Monday, April 28, 2014

In Defense Of: Hair Metal

This In Defense Of was contributed by Square Zeros' Jon Mann.

Warrant, with Unnamed Daughter of Some Poor Bastard.
My dad's got a theory about Quentin Tarantino that he once mentioned in conversation.  While he's impressed with Tarantino's encyclopedic knowledge of film, he thinks he's hamstrung by a narrow vision of what he deems "cool."  Despite the vast cinematic resources Tarantino seems to be able to conjure at will, they are unfortunately forced through a tiny keyhole made of cartoon violence, pulp magazine sex, and offensive language.  This keyhole constitutes the authorial presence of Tarantino and marks his work as recognizably "Tarantino," no matter what format he might attempt crime film, kung fu movie, grindhouse horror flick, spaghetti western — but that's also where he loses my dad.

I found myself less concerned with how I was going to respond to this claim (probably something to the tune of "Whatever, old man, Tarantino is tight.") than with the model of creative production my dad had laid forth.  I realized that no matter what I listen to, in my songwriting there is a certain Jon Mann filter that tends to produce a relatively recognizable "Jon Mann" product.  You can sometimes pick out the influences, sure, but at the end of the day you're getting Jon Mann songs.  Huh.  Touché, old man.

So I asked myself, what sort of music do I want to play?  Well, rock and roll, of course.

And I asked myself, what do I want my music to be?  Fun, of course.

And who, in the history of rock and roll, had the most fun?  Who was going crazy?  It's all going to come out sounding like Jon Mann anyway; where can I harvest the energy, the riffing, the over-the-top, pleasure-seeking joie de vivre?

It hit me like a bottle of Nightrain: I needed to excavate hair metal's hidden gems.


Now, right out of the gate, we're in tricky territory.  "Hair metal," or "glam metal," or however you want to call it is a slippery term, and hair metal detractors are likely to keep their favorite bands clean of the designation.  That said, I'm not trying to further scientific inquiry here.  If you don't agree with who I trot out, bring it up in the comments.  I came at this from a pragmatic angle
what elements can I steal from this genre of music that will prove worthwhile in my own? and my aim is to bring you the good stuff from the genre's heavy hitters.

And the good stuff begins, of course, with the inimitable C.C. DeVille of Poison.


"I had all the right influences to become a really great guitar player.  For some reason, from the record to me, it just never came through!"

  C.C. DeVille, VH1's Behind the Music: "Poison" (1999)

"I don't know if I should salivate or cringe!"
  C.C. DeVille, VH1's Behind the Music: "Poison" (1999)

"[A whole bunch of other incredible shit]!"
  C.C. DeVille, VH1's Behind the Music: "Poison" (1999)

Bret Michaels of Poison wearing Poison shirt with Poison.
Poison is a band that I learned to hate at a young age.  As a teenager, someone gave me the Razor & Tie Monsters of Rock compilation, which while introducing me to songs that I love like "Round and Round" by Ratt (we'll talk later), "You've Got Another Thing Coming" by Judas Priest, and "Hold On Loosely" by .38 Special (yeah son, you know I be lovin' that three-eight SPESH') also brought "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" into my life.  For the no one in the world out there who hasn't heard it, "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" is an objectively fine ballad that I despise.  Because of that early prejudice, I really owe it to a buddy of mine (I won't reveal my sources) that I knew to look to "Fallen Angel."

"It's pretty cheesy," he said, "but if you can get past the overproduction, it's a lost Replacements song.  That riff, anyway.  C.C. DeVille.  I mean, c'mon."  The guy's one of the biggest Replacements' fans I know, and I could tell it physically pained him to say it, but he's not wrong.  Poison's story of a small-town girl gambling on the big city and dreams of fame, only to get chewed up and changed, makes for a surprisingly compelling song to go with DeVille's punchy riffing.  If you don't feel some sort of loss when Bret Michaels asks "Where's the girl I knew a year ago?" and if you don't smile a little when that lead guitar comes in at 0:18 (0:40 in the official video)…well, you can probably stop reading now.  There's nothing for you here.  I have failed us both, dear reader.

If, however, "Fallen Angel" does play to you like a paean to the 'Mats, the palm-muted garage rock chords and shout-along chorus of "Talk Dirty To Me" might prefigure The Exploding Hearts.  You've heard it before: give it a second listen.  The lyrics are playfully daft, and the riff is super-simple, but it's done in way that comes off as a good-natured attempt at classic songwriting in the vein of Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me."

Then, of course, there's the matter of the riff from "Unskinny Bop."  That riff.  The unholy majesty of that riff from "Unskinny Bop."  As a wise man once said (three paragraphs ago), "I don't know if I should salivate or cringe!"

Warrant, high school picture day.

DIRTY. ROTTEN. FILTHY. STI- alright, you get the point, Warrant is a band that needs no and maybe deserves no introduction.  But alas, everyone knows Warrant due to the enormous popularity of "Cherry Pie."  For the no one in the world out there who hasn't heard it, "Cherry Pie" is the dumbest song ever written.

