Revisionist History: Hair Metal’s Proto-Punk Roots

Summer, of course, is concert season, and one of the more unusual package tours this season boasts a lineup featuring Mötley Crüe and Poison in co-headlining slots and the New York Dolls opening. Nostalgic packages have become profitable in recent years, often bringing together some combination of arena rockers who might not be able to sell enough tickets individually.

A mixture of Styx, Journey, Pat Benatar, and Def Leppard, though, seems to translate into profit. Although these bills potentially appeal to middle-aged couples in which one partner prefers power ballads and the other wants to rock out — and the kiddies are at home with a babysitter — the classic rock acts tend toward homogeneity, a far cry from 1950s tours that brought together rockabilly, country, blues, and teeny bopper artists.

Indeed, the summer concert season suggests the extent of rock ‘n’ roll balkanization. Jam bands assemble at rural festivals. Indie rock bands (often with a token hip hop act) gather at Lollapalooza, Pitchfork, et al. Arena rock in all its iterations is well-represented at state fairs and when packaged with the aforementioned nostalgia tours, even large outdoor venues. Ultimately, though, we know how arbitrary the categories are. A signifier like “classic rock” turns fans into demographics, suggests appropriate advertisers for radio stations who use the term, and perhaps even forwards assumptions about class and race, but says little about the music itself.

Witness the Mötley Crüe, Poison, and New York Dolls package, which upon first glance seems odd. Two parts hair metal, one part proto-punk, the tour seems destined to make hipsters cringe. Mötley Crüe and Poison, iconic partisans of 1980s metal, have both gamely sent one of their members to the world of reality television. The New York Dolls, in the meantime, ooze credibility and have influenced at least two generations of so-called alt-rockers. The package has been hailed as “the tour of the summer”, at least by one of the bands’ leaders. That somewhat hyperbolic pronouncement was made by Bret Michaels, the face of Poison and several popular cable television programs about his complex relationships with the groupies who wish to sleep with him.

The Crüe-Poison-Dolls lineup may seem anomalous insomuch as their fanbases represent different cliques, but, rest assured, the differences are superficial. Indie punks might have more caché than metalheads, but sonically speaking this tour makes sense. Ultimately, slicing and dicing rock into subgenres is both arbitrary and reductive.

First of all, odd-looking pairings among rock ‘n’ roll touring partners are not new. Arguably, rock ‘n’ roll fomented in the consciousness of American teens thanks to those traveling 1950s tours on which artists represented a musically, racially, and aesthetically diverse range. A decade later, Jimi Hendrix and the Monkees shared a stage. Stevie Wonder, no longer “little”, supported the Stones on their infamous 1972 American tour. Poco and King Crimson brought together folk and prog audiences. Metallica once played Lollapalooza. But something appears different this time. This summer’s coupling of one of punk rock’s originators and two hair metal groups seems like the coupling of credibility’s thesis and antithesis. This transcends even Jimi sharing the mic with Davy Jones.

In terms of credibility, if not aesthetics, hair metal is unlike other rock ‘n’ roll subgenres, maybe unlike any iteration of any art form. Even the staunchest devotees of postmodernism’s dismantling of aesthetic hierarchies would hardly hesitate to call hair metal lowbrow. Perhaps this has something to do with the genre’s connection to eye shadow and acid-washed denim, its sexism and machismo, or its intense popularity. Hair metal artists famously removed the blues from hard rock, adopted garish costumes of leather and make-up, made loud pop songs and music videos with large-busted blondes, and did what rock ‘n’ roll does best: marketed rebellion to the suburbs.

From the early 1980s moment Ratt and Quiet Riot put videos in heavy rotation on MTV until the early 1990s moment when Kurt Cobain told his fans they had to choose between his tortured, sensitive persona and Axl Rose’s white male bluster, hair metal’s bloated excess enjoyed popular, if not critical, success.Mötley Crüe and Poison typified bloated excess with pyrotechnic laden stadium shows, power chords, reputations for backstage bacchanalia, and loads of singles that fit roughly into three categories: hard rock songs about parties and sex (“Girls, Girls, Girls” and “Talk Dirty to Me”), power ballads (“Home Sweet Home” and “I Won’t Forget You”) and decade-old covers (“Smokin’ in the Boys Room” and “You’re Mama Don’t Dance”).

Mötley Crüe had the more dangerous reputation of the two and spread possibly apocryphal stories about snorting lines of ants with Ozzy Osborne and surviving drug overdoses that resulted in a band member being pronounced dead. Not so mythical is the story of singer Vince Neil killing his passenger and close friend, Hanoi Rocks drummer Nicholas “Razzle” Dingley, while driving drunk in 1984. This was a dark moment in a movement better known for the brilliant blue hues of the eye shadow preferred by both female fans and male practitioners.

A decade before hair metal became a label, the New York Dolls made trashy art rock, Warholian noise that fused 1960s girl groups, the Caucasian R&B of British Invasion singles, Bo Diddley, and a queer aesthetic. They sang about using drugs and trolling around New York City bending gender in all types of lewd ways. An early Dolls track, “Trash”, echoes the Andy Warhol-Paul Morrissey film of the same name insofar as both are about very little aside from sex and heroin. The Dolls found only moderate success, commercially as well as critically, although, like others from the Credibility Rock community, they are frequently cited as an influence.

My own first exposure to the band came via R.E.M., another symbol of high credibility, covering the Dolls’ “Pills”. I heard the song (actually a Bo Diddley track) on an R.E.M. bootleg and soon began hearing the Dolls’ name pop up in stories about bands I liked. Punk bands. College rock bands. I was a fan of the alt-rock of the late 1980s during my high school years (1988-1992). These bands worked hard to reject the commercial populism of hair metal.

