Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge came out on 8 June 2004 shortly after My Chemical Romance had completed another short UK tour, squeezing in dates in Portsmouth, London, Manchester, Leeds and Glasgow with the Arizonan metalcore band The Bled and the Welsh hardcore band Hondo Maclean. Oddly enough, two people on the road with them on that trip would go on to later play drums for the band. One was The Bled’s powerhouse drummer, Mike Pedicone, then touring his band’s Pass the Flask debut. The other was My Chemical Romance’s soundman, Bob Bryar, who was such a fan of the band that he was prepared to work for free.
Bob was aware of a tension between drummer Matt Pelissier and the other four members. As they travelled through the UK — tired and pushed to the limits by their schedule — he saw there was a disconnect and a rift growing that could have had disastrous consequences on the eve of the release of Three Cheers.
“They were definitely going to break up at that point,” he said. “I noticed that things weren’t right between them all. The mood around them was ruining them and I think it came from the old drummer. You have to be able to get along when you’re in a band because you spend so much time together and they just weren’t.
“They wouldn’t even look at each other when they played. They just weren’t happy. They’d get in the van, put their headphones on so they couldn’t hear each other and couldn’t talk to each other. It was just miserable.”
Ray Toro was frustrated about inconsistencies in the band’s performances at that time and said the difficult atmosphere increased uncertainties within the band.
“There was a feeling that anything might happen next and that wasn’t good,” he said. ‘There was a lot of shit going on then. At least once a week one of us wondered if the band would last.”
It was not ideal, given that the album was about to come out. But, when it did, they found themselves swept up by its success. Their only aims on its release had been for it to sell more copies than their debut. It actually sold twice as many copies—on the first day.
“The funniest thing about Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge is that the label and I had agreed that if we could sell 300,000 copies we would be happy,” tour manager Brian Schechter said. “And then, you know, the first week of sales I had predicted 3,000 and we had no idea what was going to happen. In the very first day we kept getting phone calls about how great things were going and I think right about then is when we realized something weird was going to happen. The fact that [on] the very first day [we] had sold twice as many as the previous record had sold in its whole lifespan at that point—I think we realized that something big was about to happen. They sold, like, 120,000 records through that summer.”
It sold 11,000 records in the first week. “I think my mom bought 10,999 of them,” said Mikey Way.
And suddenly the staff at Warner Bros who had been sitting on the fence about My Chemical Romance took notice. “At that point,” says Craig Aaronson, “everybody got a bit more supportive.”
In Rolling Stone, Kirk Miller said Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge was reminiscent of the Misfits in its goth-punk style, its “shout-along choruses, speedy drums and horror themes” but that it also added “cool metal licks and a sneaky sense of humor.” He concluded that it was “a hell of a good time” in a three-star review.
The Kerrang! review pointed out that “lyrically, Way is far from a happy bunny, but as on his band’s debut he’s clearly having fun piling on the B-Movie imagery,” before deciding “it’s nevertheless a fine, thrilling mix of sounds and ideas from a band with the potential to go deep and far.” But few predicted quite how well it would be received.
The reviews were largely positive, though one negative one would stick in Gerard Way’s mind. “There was one criticism that I still remember,” he recalled. “It said something like, ‘Why would you want to watch this guy run around onstage whining about his nana?’ It was the one thing I read that made me think, ‘I hope this guy falls under a bus.’ How fucking shitty a human being do you have to be to say that?”
It was a review that missed how much else was going on in Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge. “To the End” mirrors the William Faulkner short story “A Rose for Emily,” before the vaudeville melodrama of “You Know What They Do to Guys Like Us in Prison” explores comradeship on the road. “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)” was the stand out, as the singer issues a cry for help, before the sensitive “Ghost of You” arrives.
Throughout, from the Smiths-referencing “Thank You for the Venom” to the spaghetti westernisms of “Hang ’Em High” or the suicide-referencing “Cemetery Drive,” there is a sense of the macabre.
Riddled with horror references, and the poetry of doomed romance, it contained a blackness and bleakness amid its punk.
But mostly what Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge has is chorus after chorus after chorus. Buoyed by a phenomenal sense of melody—something to which My Chemical Romance owe Howard Benson a partial debt—there was something immediately catchy about the album. It offered listeners an instant way in to discover the rich layers underneath.
On the night of 11 July 2004, My Chemical Romance played their official record-release show at the Starland Ballroom in Sayerville, New Jersey. “It was sold out, and I remember there was something like 2,500 people there,” remembered Mikey. “Seeing that many people moving in unison and singing along was so overwhelming.”
And from there, it grew and grew. Initially, the band toured locally with Boys Night Out, Nightmare of You and Drive By, playing reasonably near to home in Pittsburgh, Baltimore and New Jersey before setting out on the Warped Tour—which is where things really started happening.
