“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.
Los Angeles band Junkyard formed in 1987, and were also signed to the Geffen Records stable of hard rocking and seedy hair metal acts. The band (somewhat bizarrely) included punk veterans guitarist Chris Gates (Big Boys) and Brian Baker (Minor Threat, Dag Nasty, Bad Religion), but there was no hint of hardcore on show. Junkyard were all about gritty blues and Southern sleaze—rough-neck rock made by flea-bitten musicians bent on hard-drinkin’, and no doubt a fair amount of snortin’, all aiming to make a great big noise. Of course, like so many bands with grand plans of rock ‘n’ domination (see Spread Eagles’ 1990 self-titled debut, and Little Caesars’ 1989 release, Name Your Poison, for a similar stance) it was all an abject failure; at least, it was commercially.
Musically, however, Junkyard made two fantastic albums before being abruptly dropped by Geffen in 1992 as grunge swept into power. Neither of Junkyard’s albums made a significant impact on the charts, but 1989’s self-titled debut was a howling mix of Southern-fried sordidness and LA’s smog-ridden grime, with vocalist Chris Gates sneering along for all he was worth. Sixes, Sevens and Nines (1991) featured contributions from Steve Earle, and was more boogie-orientated, with a lazy rhythm and blues swagger to the fore. The album was even less successful than the band’s debut, and a third album was recorded, though never ‘officially’ released, before the band split up. Junkyard’s first two albums were a spirited blend of dogged rock and stouthearted ballads, and 20 or so years on they still sound great, sans the ritzy taint that dates hair metal all too easily.
Circus of Power
New York’s Circus of Power were not a hair metal band, in fact the band’s manifesto was ‘No make up. No pyro. No hair spray’. So, what are they doing here? Well, Circus of Power were as grubby and steeped in rock ‘n’ roll’s steamy history as Guns N’ Roses. As a result, Circus of Power were tainted by hair metal’s stain—as were Dangerous Toys and the Four Horsemen with their all-guns-blazing 1989 debuts—and dismissed when ‘90s alt-rock rolled fully into view.
Circus of Power were worn-leather, tattoos, and no-frills filthy power chords—New York gutter rock through and through (with a dash of Southern fuzz). However, due to the band’s thematic similarity with the rush of second wave purveyors of sleaze following Guns N’ Roses’ success, Circus of Power were inextricably linked to hair metal. In Alex Mitchell the band had a dreadlocked, gruff vocalist who prowled the stage, as guitarists Ricky Mahler and Gary Sunshine ground out the sleazoid biker riffs. The band’s under-appreciated full-length albums, 1988’s Circus of Power, 1990’s Vices and 1993’s Magic & Madness were replete with excellent dive-bar rock and muddy blues played soulfully on battered Les Pauls.
Circus of Power fell victim to the turnaround in public opinion that slew hair metal’s most affected bands, and that was a tragedy. If any band showed that sleazy rock had far more to offer than deliberately smeared lipstick and hollow posturing, Circus of Power was the one.
The Dogs D’Amour
While US hair metal’s varying sub-genres drew strongly from UK glam for their image, in the UK, bands like the Dogs D’Amour tapped deeper into its nation’s roots-rock heritage. Formed in London in the early ‘80s, the Dogs D’Amour had numerous line-ups over the years that centered round hard-living vocalist and guitarist, Tyla. Harnessing the strut of early Aerosmith, and combining that with the tumbling rock of the Faces, the glam of Hanoi Rocks, and a notable dash of seedy country, the Dogs D’Amour found cult and a little UK chart success in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, with fantastically tattered albums such as 1988’s In the Dynamite Jet Saloon and 1989’s A Graveyard of Empty Bottles and Errol Flynn.
A US tour in 1989 saw the Dogs D’Amour set to break the North American market, but everything was falling apart within its ranks. In 1990, Tyla slashed his stomach and chest open with a broken bottle during an LA concert, bringing a halt to the band. It was a perfect, albeit extremely bloody, example of the band’s tumultuous history overshadowing Tyla’s genius mix of boozy Bukowski odes and brokenhearted, poetic tunes.