That said, I've got a soft spot for "Down Boys," the second track off their debut album.  In all honesty, it may be the only Warrant song I truly like for its musical merits.  Don't get me wrong
it's all eighties production, flash, and chintz but it rocks, it has some great changes, and there's a playfulness about it that makes me think these guys had a sense of humor about them.  If you don't believe me, check out frontman Jani Lane's goofy grin and  'PEE LIKE A MAN' t-shirt in the music video.  I mean, what?!

Anyway, the charm of "Down Boys" comes from Lane's lyrics, which take the position of trying to romance the listener through tough guy posturing that's being constantly betrayed by self-deprecating sentiments ("You've got a lot of nerve to call me cheap, even though it's true") and puppy-dog sincerity ("I don't care where we go tonight, take me along with you").  Its changeover from prechorus to chorus is what '80s rock dreams are made of.

Beyond "Down Boys," you've gotta take Warrant with a grain of salt.  Though they're known as balladeers, the rocker "Uncle Tom's Cabin" stands out as an (unintentionally) hilarious attempt to write a chilling story-song about two young boys witnessing a backwater murder.  I'm also ready to call it the best song named after a Harriet Beecher Stowe novel that has nothing to do with said Harriet Beecher Stowe novel ever written, a claim I make comfortably having done no research.

Our love (for Ratt) will find a way, just give it time.

A friend of mine has a childhood friend whose mother was apparently in with a lot of hair bands in the '80s.  He knows she was friends with the Bulletboys, those soft-spoken poets who brought us "Smooth Up In Ya," a thought that should terrify you.  Point being, he's surmised that she was probably a bombshell groupie thirty years ago.  I remember asking him once, "How do you suppose it is that Ratt got so big with Stephen Pearcy's voice sounding as awful as it did?"  His response was, "Well, he was sexy as hell.  Like, super-sexy, right?  Wasn't that the thing?"

While Pearcy's looks don't need to enter my equation here, I do find Warren DeMartini's guitar playing super-sexy.  Outside of Eddie Van Halen, it's hard for me to think of another '80s shredder who routinely hands out riffs as towering as DeMartini.  "Round and Round," Ratt's best-known song, is a tough rock and roll song built around a series of guitar runs that go from tight-fisted hammering to bright arpeggio to the perfectly crunchy intro/chorus riff.  It's honestly a great rock and roll song for any era, not just within hair metal.

Then there's the case of "Lay It Down," which I love for two reasons.  One: it takes one of the most monumental riffs this side of "Kashmir," and instead of finding some sort of powerful, meaningful lyrical content to pair it with, Pearcy matches it by slimily propositioning you: "You know you really want to lay it down, right now/And how."  Which, if my memory serves me right, is a line borrowed from Twelfth Night.

Two: it has the creepiest music video I've ever seen in my life.  It's hard to even explain it without it losing something in translation.  It begins with a child's birthday party (the little girl calls the boy "Stephen," which leads me to believe he's supposed to be the lead singer as a child), where the little boy is asked to make a wish and blow out his candles.  I won't ruin it for you, but let's just say that Little Stephen makes a gesture at the very end of the video that I'm not positive I understand as a mature adult, but that I'm about 1,000% positive a child is not supposed to make, indicating his desire to consummate his relationship with the little girl.  It is nightmarish.

The Curious Case of GNR and the Crüe

Watching Poison's "Behind the Music" recently, I was reminded that the rock critic's narrative for what "happened" to hair metal was Nirvana's Nevermind.  The history of rock has been written in a way that posits Kurt Cobain as a grunge rock Jesus chasing the hair metal moneychangers out of the temple.  We accept this story, because we like Nirvana, and we dislike Poison; the band names here are very fitting, yes?

However, before Nirvana came along, heavier hair bands like Skid Row, Motley Cr
üe, and Guns N' Roses were often credited with sweeping away over-the-top, decadent rock and roll, and I think that assumption deserves examination.  There are a lot of rock listeners who would still agree that GNR and the Crüe are still somehow superior to hair metal, because they brought back a certain masculine toughness to the form that was presumed lost by guys with names like Bobby Dall, C.C. DeVille, and Bret (not Brett, Bret with one 'T') Michaels.  The femininity and fashion that Poison and their ilk culled from the glam set was set against this macho tendency and found wanting.

Allow me to clarify my position, because I like those heavier bands perfectly fine, and I'm not casting aspersions on them: I'm saying that it's hard not to see the reactionary misogyny in the stance that these "tougher" bands are "better" bands, and that's an assumption that should be called into question.  It's sexist, but more importantly, it is absolute nonsense.  For example, the enormous swagger of "Kickstart My Heart" (and its video complete with high-speed boating accidents?  Seriously?!) and "Shout at the Devil" are way over the top, and no one — and I mean, no one — was prettier than Tommy Lee. 

Furthermore, if you think Use Your Illusion I is anything but Axl Rose's attempt to rewrite Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, you are deluding yourself.  "Nightrain" off of Appetite for Destruction is absolutely GNR's take on "Saturday Night's Alright (For Fighting)".  Trumped-up toughness?  Check.  Chest-beating machismo?  Check.  Rock cliche?  Check.  Put bluntly, Guns N' Roses is nothing if not Axl Rose's attempt to get jocks to listen to musical theater.

