“I’ve seen a million faces, and I’ve rocked them all”
—Bon Jovi, ‘Wanted Dead or Alive”
Hair, glam, poodle, pop or sleaze metal. Call it what you want, it rose to prominence from the decadence of the ‘80s Los Angeles metal scene, and is frequently accused of being little more than moronic tripe made by those desperately searching for the font of the everlasting lap dance.
That’s hard to dispute. Hair metal, in all its many permutations, was a vomitorium of empty-headed drivel, a train-wreck of rock ‘n’ roll cliché and shameless self-promotion. That said, it wasn’t all terrible. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, and really, we don’t have to mention it again, however, although the term ‘hair metal’ came about from grittier metal artists mocking their fluffier kin, it’s clear hair metal encouraged audiences to open their ears to heavier and faster metal—my own record collection being proof of that.
To this day, there’s a lot in hair metal that continues to ring loud in many metal scenes—from the need for identifying vestments to the DIY spirit that hair metal was originally founded upon. While some might see an enormous contradiction in enjoying Dokken and Darkthrone or Gorgoroth and Great White, there’s really nothing paradoxical about that.
Black and hair metal grew from the very same root, albeit hair metal’s had peroxide. Hair metal may have been streaked with more vivid colors, but it was no less honest in its portrayal of what it saw as important. Sure, there was a lot more satin, blusher and glitter than Satan, black-hearts and gutting, but nonetheless, and scoff all you like, hair metal was just as arrogant and determined as many heavier scenes. And really, you’re not going to find a scene more, well, you know, cocksure.
Looks That Kill
Heavily accessorized, spandexed and leathered, hair metal originally drew inspiration from the ‘70s UK glam rock scene. Its raw boogieing had a dash of punk rock spit, combined with seedier hedonism and mic-stand scarves à la Aerosmith’s early years. By the time of hair metal’s most popular years, a far thicker base of face powder, and hair teased to ever-greater heights, accompanied its radio-friendly sound.
Blending sing-along and melodic metal-lite with plenty of shredding solos, hair metal’s theatrics were inspired by arena bands such as Van Halen and, of course, Kiss. Hair metal was slick, with bands sticking to a fixed template of up-beat rockers accompanied by the ubiquitous hit-in-waiting—the syrupy power ballad. Lyrically, sex, alcohol, sex, love (power ballad), sex, drugs (if you were tough enough), more sex, and the apparently endless complications of dating multiple exotic dancers were the main topics of conversation.
Based around Los Angeles’s Sunset Strip—or by the requirement that you looked like you’d just stepped onto it—hair metal’s ascendency began when Quiet Riot topped the Billboard 200 with its 1983 album, Metal Health. The band’s chart triumph ushered in hair metal’s multi-platinum years, though Quiet Riot were far from alone in accruing large amounts of fans. Future superstars of hair metal such as Mötley Crüe and Ratt were already making waves around the time, and following Quiet Riot’s success record labels began signing any band with skyscraping coiffures that could conceivably string a few riffs together.
At its worst, hair metal was the ultimate in style over substance—although ‘substance’ is probably too generous a term for the scene’s worst offenders. Actual talent was not compulsory, as the countless inept bands that gorged themselves in hair metal’s trough can attest. Still, in the mid to late ‘80s hair metal’s garish visuals and catchy pop-hooks were a commercial force to be reckoned with. Points were awarded if your band included a nimble-fingered lead guitarist who could name check Jimmy Page and Eddie Van Halen in the same sentence. A party-guy frontman was absolutely essential, and if the entire band favored back-alley and video-taped-on-the-tour-bus encounters with groupies while overindulging on all the excesses of the day, all the better.