These were my coming-of-age years and so my first inclination, when I see the Dolls supporting(!) Mötley Crüe and Poison, is outrage. Intellectually, I might understand that categories are arbitrary and highbrow/lowbrow distinctions meaningless. Sonically, I might appreciate a great rock song like Mötley Crüe’s “Shout at the Devil”. But affectively, I revert to adolescence and wait for the masses to riot at the notion of the Dolls sharing a stage with unimportant bands.

But I’m 25 years past adolescence and, despite the ubiquity of rock ‘n’roll labels and categories and the usually balkanized world of summer tours, worlds are coming together. These bands once seemed to come from different generations — early ’70s versus early ’80s — but the ensuing years have rendered that difference moot. In the world of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, what is the difference between T-Rexes celebrating their 40th year and brontosauruses celebrating their thirtieth year? Maybe the reality of their advanced ages is the reason the indie press (often quick to comment on an influential act like the Dolls) has largely ignored the tour thus far. How much relevance any of the acts have in the age of the MP3?

But high credibility punk rock still has its supporters. Witness successful reunion tours (admittedly, a less-than-punk prospect) during the past five years by bands like the Buzzcocks and X. Why aren’t the punks in a tizzy about the Dolls opening up for the Crüe? Perhaps even while gritting their teeth through the Twisted Sister and Whitesnake years, punks recognized the aesthetic similarities. Aren’t both the New York Dolls and the hair metal acts of the 1980s essentially glam? Both genres are obvious successors of David Bowie, Mott the Hoople, and T Rex. They all celebrate kitsch, dying their hair, resisting heteronormative fashion (boas!), and imitating Mick Jagger on stage the way they all likely did when they were kids in their bedrooms. These bands share natural affinities, as one look at their eyeliner and one listen to their sleazy records suggest.

Were Stevie Wonder and the Rolling Stones all that different in 1972? Both drew on American blues and idolized some of the same Delta masters of the form. Weren’t both Jimi Hendrix and the Monkees flirting with psychedelia and surrealism? Likewise, when I ignore my admittedly classist inclination to reject hair metal wholesale, I find that the three bands that are part of the “biggest tour of the summer” have a great deal in common, including a serious penchant for rock excess. Before Mötley Crüe and Poison turned hedonism into headlines, drugs fueled the New York Dolls’ lineup volatility. Original drummer Billy Murcia drowned at 21 while high. Heroin addict Johnny Thunders (the Dolls’ talented and mercurial guitarist and songwriter) and Jerry Nolan (who had replaced Murcia) left the band, effectively causing its demise and lately forming the Heartbreakers. Both died too young, right around the time hair metal did too.

Like it or not, hair metal is the logical next step after the New York Dolls, who never had much in common with the bands they inspired. First-generation punks took more cues from nihilistic Detroit acts like the MC5 than from the pop sensibilities of the Dolls. The New York Dolls didn’t create punk’s aesthetic of torn clothing (that came from Richard Hell three or four years later); they were too busy slipping into high heels and applying make-up. They certainly didn’t have much in common musically or aesthetically with their biggest fan, Morrissey, whose band the Smiths created maudlin melodies to match angst-ridden lyrics espousing vegan ideology. Aside from Michael Stipe’s own flirtations with androgyny, the earnest, socially aware band that served as my gateway to the Dolls bore little to no resemblance (except perhaps during their glam-grunge Monster years).

In addition to the musical (hard rock, period), aesthetic (gender bending kitsch), and lifestyle (drugs and drinks) similarities, there is another psychic connection. One of the current members of the New York Dolls is Sami Yaffa. He has been a Doll since 2004, though he is better known as one-half of the rhythm section of the band Hanoi Rocks, a lesser-known 1980s hair metal band. Who was the other half of that rhythm section? The guy who Mötley Crüe’s Vince Neil killed.

Surely, this will cause some awkward moments backstage this summer. Do the tangled connections — musical and otherwise — signify that credibility is dead? Do critical lauds create genre boundaries as inaccurate as they are arbitrary? Well, yes and yes. When fandom becomes orthodoxy and fans pledge allegiance to their subculture’s conventions, cool music gets lost in the shuffle. More Mötley Crüe fans ought to give the Dolls’ first record a spin and see if “Personality Crisis” and “Lookin’ For a Kiss” don’t speak to them. Credibility rock aficionados like me might revisit the metal music videos they mocked as kids and see if they can continue denying the pleasure of Poison.

Perhaps this is another moment when we are reminded that the term lowbrow is nothing more than a cheap punchline that in actuality lacks very much punch. High culture celebrated trash 40 years ago in New York City in the form of Warhol’s films and the Dolls’ first two albums. They had access to words like “camp” and “queer”, and socialized with Bianca Jagger and John Cale, but aesthetically they were like professional wrestlers in Ohio and Arkansas, or working-class wives and moms poking flamingoes into the front lawn.

Classism, the pose of irony, and stale identity politics are alive and well on hipster websites like Pitchfork, to be sure, but maybe the lack of outrage over this tour is reassuring. Cobain was wrong. You can like Axl and Nirvana. Divisions between intellectual rock ‘n’ roll and silliness dissolved the moment that a hair metal band scored a hit with the SAT word “lucidity” in its title. I’m talking about Queensrÿche, a hair metal band from Seattle best known for their big hit “Silent Lucidity”. Yes, a band from Seattle that was never part of the alterna-scene. See what I mean about categories? I don’t know about you, but I’ll be shouting at the devil and looking for a kiss this summer. On the lawn, because that’s where the cool kids sit.