I hear 'Axl Rose' is an anagram for 'Elton John.'

And allow me to clarify even further: that's not a knock; that's what you should like about Guns N' Roses, the same way the fashion of hair metal — which was borrowed, along with some terrific power pop elements, from the 70s glam scene — is exactly where you should look for something positive in the music.  On Poison's "Behind the Music," the sincerely down-to-earth-seeming Rikki Rockett makes a very revealing statement: "We grew up with David Bowie and Alice Cooper and T. Rex, and I mean, god, that's why we looked the way we did."  While I'm not saying Poison is in a tier with any of those musicians, I find time and time again that it's very difficult for me to dog somebody whose taste in music is solid and who's occasionally able to reassert some of that influence back into the mainstream.

Home, Sweet Home: Hanoi Rocks
Bangkok Shocks, Saigon Shakes, Hanoi Rocks.

Finnish glam metal pioneers Hanoi Rocks are sometimes considered a bridge between the glam rock heyday of the 70s and hair metal, and I conclude with them because they are incredible.  If you're wondering out there what the point of all this was and asking yourself "What's really at stake if I don't listen to this genre that people call hair metal?" the answer is Hanoi Rocks.  Hanoi Rocks is at stake.

On their first studio album, 1981's brilliantly titled Bangkok Shocks, Saigon Shakes, Hanoi Rocks, you've already got two great power pop cuts in "Cheyenne" and "First Timer".  "Cheyenne" features an intro that starts with soft, pleading vocals over a plaintively strummed guitar that stops on a dime, descending into a rumbling bassline that runs for one measure before singer Michael Monroe calls out "Hey, komm heere with thee gee-tar, ho-kay?" in the best of all possible manners, at which point said gee-tar riffs in like a tidal wave.  The song's lyrics about falling in love with (and to) rock and roll are simple and charming: "Recall the times we met, wild and free/We had our ups, and we had our downs/And the sweet, sweet rock and roll was playing on the radio."  Perfect.

The title track off their second album, 1982's Oriental Beat, sounds like a track off The Clash or In the City; the lyric "The Chinese girls make me happy/It's enough if I tell 'em I'm not from the U.S.A." is a page straight out of the Joe Strummer playbook.  Andy McCoy, the composer of "Oriental Beat" and many of Hanoi Rocks' best songs, would go on in the late 80s to play with Iggy Pop.  Not bad for a hair metal guitarist.

And they stayed strong for years: "High School" off of 1984's Two Steps from the Move is faster and more metal-influenced, but the lyrics and upped vocal production are reminiscent of the workings of The Who's Pete Townshend.  After lamenting the awful situation at his high school, McCoy's student decides he should become the teacher, humorously thumbing his nose at school and at (McCoy's) own glam pretensions: "Listen, I tell the little buggers what to wear/You know, I show 'em how to set and dye their hair/And baby, there'll be no costumes at our swimming pool/There'll be no ugly girls at my high school."

I've been told that my championing of Hanoi Rocks is somehow a cheap shot in my defense of hair metal, precisely because they're so good, and their sound is so linked to 70s glam and punk rock.  I don't think that claim is valid, because that's the value in a lot of hair metal.  Sadly, the thing Hanoi Rocks may be best known for is losing their drummer Nicholas "Razzle" Dingley in 1984, when he hopped a ride to the liquor store with a drunk Vince Neil of Motley Crüe.  If you're thinking to yourself, "Oh, yeah, okay — I know that story about Vince Neil driving drunk into oncoming traffic and killing his passenger, but I didn't remember that it was the drummer from Hanoi Rocks," you're in the majority of people I've discussed this with, and your immediate categorization based on that limited information is going to be: Hanoi Rocks, hair metal band.  I think it's fair to say they do and don't belong here, but you probably wouldn't run off to listen to them without more to go on.  You should.
So, at the end of the day, am I asking you to play hair metal?  No.  There are plenty of hair metal joke bands out there — Washington, D.C.'s Rattler is a personal favorite, L.A.'s Steel Panther is probably a better-known example — and that can be fun, but when you get to something like Sweden's Crazy Lixx, you've lost me.  The point isn't to recreate the 80s.

Am I asking you to listen to hair metal?  Not necessarily, though I have a delightful little Spotify playlist — fittingly entitled "Kickstart My Heart" — that you're welcome to peruse if you please, mingling hair metal with some standard NWOBHM and other kitschy rockers.  For example, are you aware of Danger Danger?  They had two hits: "Naughty Naughty" and "Bang Bang". (You can't make this shit up.)

No, what I'm asking is that you see the value in all music, because I am most certainly going to write some terrible Jon Mann songs after cramming all this god-awful hair metal into my poor, unsuspecting keyhole.  And when you hear them, I want you to remember: I did it for you, and I did it for me, but mostly, I did it for Hanoi Rocks.

— JM

Previous Entries of "In Defense Of":
Reid Attaway, In Defense Of: Ska 

Derek Hawkins, In Defense Of: Standing In the Spotlight by Dee Dee King

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