If the success of a fashion can be judged by the suddenness of its demise—by the speed with which, having so fierily consumed the moment, it shrinks and crinkles into obsolescence and they-did-what?—then hair metal was truly the craze of all crazes. For the bulk of the ’80s, this snarling, preening, reactionary super-pop, with its huge headachy drum sound and party-time choruses, ruled: it was the pulse of the stadium, the pulse of the mall. Screaming its faddishness to the skies, it drove the kids wild, cashed in frenziedly, and then—poof!—it was gone, really gone, leaving only a few brittle bouffants blowing like tumbleweeds and a mocking refrain on the air: Don’t need nothin’ / But a good time …
Who were the hair metallers? They were wearers of eyeliner and blasters of hair spray (Aqua Net, Stiff Stuff). They pouted. Some were frilly, some were spiky, some looked like members of five different bands at once. They proclaimed themselves creatures of the night, creatures of appetite. Quiet Riot, Mötley Crüe, Poison, Dokken, Cinderella, Faster Pussycat, Winger, Warrant, Whazzle (okay, I made up Whazzle). And perhaps the most exuberantly whorish of the lot, Ratt.
Ratt front man Stephen Pearcy’s memoir, Sex, Drugs, Ratt & Roll, published this month (and co-written by Sam Benjamin), takes us back—back to the itchy follicles of hair metal in the early 1980s, when penniless rockers tottered up and down L.A.’s Sunset Strip, snorting, vomiting, papering lampposts with their band’s flyers, and mooching off inexplicably generous “chicks.” Deep down, we must assume, they partied so hard to numb the pain of their own postmodernity: in the cells of their bodies, these musicians were copyists and cliché-mongers, reverently ripping off Aerosmith, AC/DC, Van Halen, the New York Dolls, Duran Duran (cosmetically), and each other. Certain of metal’s trappings (long hair, loud guitars, a kind of spurious defiance) had been appropriated, but this was not heavy metal, because it was not heavy: no doom, no drag. The riffs were flimsy and chick-friendly—or at least not chick-repellent—and metal’s drama of cosmic exile was ditched in favor of a desperate, slurping hedonism. “Under the sheets you will find me / I know that nothing’s for free.” That’s Stephen Pearcy in 1985, on Ratt’s double-platinum-selling second album, Invasion of Your Privacy. Compare James Hetfield, the previous year, on Metallica’s Ride the Lightning: “Emptiness is filling me / To the point of agony.” The chug-chug downstrokes of Hetfield’s Flying V were like a stammer in the brain stem; hair metal’s guitars, by contrast, were a mere outer-ear sizzle.
But they made some good music, the hair metallers, when they were on their game. Ratt was well named: compact and verminous in its songwriting, with Pearcy’s nasty voice projecting an exultant thinness of spirit. “You’re a / Human tar-get! / In myyy eyyyyes!” Something in the choruses pointed forward, to the wasteland harmonies of Alice in Chains. The band’s behavior, on the other hand, was strictly retro. Under their fripperies and loucheries and Marie Antoinette do’s, the hair metallers were the usual rabble of knicker-obsessed rock pigs, and the bands of the Los Angeles scene, as Chuck Klosterman notes in his peerless hair-metal secret history, Fargo Rock City, were “particularly pedantic” in their pursuit of sex.
Not that they had to chase it very far. Teenyboppers, vixens, backstage Bettys, super-groupies: there was never a shortage. Again and again, one marvels at the strength of the female imagination, capable of investing these ghastly young men (Pearcy at one point refuses to allow an on-the-bus blow job to interrupt the game of Pong he is playing with his drummer, Bobby Blotzer) with such potent desirability, of building a palace of Eros amid the shriveled sandwiches and folding metal chairs of the stadium “hospitality area.” Rita Rae Roxx’s Once Upon a Rock Star: Backstage Passes in the Heavy Metal Eighties, is instructive in this respect, a groupie’s-eye view of the scene: “Finally, I turned eighteen. On July 31, I was so excited that Quiet Riot was in town. I was on a quest to bang [bassist] Rudy Sarzo … When the rest of the band found out I had some coke, I became very popular.” Pearcy himself makes an appearance, beautifully captured by Roxx in a moment of sheer narcissistic rock-star reverie. “Stephen posed with me in front of a full-length mirror: me naked and him behind me, cupping my breast … ‘This would be an awesome album cover,’ he said.”
