In 1994, New York noisemakers Helmet released Betty.
Despite its innocent name and its scenic garden on the album cover, the band’s third studio album is one of snarling riffs, pounding drums and era-defining alternative rock of the downtuned and menacing persuasion.
On their upcoming Australian tour (dates below), the band will be playing the seminal LP in its entirety, so we’ve traveled back in time with Page Hamilton – the band’s leader and sole original member – to get some insight into the album that still serves as Helmet’s most acclaimed record.
This, in his own words, is the story of Betty – from go to whoa.
In New Orleans, there was a place called Wilma’s Rainbow. It was on Magazine Street, and I think it was a frozen ice and fried chicken stand. Soul food. Coincidentally, it was on the same block where Trent Reznor would later go on to buy an abandoned funeral home and turn it into a recording studio years later.
I think I just saw it because I was within walking distance one night, just looking for somewhere to eat for dinner. I just wrote the name down without any context, and then it became a title. To me, the name brought up all these vivid colours, which I found really peaceful.
The line about the richest junk dealer, I actually got from a newspaper article about Frank Zappa. I think the tag line was something like “Frank Zappa: Genius Or Junk Dealer?” I just thought it was a funny thing to say about one of my favourite music personalities.
This song is a continuation of sorts of our songs ‘FBLA’ and ‘FBLA II’ – this idea that so many hardcore musicians grow up to be certified public accountants or whatever.
It’s like that line in ‘Boys of Summer’ by Don Henley: “I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac“. I always thought that was a great lyric. People in music have this tough-guy persona, but it’s a dead-end. It was never about being macho with us.
‘Biscuits for Smut’
That was a funny story my grandfather told me. My great-grandma used to throw [American] biscuits out the window for the dog, which was named Smut, if she ever overcooked them. They were living in a single-bedroom, dirt-floor shack back in the ’20s; a long time ago.
I loved the dog’s name, especially because I don’t think the word ‘smut’ had the connotations that it does now – or, at least, the pornographic connotations that it had when I was growing up. I was like, “You actually named your dog that?” I took the title to use for a song that I’d written about a serial killer escaping; and I mixed in the actual dog story with these kind of Jeffrey Dahmer/cannibal style references. It’s a weird song [laughs].
I wrote the riff when I was visiting my parents at their home in Oregon. I had changed the strings on this blue G & L, which I sadly don’t have anymore. I was playing it and then left it with the new strings for a little while, so when I came back to it the strings had loosened and the guitar was tuned to what sounded like an A7 chord. I just liked how sloppy it sounded, so I decided to write a riff in this accidental tuning. There’s no bass on that song, actually. It’s just all that guitar.
I’m trying to think if I wrote it earlier than the other songs. I remember recording it with Butch [Vig] for The Crow soundtrack. It’s honestly hard to remember – I certainly don’t remember how I wrote the song, or how it came about. I know that I used a songwriting form that I’d come up with for ‘Unsung’.
There are several Helmet songs that don’t fit the usual form of verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus etc. I use those forms, and I like them; but I always try to invent my own. I think it’s a natural thing to try and do as a writer. The outro section is kind of a harmonic development; and the guitar solo is based on chords as opposed to picking out notes.
I think the riff was something that I came up with at soundcheck. It’s a song about the strong, silent types that are freaky serial killers deep down. It’s about people that aren’t forthcoming emotionally – there are always these deep, dark secrets. Again, it’s a song with a series of imagery that might not really make sense to anyone else.
I think that came from being in a relationship, where I felt like I was always trying to hide things under layers of metaphor. I was rebelling against the singer-songwriter narrative that people were so enamoured with at the time.
I was living on my own in an apartment when we were making Betty, because I had just broken up with my live-in girlfriend who became my fiancée. Big Joe Turner lived in the same apartment, although that was years before I lived there. I found out because of a little old lady who lived across the hall. “I hear you’re playing guitar in there and singing,” she said to me one time in the stairwell. “You know Big Joe Turner used to live in that place?” I thought that was pretty cool.
There was a vocal take that I recorded in that Big Joe Turner apartment, actually, that was on ‘Rollo’. I recorded it on a four-track cassette machine with a sonic distortion pedal and a TC electronic chorus pedal. I transferred it into the song, just because I liked the way that it sounded. I wasn’t thinking about pressure or outside expectations at all.
Street crabs are guys in New York that sell stolen stuff – fake Rolex watches and shit like that. My ex and her mother sold jewellery on the street back in the day, so I went out and helped them sell it a few times. You’d always have to keep an eye out for the street crabs if they stole anything. They’d lay everything out on a blanket on the side of the street; and one of the guys would be sitting on a mailbox or something to keep an eye out for cops.
