For a man who built his career on being a wholesome, clean-cut good guy, Pat Boone is a surprisingly divisive figure. To his critics, he's the ultimate square, a cultural parasite who homogenized '50s rock and R&B with wildly popular covers of songs like "Ain't That A Shame" and "Tutti Frutti." To his fans, Boone is a sterling role model who exposed R&B and rock to a wider audience; conquered film (his credits include 1962's State Fair and the Christian drama The Cross And The Switchblade), television, and books; and became a benevolent elder statesman in the world of Christian music and television. Boone played off his image as a goody-two-shoes for 1997's In A Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy, a gimmicky album of lounged-up hard-rock and metal anthems. The collection won Boone some time back in the mainstream spotlight–especially five years later, when its cover of "Crazy Train" was included on the soundtrack to MTV's The Osbournes. (The show features a soundalike version with a different singer.) But when Boone donned metal garb for 1997's American Music Awards ceremony, the publicity stunt ignited a backlash from Christian fans. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke with the singer about heavy metal, gospel, and why young people shouldn't listen to Jerry Rubin or Dee Snider.
The Onion: How did you come to make an album of metal covers?
Pat Boone: Well, I was on the road with my younger musicians, and they do a lot of studio work. They've worked with other recording artists, and we have a good, tight, strong musical group. So we were on the road, killing some time between planes in England, and one of them said, "We love doing these golden hits, those oldies of yours, but why don't we go into the studio and do something new and different?" And I said, "Guys, I've been thinking about it a lot, and I'd love to, but what do you think I could do that I haven't done 10 times?" I'd done folk and gospel and rock and movie themes and country and narration. I'd done just about everything a singer can do. And they said, "Well, you've never done heavy metal." And we laughed, because it was a funny joke, and then kidded for a couple of months about that heavy-metal album we were going to do. And then my conductor one day said, "You know, we've been laughing about that idea, but there really are some great songs that only metalheads know. And if we went in and did them a different way, we could introduce them to a whole new audience. They are good songs." So I said, "Like what, and how? Do them how?" He said, "For instance, if we did big-band jazz arrangements of…" And then he rattled off the names of songs I really wasn't familiar with. I told him to make me a cassette, so I could hear the original and see if I could hear what I thought he heard. And he did, and the first cassette he gave me had stuff by Van Halen and Hendrix and Deep Purple. I began to hear what they were talking about, that there was good music there that I had disregarded because it was just totally in a different genre than I was used to. And I realize that Hendrix and some of those guys weren't really metal, but they were a precursor to it. I realized that there was a whole lot of music that I had written off because it was different from things I had come to appreciate, and particularly metal, because it was noisy and angry-sounding and distorted, and guys were shouting lyrics I didn't understand. I just felt, "Who needs that?" But I got the music, and then I began to go into stores buying albums, and I'd go through the metal bins and start finding things by Motörhead and Poison. [Laughs.] And, of course, Alice Cooper and Metallica and Megadeth, all these groups. I began to hear songs that I could do, if we just did them another way. One of my guiding examples was what Bobby Darin did years ago with a very morbid, dark song from The Threepenny Opera, called "Mack The Knife." I'd been to the play in New York. Off-Broadway, I'd seen it, and I came out humming that melody, too. But at the time, I thought there was no way that could ever become a hit, since it was too dark and too morbid. It was about a killer and blood oozing and knives and people being thrown into the river with concrete shoes. How could anybody make a hit out of that? Well, one day I heard it on the radio, and Bobby Darin had found a way. He did it as big-band romping jazz, and I realized, "Hey, we can do that." So that's what we set out to do, and it got me back on the charts for the first time in 30 years. It went halfway up the charts its first week.
O: Were you concerned about how fans of your more gospel-oriented work might feel about the album?
