How I Didn’t Write A Book About Helmet

In 2012, 33&1/3 Books asked for submissions to their book series on iconic albums and I proposed Helmet’s Meantime. I would have loved to have written Betty (from which ‘Overrated’ is taken) but I went with Meantime instead, figuring it would be a more popular title.

The proposal ended up making it to the ‘long-list’ (a very long list, mind you) for consideration but was subsequently rejected.

I took it well. I stripped myself naked and burned all of my 33&1/3 books in the yard, whilst Meantime blasted from the house at high volume. Just kidding. While I think I never need to see or hear another word about NYC’s early punk era or Oasis or post-punk, I’m genuinely looking forward to Anwyn Crawford’s book on Live Through This and – holy shit − Charles Fairchild on The Grey Album could be amazing.

As for Helmet, that’s a history that may never be written. The band were a bit of a mess (like most bands) but their story is bound up in all manner of bad blood and red tape. It’s pretty grisly. I’m not sure a bio is ever coming. Looking at the band’s work through the lens of a single album like Meantime is probably the most viable way to get it done.

As such, this is what I was proposing. It would be a book about Helmet but it was also a look at how a really innovative rock band fucked itself out of a legacy.

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SAMPLE CHAPTER:

INTRODUCTION: BARTHES, BEAVIS AND BUTTHEAD

(Sigh. This chapter title sucks. Sorry.)

HEIt’s 1972, twenty years before the start of this story, French academic Roland Barthes has just published his book Mythologies in English for the first time. In this year, the writing inside Mythologies is at least fifteen years old as Barthes has submitted much of it to French magazine Les Lettres Nouvelles during the 1950s. Yet for English readers, in 1972, Mythologies is a revelation. It is the work of a master thinker, using the very best theoretical tools at his disposal (philosophy, sociology, literary criticism) and applying them to the most benign parts of everyday life: margarine, motor cars, wrestling, holidays, striptease. In these seemingly ordinary things, Roland Barthes finds an almost secret world of meaning. He writes of his impatience with “the ‘naturalness’ with which newspapers, art and common sense constantly dress up a reality which, even though it is the one we live in, is undoubtedly determined by history.” Obviously, this is a man with an intense fascination for how things work.

(Eagle-eyed readers will note that I recycled this paragraph when I used Barthes in a piece on The Smashing Pumpkins for The Lifted Brow. Hey, I wrote it. I can do as I please.)

Of particular interest in Mythologies, half-buried inside a piece about a royal family boat cruise, is this quip that unravels everything. On the entertainment value of watching the French royals slum it for a day at sea, he writes:

“Such a feeling of amusement carries a heavy pathological burden: if one is amused by a contradiction, it is because one supposes its terms to be very far apart.”

This still holds. We remain amused by contradictions to this day. They’re everywhere. This is why reality television is entertaining and tiresome. This is why politicians shake your hand. This is why so many of us look to our music and film heroes for humility, for autographs and kind words and small talk. This stuff is all infinitely entertaining, worth repeating to others, because deep down we assume these people are wildly different from us. The contradiction is everything.

Early_HelmetIt’s 1992, the official starting line, the year Interscope Records releases the second album by New York rock band Helmet. Except that hasn’t happened yet. It isn’t June 1992 yet, that’s still in the future and right now the four members of Helmet aren’t in New York City, they’re in the San Fernando Valley, in a disused beer brewery. Outside the brewery, in the hum and whine of two dozen generators, the air heavy is charged with electrical current and the smell of fuel. A sea of cables snake their way inside, from the generators up to the higher floors of what’s left of the beer factory. Under all this, down on the concrete floor, in complete darkness are four men: three hold guitars, one’s seated at a drum kit. A voice says, ‘Okay, action,’ and that’s when the artificial lightning starts. The first flashes are almost blinding but in the flickering after effects (the smaller strobes), the musicians begin to play along to an audio recording, miming one of their own songs for the benefit of a film crew and absolutely none of this makes any sort of sense at all. Everything here contradicts something else.

