The pop music of Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, ’N Sync, and the Backstreet Boys ruled the airwaves in 2000. However, Godsmack, with its recipe of “aggressiveness of rock,” singer Sully Erna stated in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and a “pinch of industrial sounds,” snuck under the bubblegum pop music radar. Yet with the band’s relentless tour schedule as well as controversy over the origin of the band’s name, an album with offensive lyrics that was not stickered with a parental advisory label, and Erna’s practice of Wicca, Godsmack has found fame quickly and become a platinum-selling rock band.
Godsmack formed in 1995 when Erna, after hibernating from the Boston music scene for a year when his band Strip Mind broke up, began jamming with his friend, bassist Robbie Merrill. Drummer Tommy Stewart and guitarist Lee Richards completed the band, however, both quit a few months later. Replaced by guitarist Tony Rombola and drummer Joe D’Arko, the group continued. In 1996, the band, after borrowing $2,500 from a friend, recorded the album All Wound Up, with Erna playing drums. By 1997, D’Arko had left the band and Stewart returned.
Members includeJoe D’Arko (left band 1997), drums; Sully Erna, vocals; Robbie Merrill, bass; Lee Richards (left band 1995), guitar; Tony Rombola, guitar; Tommy Stewart, drums.
Group formed, 1995; released first album, All Wound Up, on independent EK Records, 1997; signed with Universal Records, re-released album with additional songs as Godsmack, 1998; toured extensively throughout 1999 and 2000 with such rock legends as Black Sabbath at Ozzfest.
Without a record deal, Godsmack shopped the album to Boston retail chain Newbury Comics with the hope of recouping their recording costs and being able to pay back their friend. Not expecting much, the band continued performing live at local venues. However, after Rocko, a radio deejay for WAAF promoted the band’s songs “Keep Away” and “Whatever,” All Wound Up became Newbury Comics’ second best-selling album. Erna, as quoted at the band’s website, “was really shocked. Our album began selling 900 to 1,000 copies a week!” This drew the attention of Paul Geary, former drummer and manager of the Boston band Extreme, who signed Godsmack to his management company PGE.
By 1998, Godsmack had also drawn the attention of several record labels and in July signed with Republic/Universal Records. “The label likes how we’ve accomplished everything the old-fashioned way [by touring],” Erna told The Reader. “They set us down and said, ‘We don’t want to tell you what to do, just keep doing what you’re doing.’” One month later, Republic/Universal released Godsmack, a re-release of their album All Wound Up with additional songs.
Godsmack has received much praise, especially for its emotional lyrics and music. In the late 1990s, much of rock had turned into “noise” and was being “confused with music,” according to comments at roughedge.com, while “technology threatened] to overwhelm everything human about art.” Godsmack, the comments continued, with its “raging guitars, throbbing basses, sturdy rock drums and a vocalist you can actually understand, communicates emotion through powerful sound.” The band’s first single, “Whatever,” hailed by Rolling Stone as “a cry of resignation” and by hiponline.com as “an anthem for the broken-hearted,” steadily climbed the charts. As the single’s popularity grew, do did the praise for the band. Godsmack, the Washington Post wrote, “writes songs that spew their bile with agreeable cacophony and then spit with admirable efficiency.” Erna, as stated at the group’s website, agreed with these reviews: “There are a lot of emotional highs and lows in my songs, but they’re genuine emotions. I seem to do my best writing when I’m down. For me, writing is a release of energy.”
By 1999, the band was on an emotional high—their album was a success, they had played with, as Erna commented in Rolling Stone, “living legends” Black Sabbath as part of Ozzfest, and had celebrated the new millennium with their own Smackfest, a live concert in Boston. However, three sources of controversy threatened this emotional high. First, there was the band’s name. It was widely reported that the band was named after “God Smack,” a song by rock group Alice in Chains. Although Erna is a huge fan of that band, Godsmack was not named after their song, but instead after a “weird coincidence,” he told Billboard. The “coincidence” began when Erna mercilessly teased Stewart about a cold sore on his lip. The next day Erna showed up at practice with a cold sore on his lip. Rombola told Erna, “See, God just smacked you on the head for all that [teasing].” Erna “took it as a sign, so that’s why we named the band Godsmack.”
