The Birth, Death & Rebirth of Hair Metal

Posted: January 1st, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Feature story | Tags: , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

Round And Round

Background note: This originally ran as a cover story for “Guitar One,” in 2004. My inner 13-year-old was totally stoked to interview the era’s guitar heroes.

“Round and round! What comes around goes around! I’ll tell you why… why….” –Ratt’s Stephen Pearcy

Dig. Many thought it was dead and buried. Many even danced on its grave and packed on a few extra shovelfuls of soil by way of coolness-affirming jokes (e.g., What do you call a hair-metal guitarist without a girlfriend? Homeless). Hair metal… poodle metal… glam metal… cock rock… party rock… the names alone are pejorative enough, describing everything about the ‘80s pop-metal sensation except the music itself. What was so wrong about a musical movement that incited us all to have nothin’ but a good time, preferably while soloing along on air guitar, wasted?

The standard criticism goes, well, exactly like this: “If there was a more vacuous music scene in America at that time, I thank god I missed it,” says Alternative Press Editor In Chief Jason Pettigrew. “Every hair farmer had an endorsement deal and a flash guitar rig and yet they all came up with the shittiest compressed tones in the history of recorded sound. All the bands looked the same and sang about the same suburban-warrior themes: girls, partying, driving fast and being ‘free.’ In the process they liposuctioned all of the menace out of metal. Thank god for Kurt Cobain.”

Whew, pretty brutal. But like the loose temptress in a Ratt video, the so-called “hair farmers” just might have the last scornful laugh (but hopefully without the Solid Gold-style dance moves). Music trends have turned ‘round and ‘round and suddenly pop-metal has arisen from its ten-year dirt nap. A new legion of fans has discovered the music and its larger-than-life heroes, some via the Internet and satellite radio, some via VH1’s Behind The Music, and some through their own nostalgia-hungry parents. Most of the ‘80s groups are still touring with all- or mostly original line-ups, and some moms and dads naturally want to introduce their kids to what rock ‘n’ roll was really all about. In many ways, ‘80s metal has become the new classic rock.

In addition, the phenomenal success of The Darkness has directed the British quartet’s growing legion of followers to seek out the group’s inspirations, which include pop-metal acts such as Def Leppard and Steve Vai-era Whitesnake, as well as the genre’s ‘70s precursors, Aerosmith, Queen and AC/DC. Even critical perception of the genre seems to be softening (entrenched pundits like Mr. Pettigrew aside). At least a little. Chuck Klosterman’s Fargo Rock City–a hyper-analytical validation of the author’s adolescence in North Dakota–has triggered chuckles of recognition and heart-sick nostalgia in any reader who grew up in Nowheresville during the ‘80s. And there were many of us.

The world has indeed turned round and round and upside down since St. Cobain slayed the huge-haired, tight-trousered, fleet-fingered, pyro-happy rock ‘n’ roll party animal (before, of course, he blasted himself into the void). What was once considered a musical abomination has been reclassified under its original designation: fucking AWEsome!

Cum On Feel The Noize. The birth of pop-metal happened gradually and then suddenly. As the ‘70s fizzled into the ‘80s, full-on hard rock and heavy-metal acts began flirting with more traditional pop formats and production styles–encouraged, no doubt, by the promise of increased album sales. Judas Priest channeled its twin-guitar fury into the compact anthems on British Steel. AC/DC and producer Robert “Mutt” Lange (a.k.a. Mr. Shania Twain) built the nuts-and-bolts shoutalongs on Back In Black, a tribute to the band’s late singer, Bon Scott. And Def Leppard–a quintet of Sheffield, England, teenagers who were originally lumped in with a media-fabricated scene called The New Wave Of British Heavy Metal–teamed up with Lange as well, to craft High ‘N’ Dry, the closest thing you’ll find to The Darkness’ Permission To Land, and still a kick-ass album after all these years.

