The Mike Patton Corner: Faith No More’s The Real Thing
First, there was nothing. Then, from out of nowhere, audiences got a taste of The Real Thing.
After Faith No More’s singer Chuck Mosley (RIP) was fired for erratic behavior, the band was badly in need of a frontman. Being a funky, eclectic group that fused rap and hard rock, but also a band who was hoping to find mainstream success, plucking the 22-year-old singer from decidedly anti-commercial experimental rock band Mr. Bungle out of relative obscurity to provide vocals and lyrics for their new project was both an inspired choice and a huge risk. Luckily, that risk would pay off, as The Real Thing would go on to become a Grammy-nominated bestselling album, catapulting Mike Patton from local celebrity to what the Melvins’ Buzz Osborne calls “The MTV Posterboy.”
If you look at the top selling albums of 1989, it’s all over the place in terms of rock. Mötley Crüe, Guns ’n’ Roses, Billy Joel, and of course, Milli Vanilli. Next to these names, Faith No More seems like the odd one out. Their lyrics weren’t sexy, their sound wasn’t trendy, and their frontman wasn’t a heartthrob (depending on who you ask). After alt rock took the world by storm, a band like Faith No More getting signed would have been a no-brainer, but it’s hard to imagine such a weird group finding so much success in a pre-Nirvana world. In fact, Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic once said Faith No More actually helped pave the way for the grunge movement (when asked in a 1992 interview if he thought they were influential to the scene, Patton joked, “We only influenced them as much as Liberace influenced us”). Somehow, with the help of some great music videos and a relatively solid album, Faith No More turned into an international sensation, and became the springboard for Mike Patton’s long and extremely prolific career.
The album opens strong with, what else, From Out Of Nowhere. This song grabs you right away, the driving drum beat and relentless downstroked guitar give this track a huge amount of momentum right out of the gate. The chorus and pre-chorus are more mid-tempo, building tension until it bursts back into the verse. The mix on The Real Thing is well balanced, and the bass and keys always sound great, but the guitars don’t have as much muscle as they would on Faith No More’s next few albums, and the production does lack some of the personality that Patton’s future releases have so very much of. If the production on an album like Angel Dust is a gritty graphic novel, eerie and grimy and dripping with character, the production on The Real Thing is like an issue of Amazing Spider-Man, slick and colorful and ready for mass consumption. Lyrically, From Out Of Nowhere is about love at first sight that never becomes more than just a look. Patton is not usually one to sing about love without some kind of twist involved, and the lyrics are a clever deconstruction of the thought process behind an event that lasts mere moments. It’s an explosive opener, something almost all Faith No More albums have.
The second track is Epic, which is perhaps their most well known track, their biggest hit in the US, and though it’s not particularly representative of their sound in retrospect, it’s often considered to be their signature song. Epic is a rap rock song about…”It?” Yes, in the unforgettable singalong verses, Patton gives an extensive explanation of what “It” is, without actually naming it. What is “It?” According to Patton:
Unbeknownst to him when he penned this tune, Patton was using a lyrical trick that would go on to define much of the 90’s: Contradiction. Artists like Kurt Cobain and Alanis Morissette would later write huge, generation-defining hits using contradiction to communicate their angsty cognitive dissonance, similar to what Patton does on this track:
“It feels so good, it’s like walking on glass”
“It’s cryin’, bleedin’, lyin’ on the floor/
So you lay down on it and you do it some more”
“It’s magic, it’s tragic, it’s a loss, it’s a win”
And of course, the extremely catchy chorus:
“You want it all, but you can’t have it/
It’s in your face, but you can’t grab it”
So what is it really? Patton has since revealed that “It” is the way you feel when you’re on drugs, both the good and the bad. The fleeting euphoria and the sometimes devastating comedown. There’s a grand tradition in rock music of writing deceptively celebratory songs about the effects of drugs, and this song definitely brings the hype even during the bare bones verses, which feature nothing but a We Will Rock You drumbeat and Billy Gould’s one-note slap bass line syncopated with the kicks. The chorus features simple but memorable guitar riffs, as well as great synth horn lines from keyboardist Roddy Bottum, and the song later goes into an extended outro with a bounty of heavy metal guitar harmonies, eventually fading into dueling pianos. It’s far from Faith No More’s best song, but it certainly lives up to its title in every way you could possibly want. Much has been made about Red Hot Chili Peppers singer Anthony Keidis accusing Mike Patton of ripping him off after seeing him in Epic’s music video dancing around and shirtlessly rapping, and though most agree it was blown a bit out of proportion (even after Keidis got Mr. Bungle kicked off a festival lineup out of pettiness), it did lead to one of my favorite Mike Patton quotes from a 2001 interview:
“I think Anthony, deep down, feels like I’m a better dancer than he is. I think I shake my booty just a little bit fresher than he does. And if he would stop doing drugs I think he could outdance me. Maybe one day we’ll have a breakoff, just breakdance.”