Firstly, there’s the sound of what’s being mimed to. This is a song they’re calling Unsung. It starts with a sharp metronomic drum and bass line that feels immediately mechanical, like it’s being operated instead of played. The guitars wind in, one muted and on beat, the other wailing like a siren. It’s a warning. They stop, hammering down on open D chord and then there is a momentary pause. Up until this point, it could almost be another band, it could be thrash metal experimenting with an intro, or post-punk playing at heavy, but it’s not because what happens next is the beginning of everything this book is about.

What Helmet do twenty-eight seconds into Unsung is play the riff that would make them famous. In the future, it is a riff that will change heavy metal. It will go on to popularize a range of fringe ideas (staccato dropped D guitar playing, hip hop affected metal, The Melvins, industrial noise) and, for better or for worse, beat down a path for new hyphenated rock genres like nu-metal and post-hardcore. This riff will excite and inspire people in much the same way as other once abstract guitar ideas have; think of Eddie Van Halen’s finger tapping or Sonic Youth’s ‘treated’ guitars. And while all this lays ahead, none of this is anticipated in this moment. Why? Because the sound blasting around the rubble of this expensive video shoot, under these flashing lights, it doesn’t sound like the future of rock music at all. It doesn’t sound radio-friendly or like music to bang your head to or music produced by a major label recording company. Instead, it’s implausibly brutal, loud beyond volume. It sounds like Angus Young working a drill press. It’ll never sell.

Next in this list of contradictions is how they look when all this is happening. Put simply, all of the musicians in Helmet are dressed like college students. They’re all neat. No one has long hair. No one has a beard. None of these men could ever, ever be mistaken for a Viking or a biker or a druid or a sociopath. Not even Australian guitarist Peter Mengede, decked out entirely in black. He looks more like a stagehand than a bad ass. The other three are wearing shorts and in the months coming, MTV cartoon metal heads Beavis and Butthead will say what we were all thinking.

Butthead: If you saw these guys on the street, ah, huh huh, you’d wouldn’t even know they were cool.

Bevis: Heh heh. They look like normal guys. Heh, heh, heh, like us.

Yet they’re producing this very heavy metal and it’s odd for a multitude of reasons. It’s odd because grunge is everywhere in 1992 and grunge does not have a utilitarian dress code. There’s a very good reason grunge made it to the Paris catwalk: it could be fashioned, it was reproducible. It may have aspired to anti- fashion, to exalting Northwestern working-class ordinariness (flannelette, work boots, long-johns) but compared to Helmet, it was spectacular bricolage through and through. All this is doublely odd because 1980s metal still lingers here in 1992. It’s right there in Bevis’ Metallica t-shirt. Less than three years previous, glam metal still topped the charts. The images of glamorous metal rockers still reside in the collective memory. But here is Helmet, right now, with their barber shop crew cuts that recall neither the permed locks of Poison, nor the unwashed mops of Nirvana.

The last non-compute, the final contradiction happens with the voice. By 1992, Helmet’s singer/guitarist Page Hamilton is already known as someone who screams and barks. He will come to be known for this most of his life and it’s puzzling because right here, in the replaying back of arguably the band’s most famous track, in this abandoned building, his voice is a calm human center-point to the music. There is no glam metal theatrics to his singing and none of grunge’s rage, instead Hamilton sounds completely unflustered by the racket taking place. It’s not a slack delivery (there’s no link to Pavement or J Mascis to be made here) and it’s not a cold delivery (there’s no link to Godflesh or Joy Division either), instead he drags something up from heavy metal’s history. Quite inadvertently this new singing style of his makes an unusual link: while the band around him go to work on heavy metal as an industrial process, as an assembly line of repetition and precise riffs, Page Hamilton sings, quite inadvertently (by all reports), like Ozzy Osbourne from Black Sabbath. So here, double-tracked and prominent in this noise-rock, sit some of heavy metal’s earliest raw materials, completely naive and completely human.

As we’ll see, these contradictions – between the human and the machine, between Hamilton and these other men, between punk and rock, noise and melody, past and progression, sound and presentation, talent and hype − they’re never really be resolved by Helmet. As the band members stand under the strobe lights in the rubble of old industry, how much of this was heard by them and felt by them can’t be known. But months later, when the Unsung film clip airs on MTV and this staged performance in the brewery is intercut with stock footage of steel workers and a locomotive, the viewer can see some of the awkwardness creep in. On the small screen, they don’t look comfortable as they pretend to play. There are smaller, more internal contradictions as well: Why is Peter dressed differently? What’s with the weird shots of them playing on different levels of the building? How exactly is it that Page’s pristinely clean looking red guitar so readily recalls Steve Vai and Yngwie Malmsteen? And like the perfect storm recreated in the clip, there’s some sense of how Helmet will be undone by history in all this.