MTV, newly born, gorged itself on hair-metal videos: on women writhing in Mad Max metalscapes or across the hoods of cars, and on Poison’s nubile singer Bret Michaels shaking his ass. The nation rolled over. “It ain’t a crime to be good to yourself!” shrieked Kiss—primordial proto–hair metallers catching the wave—in “Lick It Up.” But it couldn’t last: dim prickles of foreboding were already reaching the almost-insensate bands. “When we got onstage to perform the mating anthems of Reagan’s America,” writes Pearcy, “puffing our feathers out like peacocks, raising V‑shaped guitars to the sky, choking on a toxic cloud of stage fog, even we kind of knew the door was closing.” Everyone was dutifully writing power ballads—blustery, maudlin, crude grabs at the female fan base. Mötley Crüe released the stomping “Girls, Girls, Girls,” and one could detect a note of resignation, or deflation, in the descending melody line of the chorus. The Sunset Strip was overstuffed, excessively hair-metallic: Pearcy reports going to a club where “a weird aura of doom spiked the air along with the Aqua Net.”
And then, around 1988, the craze began to die, done in simultaneously by the more vicious hard-rock variant of Guns N’ Roses and the first moans and rumblings of grunge from Seattle. Tempos slumped—a depressive counterreaction—and the rageful whine of Axl Rose tortured the upper air. The hair metallers plummeted into bankruptcy, addiction, blow-job burnout. Poison drummer Rikki Rockett, interviewed 20 or so years later for Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen’s documentary series, Metal Evolution, was philosophical: “There was a different generation coming in, and they were going, you know, ‘I can’t get with this … I don’t feel like “Nothin’ but a Good Time,” I just don’t.’ I can’t blame them for that! I’m not mad at anybody for that, you know what I mean?”
Of the music, what survives? A couple of wiry Ratt riffs (“Lay It Down,” maybe, and “Round and Round”) buried deep in the metal-fan psyche. Woozy hookup memories, or even heartaches, triggered by Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.” But most of it has simply been expunged from cultural remembrance. Lacking the super-hooks of pop and the soul impact of heavy metal, hair metal was inherently forgettable—perhaps the most forgettable music ever. Its noisiness proclaimed its forgettability. What’s remarkable, looking back, is that its season of domination was so prolonged; nowadays the whole phenomenon would be picked clean in 18 months.
And the players? Ratt’s Robbin Crosby and Warrant’s Jani Lane are both dead, felled by their excesses. (The latter had a moment of late-career glory when, speaking of Warrant’s biggest and crassest hit, “Cherry Pie,” he told an interviewer “I could shoot myself in the fuckin’ head for writing that song.”) Other hair metallers are churning around the country on reunion tours, or popping up on reality TV. They have become, in the most honorable showbiz sense, troupers. Mötley Crüe’s Vince Neil was recently seen on PBS’s flying-geek docuseries The Aviators, going for his private pilot’s license (“I’m surprised there’s so much mathematics involved”). A follow-up reality show, Vince Neil Escapes, is in the works. We can salute them all, these formerly young men, for their brief visual affront to conventional masculinity, their short-wave commercial instincts, and their outrageously American spirit of carpe diem. Their art was flashy and disposable—and it has been disposed of.
THE MANY MOODS OF HAIR METAL
Windblown: “Madalaine,” by Winger. With a muscular arrangement offset by medieval waft, this one took hair metal on a pale Romantic detour. All of your glory was left like an angry child / … But you can’t see you’re still running wild / Oh, Madalaine!
Bawdy: “Shake Me,” by Cinderella. If you’re going to rip off AC/DC, do it right. Do it like Cinderella. With huge, gappy chords and bathroom-stall lyrics, “Shake Me” was almost as good as “You Shook Me All Night Long.”
Bubblegum: “Nothin’ but a Good Time,” by Poison. This is the hair-metal earworm—completely inane, impossible to resist. The lyrics are deliriously blue-collar, the melody is like aspartame.
Christian: “To Hell With the Devil,” by Stryper. Arrayed in their yellow-and-black stripes like the bumblebees of God, the abstemious members of Stryper were actually—in their concern with ultimate things—the closest hair came to heavy. The band’s music, unfortunately, was terrible.
Damaged: “Metal Health (Bang Your Head),” by Quiet Riot. Got no brains / I’m insane, grumbles Kevin DuBrow, while his band clomps about pseudo-heavily. Teacher says that I’m one big pain. A naked play for the always-angry metal hordes—and it worked!