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Magic, Tragic, A Loss, A Win? Faith No More's The Real Thing 25 Years On
Matt Evans , August 5th, 2014 01:55

Matt Evans looks back fondly on his gateway drug to metal which came out a quarter of a century ago

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It all started with a poorly recorded Memorex DBS 90. Clear plastic adorned with garish pink, blue and yellow blocks. A lesser cassette, cheap and very much uncheerful, with all the clarity of a neglected fishtank. Yet it was to achieve totemic status in my personal archaeology, bearing the seed of a life’s musical obsessions. My first ever rock tape. On one side, the debut album by The Quireboys, the croaky, ersatz-Faces rootsiness of which kept me briefly entertained then, and makes me want to vomit barbed wire now. On the other, something else entirely.

Before The Real Thing, my relationship with music was unformed and unfocused: I’d had brief, vaguely enthusiastic flirtations with Madonna, Sigue Sigue Sputnik, A-Ha, Prince’s Batman soundtrack, the Blues Brothers, but once I discovered metal, everything changed. There was something in the energy and volume and social unacceptability of this music that captivated me then, and still does. At the time, FNM were just one of many metal-or-thereabouts bands to fondle my affections, but they’d have a lasting impact that Skid Row, Pantera and the Electric Love Hogs would not. Not only was TRT my first exposure to Faith No More, it was my gateway drug to rock; to metal. And it would eventually lead, via Mike Patton’s work with Mr Bungle and beyond, to jazz, to world music, to noise, to improvisation, to modern composition, to a universe beyond leather-and-denim tribalism.

To the wider world, and to me, it seemed that Faith No More arrived brand-new and fully formed in 1989. Of course, by the time of The Real Thing’s release, they’d been around almost a decade, in several forms and under a few names. In the early days, they blazed through many vocalists, including Courtney Love, before finally settling on Chuck Mosley – a hugely charismatic but apparently difficult character, whose strengths as an idiosyncratic rapper made up for his technical shortcomings as a melodic singer. Nonetheless, Chuck-era FNM made two superb albums – We Care A Lot (1985) and Introduce Yourself (1987) – but these are the work of a very different band to what would come later. With their collision of funk, punk, metal and rap, FNM’s genre-mashing spirit is very much there, but these are lean, raw, fierce, low-key and grimy records, with dogged, jaggy riffs and massive beats that often pay homage to Killing Joke. But change was coming. After one in-band dust-up too many, Chuck was booted out, and a new singer was sought.

It was guitarist Jim Martin who suggested Mike Patton for the frontman slot, based on a demo tape he’d been sent of Patton’s high-school band Mr Bungle – slightly ironic given that friction between Patton and Martin would eventually provoke the latter’s departure. Patton’s induction into the band was extremely swift. An album’s worth of songs had already been written before he arrived: mostly instrumental, some with words from Chuck. Patton wrote an entire album’s worth of lyrics in 12 days, and the new lineup played its first gig in San Francisco in November 1988. The Real Thing was released the following year – and once MTV picked up ‘Epic’, there was no avoiding Faith No More.

What Patton brought to the band was a youthful enthusiasm, dreamy pin-up looks, a juvenile sense of humour, a lack of narcotic dependency and, crucially, a colossal vocal range – he could sing anything that was asked of him. He was also a naïve kid – a teetotal, small-town California boy, not long out of high school. The overwhelming success of The Real Thing would so disturb this wholesome young man that by the time of its follow-up, Angel Dust, he had become a far more warped and unsettling figure.

