Hair metal, glam metal, 80’s metal: All euphemisms for a specific, definitive sound, look and era in rock and metal. What was it really though beyond its instantly recognizable exterior? Go back a decade and you’ll find your answer: The glam piece comes from early ’70s glam rock bands like the New York Dolls and Mott The Hoople, the metal piece from the likes of Black Sabbath and Judas Priest and rock acts like Aerosmith, Kiss, Van Halen, Queen and Cheap Trick who dabbled with heavy and glam and set trends that would define the hair era to the point of cliche (Eddie Van Halen’s guitar style, Steven Tyler’s mic scarf, David Lee Roth’s blond hair, etc, et al).
Chronologically hair metal is even easier to define: It started in 1983 with Quiet Riot’s cover of Slade’s “Cum On Feel The Noize” and ended in 1991 with Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. As noted in my What’s Your Thing? article, there were three distinct waves in this 8-year period: The first wave in ’83-’84 were the pioneers and originators, the people you could most accurately bestow the metal label upon: Quiet Riot, Dokken, Twisted Sister, Mötley Crüe, W.A.S.P and some more glammed-up acts like Ratt. The second wave in ’86-’87 was peak pop as the new commercial viability of L.A metal gave rise to poppier, glammier offshoots like Poison, Bon Jovi, Whitesnake and Cinderella who took the genre’s profitability to a new level by making it less threatening and more female-friendly; mainly by adopting a pretty-boy aesthetic and putting out chart–buster power ballads. Of course, there was the obvious outlier of Guns N’ Roses in that wave, and their impact was clear in the third wave in ’89-’90 as acts of the likes of Skid Row and Love/Hate were heavier and more attitude-based than the last crop of bands, though there were acts like Warrant, Danger Danger, Firehouse and Slaughter that kept up the pop in the final few years.
It’s this excessive, loud over-the-top era that Tom Beaujour and Richard Bienstock go back and examine in Nothin’ But A Good Time: The Uncensored History of the 80’s Hard Rock Explosion. This isn’t just a half-baked research project from two aging rock fans who can’t let go of their ratty, beer-stained Scorpions shirts they bought when they were 21 though. These guys have been writing about rock and metal for years, and they reached out to pretty much everybody you could think of: Artists, A&Rs, managers, producers, MTV execs, you name it to contribute their experiences and describe the hand they had in making the 80’s what it was. No stone is left unturned, starting from the early years in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s when disco crashed and punk blew a hole in the cred and momentum of more mainstream “industry” rock acts, spawning post-punk (Joy Division, PIL) and new wave (Talking Heads, The Police) in the years after. Hard rock outside of the likes of Sammy Hagar and Billy Squier had taken a back seat, even on the Sunset Strip where punk and its offshoots were the flavour of the time.
Nevertheless, there were a number of bands running the circuit that were persisting through the drought and laying the groundwork for something new. One of those was Quiet Riot, who had released two records in the late ‘70s and split after their guitarist Randy Rhoads famously joined Ozzy Osbourne’s solo band. They reunited in 1982 with a reworked lineup but struggled to get the industry to take them seriously given the climate of the time. Eventually with the help of producer and Pasha Records boss Spencer Proffer, they were able to snag a deal with CBS through which they released the LP Metal Health in 1983. The aforementioned Slade cover on the album blew the door open that had been closed since Warner Bros. Records picked up Van Halen 6 years prior, and soon after a cavalcade of bands were yanked out of clubs and signed by major labels. Before long, “Hungry Like The Wolf”, “Burning Down The House” and “Every Breath You Take” were replaced by “Shout At The Devil”, “We’re Not Gonna Take It”, “Photograph” and “Round And Round” on the Billboard 100, and great fortunes began to be amassed for artists and executives alike.
From there, hundreds of bands would start packing into their vans with a few dollars and a couple of guitars and migrate to Hollywood in hopes of making it. A number of them (most of which are interviewed in this book) made it to the big leagues, while others got a deal and didn’t recoup or fell victim to some other circumstance, and many, many more never cracked at all- but they certainly tried, flooding the streets and clubs of Sunset Boulevard nightly playing to exhaustion and promoting themselves even harder. There’s plenty of stories along the way that run the gamut from comedy to tragedy, many of them unsurprisingly inspired by alcohol and controlled substance abuse, but very little regret at the end of the day- and what’s to regret if you made it and then some? (With the exception of the late Jani Lane of Warrant who felt that “Cherry Pie” pigeonholed him for the rest of his career). With their omnipresence on the charts and MTV, their luxurious lifestyles and their high-profile appearances at events like the Moscow Music Peace Festival, many bands thought The Metal Years would go on into the ‘90s and beyond. Ultimately that wasn’t the case, as we know; the glory years of the Strip came to an unceremonious end in 1991 and bands, with the exception of a prominent handful either broke up or went underground. Conventional wisdom says that grunge did in hair metal, and while it was a big cause of the genre’s fall it certainly wasn’t the only one.
