Scene Spotlight: ’80s Hair Metal

Greetings Avocadoans! Today for my first Scene Spotlight, I will be focusing on that most reviled of genres, the 80s Glam/”Hair” Metal scene, an article which I expect will be embraced by few and ignored by many. But that is neither here nor there, really….today’s pertinent question is where did this oft-reviled genre come from, and how did it meet it’s ignonimous end (my culprit may not be quite who you expect)….

….to start, obviously it’s a subgenre of hard rock. I have no idea how “metal” snuck into the name; I view hard rock and heavy metal as two distinct genres, although admittedly the line of distinction can get extremely blurry. Obviously the 80s glam metal scene took many cues from 70s glam rock, though it was less inspired by the androgynous, arty rock of artists like David Bowie and Roxy Music and more by the foot-stomping, populist anthems of bands like Slade and The Sweet, who were often covered by their 80s spawn….

…among others. Led Zeppelin had the initial “dick-swinging frontman/mysterious guitar genius” combo; and if you’ll indulge me, UFO took that in a less arty(! – yes, I just said Zep was “arty”), more muscular direction; and while I’ve never heard him SAY so, I think a certain prominent guitarist lifted Michael Schenker’s tone wholesale….

(I wish I was more familiar with UFO, because I think they’re unjustly forgotten, so indulge me and listen to the clip)

….and Thin Lizzy popularized, if not invented, the whole “harmony lead guitar” thing….

…and of course, the flashpoint, the Ur of hair metal, Van Halen….

Even more than Zeppelin, VH set the template: blonde, spandex-clad, athletic frontman; dextrous guitar hero; rhythm section generally competent but unspectacular. Also, being from California, there was a party sound inherent in their music (since they started out playing, well, keggers); and Diamond Dave’s lyrics focused on the pursuit of the fairer sex to a perhaps-unhealthy degree (though on songs like “Jamie’s Crying” he had a highly sympathetic view of the female character, which was, and probably still is, all-too-rare in hard rock).

Across the pond in England, a similarly-minded quintet veered off from the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (think Iron Maiden) and realized that pop hooks get more chicks than songs about wizards. Listening to their first EP, I can definitely hear UFO, you can see the glam-ish influence in dress….

But the scene was centered in California, at least initially, particularly on a mile-and-a-half stretch of
Los Angeles road known as the Sunset Strip. It had long been a nightlife destination going back to the 40s and 50s, and as it ran down the 60s counterculture set up shop there, and it became a showcase for the music industry. It was a hot spot for the punk and New Wave scenes, but club owners REALLY gravitated to the hard rock acts, who brought in a crowd slightly more ruly but immensely more drinky than the punk acts.

An early standout on the Sunset Strip scene was Motley Crue. Blending a Kiss/Alice Cooper image with a punky sound (meaning “they could not play their instruments particularly well”), Crue were one of the first success stories of the hair band era.

At this point, the Sunset Strip scene was in its early salad days, and the aformentioned Def Leppard introduced a type of song that was soon to become an all-too-familiar pox upon the airwaves.

(note the Thin Lizzy-esque harmony guitars)

When done well, as in the above, the Power Ballad is catchy, moving, and affecting – a romantic, aching verse for the ladies followed up by a crunchy, rocking chorus for the dudes. When done poorly, well….

(please don’t click on this link, it is only here to illustrate a point)

….well, it is pandering, cheesy pablum that can cross the boundary into outright ear rape. Dokken’s “Alone Again” was another early example that remains tolerable, but the power ballad REALLY hit its stride with Motley Crue’s 1985 single “Home Sweet Home” which I believe MTV once played wall-to-wall for two straight weeks. But I’m getting a bit ahead of the story here.

While we pray for God to have mercy upon the souls of Def Leppard for inadvertently introducing the oft-attempted, rarely exceptional power ballad, other happenings were afoot, as LA journeyman rock group Quiet Riot had what is considered by many to be the first ever metal album to reach #1, driven by a faithful cover of Slade’s “Cum on Feel the Noize.” Which is nice, but not really, as Quiet Riot weren’t really any more metal than Led Zeppelin, Foreigner, or Boston, who had all had #1 albums on the Billboard charts. But hey, I didn’t write the narrative so yay metal.

The nascent hair scene was churning out hit acts in addition to the above, notably Ratt, Dokken, and New Jersey’s Bon Jovi. Ratt and Quiet Riot in particular were examples of the “hit and decay” act, though, as their early
success faded – both of them suffered from diminishing returns, no matter how many Slade songs QR covered. Dokken never really rose above second tier, and, well, the less I talk about Bon Jovi, the happier I will be.

