Monday 17 April 2017

None More Negative: In praise of Peter Steele

On the anniversary of the death of the enigmatic force behind gothic-doom metal pioneers Type O Negative, Peter Steele. We take a look back of the unparalleled career of the innovative front-man and composer.

It always seemed apparent that the time that Brooklyn born Petrus T. Ratajczyk - better known to fans of Goth Metal as the basso perfecto frontman of Type O Negative, Peter Steele - last felt truly free was while working for the New York Parks Department. At this time his 80’s Hardcore/Thrash Metal band Carnivore had come to an apathetic demise after just two albums, and the thought of starting a new band was the last thing on his mind. Instead he’d occupy himself raking leaves, mending fences, and thinking up new euphemisms for maggots ("dancing rice" being a popular one among his colleagues).

Then it all went wrong. He broke up with his long-time girlfriend, attempted suicide, and wrote an album that saw him signed back to his old record label. The album was 1991’s ‘Slow, Deep and Hard’ a Hardcore/Doom Metal crossover about infidelity, self-loathing, and everything that pissed off and depressed the six-foot-six-inch tall Steele in the previous year. The album was loved by some, and hated by others (including Steele).

“… it was only supposed to be a demo. I was drunk and pissed and I wrote the whole thing in 4 hours. Little did I know that demo would be pressed into an album. So we were pretty much trapped into something I wrote in a span of a few hours […] If I had to do it over, Bloody Kisses would be the first album.” - Rock Out Censorship 

The band were initially condemned by domestic audiences as communists and homosexuals for Steele’s Russo-Icelandic heritage and sensitive lyrics. Internationally they feared little better, with most of their inaugural European tour cancelled due to anti-fascist groups labelling them a Nazi band (despite keyboardist Josh Silver being Jewish).

The disastrous tour was immortalised by the band when Roadrunner Records gave them money to fund the recording of a live album. The band instead spent the money and recorded a fake live album in a basement with their friend’s heckling them with the now familiar “You Suck” chant as an overdub. The album 'Origin of the Faeces: Not Live at Brighton Beach', became a cult hit for its dry humorous take on a Type O Negative live show as well as their cover of Jimi Hendrix‘s ‘Hey Joe’ (re-dubbed ‘Hey Peter’). Their label, however, did not see the funny side of it. The album, despite being reworked tracks from their début, displayed a different approach to the song writing. Under Steele’s direction, Silver’s keyboards were mixed higher and became more ambient and gothic in sound.

This stylistic change of face carried over onto the band's 1994 sophomore album ‘Bloody Kisses’. This time the anger was running second fiddle to elaborate gothic hymns to female stereotypes (‘Black No.1’ and ‘Christian Woman’), as well as misery and heartache (‘Too Late: Frozen’ and ‘Bloody Kisses - A Death in the Family’). The album was originally released with many instrumental and humorous tracks, but after the videos for ‘Black No.1’ and ‘Christian Woman’ received airplay on MTV, a re-edit and re-release of just the core tracks propelled the album to gold status. A first for the band and their record label. 

With the band’s stock rising internationally and domestically they crafted a dramatic stage presence on tour with bands such as Mötley Crüe and Nine Inch Nails, with Steele’s vampiric persona and trademark red wine consumption dominating reviews. The label eager to capitalise on the band’s success pushed Steele for a follow-up.

“I don't know what drugs they were on. I guess they wanted to make another remake of Bloody Kisses, Bloody Kisses II or something like that. They didn't get it.” - NY Rock 

The album that Peter wrote instead was a milestone in what came to be known as “Goth Metal”. Part gothic rock, part psychedelic, and filtered through Black Sabbath style doom metal guitars - 1996’s ‘October Rust’ turned Type O Negative into an international force. The band embarked on tours with Pantera, Ozzy Osbourne, and headlined festivals in the USA and Europe. MTV once again came calling and the romantic and playful videos for ‘Love You To Death’ and ‘My Girlfriend’s Girlfriend’ turned Steele into a reluctant sex symbol. 

This new-found status even lead to Steele appearing on mainstream talk shows such as Jerry Springer and Riki Lake as an example of the definitive “Metal Male”. It wasn’t before long that Playgirl Magazine invited Steele to do a spread - though Steele was said to be embarrassed after finding out that most of the magazine’s subscribers were in fact men. Steele would later look back on the incident with self-deprecating humour, though the publicity certainly didn't do the band any harm.

“After I did it, I thought, "Oh my God, what did I do?" It was more than upsetting that so many guys had it. Girls, OK, but there just seemed to be at least as many guys. Not that I'm homophobic, but it was certainly irritating.” - NY Rock 

Though it was the band’s most successful period it was one of the hardest in Steele’s personal life. The heights of success inevitably opened the doors to chemical influences taking hold of the front man and personal tragedies sent him into another spiral of depression. At this time, burnt out from two solid years of touring, Steele dreaded the phone calls from the label asking to write and even more successful record than '… Kisses' or '… Rust'. Though an album was finally finished it was evident that Steele was writing to exorcise his demons, not to sell records. 