The Dogs D’Amour never found the fame or fortune it sought, although, in hindsight, that very fame may have tempered the struggle and strife that defined its sound. The band eventually reformed, and continued on to ever-diminishing returns, but in two brief years from 1988 to 1990 it made three consummate albums of ragged UK glam and blues that have yet to be bettered. (Although, the Quireboys sure took a punt on its rowdy 1990 debut, A Bit of What You Fancy. The band had a dead-ringer for Rod Stewart in gruff lead singer Spike, and its retro sound had a stack of up-beat, pub-rock magnetism.)
Los Angeles-based Love/Hate had one fundamental problem. You never knew whether to take the band seriously or not, which wasn’t helped by its most famous tune being a belligerent pop metal treasure and a novelty hit (almost), all in one. Formed from the remnants of a New Wave act, Love/Hate mixed funk, glam-punk and hard rock to great effect on its 1988 debut, Blackout in the Red Room—taking a stab at the charts with the aforementioned catchy single, “Why Do You Think They Call it Dope”. The problem was that, while the band made aggressive, bass-slapping rock that matched its glam image with far more astute composition than many of its peers’ work, the band’s label, Columbia Records, had no idea how to market it.
Fair enough too. With skin-tight cycle shorts, glitzy vests and greasy leathers, Love/Hate were a curious mix of tough-nut rock, psychedelia and glam pop. Although the band found some success in the UK, in the US, it was never decided where the band fit. A similar problem haunted LA band Bang Tango, whose 1989 debut, Psycho Café, straddled the line between glam and something altogether more adventurous.
But the question of Love/Hate’s direction derailed the band’s chances just as much as its sound becoming a little passé did. The band’s initial songs for its second album were rejected by the label. After some re-tuning, the band was ultimately dropped, soon after its 1992 album, Wasted in America, was released. From thereon in, things got mucky—as they did for many bands in the post-hair-metal plummet, with exiting members, minor label releases and all the usual turmoil. However, mayhem aside, Love/Hate struck gold on its debut (as did Bang Tango) with an album of solid propulsive rock that rejected the hollowness of the hair metal tag.
One of the very best things about hair metal was all the squabbling. I’m sure it was terrible for all involved, but endlessly entertaining hissy fits were routinely played out in magazine interviews and via on-stage meltdowns (as they are to this day). Hair metal is full of bands riven by conflict that drove their creative engines. Of course, it often came to a very messy end, as it did with Badlands. The band imploded soon after their second release, but their debut is one of hair metal’s finest hidden treasures—fuelled, as it was, by a deep love of the blues and rip-roaring, passionate rock.
Formed by former Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Jake E. Lee and ex-Black Sabbath vocalist Ray Gillen, Badlands eschewed the ostentation of their contemporaries for a sound and image based on gritty ‘70s rock. The band never got the credit it was due, no doubt, in part, because of its soap-opera history and tempestuous ending. Badlands had plenty of charisma, but its stripped-back hard rock was infinitely more vintage than what was popular in hair metal circles at the time. Accordingly, fame never arrived.
The band’s eponymously titled 1989 debut melded instinctual, heavy blues with a vivid Led Zeppelin stomp, but it made little impact on the charts, much to the displeasure of label Atlantic. The follow-up, 1991’s Voodoo Highway, was marred by furious infighting, with Lee publicly accusing Gillen of working behind the scenes with the label to change the band’s sound. Gillen was fired, only to be reinstated for the band’s already booked tour of the UK, but an infamous mid-show verbal brawl at London’s Astoria ended the band’s career. Gillen passed away from an AIDS-related disease in 1993, and his very best work can be found on Badlands’ debut. It was a refreshing and somewhat bold album, given the climate it was released in. It certainly wasn’t fashionable then, and isn’t today, but it’s a fantastic blast of igneous hard rock well worth discovering.
Much has been made of the rampant drug abuse and alcoholism hair metal displayed over the years, both by those who would tut-tut at such hedonism and by those who would celebrate it. Such pursuits were essential to the allure of many of hair metal’s seedier bands, and they didn’t come much more disheveled or self-destructive than Sea Hags.