PB: No. Well, at the beginning I realized that it might raise a few eyebrows. So I wrote letters to some of the top Christian leaders that I know, like Pat Robertson, and Jerry Falwell, and Paul Crouch over at the Trinity Broadcasting Network, and I forget who all else. Also James Kennedy, down in Florida—ministers that I knew would probably have some loyal followers and supporters who might say, "Hey, Pat Boone is doing heavy metal. Isn't that wrong for him to have anything to do with heavy-metal music?" I realized they might be raising that question. So I wrote to assure them that I had raked over every lyric with a fine-toothed comb, and that I was only doing songs that I felt I could do. Of course, I passed over a lot that had other connotations and language that I wasn't going to do, but we found some really quality songs, so I told them not to worry about it. Well, what I didn't take into consideration, because nobody had thought of it yet, was Dick Clark's idea of me going out on the American Music Awards with Alice Cooper to present the award for Hard Rock/Heavy Metal, which went to Metallica. Dick's idea was that Alice and I should swap images. He should come out dressed in a golf outfit of some type, because he is an avid golfer, and pull his hair back under his golf cap, maybe wear some white buck shoes, and maybe carry a glass of milk. And I'd come out wearing leather and tattoos, and maybe some shades, and a choker and stomping boots. You know, we'd swap images, and that would be the joke—a funny way of introducing the album, because Dick had heard it and thought that it would be a big hit. So I played "Enter Sandman," my version of the song, for Metallica, and they flipped. They just couldn't believe that somebody had taken a song like that and treated it like big-band jazz, with great arrangements and their feel, but a whole different approach. And they loved it, because they're musicians, and they appreciate the recognition of other musicians. So, feeling kind of buzzy about that, I went out with leather and tattoos, and the crowd just went insane. Nobody could really compute. The image, I guess, was just too big of a shock, and reverberations went everywhere. It was not only a big item on TV news, but it was in all the papers the next day. There were big color pictures on the front of newspapers of me in a heavy-metal outfit. People saw me in that outfit, and they didn't know the background; they just thought Pat Boone had flipped out. So we did have a lot of aftermath that we didn't anticipate, because I didn't know that anybody was going to take it that seriously. I was kidding about the idea, but I was very serious about the music that we had created. We got over the misunderstanding in the Christian community. They finally settled down and we played on Christian television, for the first and only time, "Enter Sandman" and "Smoke On The Water." I guarantee it was the only time either of those songs will be played on Christian TV. But it was fun, and they heard what I heard: quality songwriting and musicianship, and terrific arrangements. But for me, the best compliment was that for a year or two after that, Metallica, when their concerts finished, and the smoke and haze was still lingering in the auditorium, and people were starting to file out, on their sound system they were playing my version of "Enter Sandman" for people to hear as they were leaving. That went on all over the country for a couple of years. The musicians got it, but even some of the critics—there's a guy who considers himself a terrific music critic who obviously didn't get it at all. He thought that I was actually trying to be a heavy-metal artist. For him, it wasn't cutting it. He was missing the whole point. I was doing what maybe Frank Sinatra would have done if they had decided to do those songs their way.
O: Do you think people who buy the metal album might go out and buy some of your gospel albums?
PB: Well, I don't know. That happens, of course, because what does occur is that you develop a respect for an artist, and then you want to know what else that artist has done. I don't know that everybody who likes the metal album—which now includes a lot of the young DJs around the country, because I've been on a three-week telephone tour of stations all over, where a lot of the young DJs in the morning shows have just become familiar with the album. Some of them have only reached their place in radio over the last three or four years, and maybe they never saw or heard the list of songs and artists, and they're flipping out over the arrangements. Likely, they'll say, "What else has this guy done?" And they'll probably come across the pop tunes and the gospel tunes, and in some cases they'll like them, and sometimes they won't. They're very different. Although, today, I'm going up to Monterey for a big Christian-rock festival, and I was invited to come up and sing there, and also talk about a project that's important to me: a Christian foster-parent program that takes kids in and nurtures them, and helps direct their lives. It's something I've been supportive of and involved with for years. So I'm going to talk about it with them, and then I'm going to surprise this crowd of 30 or 40,000 kids by singing a very raucous alternative-rock thing that I had a group called Eve 6 work on. Some of their people did the track, and I do the vocals, and it's called "Yes, Yes." It's probably the most surprising thing I've done musically, even more than the Metal Mood album. It's dedicated to and about this Cassie Bernall at Columbine—she got under her desk when the shooting started, and these crazed kids came in, and one of them asked "Do you believe in God?" And she said, "Yes, I do. I believe in Jesus." And he said, "Well, go to Him," and shot her and killed her. And the reason I wrote the song, and the reason I'm going to be singing it today, is that I realize that this is a decision every single one of us, and all the kids there, must make. Are you going to make that declaration in front of whatever confronts you, or back down and deny? Well, in that situation, I know they're all going to get with the program, and I'm envisioning and hoping that they're all going to be shouting and singing the chorus. We've got a video on the Jumbotron and all that. But it's a musical style that has never been associated with me, and it should deeply surprise them. Then, if they're not familiar with my earlier stuff, they'll probably go into a store and ask somebody, "Hey, what else has this guy done?" So I think there will be overlap, and I welcome that.
