Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Small Victories' tells the story of Faith No More

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Adrian Harte's 'Small Victories.'
Adrian Harte's 'Small Victories.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Faith No More are like the elephant in the famous parable: every listener will describe them differently. If there's one thing they want readers of this new authorized biography to know, though, it's that they don't want to be blamed for nu metal.

Presumably reflecting the sentiments of the band members he interviewed, author Adrian Harte writes:

Lyrically and emotionally, Faith No More had no effect on nu-metal. Nu-metal lyrics were powered by anger, resentment, and misogyny; Faith No More's lyrics by mordancy, misery, and misanthropy. Nu-metal punched down; Faith No More punched up. Nu-metal lashed out at the world; Faith No More poked it in the eye. But nu-metal musicians fell all over themselves in the genre's heyday to lay bare their debt to Faith No More.

If the distinction between "anger" and "misery," or between "resentment" and "misanthropy," isn't quite as clear to you as it is to Harte, you're not alone. To Faith No More, though, all it took was one tour with Limp Bizkit as openers to demonstrate that whatever the younger band represented, the elder rockers weren't about it.

In one telling moment, Fred Durst castigated the audience with a homophobic slur. Someone then had to clue him in to the fact that Faith No More keyboardist Roddy Bottum was a gay man who'd made a point of coming out publicly in the early '90s so as to help queer kids in the alternative rock scene know they weren't alone. Backstage, Durst apologized, but the damage was done.

Not only do Faith No More want to be disassociated from nu metal, they really don't even think of themselves as metal. They got along better with James Hetfield and Axl Rose than with Durst, but Faith No More were a weirder band than either Metallica or Guns N' Roses — both of which they joined on tour together in 1991, thus missing the original Lollapalooza.

In retrospect, they know, that was a mistake: Jane's Addiction and Soundgarden were much more aesthetically simpatico than the heavyweight tourmates they chose instead, but the decision was in keeping with Faith No More's willingness to go where an audience was waiting. As Harte notes, the band spent much of their career disavowing metal...in the metal magazines where they were being interviewed. Whatever.

Their career as iconoclastic icons started earlier than those who remember them as pre-grunge stars might realize. After playing together in various configurations under several different names, the Bay Area band officially became Faith No More in 1983.

As '70s kids, they had been inspired by the Sex Pistols and other punk bands, but their post-punk ethos wasn't informed by a counter-cultural zest: instead, they harked back to a more diffusely free-thinking hippie mindset. The result was a sound that mixed a punk-metal crunch with a nihilistic goth aesthetic and a proggy affinity for texture and experimentation over tight song structures.

In a 1984 review of their live show, the Los Angeles Times labeled the quintet "disruptively oddball," elaborating: "It was how Captain Beefheart might sound if he went punk-metal."

The band have another agenda in working with Harte: they want to canonize the "troika" who define the band. "Faith No More," writes Harte, "in various incarnations, have had seven vocalists and twelve guitar players, but the band has had a consistent core. Keyboard player Roddy Bottum, drummer Mike Bordin, and bassist Bill Gould have been in place since just before the band's first show as Faith No More in October 1983."

The first frontman you'd probably recognize is Chuck Mosley — although his predecessors included two women, one of them Courtney Love. By Harte's account she was certainly a hit for the five months she fronted the band in 1984, months that included their TV debut. Eventually, though, her energy proved to be pulling the band in a direction they didn't want to go, and they fired her. "Love did not go quietly," writes Harte.

Mosley was the face of Faith No More for their '80s breakout, visible on MTV in the video for "We Care a Lot." It was an era that's now regarded as formational for rap-rock; the album of that name, and follow-up Introduce Yourself, gave the band college-radio cachet, but they struggled to gain traction as a live band with the mercurial Mosley on vocals. In 1988, Mosley was out.

In retrospect circa 2013, Mosley figured the band knew their next album was going to be a breakout, and it was easier to can him before it came out than after. That may have been their hope, but it's hard to imagine the band could have known what success would greet them in the early '90s — peaking with Angel Dust in 1992.

Their new frontman brought his own drama, but also brought strong songwriting skills and helped the band bring its unique musical fusion to the next level. Mike Patton, whose tenure with the band endures to this day, was an English major who brought a new sense of storytelling to the band's lyrics. The Real Thing indeed proved a mass-market breakout for the band, although they were almost upstaged by Milli Vanilli at the album's launch party in 1989.

"We went up and shook their hands and told them what big fans we were," Gould remembers. "They didn't know who the f--k we were." According to Gould, Faith No More later proved they even knew Milli Vanilli's dance moves better than Fab and Rob did. The ensuing world tour led to Faith No More being an unwitting part of history in 1989, when they were onstage in Berlin exactly when the Wall fell: Patton made the announcement onstage.

The song "Epic," with Patton emulating Mosley's rap-rock style, became another MTV hit with an over-the-top video that got the band forever tagged as fish-killers...unfairly, says director Ralph Ziman. "We took the fish out, it flopped around for thirty or forty seconds in slow motion, and we put it back in the bucket."

(Another myth Small Victories busts: the fish was not stolen from Björk during a party. A true story is that when Faith No More subsequently opened for Billy Idol, the headliner dumped 100 pounds of smelt on Bordin's drum kit.)

For the alternative press, Faith No More were just what the doctor ordered: "It's metal without the male fantasies of omnipotence and invulnerability," wrote Spin, naming the band Artists of the Year. "Metal without the L.A. sleaze."

The band themselves still weren't so sure they were metal, nor were metalheads. They further defied categorization with Angel Dust, on which they experimented with sampling. It was also the song with their monster jam "Be Aggressive," a song about male-on-male oral sex with lyrics by Bottum.

Even his big coming-out moment, though, proved further evidence of how Faith No More were never able to spin their own press coverage. The NME interview that Bottum expected would center on his openness about his sexual orientation ended up being published under the headline "Patton: Lust for Glory." (Bottum subsequently spoke to the Advocate, resulting in a much more focused story.)

The band continued to find success until 1997, when they called it quits out of a sense of exhaustion and creative tension. For better or worse, a nu guard were ascending — metal and pop punk — and Faith No More ascended into egret heaven. They would regroup in later years (including a poignant 2016 reunion with Mosley, a year before addiction claimed his life), releasing their latest album in 2015 with the promise of more to come.

Ultimately, Harte provides the valuable service of capturing don't-call-it-metal life as seen through the eyes of Faith No More: a band that couldn't lose for winning.

One of the book's most amusing stories concerns a 1990 Rolling Stone interview, profiling Faith No More as "a seven-year overnight success," in Harte's words. Bordin likened musical celebrity to "living in jail," commenting on how surreal it was to learn that Axl Rose liked their record. What does that even mean? "Can Axl loan me twenty bucks?" he asked rhetorically.

When the story was published, Rose did indeed send a 20-dollar bill. "Sorry you feel this way," he wrote. "Here's twenty bucks."

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