With the band’s name origin finally explained, a second source of controversy made headlines. A Cleveland, Ohio father, after listening to his son’s copy of Godsmack, complained to Wal-Mart, the store where his son bought the album, that the lyrics were offensive. Since Wal-Mart as well as Kmart had instated a policy forbidding the sale of offensive albums, they pulled Godsmack off the shelves. Normally, a record label would have stickered any album that has profanity-laced lyrics with a parental advisory; however, as Rolling Stone reported, Universal Records reviewed the album and felt that “it didn’t seem to be controversial at the time.” After a second review, Universal decided to sticker the album. The band agreed with their decision. Erna commented to Rolling Stone, “Our record has been in the marketplace for more than a year now without a parental advisory sticker and this is the one and only complaint… Stickers and lyrics are by nature subjective…. We have decided to put a sticker on the record.” This second piece of controversy did not hurt album sales, but seemed, to Erna at least, to help. “You can’t buy that kind of publicity,” he told the Boston Globe. “It’s almost taunting kids to go out and get the record to see what we’re saying on it.”
However, lyrics can be misinterpreted, especially when the lead singer of a band admits that he practices a controversial religion, Wicca. “I don’t write about sa-tanic themes,” he told the Boston Globe. Yet, it is his relationship with Salem priestess Laurie Cabot that caused the controversy. Erna told The Reader that he is a “recovering Catholic” and commented to Rolling Stone that he “always felt a little lost with Christianity.” Although he never wanted to be “the poster [boy] for witchcraft,” Erna further commented to Rolling Stone, he has accepted the responsibility of explaining to his fans just what Wicca is. “It’s simply about worshiping the earth … and believing in the power of the earth,” he told the Boston Globe. “It’s just different methods of praying to God. It’s not like, Poof, you’re a frog.’”
By 2000, Godsmack had left the controversies behind, and in April celebrated being named Act of the Year, Outstanding Rock Band, Male Vocalist, and Song/Songwriter at the Kahlua Boston Music Awards. They also celebrated the success of their second single, “Voodoo,” and the fact that after 14 months of touring they were finally going home. However, Erna found that he could not rest, as he told Billboard, “until this thing [second album] is done.” By not resting, Erna also did not have the time to think about the fame or success generated by the first album. Erna told Rolling Stone that the band doesn’t want time to think because “we don’t want to lose our creativity and the drive. No one wants to get on the rock-star ego trip.” Perhaps this wisdom has come from age, as Erna commented to The Reader. “We’re in our early 30s now, we respect what’s going on.… We’ve gone through a lot of crap in our lives.… We’ll never forget where we came from. I don’t think we have the personalities to be rock stars.”
Godsmack seems happy to ignore fame and let the bubblegum pop music stars shine on radio and television. The band has even almost forgotten how critically successful and popular they have become. “We’ve been working so hard that we almost didn’t notice what was happening,” Erna stated on the band’s website. “It’s only when we look back that we realize what we’ve accomplished. To be honest, we couldn’t have written this story any better.”
All Wound Up, EK Records, 1997.
Godsmack, Republic/Universal, 1998.
Billboard, March 27, 1999; March 18, 2000.
Boston Globe, April 1, 1999; June 7, 1999; June 16, 1999; December 9, 1999; February 17, 2000.
Minneapolis Star-Tribune, February 26, 1999.
The Reader, April 1, 1999.
Washington Post, August 13, 1999.
Hip Online, http://www.hiponline.com (August 7, 2000).
Official Godsmack Website, http://www.godsmack.com (August 7, 2000).