The oft-quoted remark from the band’s manager, “There’s only so far you can get with three junkies and one alcoholic”, sums up the band perfectly. Originally formed in Seattle, the band moved to San Francisco in the late ‘80s, and Metallica’s Kirk Hammett produced the band’s first demo. Picked up by Chrysalis Records, Sea Hags were sent into the studio with producer Mike Clink to make their self-titled debut. The album and subsequent touring was delayed in order for vocalist and guitarist Ron Yocom and bassist Chris Schlosshardt to curtail their addictions, and when 1989’s Sea Hags was finally released (the band being touted as the ‘new Guns N’ Roses’) it was a smash hit with critics, and a complete commercial failure.
Sea Hags’ blend of soporific sleaze and narcotic nastiness met with little success, and the band only added to its problems with missed and cancelled shows, and a mid-tour breakup. Schlosshardt died from a heroin overdose in 1991, and the band clearly left plenty of wreckage in its wake, with Sea Hags becoming a ramshackle classic based as much on the band’s misfortunes as on its dark and insalubrious content.
A lot of hair metal was an unashamed rip-off of bands from the past. Bands either copied everything they could from Van Halen and Kiss (and took that arena shine to its nth degree), or they tried to cobble together Hanoi Rocks, the New York Dolls and Aerosmith’s dirtier moves. Then there were the others; bands like LA’s Salty Dog. Bands that didn’t so much copy elements of another band’s sound (in this case Led Zeppelin’s), but endeavored to reproduce the band in entirety. (For similar Zepp fandom, see also Blue Murder, the feisty late ‘80s debut from Ex-Whitesnake and Tygers of Pan Tang axe-man John Sykes.)
Salty Dog reeked of Page and Plant worship, much like German/American outfit Kingdom Come did on its 1988 self-titled debut. But Salty Dog also rocked like a herd of stampeding buffalo, so it’s easy to forgive the band’s derivativeness. Formed in 1987 and dead and done four years later, the band left a single album, 1990’s Every Dog Has its Day, as its legacy. Aside from the band’s obvious Zepp adoration, it threw in swampy blues (see the sludgy cover of Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful”) and propulsive, bleeding-raw rock.
Recording its debut with Peter Collins at the famed Rockfield Studios in Wales helped to secure the band’s cred, though an intriguing rumor killed its chances of making any headway. Word was that the band’s disgruntled A&R rep sabotaged Salty Dog’s career by telling MTV that if they played the band’s video for “Come Along” then they wouldn’t be getting Guns N’ Roses’ next video. Whether that’s true or not, the band was quickly dropped by its label and broke up shortly after, leaving less than an hour’s worth of scruffy tunes to soak in.
Tigertailz and Wrathchild
When it comes to which band tops the UK glam metal scene, the clear battle is between Tigertailz and Wrathchild (or Wrathchild UK as the band was known in America). Both are remembered for their outrageous attire and cosmetic overloads, taking the glam of T-Rex and the Sweet to new heights. Each band showed a wonderful sense of DIY punk rock in its pursuit of glam glory—Wrathchild didn’t let trivialities like venue size stop it from using the pyro and confetti, nor was it hesitant to turn up in any pub doorway in all its sparkly finery.
Wrathchild claims it is the ‘Godfather’ of UK glam metal, having formed in Evesham, England, in 1980, while Tigertailz gathered together three years later in Cardiff, Wales, a location not overly friendly to make-up plastered lads at the time. Both bands took to glam’s most extravagant components with a vengeance, looking like cross-dressing truckers and making music that was frequently awful yet surprising addictive.
Wrathchild’s first two albums, 1984’s Stakk Attakk and 1985’s Trash Queens don’t need to be heard to have a clear understanding of what they contain. Wrathchild’s somewhat tamer-titled early works, 1987’s Young and Crazy and 1990’s Bezerk, found a little more popular success, and the band recorded one of glam metal’s worst (or maybe most brilliant) videos of all time for hit single “Love Bomb Baby”.
Both Tigertailz and Wrathchild had their share of record company woes and band member troubles, and both were royally cut off at the knees in the early ‘90s. But fans of each are a tenacious and loyal bunch, and both bands managed to take another bite from the glam apple with hair metal’s revival in the ‘00s—although Tigertailz founder Pepsi Tate sadly passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2007.
There’s no reason to listen to anything but the first few albums from either of these bands (in fact, there’s probably no point in listening to more than a few songs). However, one thing can be said of both acts: they both prove that, while glam metal made its fortune in the US, its exaggerated roots are firmly entrenched in the UK.