In its heyday, hair metal was swathed in pomp and preening, and its sartorial and sonic brilliance/ridiculousness was exemplified in its music videos—which the burgeoning MTV took to like a rabid dog. Set to inflame hormones and loosen wallets with their oh-so-risqué titillations, seemingly every band’s video (no matter the reality of their audience size) saw them playing on arena-sized stages with dazzling lighting rigs and furiously ejaculating pyrotechnics. Climactic musical explosions were accompanied by de rigueur scantily clad damsels, who draped themselves over car bonnets/bar tops/speaker stacks to emphasize the sheer orgasmic ecstasy of the open-vested, silver-chained soloing. Or, in the case of female artists such as Lita Ford or Vixen, it was all high-heeled, soft-focused cheesy eroticism—with cleavage duly amplified, and gigantic tresses lit up like Christmas trees.
It would be nice to think that hair metal’s obsession with glamour and pageantry was some deep commentary on gender and identity, perhaps even homoeroticism. Certainly, Twisted Sister’s monstrous take on transvestitism has legitimate theatrical value. However, when Bret Michaels—lead singer of self-appointed ‘glam slam kings of noise’ Poison—teased his locks and rolled on the lip-gloss to enquire if his lady friend wouldn’t mind talking dirty to him, he probably wasn’t overly interested in opening up a road to theoretical discourse. Nor, one imagines, was Warrant’s frontman Jani Lane endeavoring to provide a conceptual bridge for a post-modern critique of social relations when he sang, “So I mixed up the batter, and she licked the beater”.
No. Hair metal was, as Bret Michaels rightly pointed out, fixated on ‘nothin’ but a good time’. It was about letting loose on a Friday night, telling exaggerated tales about what actually occurred the next day, and making an appointment for the sexual health clinic on Monday morning.
Every Rose Has Its Thorn
Looking back from the lofty perch of 2013, it’s easy to mock hair metal’s aesthetic. However, metal has always been structured on quick-fire visual clues, be it on the poppier or most grotesque end of the spectrum. Obviously, there’s a colossal difference in the thematic substance of Pretty Boy Floyd’s Leather Boyz With Electric Toyz and Marduk’s Fuck Me Jesus, but there’s no difference in the visual mechanics employed. Hair metal’s most glamorized stars and black metal’s evilest corpse-painted villains both project representations of what to expect from their wares.
While hair metal’s preoccupation with sexual and cultural stereotypes may seem laughable by today’s standards, it was no more hyped or stylized than any music scene from the period, or, as it happens, from 2013. Hair metal was simply a reflection of its time, and was never captured better than in The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years, Penelope Spheeris’s seminal documentary about the Los Angeles heavy metal scene. As with all things musical, hair metal’s value is simply relative. It was all about reveling in the spectacle, and in the end, one person’s Anal Cunt will always be another’s Poison.
Of course, every empire falls, and hair metal drowned in its artistic shallowness with the arrival of ‘90s alternative rock. As critical and commercial favor quickly turned against hair metal, some bands tried to struggle on, distancing themselves from the scene by arguing they were following a long-established tradition of histrionic hard rock. Throwing on the flannel shirts, many tried changing their sound, playing in increasingly smaller venues to increasingly fewer punters, and releasing cripplingly awful albums that sold in increasingly dire numbers.
However, much like the plague of herpes it (no doubt) initially spread, hair metal keeps on keepin’ on—albeit with more jowls, paunches and hairpieces than in its heyday. Thanks to a revival in the early ‘00s (founded on as much ironic as genuine love), new bands pay homage to hair metal’s excess, and original bands still tour to enthusiastic crowds.
With members freely interchanging between former ‘80s outfits, and bands splintering into differing line-ups (all fighting for the rights to said bands’ names) hair metal’s refusal to die has provided an opportunity for artists who no doubt detest each other to cram into the cheapest possible tour bus and take another turn round the block. Nostalgia is a rock-solid meal ticket.
