From the cover of 'Faster Pussycat' (1987)

Ballad of Big Hair: Los Angeles’ Glam Metal Scene Rises from the Ash Heap

The authors of a new and expansive oral history talk with us about Los Angeles’ 1980s glam metal scene and their book, Nöthin’ But a Good Time.

Nöthin' But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the '80s Hard Rock Explosion
Tom Beaujour and Richard Bienstock
St. Martin's Press
March 2021

For roughly eight years, from the chart-topping success of Quiet Riot’s Metal Health in 1983 to the 1991 release of Nirvana’s Nevermind, which landed with obliterative force onto the glam metal scene Quiet Riot helped to usher in big hair, big guitar riffs, and an unapologetically crude take on rock ‘n’ roll is what makes life worth living. Long maligned by critics (Village Voice‘s Robert Christgau called Mötley Crüe’s genre-defining album Shout at the Devil “utter dogshit” upon its release), the genre is often treated as something of an embarrassing sideshow. The bands who best embody the era, like Poison, Ratt, Kix, and Twisted Sister, almost certainly will not be welcomed into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame anytime soon. 

With their new book, Nöthin’ But a Good Time, producer Tom Beaujour and music journalist Richard Bienstock aim to better situate glam metal into the overall story of rock. Together they interviewed over 200 band members, music executives, stylists, and scenesters. Their work is likely to stand as the definitive account of the era. They aren’t exactly trying to use it to make the case that the music is under-appreciated, or that critics have somehow gotten things all wrong. Instead, they set the albums and the bands and the music industry more firmly into context.

They spend as much time unearthing lesser-known acts as they do on the marquee names. Nor do they glamorize the well-covered debauchery the bands were known for. It’s the exact and the right approach to take, and the book makes for a consistently entertaining read. “It’s hard to beat The Dirt at its own game,” jokes Beaujour. “[Sex and drugs] are not what interests us about this music,” adds Bienstock. “We wanted to show that this was a viable creative musical movement with some DIY roots and present it in a way that’s respectful.”

Both Beaujour and Bienstock grew up as fans of rock music of all stripes, but of hair metal, in particular. For suburban teenagers in the 1980s, this stuff was like catnip. It looked just shocking enough to startle their parents, but the sing-along choruses were built to please. “I was 15 in 1986,” says Beaujour. “I was the exact age where I would be the most receptive to this music. I was completely obsessed, maybe because it was so much more outrageous than anything I thought I’d be likely to pull off.” 

As adults, both went into magazine publishing, eventually meeting through their work at Guitar World.  This was in the ’90s when Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, and Nirvana were minting gold and platinum records and a new idea of what it meant to be a rock god was being crafted. Though guitar magazines had made piles of money during the ’80s covering super-shredders like Ratt’s Warren DeMartini and White Lion’s Vito Bratta, they and their ilk were now radioactive.

“It was as if that shit had never happened,” says Beaujour. “It was that period of the untouchability of hair metal. When I started I never really got to interview any of those bands that I had been into because people wouldn’t cover them. I always had a desire to talk to the members of these bands because when I became a music journalist, one was not allowed to, because they had committed the crime of being in hair metal bands. In 1995, that was a very grave offense.” 

By 1991, glam metal bands had been dismissed as not just musically vacuous but as embarrassingly commercial. What’s surprising, then, is the effort early bands had to spend to get anyone to pay attention to them. In Nöthin’ But a Good Time‘s first section, Beaujour and Bienstock lovingly lay out a Sunset Strip where bands lived like squatters, competed for attention by tirelessly hanging flyers and handing out show bills to people on the street, and developed homemade props for their live shows modeled on the theatrics of KISS and Alice Cooper. Mötley Crüe’s Nikki Sixx recounts begging for tips from film industry professionals and experimenting with pyrotechnic effects in the band’s Los Angeles apartment.

“Our foundation was in theatrics,” W.A.S.P.’s Blackie Lawless tells the authors. “We didn’t want to stand there and play. That wasn’t us.” “Part of the reason people don’t think of it as a DIY movement is because part of what they were trying to do, even in their very DIY days, was make it look like they were already an arena band, even if they were only playing to two hundred people,” says Bienstock. “They were trying to show themselves as fully-formed and larger than life.”

Early glam metal bands may have shared the same DIY roots as the punk and Paisley Underground bands with whom they mixed in the Los Angeles scene. Still, their conception of the scale on which rock music should exist, their belief that rock stars really are a breed apart made them different in a foundational way. Early bands’ crucial message was that rock shows and rock bands were something to be held in awe. Not just anyone could pick up a guitar and do what they did. (George Lynch’s solos on Dokken’s Under Lock and Key, to take just one example, are not to be attempted by the weak in spirit.)

The stage, the lights, and the backstage parties were a world away from the club or barroom floor where the audience gathered. They were the exclusive domain of those willing to work, those willing to bleed. “These bands put a lot out there that was both really impressive and seductive to audiences at the time,” says Beaujour, “but at the same time, they were creating pretty large targets should somebody decide to want to start making fun of it.”

“In 1981, ‘82, when these bands were trying to get off the ground, they were viewed as dinosaur rock,” says Beaujour. “The labels wanted Elvis Costello, they wanted the Go-Go’s, they wanted the Knack. They didn’t want to touch this stuff. The music establishment had no interest in this music.” Much of this changed, of course, once record labels understood just how much money there was to be made. Though they had to struggle for attention, first wave glam metal bands like Mötley Crüe, Twisted Sister, and Quiet Riot went on to release multi-platinum albums and have hit videos on the fledgling cable channel MTV, which had launched in 1981.

“Poison, who arrived in Los Angeles in 1983, anchored the second wave of bands, almost all of whom drew exclusively on bits of Van Halen and bits of Mötley Crüe. “Between Poison and Twisted Sister, you’ve got a maybe eight or nine-year age differential,” says Beaujour, “and that’s huge in rock ‘n’ roll. They’re not going back. These are kids, not music archaeologists.” 

These new bands all began as meagerly as their predecessors, but they came to Los Angeles with visions of a tidal wave that could carry them to a world of record contracts, groupies, platinum sales, and limousines. Their shows were a party, the best you’d ever attended, and everyone was invited. Though fame was never guaranteed, it was possible for a young guitar slinger or blond belter to get off a bus in Hollywood, apply eyeliner, puff up their hair, and find life-altering success with a band.

At the time, one could have imagined a machine inside every major record company’s headquarters that did nothing but churn out hair metal bands. They were everywhere you looked by the end of the ‘80s. Their albums jammed record bins in shopping malls, their videos played on repeat on MTV, and their power ballads crowded radio station playlists. Though devotees could spot the differences between them from a distance, they all started to look exactly the same. “It’s actually a very small era that was visually the one that people have keyed into to mock the most,” says Beaujour. “It was like ‘82 – ‘86, roughly. It was a really small window where bands were looking as outrageous as people think of them looking.”