When Gerard Way watched the Twin Towers go down from Hudson River Pier, he, like many people at the time, had a revelation: Life is fragile, and its ending seems arbitrary. A few months later, he decided his job making cartoons for a large corporation was not his current calling. Instead, he called up a few friends and suggested they form a band.
“And after seeing what we saw/ Can we still reclaim our innocence?” Way sings on “Skylines And Turnstiles,” an early My Chemical Romance song inspired by 9/11. MCR’s music, although dark, always instilled a sense of courage. “And If the world needs something better/ Let’s give them one more reason now,” he belts later with his new enraged purpose. Born into a world of international conflict and confounding terror, My Chem would be a source of comfort, catharsis, and support for millions trying to make sense of an existence that seemed heartless.
Across 12 years, the group released four epic albums. MCR grew from mentions of vampirical elite and classic horror film imagery to bold gothic rock operas. Although they were coming up in the burgeoning emo scene of the early aughts, My Chemical Romance progressed from a hodge-podge of late ’70s punk and heavy metal to full-on glam rock. They are the most innovative group to come out of that scene, and the one that best reflected the hell that was breaking loose in America. Whether it was centered around star-crossed lovers or a dying anti-hero, much of their music started with the end and dreamed up what came after.
Before there was an actual band, there was only a band name. Mikey Way, Gerard’s younger brother, plucked the moniker from the back of a book by Irvine Welsh, the Scottish novelist who wrote Trainspotting and The Acid House, and suggested it when Gerard approached him about starting a group with fellow New Jerseyans guitarist Ray Toro and drummer Matt Pellissier. After the dissolution of his band Pencey Prep, Frank Iero joined as a second guitarist. Later, Pellissier would drop out and be replaced by the Used’s soundman Bob Bryar right before the tour for their sophomore album Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge.
Their debut album I Brought You Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love illustrated their ambition and vast influences. In the documentary Life On The Murder Scene, which captured the making of their first and second albums, Mikey explained the band desired to sound like if “Morrissey were in the Misfits.” With their Jersey heroes and Moz’s bleak scenery in mind, they also drew from Iron Maiden’s hostile agility and Black Flag’s pulverizing hardcore. With these rock icons in mind, MCR were prepping for a monsoon of young rebellion.
Death is at the heart of My Chemical Romance’s music. After Bullets came Three Cheers, a loose concept album with a narrative about a couple that gets into a car crash. The man dies and goes to hell, only to be told by the devil that his lover is still alive. In exchange for being reunited with her, the man has to kill 1,000 evil men. In the process of making the album, Gerard and Mikey’s grandmother passed away, causing the fictional concept to derail a bit. It was instead wrought with an immense tragedy, losing the woman who supported the band from their very beginning.
Their third album The Black Parade is their most iconic. The Black Parade is not only the title of the album, but also the name of the alter-ego that the group adopted. They experimented with more theatre and themes of mortality than ever before. Gerard Way implanted his understanding of the afterlife in the album, believing that when someone dies that their strongest memory greets them after their last breath. The album’s protagonist is called the Patient, and his strongest memory is his dad taking him to a parade when he’s a child. Thus, My Chemical Romance is the Black Parade that comes to greet the patient after he dies of cancer. Heavy fucking stuff, my dudes. Here, MCR are the Grim Reaper’s Freddie Mercury bravely ushering us into the unknown.
Way believes that the best way to speak to people is through metaphor, which led to appropriating so much grotesque horror flick imagery that the group once told an interviewer they’ve been mistaken for actual vampires. Such dark fare provided effective symbolism for society’s ills, but despite how removed they tried be for creative or protective means, that layer didn’t shield them from their own corporality or struggle.
What makes My Chemical Romance arguably one of the most important acts of the millennium is in their melange of performative and reactive pain. They put every atom of their being into their eerie symphony, breaking some bones and raging with real-life demons along the way. Be it Way singing with a rotted tooth while recording the debut album, his open struggle with sobriety, or the band nearly burning to death when filming the “Famous Last Words” video, My Chemical Romance were not afraid of playing into their human limitations. Whether they were using fake or real blood, their performative elements were just as powerful at their raw ones — most of the time the two were indistinguishable.
After their magnum opus, My Chemical Romance released one final album in 2010. Danger Days: The True Lives Of The Fabulous Killjoys wasn’t a concept album so much as a “high concept” album, with more playful fictitious characters that jumped out of the Mad Max universe. In a Spin profile from that time, Way suggested that no matter how hard they tried they weren’t actually going to change the world: “I learned that the world doesn’t want to be saved, and it will fucking punch you in the face if you try.”