It was just such an interesting and specifically New York phenomenon – I just felt compelled to write about it. “Ice the beer/It’s easy to feel good” …I dunno, that’s just a good line.
I wrote ‘Clean’ when my relationship ended and I was between living situations. I was staying on Second Avenue with my friend Karen [Haglof] from Band of Susans in her apartment. I had a long, bad cocaine bender night – I almost got mugged by the dealer, because he ripped me off.
It was light outside, a thousand degrees, summer in gross New York; over in the East Village. I remember coming back and listening to ‘The Wall’ by Pink Floyd. The song kind of came out of all of that.
I’m always thankful for riffs that just come to you – songs like ‘Unsung’, ‘In the Meantime’, ‘Tic’, ‘Driving Nowhere’… This was another one of them. It’s one of my favourite riffs I’ve ever written. It’s the kind of riff where you have to figure them out by feel – they don’t always make sense time signature-wise.
To me, this song is a little clearer than most of the songs that I write: “Petty news/It’s only your bad ear/It might be worth it/To watch what you hear”. It’s about the notion of gossip and shit-talk. It’s also another slam at idol worship and rock-stars.
I’m not sure why exactly I had that idea to cover it. I just thought it’d be cool. It was another curveball for the metalheads, in the same way that the Betty album cover was.
When I was doing interviews very early on, I was very naïve. I was asked things like what I was listening to and what my influences were. I was straight with everyone – I didn’t want to be pretentious or pretend to be something I wasn’t. I listen to jazz – I have a Masters degree in it; it’s what I like. When people are like “I don’t hear jazz in your music,” I’d always say that Helmet wasn’t trying to be a jazz band. We’re a rock band.
I chose ‘Beautiful Love’ because I just loved that Bill Evans version of it. I thought it would be the perfect way to bum out anyone that was after blood-curdling titles or whatever.
This was also a song where I kind of had to trick John [Stanier, drums] and Henry [Bogdan, bass] into doing it. I did the jazz guitar intro thing, and then I told John to go in and just record him going at the drums, just going crazy like he used to do at soundcheck. I then told Henry to go in and just go crazy, too. I didn’t tell either of them what it was for.
I’m not sure what he’s like now, but back when he was younger John was very resistant to certain things. He wouldn’t do things for aesthetic reasons, or it violated his own rules. “I don’t improvise,” he’d say. I’d be like “Alright, well… just go in and warm up, then.” The song was completely put together.in the studio – I just put the ‘Beautiful Love’ melody atop of this wall of shit. We still do that song live, and I always love it when we do.
This one’s pretty clear – it’s about people that you want to render speechless. Donald Trump would be one, for example. I’d love to never hear that fuckhead talk again. Every anchor on Fox News, too. And Rush Limbaugh, while we’re at it.
‘The Silver Hawaiian’
That was a Henry riff. He had riffs for every section, but we had to edit down from this seven-minute funk jam. Henry’s a really great musician, with an incredible feel. It’s just that his communication skills are less than stellar. It was kind of my job as the band producer, essentially, to take the potential there and turn it into something cool.
This is another collection of images lyrically. I thought it was really funny that I was fucking around with the lower range of my voice. I was pretty inspired by Blue Öyster Cult – they’re one of my all-time favourite bands.
It’s about life slipping away. You just don’t know what’s gonna happen when you wake up at the start of a new day. It’s about being too caught up in the physical world and your existence on earth being so important. We all suffer, and music is a temporary escape from that. So is painting. So is reading a book.
This is about two people in particular that I got to know to a certain extent in New York. Howard Franklin was this semi-homeless guy that I would feed whenever he came to the bar I was working at. He was a very intelligent guy, but he was also an alcoholic. I called him the Mayor of First Avenue, because everyone knew him.
When I was working as a door guy at a welfare hotel in the ’80s, there was this woman called Eleanor Hipe. I was living there for a couple of years, and I used to do the midnight to 8am shift. She was a crazy old lady – she always came in the middle of the night, looking for either a cheque or a cat. She’d apparently eaten her cat, and she was eating cat food. She was a very sweet lady, but her family had abandoned her. I don’t think she ever had anywhere else to go.
Their stories were so sad, but I wanted to acknowledge them and share them on this song.
Helmet 2017 Australian Tour Dates
Monday, 24th April Rosemount Hotel, Perth
Thursday, 27th April The Gov, Adelaide
Friday, 28th April 170 Russell, Melbourne
Saturday, 29th April Manning Bar, Sydney
Sunday, 30th April Brightside, BrisbaneWrite a Letter to the Editor