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

Giving the Underdogs Their Dues

Beaujour and Bienstock chronicle the transition through conversations with some of the era’s less well-known bands. “We wanted to focus on bands like Tuff, Pretty Boy Floyd, Bang Tango, and Trixter,” says Bienstock, “because they can give a better sense of the experience, in a way, than the bands that did become multi-platinum millionaires. A lot of their history is just centered on when they were playing arenas, and they don’t go into the specifics, as much, of the minutiae of being a local band because they don’t remember it as well. It was a much smaller part of their history, whereas you really got a sense of what was going on from the Jetboys, and even L.A. Guns, and Faster Pussycat, because they lived much of their career on the Strip.” 

While new bands continued to flood into the Sunset Strip hoping to be the next Poison, more established groups, like Cinderella, tried to distinguish themselves by losing their make-up and dumping their spandex for denim and cowboy boots. Their guitars got grittier, their vibe tougher. Sales declined. “It was a no-win situation,” says Bienstock. “If they had embraced what they were doing in the ‘80s they still wouldn’t have been popular, but trying to deny it didn’t help their case, either.”

As Hollywood filled with boys and girls in headscarves and mirrored shades, younger bands hoping to break out aimed themselves squarely at the mainstream. It became hard to distinguish groups like Nelson and Firehouse from more conventional pop stars like Richard Marx or Michael Bolton. The hits kept coming, but storm clouds were gathering. “The truth of the matter is that it’s the same thing that always happens,” says Beaujour. “There are a bunch of really good bands, and then there are bands that follow, and some of them are pretty good, but they’re still following.”

When the end came, it was swift but far from painless. “There were people who loved [glam metal], and the people who didn’t love it, for the most part, fucking hated it,” says Bienstock. “It didn’t get a lot of respect, even when it was big, except from the people who liked it, so once it fell out of fashion it fell hard and fast.” The blow landed on 24 September 1991, with the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind. Bands that were already teetering on the edge of credibility were wiped clean out of sight. Record executives who could barely stomach the hair bands they had begrudgingly signed to their rosters happily caught the first flight to Seattle to start looking for new groups to replace them.

“I think, in the bands’ minds, they weren’t doing anything that different,” says Bienstock. “They were all hard rock bands, in a way. In 1990-ish, a lot of them toured together. I think they were a little confused when they pitted against each other, and all of a sudden, one was cool, and one was lame. Is Alice in Chains all that different from Guns N’ Roses?” MTV, which had been responsible for turning glam metal into a worldwide phenomenon by first encouraging the bands to make videos and then playing them ad nauseam, dropped their support overnight. “MTV made them celebrities, which also makes it completely impossible when things peter out to reinvent yourself because you’re so big,” says Beaujour.

Having been in a hair band, no matter how successful, was suddenly a career liability. “All of a sudden, we were the school nerds,” Vixen’s Janet Gardner tells the authors. Bands that once filled arenas with fans were now playing half-filled clubs, if they were lucky. Winger’s Reb Beach recounts buying a new home and then being forced to sell it eight months later. “That’s how quickly it all went south,” he says. The hair metal scene vanished, never to be discussed again.

“I think, honestly, when you dig down into what blew the bands’ minds because they all say it, is that suddenly all the bands looked like gas station attendants,” says Beaujour. “They could not process the manifestation of the hardcore ethos into corporate rock. Suddenly, the audiences and the bands looked the same.” “The people turned into bank tellers,” Lita Ford tells the authors. “They weren’t rock stars anymore.” 

Both Beaujour and Bienstock acknowledge that Nöthin’ But a Good Time likely could not have been written a decade ago; the aftershocks from having their livelihoods obliterated were still being too acutely felt by many in the industry. Since then, many musicians rebuilt their careers through a combination of corporate gigs, fan cruises, and club tours. Still, several express a combination of bitterness and bewilderment at just how quickly, and almost spitefully, their scene was paved over.

The attitude, frankly, is refreshing. It brings levity to the book’s final chapters, which could have otherwise descended into pathos. “Every decade, every generation of music has a look,” Cinderella’s Tom Keifer tells the authors. “The one that took over from the ‘80s became ultimately a bigger pose than the ‘80s. If you didn’t have your flannel shirt and Doc Martens…It was just a different pose. But somehow, that was a credible one.”

One of the strengths of Beaujour and Bienstock’s Nöthin’ But a Good Time is that by adhering to the oral history format, the authors avoid indulging in nostalgia. “The people who lived it aren’t turning it into something magical,” says Beaujour. “They’re not creating an aura around it.” With the benefit of some distance, it’s become easier for hair metal to be seen not so much an aberration, but as just another point on the rock timeline. It’s a reassessment that will only be bolstered by Beaujour and Bienstock’s book.

Hair metal will turn 40 soon. Are bands like Dokken and Warrant and W.A.S.P ripe to be revisited and maybe even embraced by a new generation? Is it time for hair metal to get a seat at the adult table? “People are once again proud to be associated with this music and over the shellshock of being completely disenfranchised from rock ‘n’ roll for a decade or so,” says Beaujour. “They’re happy with us telling the story as it is because it turned out okay.”

Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.
SUBMIT SUBMIT