1999’s ‘World Coming Down’ returned to the melancholic dirges of ‘Bloody Kisses’ sans the humour. The album was the darkest since the band’s début with songs like ‘Everyone I Love is Dead’, Everything Dies’, and ‘World Coming Down’ dominating the track listing. The album wasn’t as well received as previous efforts, but it still fed the hungry waves of fans and the resulting tour saw Steele motivated and attempting to clean up his act. An interim best of album called ‘The Least Worst of Type O Negative’ was released while Steele focused on himself.

“What asshole starts to drink and use drugs every day when they are 36 or 37? It’s a real F**king disgrace. I’m kind of shocked at myself, I’m embarrassed […] That slump of doing too much drinking and cocaine is becoming a thing of the past and I’m starting to get myself back a little bit.” - Terrorizer Magazine 

The band’s next album ‘Life is Killing Me’ showed that Steel was indeed getting back to his old self. Though dark, the album had the most humorous and playful feel than any album since ‘Origin…’ and ‘Bloody Kisses’, it even included a cover of ‘Angry Inch’ from the musical 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch'. The supporting video for ‘I Don’t Wanna Be Me’ made a modest impact on radio and TV play lists, but ultimately the band was left to tour to promote the album. This proved to be the last album released by Roadrunner under the contract Steele had signed back in the 80’s with Carnivore. The band parted ways with the label, and soon after European competitors SPV signed them to release the bands next album.

However, another spell of silence befell Steele and co. With the band’s webpage proclaiming “Peter Steele: 1962-2005” creating a stir of wild speculation that the imposing figure had suddenly died. It turned out to be a joke, if not an eerily prophetic one. On the interim live DVD ‘Symphony For The Devil’ and other interviews Steele explained that the length between releases was down to his incarceration in Riker's Island and "the psych ward at Kings County Hospital" at the hands of his family for his psychological and drug problems.

“I violated probation because you know due to drugs and alcohol and just having a case of like all I had to do was like show up once a month and put my hand into a fuckin machine […] I didn't show up for like six months and then I'm like so, let them come and get me and you know what? Bang! Bang! Bang! Is Peter there? Housekeeping!" - MK Magazine 

But an album did materialise on SPV records soon after the DVD release. ‘Dead Again’ saw Steele once again working through his feelings, this time regarding drug addiction and betrayal (‘Tripping a Blind Man’), as well as his conversion/reversion to Catholicism (‘Ode to Locksmiths’), and opinions on abortion (‘These Three Things’). Unlike ‘World Coming Down’ however, Steele maintained his sense of humour and the album received a positive run with one of the highest chart positions since ‘October Rust’ as well as good radio and TV coverage of the band’s singles ‘Profit of Doom’ and ‘September Sun’. The subsequent tour received positive reviews for the newly sober Steele, and the band continued on supporting the album, in 2009 signing up for the Jaegermeister tour with fellow New Yorkers Hatebreed and 3 Inches Of Blood.

“Apparently, when you’re drunk you don’t realise how badly you’re playing and how badly you’re singing. People have told me that I sound much better and I’m playing much better. I don’t really see it as much as other people do because I was drunk. But I realise that I was primarily responsible for almost destroying this band. The last five years of tours have been full of coke and alcohol and I didn’t think the thing was apparent […] If I’m fucked up, half the band’s fucked up […] So I’m trying to rectify the damage that I’ve done by just doing the best job that I can…” - 

Tragically though, Steele’s new sense of optimism was unfortunately cut short on the 14th of April 2010. The cause was widely reported as heart failure. Rumours of the front man’s death had flooded the internet but were initially met with scepticism after the infamous 2005 prank. However, the news that Steele had died aged only 48 years, was later confirmed by the other members of Type O Negative and soon tributes flooded in from friends, bands and fans.

Peter Steele was buried in Saint Charles Cemetary, Farmingdale alongside his parents. His legacy and influence has continually been paid tribute in the years since his death with many bands still citing Type O Negative as a major influence on their own songwriting. 

Steele's talent was a multifaceted one hidden behind a shy and sensitive shell. His vocal range is one of the greatest in modern music, his song-craft, composition and ear for melodies was beyond comparison. And his single-minded determination to create something unique in the form of Type O Negative took the band to international acclaim. Though he struggled with his demons, his body of work is one of the most consistent and genuine output of any artist around. And it is an output that will withstand the test of time.  
“Well, that's it, that's all we have. I hope it wasn't too disappointing…” - October Rust, 1996 

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