One of 1994’s heaviest albums was also one of its strangest. Released on June 21st of that year, Betty, the third full-length from NYC four-piece Helmet, retained the huge staccato riffs, free-form solos and supple vocal hooks that had helped make their prior album, 1992’s Meantime, into a period classic and unlikely MTV hit. But this time around, the band dialed up the weirdness, adding sly funk elements, surrealistic lyrics, a deconstructed jazz standard and unsettlingly wholesome cover art into the mix.
“I think I adopted a stance from the Ray Davies/Paul Westerberg school of thinking, which was something like, ‘If things are going really well, do the opposite — shoot yourself in the foot,'” guitarist-vocalist Page Hamilton told Rolling Stone’s Richard Bienstock in 2015 of the mindset that led to the alt-metal oddity that is Betty.
The above performance from The Jon Stewart Show, featuring Betty opener “Wilma’s Rainbow” and single “Milquetoast,” shows just what a commanding live band Helmet were at the time. Hamilton, guitarist Rob Echeverria, bassist Henry Bogdan and drummer John Stanier — whose punishing, high-pitched snare sound is one of Betty’s defining sonic traits — lock in and lay back, bringing a relaxed feel to the songs’ harsh grooves. Their unassuming image, more skater than headbanger, only heightened the effect of a massively heavy band that constantly sidestepped metal convention.
“Wilma’s Rainbow,” with its refrain of “Wilma’s rainbow of peaceful colors/The richest junk dealer,” was one of Betty’s many lyrical puzzles. Rather than referring to The Flintstones, the title actually nods to a Big Easy eatery. “The title came from a place in New Orleans that I believe was on Magazine Street, right next to the funeral home that Trent Reznor later bought for his studio [Nothing Studios],” Hamilton told RS. “Helmet was playing at Tipitina’s and I was walking around before the show, looking for something to eat. Wilma’s Rainbow was a shop that had shaved ice and wings. I thought, That’s a great title for a song.”
“Milquetoast” originally appeared on the 1994 soundtrack for The Crow, in a different version called “Milktoast.” Nirvana producer Butch Vig produced the first pass and suggested a key tweak to the song that remained on the album take.
“Butch gave me the idea to have no guitars on the first verse,” Hamilton recalled. “Like, ‘Why don’t you mute the guitars here and just do this vocal thing?’ And then he added that Pink Floyd, AM-radio effect to my voice. That all changed the feel of the song, because originally it was in-your-face right from the beginning. Which is kind of our thing — Helmet’s not really known for dynamics. But Butch was like, ‘How about some dynamics?’ And I said, ‘What a great idea!’ It turned out to be one of my favorite things on the album.”
Betty’s overall producer T-Ray — a.k.a. Todd Ray, who at the time had a hefty amount of hip-hop credits to his name — helped craft the album’s dry yet gargantuan signature sound. “Great hip-hop is some of the most exciting music you can find — it’s certainly more entertaining per pound than alternative rock,” Hamilton told Rolling Stone in 1994, when discussing their decision to work with Ray. “The KRS-One/Boogie Down stuff, to me that’s the best shit on the planet; stripped down, bare, rhythmic, with a great voice. That’s what music’s about — bringing all this stuff together.”
Hamilton, now the sole remaining member from the Betty lineup, celebrated the album’s 20th anniversary on tour in 2014 and 2015, playing the LP straight through. Chances are good, though, that there will still be a healthy amount of Betty songs on Helmet’s set lists this fall, when the band will commemorate its 30th anniversary with 30 shows apiece in Europe and the U.S.
“That album was the sound of us being obscure and weird,” Hamilton said of Betty in 2015. A quarter century on, it still sounds like no other heavy rock album before or since.