After the pianos fade away we get Falling To Pieces, a song so good I still like it even after having done an embarrassingly bad job singing it at karaoke. The song is a lament about not knowing what to do with your life, and the damage it does to feel pulled in different directions but never be able to choose a path. Despite the psychological issues the lyrics delve into, musically it’s a fun, major key funk rock song with a rapped pre-chorus, and was actually the first single off the album (it finally ended up charting after Epic blew up, peaking at number 30). Many months ago, when I initially decided to take the leap and finally get into Faith No More, I started with The Real Thing. Admittedly, this is the point on the album where I decided to move on to another project. There are a number of things I wasn’t fully ready to appreciate, the main one being the vocals. Though I had already heard Dead Cross and considered Patton a hugely talented singer, there is an obnoxious, nasally quality to them on The Real Thing that, in my opinion, works much better in the context of Mr. Bungle. I chalk this up to Patton being so young and trying to hit the notes properly by singing through his nose, and even though this album was a big breakthrough hit, I found his singing to be an acquired taste. Nevertheless, I have grown to love this song for its honest portrayal of an emotion most young people experience at some point, and the tight vocal harmonies and head-bobbing groove make this one of the album’s funnest tracks.
Part of me wishes I had stuck with the album, because the next track is the hardest rocker by far. The raging Surprise! You’re Dead! was composed in the 70’s by guitarist Jim Martin during his tenure in a metal band that also featured late Metallica bassist Cliff Burton. Patton’s lyrics are very confrontational, and allegedly this song is about a vampire attack:
“The hatred I bestow/
Upon your neck, with a fatal blow/
From my teeth to my tongue/
You think it’s over but it’s just begun”
Patton gives his most intense vocal performance on the album, his expressive growls showcasing what made him such a compelling hardcore singer. The song is brief, but extremely impactful, with Patton spitting rapid fire in a way that bridges the rap rock/hardcore gap with a rhythmically catchy but somewhat inarticulate delivery. Though the song is all metal, Patton is singing in what could reasonably be described as a triplet flow, if you want to be that guy. There’s nothing all that deep about this song, but it’s by far the most vicious Faith No More get on The Real Thing.
After that bone-crushing brutality, we get the gentle intro to Zombie Eaters, a heavy metal song with some decidedly un-metal lyrics written from the perspective of a baby talking to its mother. Normally, if a metal band were to delve into this kind of Kate Bush-ish topic, they would attempt to make the lyrics vague and masculine enough to give the song more of a “hidden” meaning, but Patton’s lyrics are hilariously direct:
“Hey look at me, lady/
I’m just a little baby/
You’re lucky to have me/
I’m cute and sweet as candy/
As charming as a fable/
I’m innocent and disabled/
So hug me, and kiss me/
Then wipe my butt and piss me!”
Speaking of Kate Bush, the intro warms up with acoustic guitar arpeggios and spare synth strings that evoke an innocent, dreamlike feeling before slamming into some chugging metal, ushered in by some sludgy hits of bass. Patton’s gentle singing is gorgeous at the beginning, and once things get going his performance becomes appropriately dramatic. The song melts seamlessly in and out of another quiet passage, and after the bridge it ramps up to a climactic ending, making it one of the most engaging, dynamic, and well-paced tracks on the album.
Next is the eight minute title track, another love song (or maybe a drug song) that’s musically pretty heavy and catchy, but lyrically a lot less interesting than Epic or From Out Of Nowhere. The tone of the lyrics clash a bit with the tone of the music, but only if you read into them, because Patton’s performance definitely fits. It’s almost enough to forgive him for the cardinal sin of rhyming “life” with “strife.” The song doesn’t necessarily drag, but for a song of its length, it could have been a bit more structurally adventurous. The subtle clicks of the drums in the quieter moments are a nice touch, but as a title track I’m not sure it does the best job summing up all the record’s strengths. Without a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor or a weird and unexpected musical twist, for me this ends up being one of the more underwhelming tracks, even if it’s only the second least-necessary 8-minute song.
