"Tommy Lee and Billy Idol liked our band; we were doing pretty well." Milquetoast could have made Helmet MTV superstars, but they weren't interested

Helmet 1994
(Image credit: Bob Berg/Getty Images)

Sandwiched awkwardly between grunge’s domination of the music scene in the early 90s and nu metal taking over the world at the end of the decade, sit one of metal’s most unique, influential and underappreciated bands: New York alt metal legends Helmet

One of the first signings to Jimmy Iovine’s Interscope Records in the major label gold rush to sign anything vaguely resembling alternative music after the huge success of Nirvana’s Nevermind, Helmet’s second full-length album, Meantime, enjoyed some breakthrough success in 1992. 

“We had a gold record and a Grammy nomination [for Best Metal Performance for crossover hit In the Meantime],” recalls vocalist and guitarist Page Hamilton. “Tommy Lee and Billy Idol liked our band; we were doing pretty well!” 

Meantime would go on to sell more than 2 million copies worldwide, but soon the band realised the heat was on to follow the record up with another hit. “We were this underground New York band, a mix of metal and noise, and we were hot,” Page tells us. “Everybody was interested. When we had made Meantime, there was no pressure, but with [1994 follow-up] Betty, everybody had an opinion.” 

With label people hopeful that they had landed themselves an alt rock hitmaker, Page and Helmet’s punk rock background kicked in. Rather than make a carbon copy of what came before or make a more palatable, MTV-friendly record, they decided to retreat in the other direction and make Betty: a harsher, weirder, more eclectic and challenging record altogether. 

“I’m not comparing myself to these two at all, but Paul Westerberg of The Replacements and Ray Davies of The Kinks, they’re both really famous for shooting themselves in the foot, and there is something really appealing about that to me,” Page explains of Betty’s composition. 

“I worked with Linkin Park a few years back before Chester passed, and I remember Mike Shinoda saying to me, ‘We made our first album and kinda decided to make the second album exactly the same, because we had such great success with it.’ And I was like, ‘That’s kinda the opposite approach to me.’ I wasn’t trying to give people the finger, but I did want to keep them on their toes.” 

Ironically, it was at this time that they made the song they’re possibly most known for today – the grooving, noisy Milquetoast. Like much of Betty, the song was inspired by the idea of taking what Helmet had done with Meantime and manipulating it into something more unusual. 

“I can’t remember how it came about. I basically had it already finished [when we came to write],” Page shrugs. “[Meantime’s lead single] Unsung had that verse-chorus-verse-chorus, but instead of a bridge you had this development section. I really liked that. On Milquetoast, I came up with this bit of repetition and brought in these power chords and it sounded really cool. I remember someone saying to me, ‘Such a cool idea to have a guitar chord solo!’ I’d never thought about it like that.” 

Although Helmet were in a good place creatively, the outside interference and far higher number of eyes on the band took its toll. “I liked making that record. It was probably the most stressful of our career, though,” Page admits. 

One of the biggest bugbears was their label’s insistence that an outside producer be brought in to work on Betty, something Page didn’t understand at the time, considering the band had produced Meantime themselves. 

“There was stuff like, ‘Who’s going to produce the record?” he says. “I just thought that I had done a pretty good job with Meantime, so maybe I should just produce the fucking record!” 

Eventually, Todd ‘T-Ray’ Ray was brought in to produce, a man more known for his work with hip hop artists such as Cypress Hill and Nas than any metal bands. “T-Ray was a really good guy,” Page begins. “But he used to say shit to me like, ‘Man, you guys have got your shit together more than any band I know! I don’t got to do nothing! You’re giving me nothing to work with!’ and I thought, ‘That’s cute… so why are we paying you $10,000?” 