So how does this pivotal album in my life story stand up a quarter of a century later? In all honestly, it’s somewhat wobbly. But ‘From Out Of Nowhere’ remains a massively thrilling statement-of-intent opener, charging straight into a monomaniacal thrash-based riff before launching into its marching band fanfare and skyward chorus. It’s hugely aggressive and confrontational, yet frothy and poptastic at the same time, with bulldozer guitars anchoring Roddy Bottum’s buoyant keyboards. ‘Epic’ is the big one, of course, and remains one of the more unlikely smash-hit singles of all time. In a post-Aerosmith/Run DMC, post-Chili Peppers, post-Beastie Boys world, the melding of rap and rock was no longer startling in itself, but 'Epic’s structure really singles it out – a combination of lumbering metal dirge, massive beats, heavily percussive rapped verses, obtuse lyrics, frequent soaring refrains that are not so much choruses as fragmented, incongruous interjections poking through from another song entirely, plus two lengthy instrumental sections, one an extended faux-classical outro. As a longtime FNM fan, I have mixed feelings about this song. It’s both tiresomely familiar and grimly inevitable in a live setting, yet inexhaustibly fascinating in the way its chunksome clumsiness glides so effortlessly.

‘Falling To Pieces’ and ‘Underwater Love’ on the other hand, are pop through and through: shiny, day-glo, major-key, slap-bass-led bouncy POP, at once irresistible and fairly irritating. For me, it’s in its murkier corners that The Real Thing shines brightest. Full of black humour and driven by Jim Martin’s vicious riffs, ‘Surprise! You’re Dead’ is a piece of pure, disproportionately nasty thrash metal – and the album’s dark, twisted heart. The presence of this song infects everything else around it. It’s a message scrawled in blood and bile that nothing is safe – there may be pop songs here, but at any moment a flame-breathing hellhound might scorch your face off. It adds a decidedly noxious taint to even the brightest, most melodic moments.

As if to emphasise this, ‘Surprise!’ is followed by the album’s twin quiet-loud epics: ‘Zombie Eaters’ and the title track. The former mashes together delicate, flamenco-infused passages with full-on metal crunch, while Patton’s lyrics depict, in both sweet and unsettling fashion, a baby’s megalomaniacal relationship with its mother. ‘The Real Thing’s lyrical concerns are more abstract and existential, but its sinisterly oppressive modular prog-rap-thrash-metal is impressively constructed, and carries real atmospheric and emotional force, even re-emerging as a chilling opening track at some of FNM’s 21st-century reunion gigs. ‘The Morning After’ is perhaps the least successful moment, struggling to resolve tensions between the band’s pop side and its darker and more musically complex leanings without a massive chorus to use as a crutch. The instrumental ‘Woodpecker From Mars’, however, which seemed like a pointless throwaway 25 years ago, now seems like a highlight – its combination of severe Middle Eastern portents and barely-holding-it-together double-kick-drum clatter-thrash deliriously exciting.

A faithful Black Sabbath cover, a pointedly sardonic hangover from the Mosley era, when Ozzy & co were considered deeply uncool among FNM’s audience, seems unnecessary, even pandering, considering the metalhead audience that would jump on board with this album. However, it does prefigure a fondness for entirely straight-faced covers (most famously, of the Commodores, but also the Bee Gees, GG Allin, Herb Alpert, Deep Purple, Peaches & Herb, etc.) that would be a constant throughout their career. Finally, the gentle, rolling, countrified sway of ‘Edge Of The World’ is notable for its understated nature, unabashed tunefulness, and juxtaposed, pure shit-stirring portrait-of-a-paedophile lyrics.

Patton’s arrival undoubtedly revivified FNM and took them to a mass audience, but for all that he’s clearly The Real Thing’s greatest strength, he’s also its biggest drawback. His vocal delivery throughout the whole record, though impressive, is drenched in blatant affectation – his more natural, rich tone hidden behind a bratty, adenoidal whine that can be hard to listen to now. Looking at live footage from this era, such as the You Fat Bastards VHS, Patton is usually found wearing wacky items of clothing, pulling faces, dancing like a shaved hyena and generally arsing about like a toddler in search of attention from his deadbeat parents. His performances both here and on The Real Thing suggest an extremely young artist wary of the spotlight and unsure how to present himself, taking on myriad visual and vocal disguises as a defence mechanism. From Angel Dust onwards, Patton was an entirely different artist, more at ease with his increasingly jaded and maladjusted self, deliberately shedding his pretty-boy image, exploring the limits of his voice and making a much greater contribution to the records. Yet he recorded the album for which he remains most famous (at least, among civilians) during an embryonic phase that you suspect he’d prefer was forgotten.

