Peter Steele was the lead singer of Type-O Negative, a goth metal band. The band existed from 1979 until April 14, 2010, when Steele succumbed to an aortic aneurysm.
But before his passing, Steele made an impression on audiences’ memories with his bass voice, his hulking physique, and wry humor.
Peter Steele, Type-O Negative and the early 1990s
In a number of ways, the early 1990s proved to be a time of experimentation in rock ‘n’ roll. The term “alternative” had become a catch-all term for a variety of rock music styles that weren’t exactly radio-friendly. And, especially not friendly to the tastes of small and medium radio markets. At one point, “alternative” became synonymous with a particular sound, but that would come later.
Type-O Negative, with its gothic appeal and the intensity of heavy metal, was embraced by fans of both metal and heavy alternative music.
Steele not only performed lead vocalist duties for the band, he also played bass. With his long black hair and standing nearly six feet eight inches, Steele appears imposing in videos and interviews. His physicality had not gone unnoticed. In 1995, Steele was featured as a centerfold in Playgirl magazine. He also appeared on “The Jerry Springer Show” to discuss his relationship with groupies.
The Internet is full of interviews, especially certain magazines’ “last” interviews with the musician. Those exchanges capture a complicated person who readily admitted to his flaws. The once-atheist turned Roman Catholic, also loved his cats and wanted to be a priest. Overall, it seemed that Steel was obsessed with human beings’ relationship with pain and things that scared them.
Type-O Negative and “Black No. 1 (Little Miss Scare-All)”
Type-O Negative was a band I’d heard of but the negative aspects of the band’s reputation proceeded them and I was undoubtedly distracted by all of Morrissey’s solo efforts. Thus, I missed the wry humor and often metaphorical commentary offered by Type-O Negative songs.
One of the best examples of Steele’s humor is the 1993 song, “Black No. 1 (Little Miss Scare-All).” The song describes a girl who is probably not unlike many in Type-O Negative’s fanbase. She “likes the dark” and is dressed for “an erotic funeral.” There are verses of her attributes, including her willingness to date Nosferatu. For all this person’s “scary” attributes, she has a problem. Her hair isn’t naturally black. And while she’d like to go out, her roots are showing. “Dye ’em black, black, black, black No. 1…”
The organ or synthesizer used in the song takes on the sound of a harpsichord and all of a sudden the song begins to resemble 1960s scary music with a side of camp. Think the theme to “The Addams Family” or “The Munsters.”
The song in its version on streaming platforms runs more than 11 minutes. It is a magnum opus of a rock song. After the traditional verses and chorus conclude, there remains a great deal of space for the soundscape to drive and thump toward its logical conclusion.
Multiple musical approaches are used throughout the song. Steele himself uses different voices for various parts of the song. One of them is complete with a Dracula-esque accent. In the chorus, Steele uses a screaming voice that will remind some listeners of Rob Zombie. The whole song is intense, and potentially frightening, depending on what scares a person. However, given that the full title rhymes with a famous brand of hair color, and the song’s story arc, it is difficult to take anything seriously in “Black No.1.”
In addition to alternating how he sings, Steele plays a nuanced and angry bass. But really, all of the instruments work together to create a haunting and menacing sound.
“Black No. 1” is just one example of Steele’s complexity. While it is unclear exactly what he would have accomplished in the eight years since his death, what is arguably overwhelming is that Steele leaves behind a body of work that only begins to reveal the artist he was.