System of a Down are one of the most passionate bands on the planet. Heavy, politicised and fuelled by the fury of Generation X, in terms of alternative metal, you do not get much more eminent than Serj Tankian and his bandmates. They’ve given us some of the best-loved metal tracks of the past 25 years with the likes of ‘Chop Suey’, ‘Toxicity’ and ‘Aerials’, and it is clear that when you put Tankian, Daron Malakian, Shavo Odadjian and John Dolmayan in a room together, magic happens.
However, given that the band are so intensely dedicated to their craft, sometimes sparks can fly. In a 2021 episode of producer Rick Rubin’s Broken Record podcast, he looked back on the recording of the band’s 2001 album Toxicity and recalled a giant fight between the members over the infamous lyric of ‘Needles’, where Tankian sings: “Pull the tapeworm out of your ass“.
In that episode of the podcast, Rubin looked back on the lyric with Tankian and the argument that ensued, saying that it was so tense that he thought it might break the band up. “Originally, the chorus was ‘Pull the tapeworm out of my ass.’ Daron and Shavo didn’t like ‘my ass,’” Tankian explained. “They were like, ‘No, no, no, that doesn’t sound cool, that sounds bad, that sounds vulnerable,’ or whatever it was.”
He continued: “Whatever word you want to use as an adjective. I’m like, ‘What I’m trying to say is philosophical. Take this negativity out of me.’”
“I felt like, it seemed like, the band could have broke up over the lyric,” Rubin opined. “It was so extreme, but it speaks to the passion in the band. There’s real passion that’s amazing. The fact that a lyric, an insignificant… one word and arguably comical line is enough to potentially break up a band or discard a great song. That was another possibility.”
Tankian countered: “And all we had to do was change it to ‘your.’ ‘Pull the tapeworm out of your ass.’ ‘My‘ became ‘your‘ and then in the middle part where I’m singing nicely, ‘Pull the tapeworm out of me,’ they were okay with that. You probably thought, ‘These guys are fucking nuts.’”
“I think it’s the metal attitude versus the non-metal attitude, as well,” the frontman concluded. “For me, I like showing vulnerability in our music. I don’t mind showing it, because I think, as an artist, you’re vulnerable either way. You either show it or you don’t. But the metal attitude is, ‘No way, dude. No way, we’re metal!’ I think that’s what it was more than anything else.”
In this story, Tankian shows exactly why he has been revered as one of the very best in metal since the band first broke onto the scene. He’s not afraid to pour himself into his music, and this authenticity is what allowed the band to differentiate themselves from their peers and give their music an enduring quality that remains so influential.