But as with all music seens, nothing exceeds like excess and the success of the Sunset Strip bands was a lipsticked and mascaraed clarion call to those musicians around the country to come and HIT IT BIG. By 1986 the bloat was becoming obvious – even though Pennsylvania transplants Cinderella and Poison were immensely successful, they weren’t really bringing anything new to the table. I recall hearing Cinderella’s Night Songs for the first time and I thought it was a mixtape of deep cuts – one song sounded like AC/DC, another sounded like Aerosmith…well, a LOT of their stuff sounded like Aerosmith.Even veteran metal acts like Judas Priest and the Scorpions tried to get in on the action, leading to JP releasing the embarrassing Turbo. It didn’t help that some (many?) felt the scene was becoming overly wimpified, and they turned to something a little harder – thrash metal’s “Big 4” were in full effect, and Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, and Slayer were all on major labels, with Metallica releasing Master of Puppets and Slayer thrusting Reign In Blood into the world’s face.

Nonetheless, even amidst the days of decadence before the empire toppled, there were those who would strive, and SUCCEED, to be the most self-involved, egotistical wankers imaginable. And one of those someones was Vinnie Vincent, late of Kiss, with his group the Vinnie Vincent Invasion. Their first album was deemed “a Joycean masterwork” by noted Kiss pontificator Chuck Klosterman. I myself think he may be overstating his case, but then again, I haven’t read Ulysses. I do believe the VVI achieves true greatness in the video for “Boyz R Gonna Rock” which features the most 1986 moment to ever occur at the 2:55 mark, when the vocalist (Mark Slaughter in the video, but Robert Fleischman sang on the album) kicks into a bridge, but Vinnie just continues to solo because ROCK AND FVCKING ROLL DUDE. Also, drummer Bobby Rock has the most shoulder-dislocating crash cymbals ever, and Random Person on Fire runs through the video at 4:07, and I don’t need to remind you that Random Person on Fire makes any video a contender for greatest ever (I realize that by this logic Wax’s “California” is indisputably History’s Greatest Music Video, and I’m OK with that). Anyway, enjoy:

I do realize the song is actually “Boyz ARE Gonna Rock” not “..R Gonna Rock” but I think spelling “are” accurately was a big mistake on the part of all involved, and they have trouble sleeping at night because of it. It is also worth noting that Vinnie Vincent was such an unlikable douche that the other members of the Invasion threw him out and went on to become Slaughter, who have their own power-ballad sins to answer for.

But the bigger they are, the harder they fall. And from hair metal’s very own womb, the Sunset Strip, came a band that was the first death blow (what? There can only be one death blow? Look, pal, I am talking about THE EIGHTIES here, shit doesn’t have to make sense!) to the poppy, glammy, multi-platinum hair metal scene.

Guns n Roses. Yes, I KNOW they say “Nirvana killed hair metal!” but it isn’t true. G’n’R introduced a new paradigm to the hair metal world – GRIT. These were guys from the streets who’d seen some bad shit, and they sang about it. As Steven Hyden put it “metal bands were like a slasher film; G’n’R were like prison rape” – this was REAL. And dirty. And grim. Soon everyone and their mother had tossed out there hairspray and eyeliner for tattoos and a top hat. It wasn’t the anti-image explosion that grunge had on the popular music scene, but it WAS seismic – nearly everyone shifted their image towards the gutter. Except Bon Jovi.

This is not to say that G’n’R killed the glam metal scene (did I say death blow before? No, I didn’t. You’re crazy!), but it definitely was wobbly – that did not stop the band that I consider the ne plus ultra of hair from busting out – Warrant. Their innuendos barely achieved half, much less double; their power ballads were more power-y and ballad-y than the next guy’s; they were leather clad and hair sprayed and WE GET IT GUYS WE’VE SEEN IT ALL BEFORE. But never mind me, their first two albums went double platinum, and their third album came out in 1992.

Slightly more respectable these days than Warrant, Skid Row showed up around the same time, thanks to knowing the right people (in their case, that right person was Jon Bon Jovi…why does he keep popping up?) – their self-titled debut hit in 1988, and went platinum 5 times over on the strength of power ballads “I’ll Remember You” and “18 and Life.” So of course, on their second album Slave to the Grind they wimped out….NO THEY DIDN’T

Unfortunately, much like Warrant, they only got in 2 albums before being Nirvana-ed into obscurity; their 3rd album, Subhuman Race, is a terrific hard rock album and worth a listen, if you’re into that sort of thing.

There were other bands like Trixter and Firehouse and, uh, I don’t know, they were all clinging onto a dead scene. But there was one last shining moment, thanks to Britny “no, we are not Cinderella even though we have two former members and dress like them and sound like them” Fox. I am not sure if it is the peak or the bottom of the genre, but it has it all – terrible lyrics, a frontman with a grating voice, a video with hot chicks who make me feel as though “To Catch a Predator” is about to knock on my door, a drummer twirling his sticks and making that “Whoa!” face….yes, I think Britny Fox’s “Girlschool” is as good place as any to end this article. It kinda says it all. Oh, and Nirvana. Yeah, them. DEATH BLOW MUTHAFVCKAS.