By the late ’80s, heavy metal had become a fairly predictable genre … until Faith No More broke through with the alt-metal classic The Real Thing.
Until then, if you were to switch on MTV late on any given Saturday night and watch Headbangers Ball, you were certain to see bands that were mostly either of the hair metal or thrash metal varieties. In other words, you might as well forget about catching a band that fearlessly incorporated a multitude of outside styles into metal.
Serving as Faith No More’s first offering with singer Mike Patton, the album is best known for spawning the hit single “Epic” (a tune that merged rap and metal), which — for better or for worse — helped pave the way for the eventual “rap metal” movement of the mid to late ’90s. But FNM were all about genre-jumping and were certainly not a one-trick pony — something that many of these subsequent rap-metal acts failed to see, as they simply honed in on one aspect of the group’s sound.
Originally formed in the San Francisco area during the early ’80s, the group first went by the name Faith No Man, rechristened it Faith No More by 1983, endured lineup changes, and by 1985, issued the debut full-length We Care a Lot (featuring a lineup consisting of singer Chuck Mosley, guitarist Jim Martin, bassist Bill Gould, keyboardist Roddy Bottum, and drummer Mike Bordin). By the time of 1987’s Introduce Yourself, the band’s sound had grown more metallic (courtesy of Martin’s mega-riffing), and even spawned a college rock radio hit, with a re-recording of the title track from We Care a Lot.
By 1988, Mosley was out of the band after exhibiting erratic behavior, but the remaining members stayed on course, continuing to write new material, albeit unconventionally. In the book The Faith No More & Mr. Bungle Companion, Bordin recalled. “We were partying hard, and Metallica was in town — people getting f*cked up and drinking Jägermeister. That was that whole beginning of the bad period that [James] Hetfield talked about when he got sober — that was ‘Alcoholica’.”
“Billy and Roddy were working probably 10:00 to 3:00,” he continues. “Jim was drinking all night with his buddies — he wouldn’t go to sleep until 7:00 or 8:00 in the morning. We would get up at f*cking 4:00 and go into the studio around 7:00, and work ‘til probably 10:00 or 11:00. So we were totally doing shifts. We didn’t even have each other’s phone numbers!” Eventually, all the members synchronized their schedules, and serious work began on what would eventually become The Real Thing.
But one tiny problem — they still needed a singer. Recalling a gentleman that gave FNM a demo tape of his band Mr. Bungle at a show in Eureka, California, they reached out to a then-20-year-old Mike Patton. The singer was enlisted shortly thereafter, and began penning all of the songs’ lyrics and vocal melodies. “I think a week after he had joined the band, he had written all the lyrics to the songs, which are pretty much the lyrics that are on the record now,” remembered Gould. “He was a real natural, which was lucky.”
The album’s producer, Matt Wallace, recalled a decision that Patton made at this time concerning his vocal approach. “He was singing really nasally and also, his pitch on record was not as good as I knew it could be. I was just like, ‘Why don’t you just hit the notes?’ And he goes, ‘No man, this is my style.’ Because he’d sing the song on tape, and he’d do this amazing, really full voice. I’m like, ‘That’s the voice! Get that on the darn tape!’ He was like, ‘No man, I don’t want to do it’.”
Ultimately, this would prove to be a missed opportunity — on subsequent FNM releases, Patton would wisely utilize his real voice, and as a result, became one of rock’s top singers. Listening to The Real Thing today, Patton’s nasally vocals can be a bit grating at times, but upon the album’s release on June 20, 1989, his “uncommon” vocal sound actually helped him stick out from the rest of metal’s screeching singers.
Musically, the album was all over the map: rap-rock (the aforementioned “Epic”); punk rock (“From Out of Nowhere”); Middle Eastern (“Woodpecker from Mars”); death metal (“Surprise! You’re Dead!”); prog (the title track); pop (“Underwater Love”); funk (“Falling to Pieces” and “The Morning After”); lounge (“Edge of the World”); and thrash metal (“Zombie Eaters”) were all represented, along with a faithful cover of Black Sabbath’s doom classic “War Pigs” tacked on for good measure. As a result, the album would be nominated for “Best Metal Performance” at the 32nd Annual Grammy Awards (where it would lose, however, to Metallica’s “One”).
Faith No More would tour incessantly behind the album throughout 1989 and early 1990, including opening a string of shows for Metallica, and as part of another tour that featured Canadian prog-metallers Voivod and an up-and-coming Soundgarden. And although MTV’s Headbangers Ball had already been spinning FNM’s striking “Epic” music video for quite some time (complete with such memorable scenes as Patton getting caught in a rainstorm, a fish flopping around out of water, and a piano exploding), it was not until the spring of 1990 that the clip was finally aired heavily outside of non-vampire-friendly hours.
Because of the album’s belated success, the group remained on tour for nearly another year, while The Real Thing nearly cracked the Top 10 in the US (peaking at No. 11 on the Billboard 200 chart, and earning platinum certification), while “Epic” reached No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
And while The Real Thing would not go down as Faith No More’s masterpiece (its follow-up, 1992’s Angel Dust, gets that honor), it probably served as one of the first albums owned by diehard headbangers that was not 100-percent metal.
One of those metalheads is musician Devin Townsend, who said, “The Real Thing was the first time I heard them. The song ‘Epic’, of course. And I loved them instantly. It was colorful. The fonts that they used for their logo, the colors they had on the cover. I’ve always been attracted to things that are part of something established, but radically different. I love that. I love that it’s part of the thrash scene, but everything about it is different. That was the thing about Faith No More that I thought was great.”
Along with a handful of albums by other artists (Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Mother’s Milk, Jane’s Addiction’s Ritual de lo Habitual, Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine, to name a few), The Real Thing helped set the stage for the massive alternative rock movement of the early ’90s.