In a cruel twist, Hamilton’s says as much right at the very beginning. The lyrics are deliberately obtuse in Unsung. But something needed to be said and so while the listener is a mesmerized by this bracing riff, Page steps up to the microphone and sings:

Your contribution left unnoticed son, Association with an image.
Just credit time for showing up again, Attention wandered with it.

And then the lights flash and the camera pans away to empty space, to a huge pile of concrete rubble.

helmet_2012It’s 2012, twenty years after the start of this story and those words of Page’s ring out like some sort of fucked up premonition. Non-linear wordplay can work like that. Things (songs, films, books) left open and empty tend to attract meaning into them, they suck it down like a black hole. We’re like that too. Humans hate the absence of meaning. We’re all terrified by it. So those lyrics now sound out a certain way and make more sense. You can listen to them and think, this is largely what has happened to Helmet in the decades since. Page Hamilton, master guitarist and innovator, rarely makes the greatest guitarist lists in the magazines. He still performs under the name Helmet, still plays the songs of Meantime every other night, but the original members aren’t there. Instead we now live in a time in which Helmet are, more than anything else, cited as a jumping off point for hedonistic nu-metal bands like Limp Bizkit and Korn. Helmet just as often miscast as yet another macho, hardcore influenced metal band from history’s playbook. Twenty years ago, Helmet encapsulated none of this.

So there is a lot at stake here. This is the first book-length examination of Meantime and the band who made it. It is, without any pretense otherwise, an attempt to rescue Helmet from critical obscurity and to reinstate them into what I consider more accurate and relevant musical contexts. There is no better means with which to do this than to look closely at Meantime, their most widely known record, the signature album, their cornerstone. For woven inside such a seemingly blank and robotic album is the very human and very messy story of ordinary people facing off against history.

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‘MEANTIME’ PROPOSED TABLE OF CONTENTS

(APPROXIMATE DATE OF DRAFT COMPLETION: February 1st, 2013)

Introduction: Barthes, Bevis and Butthead

See attached sample on page 11. Estimated word count: 2000 words

Helemt_single

CHAPTER 1: Brisbane, Australia

Synopsis: This short chapter details the journey of original Helmet guitarist Peter Mengede from Brisbane to New York and the details of his meeting Page Hamilton (guitar/vocals) and their co-founding of the band.

Starting Off Point: The chapter opens in Rocking Horse, Brisbane’s longest running record store. During the late nineties, the author (as a twenty-two year old) taps into what appears to be an unending supply of rare Helmet collectables and bootlegs in the store. It’s a great time. Over a period of months I discover all sorts of things: there’s the Unlive 8-5-91 bootleg (featuring Side Hel and Side Met), there’s the demos ‘produced’ by Steve Albini on clear seven inch vinyl, there’s singles and original pressings and memorabilia. I buy it all. The staff notices this. We get talking and I ask the obvious question: ‘Why does a store in Brisbane have all this Helmet stuff?’ They tell me that one of the founding members of the Helmet lives right here in the city and that he’s hocking his collection. He’s friends with the shop owner, apparently. This guy, Peter Mengede, he brings in this stuff and sells it to them and then they sell it on to me. It would take me over a decade to find him.

Resources:

Interview with Peter Mengede formerly of Helmet (Confirmed)

Estimated word count: 3000 words

(You should all go read this piece by Peter on Guitar Nerd. I cribbed it pretty hard in places.)

—————————————————————————

CHAPTER 2: New York, U.S.

Synopsis: This chapter is primarily about Helmet’s pre-Meantime experiences in the experimental New York noise-rock scene, a period that also includes the recording and release of their debut album Strap It On. The more aggressive side of New York’s late 80s/early 90s rock scene (Swans, Live Skull, Unsane, Cows, Amphetamine Reptile Records) is under-documented and I hope to rectify this here, reiterating Helmet’s strong ties back to this particularly uncompromising rock community.

