In the 1980s, a style of heavy metal with increased pop sensibility and glam-rock influence came to prominence in Southern California, centered around Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip. These “hair metal” bands dominated the charts throughout the 1980s, before the rising tide of grunge out of the Pacific Northwest swept them off the charts. The genre has been widely lambasted for its pomp and its bombast, from the elaborate stage performances to the extensively coiffed hairdos of the performers. Despite its lack of critical acclaim, 1980s glam metal is by no means bad music, and here I examine classic albums of the genre one by one along with my thoughts on them.
I’m not cool, or at least I’m not cool in the indie music cred kind of way. I dig the Velvet Underground and glam-era Bowie, but critics and fans gush about how Sigur Ros is the greatest thing since sliced bread, and even though listening to it now I don’t hate “Staralfur” as much as I did on first listen, I resent the implication that a genre name such as “post-rock” brings, the implication that rock ‘n’ roll is dead and buried, and we’re in the post-rock age, an age of Icelandic lyrics and minimal string arrangements. Rateyourmusic.com tells me Sigur Ros hails from Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, which I know to be true (I didn’t win two geography bees in middle school for nothing), but it also tells me that the Icelandic name for Greater Reykjavik is “Höfuðborgarsvæðið,” which you cannot convince me is an actual toponym. I can appreciate “Staralfur” on an intellectual level, but I believe that music is so much more than that, that the best music is experienced on a visceral, basic level.
On a visceral, basic level, I enjoy loud, obnoxious, balls-to-the-wall rock ‘n’ roll, and nothing exemplifies that ethos more than 1980s glam metal, perhaps the most maligned subgenre under the rock umbrella. It gets next to no respect or acclaim, and mentions of Mötley Crüe and Poison only bring derisive sneers from the cultured elite. Taking a page from Chuck Klosterman’s Fargo Rock City, one of the best pieces of rock literature I’ve ever read, I’m here to plead a case for the genre so mockingly called “hair metal.” Crack open a few cold brews and join me on this ride through the most fun rock ‘n’ roll has ever been.
Klosterman credits Mötley Crüe’s Shout at the Devil with weaning his fifth-grade self off of radio singles and getting him into hard rock, so since I’m a shameless Klosterman wannabe (He likes sports, I like sports! He likes hair metal, well, me too!), what better place could there be to start? Well, Shout doesn’t start very promisingly, with an admittedly rather stupid introductory track called “In the Beginning,” but as soon as the riff from the title track hits your ears, it’s all forgotten and the metal mania has begun. The title track sounds a bit formulaic to me, but then again, that’s probably because it was the first track on one of the Guitar Hero games that ruled my middle school existence, so it’s been burned into my brain the way normal people would remember their Social Security number or their girlfriend’s birthday.
“Looks That Kill” immediately pulverizes you with a guitar riff that’ll make your ears ring all weekend long, and it just might be the standout track on Shout. “God Save the Children of the Beast” is an outlier; it almost sounds like an attempt at ballet-rock to me, and it leads into a just as unusual cover of possibly my favorite Beatles song, “Helter Skelter.” “Too Young to Fall in Love” has an exceptional harmonized chorus, and though it isn’t often mentioned in the same breath as other solid Mötley Crüe singles, it deserves to be up there. “Ten Seconds to Love” is delightfully sleazy, with Vince Neil telling his girl to “just wait honey / ’til I tell the boys about you.” I mean, sure, the lyrics are filled with clichéd innuendos like “shine my pistol some more” and “I wanna hear your engine roar,” but I’m still writing this and you’re still reading it, so clearly we both appreciate some young and dumb come-ons.
All in all, Shout at the Devil isn’t a bad place at all to start your journey into glam metal, but let’s visit one more appetizer course. Let’s talk about Def Leppard’s Pyromania. Their last album before drummer Rick Allen infamously lost his arm in a car accident and kept playing, Pyromania starts off with “Rock Rock (‘Til You Drop),” which immediately strikes me as what AC/DC would sound like if they had any interest in the glam rehash/revolution that was brewing shortly after Bon Scott drank himself to death and was replaced with gravelly-voiced Englishman Brian Johnson. “Photograph” has some nice harmonies, even if those of “Rock of Ages” upstage them later on the album, and I’m not as much of a fan as I could be of the faux-live aesthetic “Stagefright” brings, even if it is a solid track. “Too Late for Love” loses me at points, and “Die Hard the Hunter” loses points for its cheesy attempt at an epic-type opener, but it picks up the pace pretty quick. “Foolin’” is an earworm for the ages, appropriately followed by “Rock of Ages,” arguably the song this band is most remembered for, even if they did write the greatest power ballad of all time: “Love Bites,” off Hysteria. All in all, Pyromania gets a bit weak in the middle, but it’s still an essential album of the genre, and it’s still a good time.