The colossal commercial success of ‘Epic’ in particular would prove be something of a burden for FNM – not only earning them a spot on US-centric lists of one-hit wonders, but also saddling them with a rap-rock/funk-metal tag that really only applies to a tiny corner of their oeuvre, but would nonetheless be taken as the basis for an entire genre/way of life by all manner of lumpen, unimaginative dullard imitators. You can no more blame FNM for arseholes such as Limp Bizkit than you can blame The Beatles for Oasis.

Yet, despite its mainstream success, The Real Thing stands as a curious anomaly in FNM’s catalogue – bigger, shinier and catchier than anything that came before, less ambitious and wilfully perverse than most of what would follow, and featuring a half-formed frontman all-but unrecognisable to those familiar with his later work. Its genesis was less than ideally collaborative, but Patton’s subsequent contributions as he became more integrated into the fabric of FNM, especially as he matured as a vocalist and songwriter, would ultimately produce far more satisfying results than almost anything on The Real Thing. For all that this album, bastardised in super-lo-fi onto one side of a bargain-basement C90, had a colossal impact on my younger self, its importance to me now is more historical than musical. It’s a transitional fossil, a necessary stepping-stone between the frazzled griminess of the Chuck era and all the glorious perversity that would follow.

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Aug 5, 2014 9:33am

Spot on. A few of the songs still hold up, especially live, but there weak moments too and Patton is just... well, bratty. As my favourite singer currently working, it can be hard to deal with his voice and persona here. Still, when it works it's a great big pop/rock bastard and a nice teaser for what was to come.

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tony m
Aug 5, 2014 11:57am

As above: spot on. Saw FNM in 1990 supported by Prong - my first ever gig. Still have nightmares about the sea of bodies jumping on me...

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Aug 5, 2014 12:44pm

Strange that you should mention the Quireboys and FNM in same sentence; the first time I ever heard either artist was on cassette 1 of 'Now 17'; 'Hey you' and 'From out of nowhere' were the last 2 tracks, if I recall.

It took a while to wrap my 13 year old ears around the latter song but without it I would have missed out on a lot of the noise that I have loved in the years since.

Spot on regarding Limp Bizkit et al; I'm paraphrasing but I recall an interview with Mike Patton in the late 90's when metal could only ever be prefixed by 'nu'. It was mentioned that FNM were a 'key influence' on a number of bands du jour. Patton skillfully parried this, lest it be thought that he felt any kinship with the drop D 7 string brigade. Yes, he conceded, you could say we've influenced things; 'That would be one way of looking at it. The other way would be that we've inspired a whole lot of sh**ty bands....'

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Aug 5, 2014 2:09pm

I wonder if my faded, ratty Real Thing t-shirt with autographs from Patton and Roddy Bottum scrawled beneath the fish on the front is still in a closet someplace. I remember Billy Gould asking me and my equally-square friends where he could find some weed and us being of no help.

Great breakdown of this record: some amazing heavy-pop weirdness (From Out of Nowhere, Falling to Pieces), some dark metal mysteriousness (Epic, title track, Zombie Eaters, Surprise!), some pointlessness (Morning After, Sabs cover). This record and Angel Dust are by far the best things Patton has ever been involved with, in spite of what his legions of fedora-wearing dateless fanboys may think.

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Mark T
Aug 5, 2014 2:39pm

I suppose it's my job to be the arsehole and remind everyone that FNM brought Limp Bizkit along as the opening act on their Album of the Year tour. To be fair, this was the first I'd ever heard of 'em... I thought they sounded like "a really pissed-off 311".