Starting Off Point: Chapter Two opens over New York City, on the observatory of the Empire State Building. This is the type of view of New York that French philosopher Michel de Certeau had in 1984 as he stood, sadly enough, on the 110th floor of the World Trade Centre. He looked down and noted that New York was a city that never ‘learned the art of growing old.’ It was, to him, a place that invents and reinvents itself daily. It was from this constant, sometimes brutal, churn that Helmet emerged. Their sound – so often compared by journalists to the mean streets and oppressive skyscrapers – is more shaped by what Certeau was really getting at as he gazed down from above: the passage of ordinary people along the sidewalks, between the skyscrapers. This is the story of where a band like Helmet came from.

Resources:

Interview with Peter Mengede formerly of Helmet (Confirmed)
Interview with Page Hamilton of Helmet (Confirmed)
Interview with Tom Hazelmeyer of Amphetamine Reptile Records (Confirmed) Interviews with members of Unsane, Cows and Glenn Branca Orchestra (Unconfirmed)
Field trip to New York, September 2012 (Confirmed)
Various secondary resources taken from the era.

Estimated word count: 7,500 words

(All of that above is probably more suggestive than fact. What I really wanted to do was bring all of that AmRep noise into the book, mainly because there’s very little documentation elsewhere. If I’m completely honest: I have no idea what relationship Helmet had with the bands around them. But this is what you do – sometimes – as a writer/researcher: you follow a gut instinct. And self-interest.)

—————————————————————————

CHAPTER 3: Interscope Records, New York

Synopsis: Chapter Three will detail the business dealings behind Helmet’s signing to Interscope Records and the (reported) beginning of Page Hamilton’s legal control of the band. These business machinations are unavoidably linked to Meantime as the band famously received $1,000,000 in advanced album royalties and have since become avatars for the early 90s alternative rock ‘signing boom’.

Starting Off Point: Tom Hazelmeyer sits in his office at Amphetamine Reptile Records and rubs his eyes. It’s not common knowledge but one of the worst things that can happen to a small label is a hit record. Small labels are not set up for hit records: they pass through these micro-businesses like rat poison, clogging up the works, bloating, depleting, stripping out the nerves and cash flow. The phone rings; another call about Helmet. It doesn’t stop. The band made Strap It On, their debut, for about two and a half grand, and right now Tom Hazelmeyer thinks this is easily the most expensive rat poison he has ever bought.

Resources:

Interview with Peter Mengede formerly of Helmet (Confirmed)
Interview with Page Hamilton of Helmet (Confirmed)
Interview with Tom Hazelmeyer of Amphetamine Reptile Records (Confirmed)
Interview with D.A.M. Management (Unconfirmed)
Interviews with Interscope Records A&R and misc. employees (Unconfirmed)
Various secondary resources taken from the era.

Estimated word count: 5,000 words

(More guess work. I remember reading once that Haze’s phone rang off the hook during this era and it was all about Helmet.)

—————————————————————————

CHAPTER 4: Fun City, Manhattan

whartonSynopsis: This chapter is primarily about the writing and recording of Meantime. It is envisaged as a study of how the band, demo engineer Steve Albini, producer Wharton Tiers and mixer Andy Wallace sculpted such an accessible rock sound out of the abrasive din that was early Helmet. The recording also finds the band in ideological transition, from avant-garde musicians to rock celebrities and from punk to metal.

Starting Off Point: Fun City Studios, Manhattan is not the nicest looking place you’ve ever been to. It has low ceilings, there’s exposed concrete on the walls, dirt on the floors. There isn’t a lot of natural light. In the tiny vocal booth, Page Hamilton is standing on his own, with headphones, shouting. Out by the mixing console producer Wharton Tiers is trying to ignore the label guy. The label guy isn’t happy, this is not how major label albums are made. They’re not made in places like this, with equipment like this or by people like this. ‘Page sounded great through a 635 Electrovoice, which is an $80 mic,’ recalls Tiers, years later. ‘The guy from Interscope practically had a shit when he came over, ‘This is your vocal mic?’ Of course he called up a rental company and got four tube mics. We put them up together and tracked with them but in most cases the 635 was the one, it just sounded perfect for his voice.’

