My Chemical Romance At the Sound Academy in Toronto on Saturday
Style is a funny thing. When punk rock first got started, it was all about rejecting the status quo, including such allegedly careerist notions as instrumental proficiency and a professional attitude toward performance. Beat-up leather jackets and funny-coloured hair was just one more way of flipping off the conventions of pop ambition and the star-making machinery.
Thirty-odd years later, punk itself is status quo, the de facto posture of mild-mannered youth rebellion, and bands like My Chemical Romance make professionalism and proficiency seem almost de rigueur. For them, rock 'n' roll is hardly a fast trip to nowhere; as singer Gerard Way told the capacity crowd at the Sound Academy Saturday, "It's been an amazing tour, and it's going to be an amazing next 10 years."
So much for old school notions of anarchy and "no future."
Then again, My Chemical Romance isn't O.G. punk - it's the fourth generation version, played by guys for whom the Smiths and the Cure were a more immediate influence than the Sex Pistols and Buzzcocks. As for their fans, suffice it to say that about halfway through the show, Way made sure to thank those who camped out in the cold before the show, "and the parents who brought them and stayed with them."
Still, there's something to be said for the polished, approachable version of punk the Chemicals delivered. Sure, there's something almost parodic about the lack of lyrical content beneath Na Na Na (Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na), but the song was delivered with such exuberant cheer that it hardly mattered what the words said - the song was more about melody and momentum than anything verbal.
Likewise, the unrepentantly campy Mama makes no bones about the gimmickry packed into its arrangement. From the skanking rhythm guitar of the verses to the crunchy power chords on the refrain, the whole point of the song is to pull as much entertainment from the music as possible. Not for nothing has Way told interviewers about his fondness for Queen.
Except, of course, that Way is no Freddie Mercury. Indeed, one of the most endearing things about MCR is that no matter how close their songs get to power ballad territory - and Cancer, The Ghost of You and The Only Hope for Me Is You were definitely in the neighbourhood - Way doesn't have the pipes to indulge in vocal dramatics. Instead, he sounds like an average guy trying to deal with outsized feelings, something more than a few of his fans can relate to.
That's not to say there wasn't a bit of overkill on the slow tunes. Impressive as it was to hear how seamlessly The Only Hope for Me Is You segued into Helena (which got quite a singalong), that sensitive groove was almost undone a couple songs later by the soupy, Vangelis-style synth intro James Dewees concocted for Cancer. The song almost went terminal before Way even got a note in.
On the other hand, the up-tempo tunes were utterly infectious, from the bouncy, Franz Ferdinand-style dance beat that drove Planetary (GO!) to the raucous, thrash-derived pulse that powered the encore version of Vampire Money. In those moments, it didn't matter that writing was derivative or that the band's understanding of punk was as dependent on cliché as Bob Seger's notion of old-time rock 'n' roll. What counted was that the music was infectious and fun, and that everyone had something to jump to. Old fashioned notions of punk integrity were just, well, romance.