In the brand new issue of Metal Hammer (opens in new tab) magazine, we count down the 100 Greatest Songs Of The 21st Century (so far). There were some heavyweight contenders for the top spot, including the likes of Slipknot (opens in new tab), Trivium (opens in new tab), Deftones (opens in new tab) and more, but the song that ultimately came out on top was System Of A Down (opens in new tab)’s 2001 blockbuster Chop Suey! (opens in new tab).
The new issue features an exclusive new interview with System guitarist Daron Malakian, who reveals the secrets of the song, from its unlikely genesis to the crazy conspiracy theories surrounding it. Here are 10 things were learned…
It was written in the back of an RV
Modern metal’s greatest song was born in the back of an RV travelling down some long-forgotten US highway between stop-offs on the tour for System’s debut album.
“I was just hanging out by myself on a bed at the back,” says guitarist Daron. “There was an acoustic guitar I used to take around with me. I just started playing that acoustic guitar, and that's when I started writing Chop Suey!.”
The song’s opening lyrics were completely different at first
According to Daron, the song’s original opening lines were completely different to the ones everyone knows: “Tell me/Tell me what you think about tomorrow/Is there gonna be a pain and sorrow/Tell me what you think about the people/Is there gonna be another sequel?’” System singer Serj Tankian would alter song’s opening, turning it into a memorable clarion call: “Wake up/Grab a brush and put a little make-up.”
It had a different title too
Chop Suey! was originally called Suicide, after its key line: “I don’t think you/Trust in my self-righteous suicide.” “It occurred to me how we are judgemental towards people, even in death,” explains Daron. “If someone died in a car accident, you'd say, 'Oh, poor thing.' But if they died in a car accident while they were drunk, that would change your whole perception of how they died, and judging his or her death a in a different way. For some reason, that thought was weird to me. I was probably smoking weed or something…”
Daron worked closely with producer Rick Rubin on the song and album
Rick Rubin had steered System’s self-titled debut, but Daron felt more confident in his studio abilities second time around. “I co-produced [second album] Toxicity with Rick,” he says. “That was my first taste of actually being involved in the band as a producer, and not just writing the songs. I learned a lot from Rick. Not necessarily technical things. Rick's not a very technical guy in the studio, he's more like an opinion. And he’s a tough opinion - if he loves something, he'll love it. But if something's not great, he'll let you know.”
The band weren’t pressured into changing the title from Suicide to Chop Suey!
Received wisdom is that that the label strong-armed the band into changing the song’s original title Suicide for fear that radio wouldn’t go near the song. “Not true,” counters Daron. “Nobody pressured us. We were, like, ‘It’s our first single from the album, do we want to give the radio a reason not to play it?’”
He had a ready-made replacement title: Chop Suey!. It’s partly a play on words – ‘suicide’ chopped in half – and partly a nod to the old black and white gangster movies Daron watched as a kid. “It was something they used to say: ‘We’ll make chop suey out of him!’ It meant, ‘We’re gonna kill him.’ It tied in with the whole death thing.”
The video was filmed in the courtyard of a hotel that Daron and Serj remembered from childhood
The song’s memorable video was filmed in the courtyard of the Oak Tree Inn in Hollywood, near the neighbourhood where Daron and bassist Shavo Odadjian grew up.
“In the early 80s, the whole of Sunset Strip was full of prostitution, and that hotel was full of prostitutes,” says Daron. “There was a supermarket across the street where all the Armenians used to go to. We used to go with our parents and we’d see all the hookers across the street. When we were doing that video, Shavo said, ‘I think we should make it at that seedy ass hotel.’
Daron’s tattoos in the video? They’re not real
In the Chop Suey! video, Daron is sporting a set of strikingly ornate tattoos on his torso. Except they weren’t real. “I just wanted to do something that looked cool – there was no message behind it,” he says. “It took a long time to do, all that body paint. All the effort I put into it… I really wouldn't do anything like that now.”
The song was banned by radio in the wake of 9/11… or was it?
Chop Suey! featured on a list of “lyrically questionable” songs sent by US media giant Clear Channel to its 1100 radio stations following the attacks on the Twin Towers, due to its reference to suicide and the line “I cry when angels deserve to die.”
“In music, that's a badge of honour,” says Daron. “So many great rock bands have been banned. It’s almost like you’re not part of the cool group if you’re not banned once or twice. I think it made the song more popular.”
Except Chop Suey! was never officially banned. The list was purely advisory. And it certainly didn’t stop the song reaching No.12 on the Billboard Rock And Metal charts.
9/11 conspiracy theorists jumped on it
In the wake of the Al Qaeda attacks, the internet’s tinfoil-hat brigade zeroed in on the line ‘self-righteous suicide’. In their fevered imaginations, System Of A Down had predicted what was coming.
“Our fans were starting to say, ‘Hey, these guys are prophets, they’re saying things that hadn’t happened yet,’” says Daron. “‘Self-righteous suicide’, ‘Aerials in the sky’ [from Toxicity track Aerials], Jet Pilot.’ I was, like, ‘Wow, that’s cool they think that. Let’s make them believe we actually did it.’”
It’s more popular than any other metal song
Today, Chop Suey! stands as System Of Down’s most famous song, and a 21st century metal landmark. Its 600 million-plus Spotify plays are greater than any single Metallica song and bigger than the two most popular Slipknot songs combined. Last year it notched up 1 billion YouTube views – the first metal song to pass that figure (unless you count Linkin Park’s In The End).
“It makes me feel proud that what we do still holds up, and that people still connect with it,” says Daron. “But it's funny that this little song that I had such tiny moment with in that RV has become this thing that people can't imagine their lives without. That’s special to me.”
You can read the full interview with Daron – and the full list of the 100 Greatest Songs Of The 21st Century – in the brand new issue of Metal Hammer, on sale now (opens in new tab).