The Frivolous Fun of 80’s Hair Metal


They were hairy and kooky, obnoxious and spooky, and altogether ooky, the metal bands of the 80’s. As fashionable as it was to love these L.A.-based heavy metal in the 80’s, it became just as fashionable to openly despise them in the 90’s.

I grew to “loathe” them too, until a co-worker said, “They’re not Bob Dylan, or John Lennon, I get it, but c’mon, they’re fun.” I immediately dismissed that response, because the guy who said it was a doofus. His musical tastes did not define his doofosity, but it was everything else that led me to dismiss just about everything that came out of his mouth. Yet, to my amazement this simple line, from a very simple man, fundamentally changed the way I listen to music. I became a “C’mon, they’re fun” guy too.

Prior to loathing them, I went through a heavy metal phase when I was a teenager. I owned a cassette tape of every major, and many minor Los Angeles-based, hair, glam metal band available. When I aged out of it, I sought serious, brilliantly complex music, but when doofus said what he said, I realized that I was taking myself far too serious. My takeaway was we can all seek complex arrangements in our music from artistic musicians, but let’s not forget to keep it fun. 

The beauty of the music of this era, this doofus reminded me all those years ago, and the book Nothin’ but a Good Time reminded me recently, was that the glam metal music of the ’80’s never claimed to be anything more than what it was. Say what you want about the bands of this era, and the music they wrote, but they never tried to be vital or important. They never wrote a seven minute opus on the Fall of the Roman Empire and how it might correlate with the modern rise of technology. The music of the Los Angeles-based hair bands were all about having a party, abusing their body with whatever substances they could find, having conjugal relationships, and any other forms of excess they could find to have a good time. As the book points out, they practiced what they preached.    

Shortly after I grew out of my love of hairy metal, I sought clever and complex music, but I never enjoyed deep songs with meaningful lyrics. This might be a result of listening to so many thousands of hours of metal music in my teens, but I have always considered deep, meaningful songs so silly. They do nothing for me. Whether romantic, socially conscious, or any other form of importance a songwriter tries to achieve with clever lyrics they hope we might find intellectual, but they never reached me on that level. Some people seek philosophical substance in their music, and some seek it in other venues. 

We’ve all read critics dissect lyrics for the deep meaning the author intended, but most of them either have something to do with something political or social, or they contain some oblique, or over the top, reference to drug use. I listen to that music, and I repeat it numerous times, but it doesn’t affect me in anyway. Vocals, and vocal inflections, should be used as another instrument in a song. If they do it well, I’ll listen, but I don’t understand why we should care what Thom Yorke of Radiohead has to say about his view of the world any more than we do Bret Michaels of Poison. In this vein, Michaels’ lyrics might be more respectable, because he doesn’t engage in any of the “look at me, ain’t I smart?” type of the self-indulgent lyrics inherent in Yorke’s work. 

Most of the “vital and important” music critics of the era loathed heavy metal, but we fans didn’t care. We didn’t need Nothin’ but a Good Time, and that served to undermine the power of the music critic industry. The critics knew that most of the hairy metal bands didn’t know how to play their own instruments, and they panned them for not only ignoring socially significant issues but damaging some. They loathed these bands for thumbing their nose at consequential issues, and they deemed them inconsequential. No one I knew cared. We wanted to play their music at our parties, and we wanted to play that same music in our cars while we remembered those parties. The book Nothin’ But a Good Time reminded those of a certain age that we no longer need to feel ashamed of loving that music for what it was, when it happened, because we were just kids back then who wanted to have fun.

How bad were the hairy metal bands of the 80’s? How good were they? It depends on whom you ask and when you ask them. As the book points out, the era was all about timing. Those who were in a Los Angeles-based heavy metal band between 1984 and 1988 who learned how the other half lives for a while, and they indulged in every excess they could think up. If a heavy metal, glam band had all of the above and they released an album as late as 1989 to 1990, a major record label probably signed them, but every album they made went straight to the $.99 bin. The idea that sales are all about timing is not a novel concept of course, but I don’t think any era in music was as stark as the heavy metal era of the 80’s was.

Were Motley Crue (‘83), Ratt (’84), Poison (‘85) that much better than Bang Tango (’89), Junkyard (’89), or Dangerous Toys (’89)? When we listen to classic rock radio today, which bands do we hear? How many of us even know the latter three? One would think that if the latter bands had music that was just as good that they would eventually rise to some levels of prominence. They didn’t, in part, because the more prominent bands of the era tapped into a time and place of the zeitgeist that will presumably never die in some quarters. 

What happened in the intervening years, some of those band members interviewed in Nothin’ but a Good Time say the dynamic in the industry experienced a subtle shift when Guns N’ Roses changed it a little in 1987. Others not in the book, say the industry tilted further away from the “Rock and Roll all night and party every day” rock theme when the funk-rap hybrid bands Faith No More (’89) and Red Hot Chili Peppers (first noteworthy album ’89) arrived on the scene, but most acknowledge that the Seattle, grunge movement led by Nirvana’s Nevermind in 1991 sounded the death knell of the hairy metal of the 80’s.