In the States, the continued success of Van Halen’s virtuosic party-rock, as well as Ozzy Osbourne’s Blizzard Of Ozz, which featured former Quiet Riot ax-grinder Randy Rhoads, made stardom seem tangible to a new breed of flash guitar player. “Guys my age grew up with the big four–Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix,” says former Dokken guitarist George Lynch, whose early bands The Boyz and Xciter rocked the L.A. club circuit in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. “But then that transformation happened in the early ‘80s, where guys started to pick up speed and the tone started to evolve and get away from rock’s blues-based roots. When Van Halen came along in the late ‘70s, they changed things a lot. There wasn’t much direction in the scene before then. When they were signed and achieved this huge amount of success, everyone woke up and tried to be like Van Halen.”

“Van Halen came out and completely rearranged my way of thinking,” says guitarist Tracii Guns, who founded Guns N’ Roses with Axl Rose before leaving to form the gutter-rock quintet L.A. Guns in 1986. (He currently fronts Brides Of Destruction with fellow Sunset Strip denizen Motley Crue’s Nikki Sixx.) “Soon after that, the Germs and Sex Pistols and all the punk stuff came out, which had the energy but not so much the musicianship. That’s what really formed my playing style: fast, aggressive rhythms; a punk-rock attitude; and some blues-based rock mixed with the lightning speed of Randy Rhoads and UFO’s Michael Schenker.”

Punk rock may have influenced the street-hardened sound of L.A. Guns and Guns N’ Roses, but those two bands were definitely the exception among the hairspray-wielding quasi-metal acts. (“We were the only five guys who could have made up that band in the whole of L.A.,” maintains Slash. “Especially at that point in time, the ‘80s was probably one of the worst decades of all time for music.”) By 1984, the multi-platinum success of Quiet Riot’s Metal Health, Def Leppard’s Pyromania, Ratt’s Out Of The Cellar, Motley Crue’s Shout At The Devil and Twisted Sister’s Stay Hungry established pop-metal as a commercial force. Soon, bands were practicing and primping to fit the mold, some divorced from what had come before it.

“We were there right on the cusp,” says Ratt guitarist Warren DeMartini, who moved to L.A. just as Motley Crue were self-releasing their debut album, 1981’s Too Fast For Love. “You had the feeling that there was a lot of talent around and a lot of people were in the right place at the right time. But by the mid ‘80s, it seemed like you didn’t really have to be that original or have that much to offer to get a contract. There was an over-abundance of the same style stuff, and maybe that was just to facilitate corporate greed.”

Heaven Isn’t Too Far Away. “It became clear that we were just following in the footsteps of what everyone else was doing,” says Dokken’s Lynch. “We were going to the same clothing designers, playing the same guitars, we had the same guitar sounds, and we were all writing the same songs. It was really funny, I think they were just interchangeable bands, there wasn’t a huge difference.”

Strictly speaking, the bands weren’t completely interchangeable. Dokken made over-serious power-metal with near-operatic vocals and some unfortunate production touches (the reverb, keyboards, plodding drums etc. on “Alone Again”). Winger were formally trained musicians who shoe-horned themselves into the format with a Van Halen-esque ode to underage ladies (“Seventeen”) and keyboard-sweetened ballads (“Headed For Heartbreak”) that featured fabulously lyrical solos.

Cinderella were a truly great blues-based hard-rock act with a vocalist–Tom Keifer–who somehow combined the singular rasps of both Steven Tyler and AC/DC’s Brian Johnson. Warrant wrote undeniably catchy party anthems with bitchin’ solos and proudly unenlightened themes (the infamous “Cherry Pie”). And perhaps super-fans like Klosterman can even differentiate between Britny Fox, Danger Danger, Tora Tora, Vain, Autograph, Dangerous Toys, White Lion, Whitesnake and Great White.

But certainly all of the pop-metal acts followed a certain formula in the beginning (with room, of course, for gimmicks like Jackyl’s musical chainsaw). At least the ones that were commercially successful. (“We were never a band that got into a rehearsal space and said, ‘Look, we need hit songs,’ which I’ve since learned from Nikki Sixx was probably a bad idea,” says Guns with a laugh.) The albums were meticulous studio constructs that featured gargantuan riffs; stadium-sized gang vocals; metronomic drums that were usually reverbed and fortified with triggered sounds; and, of course, the obligatory guitar solo, usually played on something with a pointy headstock. “Guys were also using Randall solid-state amps, thick chorus effects and lots of delay,” says Guns. “It was like an experiment that went horribly wrong.”