O: On a similar note, do you think a lot of people who are fans of your gospel work will be interested in your metal album?
PB: A ton of them have, the younger ones. I'd say the bottom half of the Baby Boom population, as they grew up, they may have become devout Christians. And, of course, contemporary Christian music today has got every style of music there is, from grunge to garage to heavy metal, alternative rock. So I've found, to my surprise and happiness, that a lot of people from 40 on down who got into the heavy-metal stuff, and who like—whether surreptitiously or right up front—the AC/DC, who like Judas Priest, who like KISS, who like Metallica and respect their musicianship… all of a sudden, here's a guy they feel close to on a spiritual level, making the same discoveries and doing the music. [Laughs.] They love it, particularly those who were into the musical side of it. Not just the content, but the music.
O: You've written books giving advice to young people. We have a young, impressionable audience. What advice would you give to our readers?
PB: Well, first of all, I did a terrific interview with Dee Snider. He's doing a radio show in New York. And he's Twisted Sister, you know? He did the record and video "We're Not Going To Take It Anymore," where he's throwing the teacher down the stairs or out the window, I'm not sure which. And even Alice Cooper had "School's Out"—sort of teen anthems that maybe kids today are familiar with, and they have a strain of rebellion, and so on. Well, I had written that book, 'Twixt Twelve And Twenty, and the publisher eventually asked me to update it, because it had been a number-one non-fiction bestseller for two years. It went into every high-school library in America, and I'm sure it's still there. But when I read through it, I said to the publisher, "Look, two things: One, stuff I wrote about then is valid, but it's been buried under stuff that's much more crucial and urgent, like drugs and knives and guns and VD, and, you know, AIDS and pregnancies. Which of course I didn't deal with back then. I'll go deal with it now." Well, they went to Dee Snider, who wrote a book which was saying "Just go easy on the drugs," and taking it for granted: "Hey, you're going to do drugs. Hey, you're going to do sex, so be moderate and be careful, and don't overdo it." I told the publisher that I thought that was totally reprehensible. That was not good advice for kids. And so, of course, I say what I've said in a song I've written, called "Backbone." The song promotes individual responsible choice for enlightened self-interest. Kids today are susceptible to peer pressure, with a lot of advertising and role models who seem to be thumbing their nose at all convention and even health considerations and all that. Like Jerry Rubin of the Chicago Seven said, "If it feels good, do it." Which is an animalistic thing that will lead to all kinds of problems. So I would advise kids to listen to experts. I mean, that's one of the main things growing up is supposed to be about, and that they should take advantage of and thrive on, and that is learning from those who have gone before. And getting good advice from people who've made it through that maze. That's why I wrote the book, because I had just come through it myself, 'Twixt Twelve And Twenty. But I realize that it was very tame advice today, but that for many people, it was still very, very, perfectly valid. If you learn from what you see, learn it from people who have made it and are happy and successful and healthy. Don't listen to it from just kids who are violating all the rules and saying, "Aw, you can get away with it. Look at me. I take Ecstasy, and I smoke a lot of pot and I'm not in jail." There are great commercials out there, but I don't know if kids are listening to the commercials about frying your brain. So I just say, "You'd better choose role models to listen to who have made it and are successful, and whose advice is possibly valid rather than others who are experimenting along with you."
O: Do you think kids today don't have enough respect for their elders?
PB: I don't know. I could be wrong, but I detect that they may not have as much for their parents as they should. But I think they are showing more respect for adults who've made it in various fields they aspire to. Not every teen wants to be a rock musician, thank God. And so the kids are looking at kids who are Internet geeks and giants. You know, I think they have respect for people who've made it in various fields. Which is perhaps good. I think it is.