Resources:

Interview with Peter Mengede formerly of Helmet (Confirmed) Interview with Page Hamilton of Helmet (Confirmed) Interview with Wharton Tiers (Semi-Confirmed)
Interview with Steve Albini (Unconfirmed)
Interview with Andy Wallace (Unconfirmed)
Various secondary resources taken from the era.

Estimated word count: 7,500 words

(Are you still reading this? Hey, at least you know some stuff about the micing techniques used on Meantime now. There’s a better story. The myth is that Andy Wallace used some sort of early/manual version of drum replacement on the snare of ‘In The Meantime’  when he came to mix it. It makes sense. I’ve heard the same thing about the kick on Sonic Youth’s ‘Dirty’ which he also mixed. I’ve also read it mentioned that this is one of the reasons Albini was reluctant to let people mix his work during the 90s. Even weirder: on Twitter one day Chris Weingarten cited that exact snare on ‘In The Meantime’ to be one of the best sounding in recorded music.)

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CHAPTER 5: Seven Miles From The Border, Virginia

Synopsis: This chapter is about the commercial promotion and ensuing critical reception of Meantime. The band received a significant marketing push from Interscope Records and as such there is a huge archive of material from this era that documents the band’s emergence into the mainstream. I want to mine this.

Chapter Five is also the story of the band as a globally touring live act, something that leads to both short and long-terms trouble.

Starting Off Point: There was a show in Baltimore and afterwards they decided to push on to a hotel in North Carolina in separate vehicles. In one of the trucks is Helmet’s guitar tech Umbar (aka Evan Bloom), crew member Keith Bornzine and drummer John Stanier. The others (band members, managers, girlfriends) are coming later. It’s late out, dark on the road. Everyone’s tired, really tired. It’s been years of Meantime by now. Umbur sits behind the wheel of the truck and his eyes slowly close and snap open, close and snap open. Close and…the truck slams into a guardrail and flips, sheering open on the bitumen like a can of tuna. By some miracle they all live. Umbar is air-lifted to Richmond. Keith and John are admitted to hospital in North Carolina. The next day, when the rest of the band visit their drummer, John Stanier, drip in arm, sits up and says, ‘The tour’s over.’

Resources:

Interview with Peter Mengede formerly of Helmet (Confirmed)
Interview with Page Hamilton of Helmet (Confirmed) Interview with D.A.M. Management (Unconfirmed)
Various secondary resources taken from the era.

Estimated word count: 5,000 words

(Have you worked out the obvious yet? The rest of the band wouldn’t talk to me. I reached out through an intermediary and it was a total no-go. Stanier and bassist Henry Bogdan were both completely disinterested. In fact, while I was putting this together I heard reports that Decibel Magazine had tried to do some sort of piece on Meantime and it stiffed because Bogdan and Stanier wouldn’t talk about it. All that is unsubstantiated but rings true after a brief glimpse behind the curtain.) 

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CHAPTER 6: Los Angeles, America

Synopsis: Page Hamilton doesn’t live in New York these days, he lives in L.A. He still records and tours as a member of Helmet. He maintains almost no contact with the original members of the band. This final chapter of the book is a look at Helmet’s legacy post-Meantime. It is largely the story of Hamilton and how he has affected and been affected by the history of Helmet.

Starting Off Point: I’m admittedly still getting this together. I’m unfamiliar with L.A. I’m used to the sun. Brisbane is sunny. This is something else. It’s flat and bright and there’s palm trees and garbage and smog. It feels mean to say it but the whole city looks like the back of a restaurant to me. This place, this isn’t the late-1980s New York noise scene that Helmet belong in…

Resources:

Interview with Page Hamilton of Helmet (Confirmed)
Field trip to Los Angeles, September 2012 (Confirmed)

Estimated word count: 5,000 words

(Who fucking knows what I was thinking here. This reads as pretty unprofessional. I actually think the L.A. iteration of the band is fascinating in its own right now. And jeez, look Page up. His life-story is crazy. The years since Meantime have been wild. This last chapter probably would have been the most interesting. And Page was ready to chat. This is all gut-instinct but I think he’s ready to tell his story a little bit more fully at present.)

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