The track Underwater Love is lyrically an interesting song that (I think) is about keeping someone you love in a failing relationship that’s holding them back, using drowning as a metaphor. This track has a nice groove and some Zeppelin-esque organ, but again, it doesn’t really measure up to the fantastic singles. Faith No More famously have been documented as only having played the Angel Dust track Smaller and Smaller once in concert, and their reason for this (besides it just not being one of their favorites on the album, even though it’s one of mine) was stated by Billy Gould:
“…when it comes to playing live, too many mid-tempo songs make the set really boring, for us, and for the crowd…”
Underwater Love, in my opinion, is an example of this effect in practice. After the last few songs, the album really could have used something with a bit more energy, because Underwater Love kind of sounds like a single that wasn’t good enough to release. That’s not to say it’s a bad song, it’s just a bit redundant and plodding, especially after about 15 minutes of mid-tempo tracks.
The album picks back up a bit with The Morning After, which is theorized to be written from the perspective of the victim of the narrator from Surprise! You’re Dead!, and has a highly danceable hard rock groove and some really nice guitar riffs throughout. The song kind of speeds by at a little over three and a half minutes thanks to good pacing and a dash of the kind of loud-quiet-loud dynamics the Pixies built their masterpiece on that same year, and it’s got a much better chorus than several of the tracks preceding it.
After that is one of the most exciting and ferocious tracks on the album, the instrumental Woodpecker From Mars. For obvious reasons, I’ve tried to avoid using the word “epic” to describe the music on this album, but this song is very much that. The drums are throttling, the keyboard riffs are like a 70’s space adventure, and the bass is being slapped with such finger-blistering intensity it feels like the strings could break at any moment. It’s heavy, it’s headbang-worthy, and it’s one of the best songs in the album’s second half.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, one of the staples of Faith No More’s (and in general Mike Patton’s) live performances is covers, and the penultimate track is a cover of the Black Sabbath classic War Pigs. I hope I’m not breaking any hearts by saying this, but even though this is a formidable cover and the band certainly does the song justice, I’m not sure why this is on the album at all. I could see it as a bonus track, or as a non-album single like their excellent cover of The Commodores’ Easy, but I don’t know what covering such a long song right at the end of the record does for this as an album experience besides bloating the record to 55 minutes, especially since they don’t put anywhere near as much of a personal spin on it as they did with Easy. Sure, the bass is slappier, the solos are a bit flashier, and I’m sure it was a thrill to see them do live, but I think there was just no point including it here.
Faith No More seem to like ending their albums on a gentler note, and the final song, Edge Of The World, is a swinging little number written from the perspective of a man trying to woo much younger girls, “40 years” younger in fact. The age of the girls he’s after is left uncomfortably ambiguous, but the song is so butter smooth you might not even notice. Closing out their album with such a musically jazzy and lyrically creepy song was a bold choice…maybe “bold” isn’t the right word but it was certainly a choice. Like many of my favorite bands, Faith No More were eager to experiment with different genres and influences, which would later result in much better songs than this. However, despite the gross lyrics, it’s hard to resist grooving to this song once the piano kicks in and you can hear Patton taking a sip from a cold beverage. After a nice coda that fades out with crisp finger snaps and a hyper-reverbed vocal, the album concludes.
The Real Thing is really a lot of things; it’s really original, it’s really frontloaded, it’s really fun, and it’s really a product of its time. It’s a must listen for any Faith No More fan, but it doesn’t quite claw its way into the upper echelon of Mike Patton’s legendary discography. Some of my favorite Faith No More songs and moments are on this album, but as influential and unique as they were in 1990, they hadn’t quite become the band they were meant to be. Patton also has yet to come into his own as a singer, and his performances on this album barely scratch the surface of what he’d later show he’s capable of. It boggles the mind a bit to think this is the same band who wrote King For A Day… and Angel Dust, but it’s also easy to see how they built off these ideas and became something nobody saw coming.
I give Faith No More’s The Real Thing a really really real 7/10
Best Songs: The first five