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Sam Shepherd
Aug 5, 2014 3:25pm

Great article. I discovered FNM from picking up Introduce Yourself in a branch of B&Q (yes really) having seen the video for We Care A Lot on some late night show.
Patton's introduction was mindblowing at the time (although I think I prefer Introduce over The Real Thing now). And like Matt, it was via Mr Bungle that I discovered much stranger and more interesting fare. Oddly enough, thrash band Sacred Reich's attempt at funk,31 Flavours, did a similar thing.
Anyway, great article.

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Fielding Melish
Aug 6, 2014 12:58am

Fun article.I'd learned about FNM as I did about many bands back then, by seeing James Hetfield wearing their t-shirt in Thrasher magazine. This was still in the Chuck days, and I listened to 'Introduce Yourself' incessantly. I have to admit, when I first heard 'The Real Thing', Patton's voice/adenoidal whine took some getting used to. Which made his leap into 'Angel Dust' all the more astounding. Still love 'Dust' and 'King for a Day', and have specifically avoided 'Real Thing' for years because it was so heavily played in the US (which, looking back, was even more astounding then it seemed at the time. During the 'Real Thing' tour, I had a chance to talk to Mike Bordin, the drummer, and ask him why the hell MTV was saturating their playlist with 'Epic'. He looked utterly bemused and admitted he had absolutely no idea, and then only wanted to talk about the SF Giants baseball team. Which was fine by me. Nice fellow).

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Aug 7, 2014 10:15pm

Nice assessment of one of my favourite albums to this day. I don't play it much anymore (I don't really need to as I know every dark recess like the back of my hand), but that doesn't make it any less of a record. I had it on vinyl, bought from dear old EGS records in Wakefield, back in 1990 (around when 'Epic' was breaking big, and they were on Top of the Pops, if I remember correctly. (I always hated how my subsequent CD edition didn't replicate the full surreal sleeve art of the vinyl cover).

For years it was the darker stuff on the album that did the trick: 'Zombie Eaters' especially. (Where the hell did that title come from). Then I went through a phase in 2006, when the Peeping Tom album came out, of really enjoying the dark pop moments on it: 'The Morning After', 'Underwater Love'... I agree with you about the formative nature of Patton on the record compared to what would come after. No matter what Patton/the band would do after, for me "Angel Dust" will forever reign supreme as their ultimate achievement.

But as I listened back to the record recently the one track that I have always loved but seems to GROW in stature with each passing year is 'Woodpecker From Mars' (ironically the one instrumental - and therefore sans Patton - track on the album). And so to the one glaring omission from (and my only real critique of) the above piece: Big Jim Martin. I think maybe even more than Patton, on this particular FNM album at least, Martin is the lynch pin and 'Woodpecker' is his equivalent of that bit in the video for 'Estranged' by GNR when Slash rises up out of the ocean to play his guitar solo on the waters. The bit where Martin's guitar begins to overdrive and becomes more and more distorted and angry, is (thinking about it) probably quite a pivotal moment as I'd never heard anything like it before. This is probably the first experience of 'noise' I would have. Jim Martin I salute you.

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Matt Evans
Aug 8, 2014 9:21am

In reply to :

You know what? I can't disagree with that at all. Jim Martin makes a HUGE contribution to The Real Thing (and as soon as you mentioned the noise in Woodpecker I heard the exact bit in my head...! Similarly, Billy's wounded rhino noises in the same tune). But then a similar case could be made for Roddy or Billy or – especially - Puffy. What most startlingly differentiates TRT from what came before is Patton, so that was my area of focus. I didn't mean to downplay Jim's (or anyone else's) input, though I can see that it may have come across that way.

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michael baker
Aug 9, 2014 12:41am

In reply to Matt Evans:

The album has a big affected on me as I was hooked on epic.that song was a big part of my growing up be amazing if mike an chuck could get together an record an faith no more album.

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Sep 4, 2014 5:25pm

My first tape was Faith No More and Aerosmith Pump. lol. I'm still a huge fan of anything Patton does.

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