By the mid ‘80s, the sound was more pop than metal, and the goal was to create radio-friendly hits that–as Warrant would have it–could make everyone dirty rotten filthy stinkin’ rich (but usually not the artists, who generally signed away most of their royalties and publishing rights for the promise of fame). Producers such as Tom Werman, Beau Hill, Mick Rock and Michael Wagener facilitated the process for bands for whom primping and partying were sometimes more important than practicing.

“I was the go-to guy for unrecordable bands,” says Werman, who produced ‘70s classics by Cheap Trick and Ted Nugent before recording commercial breakthroughs for Twisted Sister, Motley Crue, Poison, L.A. Guns and Dokken. “As far as labels were concerned, it was like, ‘Why did we sign this band? What are we going to do with them? I know–we’ll get Werman, he’ll get them on the radio.’ I was always counted on to deliver a single or a power ballad.

“I regard my music as power-pop, it wasn’t really metal. I would reinterpret the song in a pop way. We’d start by structuring it, simplifying the kick drum and making sure the kick drum and the bass were tightly married. And every successful song of mine was built around a signature guitar lick, from ‘Cat Scratch Fever’ to ‘Girls, Girls, Girls.’ I was greatly inspired by The Who’s Pete Townshend. He was the model for everything I did after I heard Who’s Next.”

For some artists, however, the era’s production has dated about as well as spandex tights and lion-esque perms. “[The Ratt albums] were always a little polished for my taste,” says DeMartini, who worked with producer Beau Hill on Out Of The Cellar. “I prefer more live and mistake-ridden takes that were not in fashion in that time. A lot of producers liked to cut the song to a drum machine so they could more accurately splice takes together, all to save time and money. I never cared about any of that. I would rather track the song however many times we needed to to get that one great take.”

“Oh god, those drums!” says Winger guitarist Reb Beach, who also worked with Hill. “We spent three weeks painstakingly putting samples over every single drum hit. I listen to the drums on the first Winger album and it makes me sick. It ruins the song for me.”

However tight the formula, guitar heroes could always cut loose in the breaks, expressing themselves–as Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel famously noted–with a virtuosic display of note flurries, moaning whammy dives, pealing harmonics and vibrattoed melody lines. “It was very easy to get on board and follow the train because there was only one thing we were trying to do, and that was beat the other guy at being faster and flashier with more distortion and more tricks,” says Lynch. “Now we see that soloing was a small cog in a much bigger wheel–there’s songwriting and phrasing and riffs and grooves and other complexities we were putting on the back burner.”

“Bob Dylan once said that the world doesn’t need anymore songs,” says DeMartini with a laugh. “Which is a super negative thing to say, of course. But sometimes I feel like the world has enough guitar solos.”

Looks That Kill. Blame it on Aerosmith and Aqua Net. Like the pop-metal guitar sound and playing style, the genre’s much-ridiculed fashion “sense” was derived from a narrow blend of visual influences, cranked to eleven with the era’s dubious advancements in grooming technology and man-made fibers. The look’s immediate precursors were obvious: Kiss’ six-foot, hot-look, not-so-manly application of spandex, leather and greasepaint, mated with Aerosmith’s glitter-gypsy ensembles–Steven Tyler’s floppy hats, tattered catsuits and tangle of scarves; Joe Perry’s tied-at-the-waist silk shirts, low-slung leather trousers and shit-kicking cowboy boots (accessorized, of course, with a flick knife a la Keith Richards).

But Kiss and the ‘Smiths didn’t create their images in a vacuum, and some pop-metal bands reached further afield for inspiration as well. Blame and/or credit must be shared with a handful of rock-fashion innovators. Hanoi Rocks and Motley Crue carried forward The New York Dolls’ whorish make-up and fabulous rat’s nests of multi-colored hair. Twisted Sister raided action flicks such as Escape From New York and The Warriors for post-apocalyptic inspiration. Def Leppard’s Steve Clark strutted onstage in Jimmy Page’s and Mick Ronson’s silk pajamas. Slash snatched his signature top hat off the head of T. Rex’s Marc Bolan (who had borrowed it from Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter). And W. Axl Rose leapt into Freddie Mercury’s recently vacated leather jacket and bike shorts.

