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.”