The album was their poppiest, with sugar-coated cynicism, that fell short compared to their prior projects. It wasn’t that they traded in their monochrome uniform for Warholian flashes of color. Something just felt forced, maybe manufactured. Maybe it was because we had diverged into a new administration that campaigned on “hope” and seemed like a distinct break from the era that birthed MCR. Maybe it seems like things were getting better, and we didn’t need this band to carry the torch anymore. The band called it quits in 2012, but the spirit that they resurrected could never be banished. Way’s beautiful parting letter states it clearly: MCR is not a band but an idea. It manifested out of pain, protected flashes of hope, called for perseverance and community, and is a wild and possessive spirit to keep going even when the end seems inevitable.
And now, keep going is what they’ll do. Seven years after their departure from the music scene, My Chemical Romance are reuniting for a handful of shows beginning Friday in LA. With so many half-serious jokes about the impending apocalypse lately, now is the perfect time for their return — and the perfect time to assess what they’ve contributed so far. As the band reappears to lead us into another disastrous unknown, we’re honoring their best tracks below.
10. “Honey, This Mirror Isn’t Big Enough For The Two Of Us” (from I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love, 2002)
“This song is about sucking dick for cocaine” is target=”_new”>the introduction Way used to give this track on tour. Whether this was true or an outrageous joke, the song plays with mentions of narcotics and urgent decisions. Way brilliantly uses wordplay in the first verse to paint a vivid image of a destructive protagonist who does so many drugs it harms his body and the furniture he uses.
“And this vanity I’m breaking lets me live my life like this,” he seethes. The irritated guitar riffs and jackhammering drums fit perfectly into the drug-induced drama that ensues on the group’s second single. My Chemical Romance wouldn’t truly find their footing as a band until Revenge, but “Honey, This Mirror” foreshadows their brilliant signatures: a balance of slobbering vocals and hushed breaks, plenty of passionate eruption, and distraught lyrics that illustrate tense personal battles.
9. “It’s Not A Fashion Statement It’s A Deathwish” (from Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge, 2004)
One of the final tracks from Three Cheers, “It’s Not A Fashion Statement It’s A Deathwish” was the first song MCR wrote after their debut album, which may be why it still holds that ferocity and messiness that distinguishes Bullets from the rest of their catalog. Their sound is still serrated and even more menacing, but they continue on without a straightforward pop structure that they embraced for their second album’s singles.
The narrator here is coming to the end of his odyssey, close to avenging his death. “I will avenge my ghost with every breath I take/ I’m coming back from the dead and I’ll take you home with me,” he sings as chaotically. His journey has not been easy, and neither could it have been easy to write it into existence. This song is a prime theatrical example of the commitment and spirit MCR put into their performance and narrative.
8. “Headfirst For Halos” (from I Brought You Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love, 2002)
When Gerard Way was in middle school, he auditioned for his school’s rendition of Peter Pan and landed the lead role. It was his first foray into singing and performing. For the band’s third overall single, Way used the imagery of the boy who didn’t want to grow up as a metaphor for fighting against depression. At its conclusion, Way repeats, “Think happy thoughts,” becoming more enraged and eager for a hopeful mindset.
According to the documentary Life On The Murder Scene, “Headfirst For Halos” was initially a joke of sorts, a collage of balladic ’80s arena rock and caffeinated punk — Way tweeted in 2013 that they were going for “thrash Beatles.” Instrumentally, it’s a chaotic masterpiece. It’s also a deeply graphic depiction of depression and suicide, inspired by Way’s personal mental health struggles and musical theater past.
7. “I Don’t Love You” (from The Black Parade, 2006)
After starting as a band that hadn’t quite mastered conventional song structure, opting for songs without a chorus, “I Don’t Love You” finds MCR perfecting something close a ’60s girl group classic. Way’s vocals are bitter and resentful, singing about a relationship that is rushing to its end.
The song’s tragedy seems to stem more from its hopelessness. The protagonist, most likely the Patient that Gerard is singing about throughout The Black Parade, believes that his relationship is doomed to end sooner or later since he is dying. He pressures his loved one to admit that she doesn’t love him anymore. Whether due to his cancer or possible turmoil that existed in the relationship before he got sick, the Patient craves an ending to his love with a nice black bow wrapped around it. It’s easier to accept that the love isn’t there anymore than just barring through ambiguous hardship. The song crescendos into a grand Queen-style guitar solo as Way cries for any reprieve from this love’s inevitable end.
6. “Mama” (from The Black Parade, 2006)
Liza Fucking Minelli is on this track. I sort of wish I could end it there, but “Mama” is one of the most theatrically intriguing MCR tracks to date. Here, Way’s passion for glammy musical theatre thrives.
