Examining the Wreckage
No band in the ‘80s got away with putting out worse music, while still maintaining their incredible popularity, than Mötley Crüe. Like Kiss a decade earlier, Mötley Crüe got by on theatrics, flash, pure charisma, and little else. They excelled at the sex and drugs lifestyle; so much so, that their exploits probably will never be topped, but as far as the rock ‘n’ roll went, it was almost always subpar. Crüe was just not a very good band at all; they were average musicians at best (their drummer being the exception), their singer had a bland voice, and they sounded clunky live. After emerging from the Los Angeles hard rock scene in 1981, they put out a decent debut, somehow managed to pull off a fluke of an album that remains a classic to this day, and after that, well, to put it bluntly, they put out a hell of a lot of crap. But for some unfathomable reason, they continued to sell records.
The brainchild of bassist Nikki Sixx, Mötley Crüe went on to dominate the hard rock world for nearly a decade, before fading away in the wake of the grunge/alternative rock era. However, as their fans grew older, the sense of nostalgia started to creep in, aided by the infamous VH1 Behind the Music episode, and shortly after that, by their best-selling autobiography The Dirt. So despite the fact that the band’s studio output since the ‘80s has been even more abysmal, interest in the band remains strong, whether it’s thirtysomething fans looking to revisit the music of their teens, or young hipsters, saying they’re into Crüe to be ironic. So, in an attempt to cash in on every last penny he can squeeze from fans (shades of Kiss mogul Gene Simmons), Sixx has re-released the band’s entire catalog on his label Motley Records. Despite the lack of quality material, the 2003 reissues are excellent, but apparently, Sixx feels that’s not good enough. So, in addition to the individual albums, definitive, career-spanning box sets have been planned, compiling 12 CDs into three separate volumes, at 60 bucks a pop.
The first volume is now out, but before going into how good it is, there’s the issue of the title. Out of all the album titles in the world, Music to Crash Your Car To: Volume 1 has to be the most tasteless one in recent memory. An empty, idiotic attempt to generate controversy by indirectly referencing the fatal 1984 car crash where drunken singer Vince Neil killed Hanoi Rocks drummer Razzle Dingley and injured two passengers in another car, it’s not only insensitive, but despicable. Sixx claims it’s a “sarcastic statement towards a lifestyle”, but the picture of a flaming car wreck on the cover is just a bit too obvious for comfort.
But hey, back to the music; that’s what matters most. Volume 1 is still a pretty good collection for fans, as the first four Mötley Crüe albums are here in their entirety, as well as a good amount of bonus material. Easily the biggest treat for longtime fans is first-ever CD appearance of the original mix of their 1981 debut, Too Fast For Love. Originally released independently on Leathur Records, the first mix was scrapped when the band signed with Elektra in 1982, and as a result, became a huge collectors’ item. Whether the Leathur mix surpasses the Elektra mix is up to the individual, but I feel the 1982 remix is still superior. The original mix is rawer, and contains “Stick to Your Guns”, which was left off the remix, but the 1982 version packs more of a punch, as producer Roy Thomas Baker creates a more in-your-face sound, giving a meatier sound to Mick Mars’s guitar, bringing Tommy Lee’s frenetic drumming more up front in the mix, and completely re-recording Neil’s vocal tracks.
Too Fast For Love is a confident, brash debut album that combines the heavier sounds of Kiss with the catchy guitar pop of Cheap Trick. “Live Wire” is searing, as Mars and Lee catapult the song with their ferocious playing (an average lead guitarist, this song is one of Mars’s finest moments). Songs like Public Enemy #1”, “Take Me to the Top”, “Too Fast For Love”, and “On With the Show” showcase the more pop-oriented element of the band, while the terrific “Piece of Your Action” hints at the heavy, sleaze-ridden sounds that the band would capture perfectly on their second album.
In 1983-84, there wasn’t a 13-year-old metalhead kid who didn’t own a copy of Shout at the Devil. A perfect mix of campy shock rock, ulra-heavy riffs, misogynist lyrics, and goofy but catchy songs that appealed to adolescent males everywhere, this album remained the high water mark for L.A. hard rock until Guns ‘N’ Roses came around four years later. And the music still holds up today. The band is ferocious, as producer Tom Werman has the band sounding monolithic, as the lightweight pop sound of the debut is tossed aside. The album is hilariously bombastic (“In the Beginning”), heavy, yet accessible (“Looks That Kill”), and rocks harder than anything the band would ever record again (“Red Hot”). Above all else, it’s trashy. “Too Young to Fall in Love” (the band’s most underrated single), “Ten Seconds to Love”, and “Danger” are dark, ugly, and tasteless; in other words, quintessential Crüe.
By the time 1985 rolled around, expectations were very high for their third album, and while Theater of Pain was a huge commercial success, it was a complete atrocity, a colossal disappointment. The band sounds just plain tired on this album; two years of touring, booze, drugs, and controversy (Neil’s accident, especially) obviously took their toll on the band, as the performance on Theater of Pain sounds mailed in. The first five tracks (which will always be remembered by yours truly as Side One) are not bad, namely the Aerosmith-tinged “City Boy Blues”, the spirited cover of Brownsville Station’s “Smokin’ in the Boys Room”, and especially “Home Sweet Home”, the band’s strongest power ballad, but the rest is just too painful to listen to, as everyone, including Werman (his tinny production is dreadful), just goes through the motions. 1985 was one of the worst years in heavy metal history, and Theater of Pain is the absolute bottom of the barrel.
1987’s Girls, Girls, Girls is a marginally better album, but far more annoying, because for a tantalizingly brief, fleeting moment, the band actually gets it right for once. As the opening chords of “Wild Side” begin, when Lee kicks in with that killer drum beat, when Neil delivers his best vocal performance to date, they’re finally living up to their potential. This is the L.A. sleaze rock they’d been promising to deliver all along. Unfortunately, as you hear the hair-metal-by-numbers of the title track, the horrible Rolling Stones wannabe “Dancing on Glass”, the puzzling “Nona”, and the syrupy “You’re All I Need”, the album loses you as fast as it enthralls you. When a band uses a laughable cover of “Jailhouse Rock” as filler on a record, you know something’s wrong. The band sounds past their prime, something that would be driven home later that year, as strong debut albums by Faster Pussycat, Guns ‘N Roses, and L.A. Guns would supplant Mötley Crüe as the best hard rock bands in Los Angeles.
The 21 bonus tracks on the set are almost the same as the ones on the reissues, with one or two exceptions, but with the third and fourth discs clocking in at only an hour each, you can’t help but wish each CD was filled to overflowing with unreleased material. But then again, if Sixx felt he had to include the atrocious “Tommy’s Drum Piece From Cherokee Studios”, three excruciating minutes of a bored Tommy Lee drumming lazily, there’s probably not much else that can be thrown in.
Volume 1 is typical Crüe: all flash, and very little substance. Packaged in a very slick faux-snakeskin box, with an accompanying 60-page book, it looks great, but the paltry liner notes are poorly written, the original album artwork is nowhere to be seen, there’s no commentary by the band members, and little background information is given on all of the tracks. Still, it’s a nice little package, the two mixes of Too Fast For Love are very cool to hear, and if you’re a longtime fan who doesn’t have the reissues yet, you’d be best to pick this set up. If you’re new to Mötley Crüe, however, just buy the reissue of Shout at the Devil, and maybe Too Fast For Love, and be done with it.