It was all a genuine form of hero worship (“We came from a generation where you didn’t try to destroy your heroes, you emulated them,” says Def Leppard vocalist Joe Elliott), not to mention a short-cut to rebellion (gender-bending still threatens puritanical America). In a weird way, the look also had practical benefits for the budding rock star. In sea of interchangeable acts, cotton-candy hairdos, troweled-on make-up and shimmery, anatomy-hugging outfits were an effective way to call attention to oneself, peacock-style. (And as Stones guitarist Brian Jones once noted, “chicks” dig a man in make-up. In his opinion, it was a narcissistic thing: women want to “make it” with themselves.) It also made for a very economical stage show and video production–you literally carried your own pyrotechnics on your head and back.

The look, however, wasn’t terribly conducive to kick-ass guitar playing. “I looked like a psychotic Mr. T or something,” says Dokken’s Lynch. “I had this whole collection of necklaces, this interwoven web of chains you could not untangle. My hair was stuck out to here, completely stiff with Aqua Net; I wore these really light earrings that hung down a few inches; and I had Carmex on my lips. At this one show, I was flipping my head around–rocking out–and I flipped my head to the right and one earring stuck to my lip, then I flipped my head to the left and the other earring stuck. So I’m shaking my head trying to get them off–looking like I’m rocking out but really just trying to get everything off my face–and I flipped my head down–and all my chains stuck to the front of my hair. Then I tripped over my monitor.”

By the end of the decade, Poison, Winger, Warrant, Slaughter, Skid Row, Extreme and relative latecomers to the party were studiously combining the look with the sound and scoring record deals. With the instant exposure provided by MTV, the bands sold millions of albums, played packed arenas and lived the storybook rock ‘n’ roll fantasy. For Reb Beach, the highpoint of Winger’s career was a sold-out gig at Denver’s spectacular Red Rocks amphitheater, which happened to coincide with his birthday.

“I came running out and slid across the stage and stopped perfectly–right there–on the lip of the stage. The spotlight was on me… the rain was coming down… the chicks were screaming… and I looked down at my shirtless chest and I felt like a god!” He laughs. “That was the greatest moment of my life. Of course, I tried to do it the next night and fell off the stage.”

Every Rose Has Its Thorn. The ‘90s, as anyone who’s watched Behind The Music knows, were not kind to the big-haired pop-metal stars. The market was over-saturated and the rock audience turned away en masse to consume the angsty pop-metal of Nirvana and the rest of the grunge superstars, as well as the more dressed-down metal acts like Metallica. Rock fans were still watching hair-metal videos, but now they were cackling along with a certain cartoon duo.

“The ‘Miles Away’ video was pretty syrupy, but Beavis And Butthead just nailed down the coffin lid,” says Beach, who today records solo material and performs with acts such as Alice Cooper and Whitesnake and occasionally Kip Winger. “We’d just come out with our best album [1994’s Pull], we were out on tour, and somebody gave us a video of this new show. We played it on the bus, and they take this large guy with acne who’s wearing a Winger t-shirt, and they hang him by his underwear. We just looked at each other and said, ‘Oh shit!’ We played a show the next day and no one came. We went from selling out clubs to just… nobody. Records sales halted immediately. That was the end. And it was our best album.”

“We took it to its logical conclusion,” says Lynch, who went on to form Lynch Mob, and today records and performs as a solo artist and session guitarist and guitar instructor. “You couldn’t play any faster; your hair couldn’t get any bigger. You always have to be able to progress; when you hit a dead-end, you basically implode. In retrospect, the players who retained the most validity were guys like Warren DeMartini and Jake E. Lee who stuck with their blues roots and kept a bit of that in their playing.”

“Basically it was really silly,” says Tom Werman, who quit the business in 2002 to open a bed and breakfast in Lenox, Massachusetts, the award-winning Stonover Farm. “It was all about ‘me, me, me… I’m so cool… I’m gonna rock you all night long, baby.’ It was such a macho stance, it was silly: the hair, the lipstick, the leather, the Harleys, the tattoos… give me a break, enough already.”