Many of hair metal’s biggest sellers produced some of its most God-awful material. Consequently, there probably aren’t many fans waiting for the studio outtake box-sets from Britny Fox or Winger, no matter how popular they were in their day. But hair metal’s even greater crime was that it tarred anyone with a resplendent mane with the same brush. Thus, bands like Tesla or the Black Crowes—which have a lot more to say compositionally than Tyketto, XYZ, or Diamond Rexx—get lumped into a ‘hair metal’ mishmash for mainstream audiences. Radio and MTV play was far more important in pre-internet times, and if you wanted success in the ‘80s you played the game—as bands such as Kix and Y&T found out by adapting their sound and image.
However, not all hair metal was driven by commercial concerns, and its outward superficiality often obscured bands with real integrity and artistic merit.
The early sleazier and scorching albums from bands such as Mötley Crüe, Hanoi Rocks, Guns N’ Roses, Faster Pussycat, L.A. Guns and Aerosmith are celebrated classics of hair metal—exemplifying street-wise degenerate lifestyles and sweaty, sordid club shows. Some bands shifted their sound into far more interesting bluesy hard rock realms following tinseled debuts, Cinderella being a great example (and Great White mined the blues for a couple of great mid-‘80s albums).
Ratt and Bon Jovi played up to all of hair metal’s tropes in their early years, to huge success. For better or worse, their sound met all the requirements for fans of polished metal. Polish was taken to its apex by the quintessential pop metal of Whitesnake and Def Leppard—those bands were lumped in with hair metal even though their material was far from simplistic fare. So too for Dokken; it had a veritable guitar god in George Lynch, who was firing on all virtuoso cylinders on the band’s early albums. And even though Mötley Crüe’s Girls, Girls, Girls and Dr. Feelgood had far less rawness than the band’s more primal years, they stand as exemplary examples of hair metal’s appeal.
The great thing about indulging in any of the aforementioned artists is that it requires very little dedication on your part. The entire rush of hair metal kicked off in the early ‘80s, and was dead, or nearly dead, by the early ‘90s. In the majority of cases, most bands worth listening to only made two or three albums, so you’ll not have to dig deep to find the gems. That said, while hair metal’s successful bands are very well known, the underdogs are often the most interesting, and from here on in we’re going to look at some of them. Some are not hair or glam metal at heart, but have been tarnished as such by association, while others are hair metal through and through—as flamboyant as you could possibly hope for.
All make great, tawdry noise, and all are well worth tracking down.
Rock City Angels
Hair metal isn’t short on tales of bands led to the slaughterhouse by the whims of popular opinion, record company machinations, drug addiction and squandered talent. In the case of Rock City Angels you get all four, and a hugely underrated debut into the bargain.
Rock City Angels began in Florida in late 1981, when bass player Andy Panik met vocalist Bobby Durango at a screening of Los Angeles punk documentary, The Decline of Western Civilization. Morphing from a punk band into a glam rock act via an ever-revolving line-up (including at one point Johnny Depp), the band signed a deal with New Renaissance Records before moving to LA in the late ‘80s. The band recorded its debut for New Renaissance, only for its contract to be aggressively bought out by Geffen Records, and depending on who you believe, the band’s already completed debut was either shelved to allow Guns N’ Roses a bigger bite at fame, or Geffen simply thought the band could do better. Either way, Rock City Angels were shipped off to Memphis, Tennessee, with instructions to clean up their habits, and the result was 1988’s sprawling, riotously fun near-masterpiece, Young Man’s Blues.
Young Man’s Blues‘s 15 tracks mixed Stax-soaked soul, dirty blues, sneering cow-punk and urchin rock, and it’s a testament to Rock City Angels’ broad influences. The band were dropped by Geffen in hazy circumstances (drugs, lawsuits, etc.) before it could record a follow-up, and Bobby Durango passed away in 2012, but while Rock City Angels blazed ever-so-briefly, Young Man’s Blues sold in excess of 100,000 copies and is rich in decadence, mystery and cult allure to this day.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.
// Notes from the Road
"Saul Williams played a free, powerful Summerstage show ahead of his appearance at Afropunk this weekend.READ the article