrically when they recorded The Black Parade. I still enjoy the words to “You Know What They Do to Guys Like Us in Prison”, “The Ghost of You”, and “Helena”.
DM: To a certain extent, I think the long-term impact on the band itself might not have been for the best. Even though I think The Black Parade is an objectively better record, it’s this one that I return to because it’s really the last time that MCR sounded like the punk-influenced band they started off as. To continue considering this against its contemporaries for a moment, this record blew up the year after Alkaline Trio began their transition into their own more theatrical period. And in both cases, the older, more earnest records might seem melodramatic or silly in hindsight, but there’s a power to them that the later stuff kind of loses. By the time MCR got around to Fabulous Killjoys (I refuse to type the entire unwieldy title of that thing), their music had become a lot more about the theatrics, the MCR Army, all that stuff, than the music itself. So in some ways I think they found the band they wanted to be, but eventually discovered that it wasn’t sustainable. At least when MCR inevitably does the full-album reunion tour for this in 5-10 years, it’ll still hold up.
And to its impact on music, I’d say that even 10 years out might still be too soon to make that assessment. We’re only now starting to see the next generation making music based on what was popular a decade ago, and third-wave emo has developed a weird stigma in a lot of ways where it’s partitioned off as a nostalgic item that people discuss when they talk about their Warped Tour days or what have you. I don’t think we’ve quite completed the circuit yet to where people are going back and seriously reconsidering some of those records just yet. But they should. Three Cheers offers up a kind of sincerity that had fallen out of rock music in the late ’90s and in some respects has again, in the era of buzz bands becoming the new, ephemeral way of appreciating music. There was a lot of noise from a lot of hyped acts during that time, and MCR bottled it into something covered in a lot of makeup, sure. But long after a lot of bands went away and the “scene” moved off in different directions, most people who were into punk and emo and whatever else during that time can still sing “Helena” in its entirety if prompted. It’s a record that genuinely lingers.