Rough Edge, http://www.roughedge.com (August 7, 2000).
—Ann M. Schwalboski
Formed: 1995, Boston, Massachusetts
Members: Salvatore "Sully" Erna, vocals (born Lawrence, Massachusetts, 7 February 1968); James "Shannon" Larkin, drums (born Chicago, Illinois, 24 April 1967); Robbie Merrill, bass (born Lawrence, Massachusetts, 13 June 1964); Tony Rombola, guitar (born Norwood, Massachusetts, 24 November 1964). Former member: Tommy Stewart, drums (born Flint, Michigan, 26 May 1966)
Best-selling album since 1990: Godsmack (1997)
Hit songs since 1990: "Whatever," "Awake," "I Stand Alone"
This loud foursome delivered meat-and-potatoes heavy metal with typically angry lyrics and better-than-average hooks.
Sully Erna grew up in the working-class town of Lawrence, Massachusetts. His father was a professional trumpet player who would jam with his jazz buddies in the basement. However, his parents divorced, and his father was dismissive of his musical dreams. Nevertheless, Erna began playing in cover bands as a teen, influenced by the Doobie Brothers, Aerosmith, and Black Sabbath. In the early 1990s he joined Stripmined. The band signed with Sire/Reprise but lacked the maturity to put an album together.
He gamely tried again with Godsmack, which fortunately boasted better band chemistry. In fact, its name comes from some rehearsal banter between Erna and Rombola. Erna was teasing the group's original drummer, Tommy Stewart, about a cold sore, but the next day Erna showed up with one. Rombola quipped that Erna had been "God-smacked."
For their debut album, Godsmack (1998), the band goes for atmospheric rock that's hard enough for head bangers but melodic enough for the radio. The first single from the album, "Whatever," began to garner airplay with its get-off-my-case lyrics and a stuttering, macho guitar groove. Rombola cranks out rhumbalike stairstep guitar riffs on "Moon Baby," while Erna creates a sinister feel by stretching out the vowels. However, he enunciates more clearly than most vocalists in his genre. Identifying himself as a follower of the Wiccan creed, Erna adds mystical touches to some of the lyrics but he does not put his beliefs front and center. A back-to-basics rock album in a scene that was tending toward hip-hop fusions, Godsmack sold more than 4 million copies in the United States.
Their next album, Awake (2000), is even more aggressive, pounding out arena-rock bombast on "Bad Magick" and giving Merrill a chance to deliver an almost-funky bass line on the midtempo "Goin' Down." On their headlining "Wake the F*** Up" tour (2001), the members casually referred to drinking before going onstage and talked about fighting hangovers with the antidehydration infant drink Pedialyte. However, alcohol was causing the band to fray at the edges, and the members ended up bringing in counselors to help them kick the habit.
The group previewed new material with "I Stand Alone," a contribution to the soundtrack of the film The Scorpion King (2002). Erna sounds more like Metallica's James Hetfield than ever on this midtempo, minor-key song with ominous cymbal hisses. The tune is a good lead-in to the album Faceless (2003), which contains several songs cut from the same cloth. The CD kicks off with the aggressive "Straight Out of Line," with searing but expansive guitars that create desolate soundscapes. The album eases off on the nihilism of past works—Erna had become a father, and the band had beaten the bottle. "Make Me Believe" and "I Am" deal with the group's struggle to stay clean. But musically, Faceless finds Godsmack beginning to chase its tail, having done about as much as it could with its toolbox of minor-key motifs, primeval shouts, and bashing drums. Though the album debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 album chart, it lacked the staying power of its predecessors, tumbling to number thirteen the following week.
Competent rockers who expertly melded their many influences, Godsmack never blazed new trails. They specialized in mixing energetic musicianship, bleak opuses, and anthemic melodies into occasional flashes of brilliance.
Godsmack (Republic/Universal, 1998); Awake (Republic/Universal, 2000); Faceless (Universal, 2003).