After the opening sound of exploding bombs and a polka guitar melody, we’re thrust into the doomed narrative of a soldier (possibly still the Patient), writing to his mother who rejects him after hearing about the violence he’s committed. Minelli responds to him; her appearance is both nostalgic, eerie, and sorrowful. For a country that uses patriotic propaganda to court military officers, “Mama” is a cynical and devastating look at war, exposing how ridiculous and insane the whole thing is. From Way’s baby cries towards the end to the twinkling use of a xylophone, MCR take us on a strange, bohemian journey.
5. “Famous Last Words” (from The Black Parade, 2006)
If I were ever to go to battle, this is the song that I want blasting in my AirPods or sung to me by the little drummer boy. Instrumentally, “Famous Last Words” is vicious, but at its lyrical core it bursts with hope. Gerard wrote the track when his brother Mikey took a break from recording due to anxiety; he returned to recording after hearing it.
“I am not afraid to keep on living/ I am not afraid to walk this world, alone,” Gerard sings during the chorus with an immense gothic fire. In the context of the album, we’ve reached the powerful end of the Patient’s journey. It’s up for debate whether he lives or dies, but either way the track fits perfectly into the concept of the album as well as the real struggles the band endured. It’s a glorious, operatically thrilling finale.
4. “Teenagers” (from The Black Parade, 2006)
Whether looking back from adulthood or experience adolescence in the moment, being young can be really fucking scary. Gerard Way wrote “Teenagers” after encountering a group of high schoolers on the NYC subway. The crowded car awakened a new fear of kids and the realization that Way was too old to relate to them anymore. Or as he sang atop the tune’s playful march, “Teenagers scare the living shit out of me!”
Way felt that he had become part of the problem, becoming defensive to kids who are in the most vulnerable and difficult period of their lives. The end result is a disturbingly fun anthem for exploited youth. The track progresses from society’s violence and homogenization towards teens to teens enacting violence against themselves and other teens. As Way once explained, “It’s a commentary on kids being viewed as meat; by the government and by society.”
3. “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)” (from Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge, 2004)
My Chemical Romance is millennials’ answer to Queen. Just check out that guitar solo and the playful theatricality that courses through this whole song. Within the Three Cheers narrative, clearly our man is not okay since he just went to hell and has to kill one thousand bad guys. But even stripped of its dramatic context, “I’m Not Okay” is the perfect catharsis for any bad week or irritating moment.
It’s an extreme relief to admit when things are not going well, especially when are world values a superficial veil of constant perfection or continuous happiness. Towards the end of the song, Way teeters back and forth between pretending to be okay and not actually being okay. Toro and Iero fire off guitar riffs amidst his delirium. At one put Way flatly, almost comically, asserts, “Trust me,” and then lets loose a curdling scream that makes his feelings plain. It’s an affirmation to MCR fans that it’s okay to not be okay, that you shouldn’t hide that from anyone or ignore it yourself.
2. “Helena” (from Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge, 2004)
A relentless bash of self-hatred and familial love, the third single from Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge opens with a hiss and then a howl. Like many MCR tracks, “Helena” conjures an artery-ripping emotion. In 2003, Gerard and Mikey lost their grandmother Elena, who was a major support and inspiration for them personally and for their work in My Chemical Romance. Tragically, the group was touring when she passed, which is where the grief and self-loathing comes from.
“It’s a really angry open letter to myself. It’s about why I wasn’t around for this woman who was so special to me,” Gerard explained in 2005. “I wasn’t there for the last year of her life. Self hate is always a big part of the lyrics.” Ultimately, this infuriating, heavy emotion is what makes the song so spectacular. The panic attack of a drumbeat against Way’s enraged wailing and belting makes you want to comfort him, but also thrash around in anger alongside him.
1. “Welcome To The Black Parade” (from The Black Parade, 2006)
It’s extremely hard to write about such a grandiose song without seeming grandiose yourself, but here goes: “Welcome To The Black Parade” is not just the ultimate anti-hero anthem that Gerard Way had been working towards, it’s one of the best songs written in the 21st century.
The anthem at the center of The Black Parade contemplates death and beats despair down with a spiked mallet. Way is introduced by a spare piano melody that slowly builds into a marching-band masterpiece. His voice sounds boyish as he recounts a childhood memory that is now greeting him in death, the celebration the Patient remembers from his life turning into the funeral procession into his next chapter.
“I’m just a man, I’m not a hero!” Way yells near the end of the track, embodying not only the character he’s portraying but himself as a lead singer of a rock ‘n’ roll band. “Just a boy that had to sing this song!” he belts adamantly. It’s a good thing he did. From its brandishing horns to its sweeping guitar builds to its resounding refrain, “We’ll carry on!” the song is a call to arms for those worn by struggle. My Chemical Romance are fighting for their lives, and they’re fighting for ours as well.
Listen to a playlist of all 10 songs at Spotify.