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Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

Mötley Crüe: Theatre of Pain / Girls, Girls, Girls

Mötley Crüe
Theatre of Pain (Enhanced)

It’s not often reviewer gets to evaluate records that the band themselves have deemed “embarrassing” and “total shit”, but the reissue of these two mediocre Mötley Crüe records offers just that opportunity. In band’s autobiography, The Dirt, Crue chief Nikki Sixx admits to being too dissipated from his heroin abuse to compose songs, and suggests on several occasions that he barely remembers writing them. For a moment, it seems paradoxical that such undeserving albums should get the deluxe reissue treatment, complete with outtakes, rough mixes, demos, live tracks, and promotional videos. But these very albums’ original success convinced the band that their fans would cheerfully accept any garbage product that reached the marketplace with the Motley stamp on it, so it’s not surprising they would seize upon a chance to exploit the good faith of their audience.

These works are convincing arguments against the romantic rock and roll notion that drug use can enhance creativity. Both albums show a general lack of inspiration, both in the writing and the playing. The band’s indifference is evident in the lyrics, which are nothing but a string of clichés stitched together with little concern for coherence (e.g., “Fuel injected dreams are bursting at the seams” from “Dancing on Glass”). A run down of the titles gives a sense of their level of creativity: “Bad Boy Boogie”, “Fight for Your Right”, “Keep Your Eye on the Money”, “You’re All I Need”. The inclusion of the unimaginative covers “Smokin’ in the Boys Room” and the especially abysmal “Jailhouse Rock” suggests they couldn’t be bothered even to write enough filler. Most of the originals recycle riffs from their earlier albums (compare “Louder Than Hell” to “Shout at the Devil”, or “Use it or Lose it” to “Live Wire”) or worse, from the same album (“Five Years Dead” is basically a re-write of the already tiresome “Girls, Girls, Girls”). Often they steal from their progenitors: “Sumthin’ for Nuthin'” and “Home Sweet Home” owe a lot to Rocks-era Aerosmith.

In a genre as derivative and formulaic as pop metal, identifying appropriations may be pointing out the obvious, but these records distinguish themselves by managing to drain these tried and true riffs of the uncomplicated pleasure they normally provide. What is supposed to convey hedonistic good times comes across instead as depressing drudgery; these songs make mindless fun seem like tiresome work, which is what relentless touring will inevitably do to a band. One has no wish to join in with the shout-along choruses, one wants instead to resist falling in line with what sounds like a dispirited army relaying their marching orders.

But the band’s fatigue and lack of inspiration is not entirely to blame for the rote, plodding feel of these albums. Tom Werman’s production, which epitomizes the wrong-headed ’80s sound, must be held accountable as well. Both albums have a brittle, trebly sound that robs the playing of any propulsive force it might have had. Tommy Lee’s drumming especially suffers, reduced as it is to clumsy, muddled thudding by the way it was recorded: the bass drum sounding like a blown woofer, and the snare like a Chevy Nova backfiring. By multi-tracking Vince Neil’s hoarse, nuance-less vocals, Werman succeeds only in multiplying their wretchedness (if you sing along with the instrumental mixes of the best songs thoughtfully included, chances are you’ll improve on Neil’s unfortunate efforts).

And there is no point trying to evaluate Sixx’s playing — the low-end is so thoroughly EQ’d out of the mix that you can rarely hear it. When one compares the studio version of “All in the Name Of . . .” with the live version included on the reissue, the depleting effects of the production are made clear. The song remains a rip-off of Foreigner’s “Dirty White Boy”, but liberated from the saturation of glossy echo and the barking legion of back-up vocalists, it becomes tolerable, almost enjoyable. Neil doesn’t sound like he is inexplicably screaming at the top of his lungs, so he is able to add a winking self-awareness to the dim-witted lyrics about statutory rape. The unreleased “Rodeo” also seems to have escaped the Werman treatment, and thus, despite its predictable platitudes about life on the road, is more compelling than anything that actually made it on the Girls, Girls, Girls album.

Listening to these lame albums in the ’80s was probably enough to make many teenagers feel betrayed, turning them away from hard rock toward the nascent alternative rock just beginning to coalesce. But hearing them now one senses how the Crue themselves were betrayed by the shallowness of their own dreams. There’s not much material in an insatiable craving for sex and drugs as they must have originally thought. Originally, their songs of lust and aggression were thinly veiled metaphors for their own ambition; they were teenaged equivalents for the ’80s imperative to succeed at all costs and to enjoy success at the expense of others as especially piquant. But as they achieved success in those terms, they had nothing left to sing about but the moral bankruptcy their own achievements signified. Their songs no longer fuel listeners’ vicarious fantasies because what they now sing about come to exceed anyone’s idea of what is actually desirable. A song like “Tonight (We Need a Lover)” is probably supposed to sound tough and heartless, but it comes across as truly sad. The idea of the band members having to share a lover because sex alone no longer feels like anything is quite pathetic, and one has a hard time imagining any listener sympathizing with their need let alone longing to share it. When Mötley Crüe’s music can no longer earn a teenager’s sympathies, then it has really outlasted its primary function. No wonder U2 became so popular. The Crue helped make the fantasy of pretending to care about the world temporarily more enticing than the fantasy of not giving a damn about anyone.