Ratt are remembered mainly for “Round and Round,” the exceptional hit single off their 1984 album Out of the Cellar, and maybe that’s fair, but there’s more to them than just one great single. They’re not – I suppose conventional wisdom would tell me to say that they’re not the Knack, but Get the Knack is a great piece of power pop even when it’s not being held up by “My Sharona.” Anyway, what I’m trying to say is there’s more to this than the knockout riff to “Round and Round.” From “Wanted Man”’s sly reference to the band as a “rat gang,” to “You’re In Trouble”’s delicious solo over a spirited “Hey! Hey!” chorus, Out of the Cellar starts promisingly, leading into the big single.
“Round and round / with love we’ll find a way, just give it time / round and round / what comes around, goes around / I’ll tell you why,” Stephen Pearcy sings in a perfect execution of the verse-bridge-chorus format. I suppose with how much I’ve been gushing over this song, I should give it higher praise than “it follows basic pop music structure”, but some things just need to be heard to be experienced. That first verse (“Out on the streets, that’s where we’ll meet / You make the night, I always cross the line / Tightened our belts, abused ourselves / Get in our way, we’ll put you on your shelf”) is delightfully threatening and borderline nihilistic, but not in a frighten-parents-and-get-yourself-placed-on-the-Filthy-Fifteen-list kind of way like W.A.S.P. (we’ll get to them later).
“In Your Direction” follows, and it’s one of those album tracks that I like, but I can’t really tell you why, a lot of albums have one or two of these. I was going to make a loose comparison between “She Wants Money” and the Offspring’s “Why Don’t You Get a Job?” based on my initial impression that the former is a lament of the “my-girlfriend-is-a-mooch” variety, but upon actually reading the lyrics and having my eyes, rather than my ears, do the interpreting, I’ve come to the conclusion that the former song is actually about a prostitute. Why exactly a member of one of the biggest rock bands of the mid-eighties needs to buy a prostitute to get his rocks off is left to the imagination, but hey, creative license, I suppose.
“Back for More” is another single from Cellar. It isn’t the best song on the album, (nothing would be on a disc with “Round and Round”), but it’s a solid number two. “The Morning After” comes raring and ready to go out of the gate with a frenetic guitar opener, and it appears to tell the tale of the aftermath of Pearcy finally springing for that hooker (don’t you love it when there’s a coherent narrative, no matter how piecemeal?), “Scene of the Crime” describes a man realizing his girlfriend is cheating on him, and lyrically it seems like the Beatles’ “Run For Your Life” made even more menacing, if that’s possible. I should really stop saying how much I like this album or that at the end of each review, because I wouldn’t be here telling you how great this genre is if I didn’t like the music I was talking about. That said, let’s talk about W.A.S.P., just like I promised we would.
I talked to my friend Murph about glam metal over some food at Buffalo Wild Wings, and I told him about this piece and the bands and albums I’d be reviewing. He disagreed with my inclusion of W.A.S.P., and he raises a good point: they’re too hard to be glam; they don’t fit in with the Sunset Strip scene. (For what it’s worth, Murph doesn’t like Ratt, so take his opinions with a grain of salt.) I’ll indulge him and not give you a full review of their first album, but it’s a solid disc, with “L.O.V.E. Machine” and the banned single “Animal (Fuck Like a Beast)” standing out. It’s worth mentioning that as this conversation unfolded, our mutual friend and my roommate Kevin wanted to know why Murph and I were talking about members of the animal kingdom. He’s a special boy, our Kev.