Truthfully, the cracks were beginning to form in the late 80’s- Believe it or not, one previously mentioned cause was Guns N’ Roses, who shifted the tone from Poison poppiness to something far more akin to the back-alley city grit of Aerosmith’s Rocks. The rise of thrash metal bands of the likes of Metallica and Megadeth also took some of the wind out of hair metal’s sails, as young male fans who subscribed in the beginning for the aggressive, menacing machismo of first-wavers like Mötley Crüe and W.A.S.P found themselves put off by the poppy saturation that had since consumed the genre and gave rise to the power ballad trend that worked wonders in roping in women to buy records and attend concerts (subsequently inciting plenty of other men to do the same, but that’s besides the point). With an overabundance in blond singers, huge perms, pouty faces, bright colours, leather jackets, over-gated drums, shredding guitar solos and gushy, ridiculous ballads for chicks, hair bands became virtually indistinguishable, making it harder to break through and sell in an era when said records were supposed to be lucrative. Realistically, hair metal had already dug its grave and picked out a box to go by the time the 90’s rolled around; grunge was just the final nail in the coffin.
Today, many of these bands (those who didn’t split or quit music after grunge) are still out there playing festivals, clubs, theatres, and even theatres and arenas for some and have experienced something of a nostalgic renaissance in recent years. At this point you can close the book and be done with it, or you can go back in the pages and pay attention, as beyond the tales of unimaginable success there’s a number of steps taken to get there and mistakes made along the way that you can glean and learn from as a musician. One big thing to take note on is the cutthroat promo game these bands engaged in on the Strip, a ruthless turf war that often resulted in red-hot tensions and fist fights. You, reader in the current year, don’t have to stay up till dawn all the time handing out and slapping up flyers like they did (though ground game shouldn’t be discounted), that’s what the internet is for. Social media is the new lamppost on the Sunset Strip, and the market isn’t just saturated with acts in a concentrated area, your competition is from all over the world. While this change makes it less important to relocate to an industry mecca like Los Angeles, it means you’ve gotta go hard, deliver consistently, figure out who your market audience is and how to rope them in and stand out from the pack. Even if you’re gigging around in a music hotspot, A&R’s aren’t coming to the clubs like they did 30-some years ago and they certainly won’t pay you any attention if your online presence isn’t top notch and distinguishable (which means those East Coast deals mentioned in the book that were handed out after a few months of playing and writing with no gigs DEFINITELY aren’t happening now).
In addition to being more relentless and consistent than the rest, the next thing to take from the book is you have to put on a show. W.A.S.P built their own pyrotechnics, threw meat into the audience and had a woman they used for Alice Cooper-style shock segments. Stryper iconically dressed themselves like actual wasps and threw bibles into the crowd (which they paid for in bulk) instead, occasionally hitting a few concertgoers in the head but sticking to their word-of-God gimmick nevertheless. Poison, though their musical merit is occasionally debated by some of the book’s subjects built a huge following on turning live shows at the Troubadour or Gazzarri’s into glammed-out house parties in addition to their unrivalled promotional game. That’s not to say gimmickry is the way to go, it worked for them at that time, for you and any act it’s different. The point, once again is you have to distinguish yourself. Some of that comes with taking collective and individual inventory of who you are as people and as a band so you can figure out a unique shtick that’s true to you; in dress, in props, in presentation, everything- plus get out there and play like one person in the audience is one hundred thousand, because one person can make that become a reality. You don’t want to fall into the trap that too many bands did and jump in line with a trend, as what you think will help you towards success can make you a victim of a crowded market and cut your aspirations short.
Even if you do get signed off the strength of doing what’s “in”, an act riding a wave will be trapped by the creative expectations set by more prominent acts that set the trends in the first place (i.e; band after band being required by their label to have an arena rocker and a ballad for singles on their record to sell more albums, tickets, shirts, etc). Taking that path will ensure your shelf life will be limited, and you’ll be swiftly discarded by the industry once the sands shift towards something else, as was the case for many when grunge became the genre du jour. Besides memorizing the words business isn’t personal, what you should take away from following a formula and hair metal’s collapse is this: Try as best as you can to stand out and be unique and authentic, obviously, but if you are riding a wave to some extent or another, pay close attention to everything going on around you. Don’t insulate yourself and crawl up your own ass, keep track of your listeners and the industry and assess the climate. If people are starting to tire of what you’re doing and there’s a changing of the guard on the horizon, make moves to gradually, not swiftly make a shift out of your old style and into something new. Once again, it has to be true to you, as some bands tried to get grungy to stay afloat but failed because it wasn’t them. If not that, you can either say screw it and bite the bullet or simply take a break and come back later as some bands did. After all, disappearing for a while (but not too long that people stop caring) can increase your demand that much more; just ask Guns N’ Roses or Mötley Crüe.
Overall, Nothin’ But A Good Time is great not only as a VH1 documentary in print form, but as a tool for today’s rockers to make the most out of their career by learning from those who preceded them. Just because the music industry has drastically changed from what it was in the days of CD’s, cassettes and MTV doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to achieve huge success and that there aren’t strategies that worked then that work today. Despite the vast competition pool we now have with the internet, some things are far easier to achieve with digital technology that the artists in this book didn’t have access to back in the 80’s. You can distribute your music across streaming services and social media, control your master and publishing rights, promote yourself far and wide and do a whole bunch of things by yourself that a record label would have handled 25 years ago. You don’t have to move halfway across the continent and shack up with a stripper living off her dad’s credit line to put your career in motion, you can do all that from the comfort of your home! (Which is pretty much the only available option at the moment, that’ll change one way or another though). Until then, kick back, read this book, soak up the war stories and learn from it what you can- then go in the garage, crank your amp to full blast and get rockin’!