Every so often, a band comes along that defies all the basic principles of marketing and commerciality and yet becomes immensely popular despite — or because of — their bizarre, challenging, maniacal music. Faith No More, Korn, Tool and Slipknot fit that bill. But, arguably, the strangest metal band to win over the masses is System of a Down.
Their self-titled record, which came out on June 30th, 1998, is a head-spinning hybrid of Slayer, Dead Kennedys, Parliament/Funkadelic and Mr. Bungle. Bulldozer rhythms collide with jazzy interludes and world music influences, while barked, punk-inspired vocals segue into heartfelt, nasal melodies. As for the band's lyrics, those skip between profound poetry, political commentary and nonsensical Dr. Seussian wordplay.
"The reason we do a lot of things in the same song is because you don't wake up in the morning and think about one thing during your whole day," vocalist Serj Tankian told Pulse! magazine shortly after the record came out. "You think about love for a second, you think about hate, you get angry at your boss. With System of a Down, we want to bring all of that kind of life emotion into the music."
The approach struck a chord with the mainstream. The album's two singles, "Sugar" and "Spiders," received substantial airplay and the album went gold on February 2nd, 2000. After the release of System's mega-breakthrough follow-up, Toxicity, System of a Down went platinum. In celebration of its enduring greatness and strangeness, here are seven things you may not know about the LP.
1. NUMEROUS LABELS PASSED ON THE ALBUM, THINKING A RECORD BY AN ALL-ARMENIAN BAND WOULDN'T SELL
System of a Down played in the Los Angeles scene and attracted a strong following with songs they wrote for their self-titled debut. However, numerous A&R people who checked out System turned them down, viewing them as a novelty group that wouldn't translate beyond the Armenian community. "The two or three years that we were selling out clubs and had a huge buzz in L.A., nobody wanted to sign us because we were Armenian," Daron Malakian said in the book Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal. "We were told, 'There's a big Armenian community in L.A., but who's gonna get you in Germany? Who's gonna get you in these places where they don't know what an Armenian is?'"
2. THE BAND ALMOST DIDN'T SIGN WITH RICK RUBIN
After hearing about System of a Down from his A&R man Guy Oseary, American Recordings president Rick Rubin went to The Viper Room to check out a gig. "It was the funniest show," Rubin told Rolling Stone, looking back. "I couldn't stop laughing. It was intense." He happily offered the band a record deal. However, by that time, System of a Down had other plans. "We were actually going to sign with Universal," guitarist Daron Malakian said in Louder Than Hell. "But then we went into their offices and looked at the posters on the walls and what they were promoting and we realized they didn't have any rock acts or even anybody in there that knew what to do with rock. It was pretty much a hip-hop/R&B culture that they were building there. As soon as we walked out of that meeting, we said, 'You know, man, we should just go with Rick. He believes in us and he's not following any trends. He's just going with his instinct.'"
3. THE BAND AND THE ALBUM COULD HAVE BEEN CALLED "VICTIM OF A DOWN"
Before they were signed, the band members decided to name themselves after a poem by Malakian called "Victim of a Down." But bassist Shavo Odadjian was convinced the group would have a better chance at catching fans' eyes if they changed the first word in the phrase to "System," so the band would be filed in record bins closer to one of their favorite bands, Slayer. Malakian had no problem at all with Odadjian's suggestion. "Slayer is one of the bands that taught me how to play the guitar. I would sit there and listen to Reign in Blood, Show No Mercy and South of Heaven. It was like religion to me," he recently told Revolver. "When System first came out, people asked me to explain our music, and I would say, 'It's as if Slayer and the Beatles had a baby.'"
4. DARON MALAKIAN DREW ON NORWEGIAN BLACK METAL FOR THE ALBUM
All kinds of styles went into the songwriting on System of a Down: hardcore, thrash, jazz, Mediterranean music, classic rock and even black metal. Malakian loved the latter so much, he eventually signed Satyricon to his Sony imprint EatUrMusic and released their 2004 album, Volcano. "I've never hidden my black-metal influence," Malakian said. "And I've never felt like any style of music should be off limits. I mean, I love Satyricon, but I also love Armenian music and country. Why can't all that go together?"
5. DRUMMER JOHN DOLMAYAN WASN'T ORIGINALLY SUPPOSED TO RECORD ON SYSTEM OF A DOWN
System were having personal and professional issues with their original drummer Andy Ortronik Khachutarian leading up to the studio sessions for their debut album. Realizing they might need a last-minute replacement, they asked their friend John Dolmayan if he would learn the songs in case Khachutarian was unavailable. "Next thing we know, Andy gets into a fight and punches a wall, shattering every bone from his fingers all the way up to his elbow," Malakian recalled in Louder Than Hell. "Right away, I said [to Odadjian], 'Call John.' I didn't even stutter. Then we went in and did the record."
6. THE STRIKING ALBUM COVER ART OF AN OUTSTRETCHED HAND CAME FROM A WORLD WAR II POSTER
Although they have songs about relationships, drugs, sex and surrealist nonsense, System of a Down have widely been viewed as a political band. That premise isn't exactly incorrect. The members have been outspoken about the Armenian genocide, played numerous political benefits and the cover art for their self-titled debut was taken from an anti-fascist poster called "Five Fingers Have the Hand," designed by visual artist John Heartfield for the Communist Party of Germany. The original poster included the text, "A hand has five fingers! With these five grab the enemy!" The band revised the saying on the back of the album as, " The hand has five fingers, capable and powerful, with the ability to destroy as well as create." According to johnheartfield.com, at a meeting of the Communist Party of Germany, Heartfield stood up insisted there was "nothing more powerful than the human hand when the five fingers work together. The hand [is] a perfect symbol to oppose Hitler." Heartfield worked with a photographer who took countless shots of a worker's hand until the artist was sure he had the picture he needed for the poster.
7. NO ONE EXPECTED SYSTEM'S DEBUT TO RECEIVE MAINSTREAM AIRPLAY — ESPECIALLY NOT THE BAND THEMSELVES
Like many of their critics, System considered their songs to be outsider music. Even Rick Rubin made it clear to the band that he wasn't expecting it to be commercially successful. "There was no point of reference," he told Rolling Stone. "It was so unusual."
"We never expected 'Sugar' or 'Spiders' to be embraced by MTV or to be on the radio," Dolmayan told Shoutweb long before System of a Down went gold. "We never expected anything to be on the radio. We thought we would be a very underground band. But for some reason, the mainstream has kind of accepted it. I think it's pushing the boundaries of the mainstream, which is good. It allows music that may not necessarily have been heard by a lot of people to be heard. And that will push on for the next generation, too."