The Warped Tour has long been the proving ground for punk bands across America. Once a year, it rumbles into the outskirts of every major (and some minor) American towns—a vast caravan of lorries, trucks, buses, cars and vans that rolls from one car park to another as its cast of bands and crew set up to play. The crew will build seven stages before 11 a.m. each morning, then the gates will open as the vast sprawl of American suburban youth pour in for the annual dose of vicious riffs and snarling attitude.
Run by Kevin Lyman since 1994, it’s a punk-rock institution where bands play in bullet-point half-hour slots. There will be local bands, fast-rising bands, freefalling bands, multi-platinum bands, and who-the-fuck-invited-them bands. But they’ll all largely get the same half-hour slot; they’ll all be victims of the famous egalitarian Warped Tour lottery that means each act gets a randomly selected time to play every day. It’s why megastars may open to ten people at 11 a.m., and why nobodies might ‘headline’ at 9 p.m.
On bare stages, they’ll play in natural light only. With costs pared down and set-up kept to a minimum, there are few stage lights, so each show ends at sundown. Then, once it’s night, the crowds leave and the whole carnival becomes the bands’ domain. Around the phalanx of tour buses and vans, impromptu barbecues are sparked into life, beers are passed around and the idiocy begins. Beer bongs, shots and cocktails are downed, drunk and invented. Singalongs, shout-outs and silliness erupt from all parts. Poker tables are set up in bus-back lounges, computer consoles burn hot with overuse and guitars are strummed as bands mingle and merge. The old war stories come out—tales of the past—and on into the night it goes, the party alive for as long as there are bodies to stoke its fire.
Then, deep in the early hours, the buses nose their way out of the car parks and onto the American highways. Hundreds of them set off with the hissing of airbrakes and the swooshing shut of doors. And once again the great caravan is on the road, ready to roll into the next venue, ready to do the same all over again.
Every year, there is a break-out band, one act who will be the highlight of the day no matter what time they play, no matter what stage they are placed upon. In 2004, it was My Chemical Romance. They owned the place. Gerard would walk out onstage dressed in an increasingly stinky suit, black and white tie draped around his neck, and then deliver performances of such searing, white heat that people could only stop and stare. Like a demented preacher, he would scream and howl his way through the band’s set, throwing himself into the characters he had created in his songs, his sweatsoaked hair clinging to his face.
Alongside him was Frank Iero, ever the most physical player on My Chemical Romance’s stage. He would spin, head-bang then collapse to the floor, playing while lying on the stage and pedalling his feet furiously. Mikey was at the back, feeling Pelissier’s beat, while Ray was always to one side, keeping things tight and sending jarring riffs out to the crowd.
Anything could happen onstage. It would be nothing for Gerard to walk over to Frank and kiss him full on the mouth before spinning off to the other side of the stage and wailing into the mic. Increasingly, it became part of the act—until they noticed that people were beginning to write sexual fan fiction about them on the internet.
“The whole thing with me and Frank doing stuff onstage together was really just to irritate people,” said Gerard. “And it was funny for a brief period. If you boil down the DNA of My Chemical Romance, the base would be this: what do you want us to do? Because we’re going to do the opposite. But people started getting into it, so we stopped.”
“You’d see these quintessential jock dudes beating each other up to our music,” said Frank, “and you’d think, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if they turned around and saw that they were beating each other up to us two kissing?’”
Kissing aside, every day for the month they were on the Warped Tour they gave their performances everything.
And every day Gerard would be drinking himself into the act before he went on, then sending himself to oblivion afterwards.
Footage of that tour has Gerard as a wreck backstage. Happily slurring and stumbling around, it was nothing for his trousers to fall down onstage and for him to fall down off stage. He would puke in car parks, then reach for another beer. He would drink to get up, then drink to go to sleep, medicating himself with anti-anxiety medication along the way. It led to some wild performances, but he was increasingly a mess. His bandmates would pick him up, dust him down, then set him on the bus.
“We’re best friends,” said Frank. “If you see your best friend fall down, you pick him up. You don’t want to see anyone take advantage of him when he’s in that state, so you make sure it doesn’t happen. I’ve been there before and he’s picked me up.”
Slowly, though, it dawned on them all that it was getting a little more serious.
“While I was tour managing The Used and managing My Chemical Romance at the same time, Gerard drinking was just Gerard drinking,” Brian Schechter said. “That was what he did and he progressively got worse and worse. He would drink more and more and would just get loaded. That was the beginning of his downward spiral. Intervention wasn’t working at that point—my discussions with him just weren’t, the band’s discussions with him just weren’t. He wanted to be drunk. OK. He was a growing boy with this weird position he was in where he was singing in this band that had grown up a little too fast.”
Gerard was in thrall to the idea of the tragic, demonized frontman. “I think people want you to self-destruct in a way,” Gerard said. “I might be making excuses but I think people at times want you to play the character of the fucked-up drunk singer, so you start playing it for a while and then suddenly you realize that you’re not playing it any more, you are that character.”
He was heading for trouble.