"Overcoming darkness is a beautiful thing": How My Chemical Romance battled ghosts, addiction, the Daily Mail and Kasabian to take over the world with The Black Parade

My Chemical Romance, Halloween 2006
(Image credit: Matthew Simmons/WireImage for AOL Music)

In 2006, My Chemical Romance were already one of the biggest little cult bands in the world. Their first two albums – 2002’s I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love and 2004’s Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge had established the band as leading lights in the burgeoning emo and post-punk scene of the early 2000s.

MCR album three was an altogether different beast, with an ambition, reach and musical scope that went far beyond punk rock ghettos. A full-blown concept album, The Black Parade featured a grandiose, epic feel that shattered any stylistic and generic fetters they might have once had and established the New Jersey quintet as one of the biggest bands in the world full-stop.

Where they had previously channeled punkier influences like Misfits and Black Flag, The Black Parade saw them give freer reign to their love of Queen and the expansive rock of the 1970s. In particular, they pinpointed two classic concept albums from that era in David Bowie’s The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars and Pink Floyd’s The Wall.

“I hadn’t even thought it about it until very recently, but it’s almost as if we’re trying to spearhead some kind of neo-classic rock movement,” Gerard Way told Kerrang!, shortly after the album’s release. “Bringing the pageantry and the theatre back. Paying tribute to those old songs – not ripping them off, but a total tribute. We wanted to capture that glory, that over-the-top-ness and that essence of classic rock in the ’70s.”

In order to capture this vision the band decamped to a supposedly haunted house known as the Paramour Mansion in Los Angeles, which might not have been the best idea for a band with members who had been struggling with mental health and substance misuse issues.

Gerard Way suffered from vivid dreams and sleep terrors during the recording – some of which seeped into the album. The dialogue at the start of Sleep (‘They're these terrors, and it's like it feels like as if somebody was gripping my throat…’) was recorded when the singer woke up in a cold sweat and grabbed his voice recorder, while the line in which he says ‘Sometimes I see flames…’ refers to recurring dreams about “Joan of Arc and brimstone and damnation”.

There were other strange occurrences. Drummer Bob Bryar recalled that guitarist Ray Toro told him he had seen a ghost in his room but it was Mikey Way who had the worst time of it. The bassist, who was battling a combination of serious depression and alcohol addiction at the time, was staying in what was reputedly the most haunted room in the mansion.

“When we were at the Paramour in pre-production basically still writing, things got kind of dark,” Gerard recalled recently in an interview with Travis Mills on Apple Music 1. “I know that Mikey struggled with some mental issues. The place, we liked it, but it had this weird energy that it was kind of haunted.”

Speaking to Tom Bryant, author of Not the Life It Seems: The True Lives of My Chemical Romance, Mikey Way said: “The band had engulfed all of us and I found it overwhelming. There were some things I had never addressed about that and they were festering away too. The combination of all of that was beginning to eat away at me. Recording Black Parade was the moment it all came to a head. I just had to go fix myself."

He temporarily left the band to seek help, a decision that was partially reflected in the bittersweet album closer proper Famous Last Words. Incidentally, while filming the none-more-dark video for the track there were a number of injuries, with Gerard tearing muscles in his leg and foot and Bob suffering third-degree burns on his hands and legs from the flames in the studio.

If the recording sessions themselves were plagued by misfortune and left the band exhausted, they resulted in a truly special creation. A concept album revolving around a dying protagonist known only as The Patient, it tells the story of his apparent death, experiences in the afterlife and reflections on his life. It makes a fascinating whole that is bigger than the sum of its parts but the individual songs all get their chances to shine.

From the knowing swagger of Dead! through the emotional drive of This Is How I Disappear to the anthemic Teenagers – the one song that seems to stand apart from The Patient’s story and was written by Gerard as “a commentary on kids being viewed as meat; by the government and by society” – there’s still plenty of guitar-fuelled grit on display. But then you have the more fragile likes of I Don’t Love You and the piano-led Cancer, not to mention the fabulously unhinged Mama with its inspired cameo by Liza Minnelli.

And, of course, the album’s epic centrepiece, Welcome To The Black Parade. Initially started years previously and titled The Five of Us Are Dying, the song very nearly didn’t make the album. "We just kind of had this punk song that was really cool and we liked it, but nothing about the song was speaking to me," Gerard told Apple Music 1. "It didn't feel like it was going to be on the album because all the other songs had really strong themes and titles and things like that. But we didn't want to just give up on the song."

Instead, Gerard brought in the lyrical concept of The Black Parade itself - an abstract memory from The Patient’s childhood that meets him in death - and the band dismantled the song and started rewriting it from the bottom up. “It was around this time that I wrote the opening melody for piano that [producer] Rob [Cavallo] played. Then once we re-approached it from the perspective of starting with a completely new introduction and a new way to start the song, it helped us fix the rest of it," the singer continued.

The result was what would become the band’s signature song, a sort of updated Bohemian Rhapsody whose sense of ambition and sheer grandiloquence waves the flag for the entire album. In many ways it also sums up the heart and soul of My Chemical Romance.

“The triumph of the human spirit over darkness was something that was kind of built into the DNA of the band from the beginning,” Gerard told Steve Baltin’s My Turning Point podcast. “There’s darkness in the world. And I think overcoming that darkness, that darkness externally and internally, is a beautiful thing…So that’s a theme that’s definitely in ...Black Parade, the song, and it’s in my work.”

If The Black Parade was greater than the sum of its not inconsiderable parts, the whole campaign surrounding it was even bigger. The band dramatically changed their look and adopted the altar-ego of the Black Parade for the accompanying tour. Said tour was marred by further injuries and illnesses (including a bout of food poisoning) but their march was relentless and they ended it as true global superstars.

Not that everyone was onboard. If you want an illustration of how embarrassingly conservative the mainstream music scene can be, let's revisit this 2007 assessment of MCR by former Kasabian frontman Tom Meighan: “It’s like ventriloquists’ music," the spooked Leicester 'lad rock' frontman frothed. "It’s weird and dark. They don’t have anything positive to say. The only good news is that it won’t last. These clowns won’t be around for much longer."

My Chem even made the Daily Mail’s radar as the rag attempted to label the band a ‘suicide cult’ band, laughably describing The Black Parade as “a nickname for the place where Emo fans believe they will go when they die”.

In a statement the band retorted: “The message and theme of our album The Black Parade is hope and courage. Our lyrics are about finding the strength to keep living through pain and hard times. The last song on our album states: ‘I am not afraid to keep on living’ – a sentiment that embodies the band’s position on hardships we all face as human beings.”

Small-minded, ignorant nonsense aside, The Black Parade was an absolute triumph and still stands as My Chemical Romance’s masterpiece. Speaking at the time of the album’s release Mikey Way said: “We want this to be the album that My Chemical Romance is remembered for. We all have records that shaped our childhood and teen years. When you hear a song, it shoots you back to a moment in time. We want this album to do that for people.”

Mission accomplished.

Buy The Black Parade

Paul Travers has spent the best part of three decades writing about punk rock, heavy metal, and every associated sub-genre for the UK's biggest rock magazines, including Kerrang! and Metal Hammer