Poison. Ah, Poison. To see Bret Michaels strutting around on VH1 nowadays acting like any other reality TV jagoff, you’d be forgiven for forgetting he used to front a pretty decent rock n’ roll band. Their debut effort, Look What the Cat Dragged In, starts off with “Cry Tough” and hits you immediately with a wall of guitar that threatens to overpower the lyrics, and I love it. Poison weren’t the most gifted lyricists, ironic appreciation of “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” aside, so maybe it’s best to just let guitarist C.C. Deville wail here. I can probably count the times I’ve consciously chosen to listen to “I Want Action” on one hand (not a knock on the song at all, it’s just not been on my radar), yet that “I want ACTION… TONIGHT” chorus gets stuck in my head more regularly than I’d expect. “I Won’t Forget You” starts off with a nice little bluesy lick you wouldn’t expect from a band like Poison, once you consider that they epitomize a genre about as far removed from Muddy Waters as you can get and still be rock n’ roll. “Play Dirty” is one of those nondescript album tracks I talked about earlier, and it leads into the title track, “Look What the Cat Dragged In,” the first verse of which might as well have been written about college life, with its description of going to bed too late and waking up too early. I’m sure I’ve looked like something the cat dragged in more than a few times.
“Talk Dirty to Me.” Oh man, “Talk Dirty to Me.” Even when Jason Derulo’s hit by the same name was tearing up the charts last year, I still thought of Poison first. That chorus about getting with your girl at the drive-in and down the cellar just commands a sing-along, even if you weren’t cool enough to party in high school, and I certainly wasn’t. Michaels commands the guitar solo here, and even though I usually take issue with singers shouting “guitar!” followed by a solo, Bret and C.C. at least appear to have the sufficient chemistry to make it work here: “C.C., pick up that guitar and talk to me!” Really, the only thing special about “Want Some, Need Some” is DeVille’s solo, but that’s no sin. C.C. Deville can play the guitar.
I talked a lot about Bret and C.C. in that last paragraph, and it reminds me of a scene in Almost Famous, one of my favorite movies, a film that’s partially about a rock band on the road (it’s really about the 15-year old kid covering said band, but the hijinks of the band themselves form a major part of the film). At one point, Jeff Beebe, the lead singer of Stillwater, the band the young writer has been charged with covering, resents guitarist Russell Hammond’s apparent takeover of the band (The argument stems from a band t-shirt where Russell is front and center with the rest of the band out of focus). Jeff asserts that he’s the lead singer, and Russell is the “guitarist with mystique.” I feel that’s how Poison worked, since their bassist and drummer were so anonymous, (I don’t think Stillwater’s bassist and drummer, I think their names were Bill and Larry, had five lines between them throughout the film.) But it’s OK, the outfit worked well as a band. Anyway, enough of my digressions, let’s get on with the album.
“Blame It on You” is another nondescript album track, until Bret’s semi-laugh at the end leading into “#1 Bad Boy,” which, beyond its awkward title is another solid track with some nice riffing (if you haven’t noticed, I haven’t talked much about the bass and drums, sorry to all the proverbial Bills and Larrys out there, but this is a singer and guitarist’s genre). “Let Me Go To the Show” appears to be Bret begging his mommy to let him go out to a concert. That’s not metal, Bret. This is definitely a throwaway, but it’s the only definite throwaway on the album. C.C. does well here, though. C.C. always does well.
Regarding Poison’s second album, Open Up and Say… Aah!, I’ll just recommend some key tracks, those including “Nothin’ But A Good Time,” “Fallen Angel,” “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” and their cover of Loggins and Messina’s “Your Mama Don’t Dance,” because, in the interest of not keeping you too long and boring you, I want to get to a couple of bands I’ve been meaning to talk about before I mention the ultimate hair metal album, the pinnacle of the genre.
Let’s start with Skid Row, the first album from (appropriately enough) Skid Row. Starting the album in the most hair metal way possible, they do so with an ode to big breasts, pointed at singer Sebastian Bach’s heart. There’s no doubt, you’re in hair metal territory now. I can’t resist doing finger pistols at the lyric “bang! bang! / shoot ‘em like a firing squad!” I’m part of the problem. “Sweet Little Sister” is, I can only assume, written about someone’s sweet little sister, and I’d probably be pretty pissed off to have a song like this written about mine. But, as it stands, I don’t have a sister, so it’s water under the bridge. Thus completely removed, this song is pretty great. “Can’t Stand the Heartache” is another track I like, but not enough that I can call it a standout track, as is “Piece of Me,” but they’re both blown away by the rockin’ power ballad “18 and Life,” which I’d call the second-best power ballad ever written. I refer you again to Def Leppard’s “Love Bites” for the best. Sebastian Bach’s vocals here emote in a way you wouldn’t expect from a man whose previous concerns seemed only to include big guns and your sweet little sister. His delivery on the bridge into the last chorus will change your (18 and) life.