Page is more than happy with how Betty eventually came out – but, notably, Milquetoast was released in an alternate form ahead of the album. The band entered the studio with Nevermind producer Butch Vig to record the song for the soundtrack of gothic superhero movie The Crow

Released in 1994, The Crow went on to attain cult classic status, while its soundtrack – featuring heavy-hitters including Rage Against The Machine, Rollins Band, The Cure and Nine Inch Nails – was a perfect showcase of how the mainstream had come to embrace alternative music. With its inclusion on a soundtrack, Milquetoast – or Milktoast, as it was called in this format – was the obvious choice for Betty’s lead single, and a video featuring the band along with shots from the movie went into heavy rotation on MTV. Not that Helmet were that fussed about Hollywood. 

“I think we might have gone to the premiere,” Page nonchalantly tells us. “I remember Brandon Lee had already died at that point [The Crow star was tragically killed in a prop gun accident on set]. I did see it; I just don’t remember much about it.”

As it turns out, Helmet weren’t just invited to be part of the movie’s soundtrack, but to actually appear in the film itself. Page can’t remember if Helmet were asked to take the nightclub scene ultimately filled by My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult, or if they would have had their own segment, but he does remember his response… “We turned it down,” he says. “We weren’t striving to be played on MTV; we weren’t MTV guys. I was a bit of snob at 28.” 

Milquetoast ultimately reached No.39 on the US Billboard Mainstream Rock Chart, but wasn’t enough to propel Betty to the heights the label had envisioned on its release on June 21, 1994. Although the band achieved a career chart peak when Betty hit No.45 on the Billboard 200, it failed to match the commercial heights of its predecessor and the other bands on Interscope. 

Reviews were mixed at best, sales were down, and, due to the very non-metal front cover image of a woman picking flowers, along with Helmet’s deliberately demanding flights of fancy into jazz, country and blues on the album, the fanbase that had found them a couple of years before were left confused. 

“A friend of mine had this 14-year-old kid, and he was like, ‘Can I bring my kid to see you?” Page remembers. “This kid comes in and goes, ‘Why did you put a woman on the cover with flowers?’ and I go, ‘Because I thought it was funny.’ He was like, ‘Nah, I didn’t like that. I didn’t like it as much as the album before’, and I go, ‘Yeah… I know.”

That rigid kind of thinking is something that Page admits he doesn’t identify with. “Milquetoast is probably heavier than anything on Meantime,” he reasons. “But people still go, ‘Nah, you did that weird jazz thing.’ They cherry-pick. Like, yeah, we play jazz for about 60 seconds and then go back to making loads of noise. People would say, ‘You’re not metal!’ and I’d say, ‘I know, I never said I was!’ I dunno why people give a shit about what you’re meant to call yourselves.” 

The initial failure of Betty meant that Helmet only made one more album, 1997’s Aftertaste, before splitting. But in the years that followed, the nu metal scene began to take the downtuned, piston-like rhythmic thrust of Helmet – and songs such as Milquetoast in particular – and channel that influence into great commercial success. 

Not that Helmet were aware. In 1997, the band opened for Korn and Limp Bizkit, and even had Coal Chamber support them. When asked today if he had any negative feelings towards the nu metal scene for “borrowing” so many ideas from Helmet, and being far more successful than them, well, it appears ignorance is bliss for Page. 

“I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t really know that music,” he smiles. “I know a lot of the guys and have seen them all live, but I don’t own the records – it’s just not what’s in my rotation.” 

As the years went by, Betty began to get reappraised, both by the metal world at large and by Helmet’s fans – becoming, for many, the band’s definitive album. Having split up in 1998, Helmet reformed in 2003 and have been going strong ever since. Page admits he even sees a higher level of excitement when Milquetoast comes out in their set now than he did back in 1994. 

“I love the album,” he says happily. “We did the entire album live in 2014 and had such a blast – Milquetoast is a fun song!”

Stephen Hill

Since blagging his way onto the Hammer team a decade ago, Stephen has written countless features and reviews for the magazine, usually specialising in punk, hardcore and 90s metal, and still holds out the faint hope of one day getting his beloved U2 into the pages of the mag. He also regularly spouts his opinions on the Metal Hammer Podcast.