I like hair metal. It is simply mainstream rock from the 1980s. Much of what has remained in the critical memory from that decade, like Metallica, wasn’t that successful at the time, while bands like Poison, Motley Crue, Van Halen, Def Leppard and Bon Jovi were selling zillions of records. If you’ve ever seen The Decline of Western Civilisation II: The Metal Years (and if you haven’t I recommend you do so), you get a sense of the whole ecosystem of LA rock bands, from the bottom feeders to the aspirants to the kings of the jungle. What I like about hair metal (the name is of course derogatory, but it’s a useful tag) is that it’s fun. It’s celebratory, emboldening, empowering. Nirvana came along and destroyed all that, making rocking an embarrassment; thereafter wiping out the joyous, hedonistic aspect of rock, leaving nihilism, (self)loathing or pure aggression. Bands like The Darkness who wanted to return to the fun of rock had to do so semi-ironically, with a wink and a nudge to say “We know it’s ridiculous…”
Still, there’s a lot worthwhile from the decade that taste forgot, where women were women and the men were women too. Here’s a few of my favourites.
Alice Cooper, “Poison”
After spending the early 80s in a drug funk, Alice cleaned up and needed to earn some serious $. Teaming up with songwriter Desmond Child, he made a successful comeback, showing Aerosmith the way to do it (they followed the exact same route about a year later). “Poison” cops the intro from “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and uses the “bad drug” metaphor earlier seen in Bon Jovi’s “Bad Medicine”.
Poison, “Ride The Wind”
Never critical favourites (hey, but then neither were Black Sabbath), Poison were always derided for being too poppy, too popular, too fun. There’s little more self-righteous than the rock fan. In their third album Flesh And Blood, Poison added muscle to their guitar sound and wrote about topics more varied that sex, partying, rock and more sex. This ode to motorbiking is undeniable.
Quireboys, “Hey You”
Rock in Britain in the late 80s was in a poor way. Iron Maiden were the kings of the jungle, but had obviously fossilised, churning out the same album time after time. The NWOBHM similarly had faded, and nothing had managed to hook audiences in the same way – with LA rock consuming American interest, most British bands tried to follow suit into sleaze rock, often appallingly. The Quireboys wisely ploughed the Rolling Stones/Small Faces influences. Shame that the Black Crowes took the same idea but being American got the big audiences. Still, this is a classic song with a wonderful chorus. I hope it still gets played in biker bars in the sketchier parts of the UK.
Motley Crue, “Same Ol’ Situation (S.O.S.)”
Before Guns N’ Roses blew them out the water, the Crue were the kings of the LA rock jungle. Their albums were the precise embodiment of the hair metal thing, with tales of hedonism and cheap regret, rocking but melodic riff-monsters and sing-together power ballads. Dr Feelgood remains their best album, in part down the production, which brings out the arrangements and song craft better than any other. (Metallica liked the production so much that they hired producer Bob Rock to do their fifth album). “Same Ol’ Situation” is a case in point – stomping intro (thumping snare from Tommy Lee), catchy verse (sassy vocal from Vince Neil) and great singalong chorus (terrific massed backing vocals makes it massive). So much FUN.
KISS, “Crazy Crazy Nights”
I never knew KISS as the masked demons of pop-rock fantasy, just as their 80s rock incarnation. I love how much they celebrate the joys of life, of Friday nights and blue-collar thrills with such relish. Nothing snobby here! Funny how this attitude is celebrated in Jack Kerouac (for example) but despised in music. I have no idea why that is, but it’s to the impoverishment of those who feel that way.
Mr. Big, “To Be With You”
The ballad was of course a big part of the hair metal armory. It was usually a power ballad with a slow intro and rousing ending (with shredding guitar solo): simple but endlessly effective. This isn’t one, being an accoustic singalong, but it’s notable for the excellent vocal harmonies in the chorus. This song is still very popular in China!
Ugly Kid Joe, “Everything About You”
Juvenile, adolescent, childish… yup. That’s not to be derogatory, but just to point out its qualities. Still great fun.
Aerosmith, “Love in an Elevator”
After losing their way in the 80s (no real surprise when every album title was a reference to cocaine: Rocks, Draw The Line, Done With Mirrors), Aerosmith followed the Alice Cooper template, cleaning up and getting together with outside writers to get back in the charts. This is not to say their comeback albums, Pump and Permanent Vacation, are vacuous sellouts. The guitar interplay and the exceptional vocal harmonies in the outstanding song from Pump, “Love In An Elevator”, show that form might be temporary but class is permanent.