“In retrospect, a lot of it looks excessive,” says DeMartini, who still performs with Ratt, minus original singer Stephen Pearcy. “But I think that’s true of a portion of every era you look back on. Each trend has its peak and more often than not, that peak looks weird and overdone.”

“The music is what it is,” says Warrant’s Joey Allen, who rejoined a Jani Lane-less line-up of the band earlier this year. “It wasn’t meant to be groundbreaking. The band wasn’t full of totally talented musicians like Rush or Dream Theater or Joe Satriani and Steve Vai. We were just out to have a good time and try to translate that to the people who worked 9 to 5, and say, ‘Hey, now you don’t have to worry about work or your bills–just come out and party with us. That’s what we were all about.”

“My voice shut down for the ‘90s,” says Cinderella guitarist-vocalist Tom Kiefer, who’s currently putting the finishing touches on a solo album and occasionally performing with the band’s original line-up. “I don’t know it there’s a reason for that, but it just didn’t want to work.” He laughs. “I was diagnosed with a paralysis of the vocal cords and had to have surgeries and vocal training. But it’s back in form now. It was heartbreaking, but everything happens for a reason. I guess I’ll find out what that reason is in a few years.”

“I think that Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder and Soundgarden could have coped with Def Leppard,” says Joe Elliott, who still records and performs with the line-up that made the multimillion-selling Hysteria. “They just couldn’t cope with 20,000 of us. Kurt Cobain did us a big favor. As much as it hurt us, he got rid of all the shite. The ones that survived were literally us; that’s about it. If you sell 10 million records, it’s not just because you’re well-marketed, it’s because you’re genuinely better than something that sells two million.”

Nothin’ But A Good Time. “Does anyone remember laughter?” Rock ‘n’ roll–as Robert Plant once reminded us with his famous ad-lib in The Song Remains The Same–is ultimately a celebration of life (or was that potent weed, tight jeans and the collected works of J.R. Tolkien?). It’s something the current generation of rockers seems to have forgotten, according to Warrant’s Allen. “I meet a lot of these guys on the road, and they always say, ‘God, you were in a band when it was fun.’ If I can say anything, it’s don’t forget to have a good time; don’t take it so seriously. We’re not trying to save the world or whatever–we’re musicians. People enjoy the music ‘cause it takes them to another place. Don’t forget to have fun.”

There are, however, signs of light. The Darkness recently attributed their growing popularity–in part–to troubling world affairs. Currently the biggest band in Britain and gaining momentum in the States, the totally over-the-top quartet provide much-needed relief from seemingly bleak reality. “Generally speaking, I don’t think there’s anything to moan about in music,” says lead guitarist and vocalist Justin Hawkins. “But popular music has been very dour and inward-looking lately. There’s a lot of turmoil in the world–not just politically, but in many other areas–and people need an escape from it.”

Hawkins and his brother Dan also note that their flamboyant musical and visual concept wouldn’t work for any other band, much less a deluge of copycat bands a la the ‘80s. (“On paper, it shouldn’t work,” says Dan. “It’s a terrible idea, really,” adds Justin with a laugh.) But pop-metal has had a more subtle impact on a surprising variety of genres and bands. Emo-goth group AFI ventured into the era’s gargantuan production and fleet-fingered solos on their latest album, Sing The Sorrow. The Donnas remain fixated with ‘80s-era Judas Priest, AC/DC and Kiss. Linkin Park and Evanescence have assumed the painstaking detail work of the era’s album production. Saliva embrace their whammy-bar-wailing roots on their latest album, Survival Of The Sickest. And almost every song by any emo band features those inclusive stadium-shaking gang vocals.

Ultimately, though, most of the original bands still exist in some form or another, awaiting rediscovery. The hair and the costumes have been reduced in volume but the song remains the same–very fucking loud. “It happens to every generation of musician–and no one likes to have it happen to them–but what goes up, must come down,” says Cinderella’s Keifer. “I like to think that our music can rise above all that. And in a way it didn’t, but in a way it has now. Years later we’re going back out on the road… and the house is full… and they’re happy to see us. It all comes back around.”

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