The late ’90s saw a turn in the music industry. The grunge era had begun to run its course, and while it was initially lumped in with the alternative scene, the poppier side of alt-rock was being phased out at radio in favor of harder edged music. Critics dubbed the wave of burgeoning acts as “nu-metal,” but a few bands who emerged during this period relied more on heavy hard rock than the rap-rock explosion of the day. And one of those acts was a Boston-based group called Godsmack.
The Godsmack story began in 1995 when Sully Erna, who had been a drummer for most of his musical life, decided to step out from behind the kit and front a new band. The rocker persevered through years of bands that never really “made it,” but his love for music never waned. He told Rolling Stone, “It’s something that I’ve done my whole life. I started playing when I was three and a half. My dad’s a professional trumpet player – he’s had a bunch of jazz bands. And I kind of grew up under the piano, listening to them rehearse in the basement. And I just always knew. I mean, I quit school for it. I lost relationships over it. I sacrificed having an apartment and nice cars when all my friends were graduating high school and getting all this stuff, and I was still looking like the loser, schlepping off my parents. It’s in my blood, and I just could never let it go.”
After a few lineup changes, the band, featuring Robbie Merrill, Tony Rombola and drummer Joe Darco, hit the studio to record an album called All Wound Up. Merrill told Loudwire, “We started in an attic. I was older and I never thought this was gonna happen, but we got signed, and that was just the beginning … I feel luck, I feel skill, it was like everything aligned.”
Godsmack, “Keep Away”
Right out of the gate, the band garnered the attention of local Boston radio station WAAF and listeners responded to a new song called “Keep Away” that really started to take off. Not long after, they entered the studio to record another new song called “Whatever” and that too commanded the Boston airwaves. To say the least, it wasn’t long until the major labels came calling. After signing to Republic/Universal, the group then found themselves with a platform to translate their local success to a national stage.
“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.”
Darco exited the band just as things were starting to take off, with Tommy Stewart coming on board to handle drums. The band re-entered the studio and remastered All Wound Up, changed the artwork and eventually decided to self-title the disc with a few minor tweaks before it was released to a national audience on Aug. 25, 1998. Among those tweaks was the addition of a new song called “Someone in London,” while the All Would Up track “Goin’ Down” was removed, but later appeared on the band’s sophomore set Awake.
Flipping the path of their introduction to Boston radio, the label led with Godsmack’s “Whatever” out of the gate and much like listeners in their hometown, audiences in the U.S. and around the world embraced the track. Rombola states of the track, “That’s Sully’s answer to his girlfriend when we were going through the whole struggle between rehearsing five nights a week, playing on the weekends and trying to keep a relationship going at the same time. We were really starting to take off, and it’s hard to go through a relationship with a girl and have a band take all your time, plus we worked regular jobs, so there was probably 10 minutes of the day for them.” The song topped out at No. 7 on the Mainstream Rock Chart and No. 19 Alternative, making its mark with listeners. In fact, it set a record for the longest running track on the Active Rock chart, where it spent 33 weeks rocking the airwaves.
Though off to a good start, the album did cause a bit of a controversy. The album was briefly pulled from shelves in select stores over the album’s lyrical content. Eventually the label relented and places a Parental Advisory sticker on the disc. But that only enhanced the attractiveness to the hard rock listening public. As Erna would tell the Boston Globe, “You can’t buy that kind of publicity. It’s almost taunting kids to go out and get the record to see what we’re saying on it.”
Another track on the disc was “Keep Away,” the song that started it all in their Boston hometown. In an interview with ABC Radio Network, Erna laughingly revealed, “It’s a song about hope — hope to get the bitch out of my life.” With driving guitars, a sinister sounding vocal and aggressive chorus, the song connected with listeners and the Godsmack ascension was starting to take place. The song would impact radio in June 1999 and followed a more direct trajectory up the charts. The track exceeded “Whatever” on the charts, reaching No. 5 at Mainstream Rock.
In October 1999, the band kept the momentum going with their change-of-pace song “Voodoo.” After two hard rocking tracks, the band showed their range with more rhythmic and haunting “Voodoo.” Co-written by Erna and Merrill, the song introduces more percussion, delivering a tribal feel and was reportedly penned after Sully had watched the film The Serpent and the Rainbow. With Godsmack having two solid radio favorites under their belt, “Voodoo” would go on to be the highest charting song off the disc. It reached No. 5 on the Mainstream Rock Tracks chart and climbed all the way to No. 6 at Alternative Radio.
Finishing out the singles on the self-titled disc was “Bad Religion,” which arrived in early 2000. However, the song’s potential success took a bit of a hit late in its radio run. After the events of 9/11, it appeared on Clear Channel’s do not play list, adhering to a newfound sensitivity. The track peaked out at No. 8 on the Mainstream Rock chart and No. 32 at Alternative Radio.
And while Godsmack were garnering new fans at radio, the road is where they really made hay. Despite years behind the kit, Erna made a smooth transition to frontman, commanding the stage with assured confidence. Merrill and Rombola could drive hard rocking tracks with aplomb and hit the groove for all it was worth. And behind the kit, Tommy Stewart initially worked out well following the exit of Darco and was an integral part of the band’s early success. Highlights from touring the first album included supporting Sevendust, the group’s first headlining run, as well as spots on successive Ozzfests in 1999 and 2000, a European tour with Black Sabbath and a spot on the rock-filled Woodstock ’99 festival.
Rombola recalls that he was surprised at how quickly success arrived. “I think one of the big moments was on that first Ozzfest, I got a gold record within that first year and then a platinum record a few months later. That was a big moment having that much success so early.” Merrill adds, “It happened pretty quick.”
When the dust settled, the Godsmack disc was certified four-times platinum. It was the kind of debut that most bands dream about and a promising start to a decade-plus of dominance at hard rock radio.
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