“Rattlesnake Shake” is another unremarkable track leading in to the album’s harder hit, “Youth Gone Wild,” where the band takes a page from the Ratt playbook and references themselves without actually referencing themselves: “I’ll tell you Park Avenue leads to / Skid Row!” “Here I Am” is a solid track with some nice guitar work, and it bled into “Makin’ A Mess” with an ease that I didn’t even notice, which would make for a nice medley track entitled “Here I Am, Makin’ A Mess.” “I Remember You” is in that weird place where it sounds like a power ballad, but it doesn’t have enough softness to really qualify, so while it isn’t a power ballad, it’s not exactly a standard rocker either. “18 and Life” strikes me as a power ballad, “I Remember You” has power ballad tendencies, but it keeps getting itself stuck in the middle. “Midnight/Tornado”’s chorus utilizes the imagery of a clock striking midnight, but it’s not even the best use of that line I’ve talked about here (that being “Looks That Kill” from Mötley Crüe, complete with bell-ringing!).
Appetite for Destruction. I finally get to talk about Guns N’ Roses. Klosterman finished his review section of Fargo Rock City here, so why shouldn’t I? The Beatles were my first favorite band when I was getting into rock music in late elementary school, and then I got into Guns N’ Roses in middle school, so their first record holds a special place in my heart. Middle school me was a dumbass in a lot of ways, but this isn’t one of them.
Even though I’ve heard “Welcome to the Jungle” through countless stadium PA systems, both live and on television, it never loses its magic, once you listen to it through headphones and notice those backing vocals in the chorus, your appreciation of Axl’s ride through the urban jungle will rekindle itself, no matter how tired you might think the single is: “you know where you are? / you’re in the jungle baby / you’re gonna diiiiiiiiiie!” “It’s So Easy” shines through Axl’s providing backing vocals to himself on the bridge, sounding like he later would on “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” even if the following lyrics make me feel vaguely uncomfortable, Rose’s assertion that those who “think they’re so cool” should “just fuck off” excepted. I’ve got a special softness for “Nighttrain” as an ode to cheap booze, and even though I can’t shore up nearly enough righteous indignation as Axl did to write “Out Ta Get Me,” I can still appreciate the message nonetheless. “Mr. Brownstone” is Axl’s lament about drugs tearing the band apart, and, again, it’s the little things that make this album great, and I’d be remiss not to mention the bongos providing a subtle beat throughout the song. “Paradise City” is another anthem. People say music videos ruin people’s abilities to interpret songs for themselves, and maybe they’re right, because I can’t hear this song without thinking of Axl dancing in his white suit at Giants Stadium.
It blows my mind that the same man wrote “My Michelle,” “Think About You,” “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” and “You’re Crazy,” but he did, and they’re all great. “My Michelle” is another Rose rage-a-thon, and you can hear the mockery drip from the chorus. “Think About You” and the much-heralded “Sweet Child O’ Mine” show a sweet, loving side of Axl, one we’d see again several years later in the video for the maudlin “November Rain,” in which Rose takes some sleeping pills and dreams of his wedding. Of course, the bride’s death toward the end is implied to have been at Rose’s hand, and we’re shown a pretty brutal domestic disturbance in the video for “Don’t Cry”, meant to be the first part of the “Don’t Cry”/”November Rain”/”Estranged” trilogy, so maybe not. Let’s enjoy it while we can, though, because all those good vibes go straight to hell once “You’re Crazy” cues up. “Anything Goes” is the only track that I might even consider calling “filler,” but it’s quickly redeemed by the sweeping crescendos of “Rocket Queen” where we catch Axl in another vulnerable moment to end the album: “All I ever wanted / was for you / to know that I care.”
Hair metal is everything rock n’ roll should be. It’s loud, it’s brash, it’s in your face, and it doesn’t care who knows. I like to delude myself into thinking that I’m a pretty smart guy, but sometimes you just have to kick back with something that isn’t as cerebral or as self-conscious. I’d say it moves me, but this type of music was never meant to move anybody, except maybe back to your place at the end of a Saturday night. What I can say, though, is that rock music never got more relatable. I can dip my feet into the more treacherous waters of pretention that rock sometimes traverses, but at the end of the day, I’m back in the 80s with Poison and Mötley Crüe. Hair metal is a genre of underdog anthems, a genre that never gets any respect, and that’s a shame. I think everyone would do well to put aside their preconceived notions and try a Reagan-era spandex sampler, you might even find something that makes you think “just wait honey / ’til I tell the boys about you.”