To read about 98% of most modern critics, the modern reader might believe that Kurt Cobain single-handedly killed ‘80’s hairy metal. The critics write this, because they loved everything about Cobain, Nirvana, and the single Smells like Teen Spirit. They love the narrative that ten minutes after Smells like Teen Spirit aired on Mtv, everyone knew the heavy metal movement was over. Some of the artists interviewed in this book, however, suggest that Slash might’ve done more to end the mid-80’s version of hair metal than Cobain. I consider that an intriguing notion, considering that most put the heart of heavy metal’s reign over the music industry between ’84 and ’89, and that it began to wane two years before Nevermind was released. As factual as that statement appears to be, according to record sales and Mtv plays, it’s not as compelling as the narrative that suggests one band, one man, and one song ended it all. Others claim that Mother Love Bone, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden did something so different in the years preceding Nevermind that they laid the times-they–are-a-changing groundwork to pave the way for Nevermind. Regardless the who, what, and whens of the argument, Nevermind did put the final stake in the heart of the dying carcass that was the hairy metal of the ‘80’s.

***

As compelling as the argument of the death of heavy metal is, the tale of the birth of heavy metal might be as interesting. Almost every artist of the era lists Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin as the forefathers of their sound, and others state that the first Black Sabbath album, AC/DC’s Back in Black, and Quiet Riot’s Metal Health, and Twisted Sister’s Stay Hungry all played a role. The over-the-top look, the stage theatrics, and the simple, arena, sing-a-long rock songs intended for nothing but fun, however, belong to KISS. Put simply, if KISS didn’t rule the 70’s, the hair metal movement of the 80’s probably doesn’t happen. Nothin’ But a Good Time mentions KISS a couple of times, but for the most part this book strives to cover the scene in this era, and it provides little backdrop for who (other than Quiet Riot and Twisted Sister) might have inspired it. Yet, if KISS inspired the movement, it would be a stretch to say they were the catalyst for the era. KISS came out in ’73, and they hit their peak commercial value between ’75 and ’77. Why did it take seven years for bands like Poison and Motley Crue to take their influence to platinum success?   

The missing link, in my humble opinion, arose from a shift the British band Def Leppard made away from their more traditional heavy metal sound to a more polished, catchy pop-metal sound that proved more radio friendly when they made the relatively successful High N’ Dry in ’81. In ’83, Def Leppard took that concept up a notch with the release of Pyromania. Pyromania’s success did not happen overnight, but in my world, it seemed no one I knew had ever heard of a group called Def Leppard on Thursday. By Monday, everyone I knew was wearing the Def Leppard Union Jack sleeveless T-shirt. The groundswell was almost that immediate.

The primary difference between Def Leppard and KISS, in my world, was defined among the teenaged girls I knew. I knew teenage girls who liked KISS, especially the song Beth, but the number of girls who loved a rock band was unprecedented in my world. When the songs from Pyromania hit the radio, it was the closest thing I’ve experienced to Beatlemania. Every teenage girl I knew listened to Pyromania and when teenage girls love something that much teenage boys pay attention, and they eventually learn to love it. Def Leppard’s formula of providing pop friendly rock music with catchy lyrics appealed to the girls before it did the guys I knew.    

The success of Def Leppard’s Pyromania (’83) led to Poison’s success (in ’85), and Motley Crue’s shift from their KISS-inspired (’83) album Shout at the Devil to the more female friendly Theater of Pain (in ’85). The formula Def Leppard set (by selling 6 million albums at the time) was to release a hard rock single followed by a more radio friendly ballad led every 80’s heavy metal act who followed, to include a more female friendly ballad.

The book Nothin’ But a Good Time begins right about here. The book doesn’t mention the integral role Def Leppard played, but after the success of Pyromania, every major label tried to sign their own version of Def Leppard/Kiss between 1984 and 1988. Most metal bands signed during this era went gold (selling 500,000 units sold), and some went platinum (1,000,000 units sold) to multi-platinum. As evidence of how crazy this signing spree became, a member of a band called Bang Tango said, “We weren’t even a real band when we were signed, and we had to learn quickly.”

Were most of the 80’s hair metal bands ridiculously excessive? Were they politically incorrect? Did they have the lyric “baby” in every song, at least once? Were they everything critics loathe? Probably, but in many ways that’s why we loved those bands. The big-hair-glam heavy metal sound was for the non-cerebral and non-political party we were all having as teenagers in the mid-80’s.    

At some point, the whole L.A.-based, hair metal, glam scene died. The definitions of when and how this happened differ, but it did die. Some bands were still being signed to major record companies, and in this book those bands say that they paid their dues, and they felt like they wrote a decent album, but the record company didn’t promote them the way they would have two years prior. The companies didn’t pour a ton of money into the band’s videos in a manner they would have two years prior either. They claimed that they were just as talented, or more so, than other bands who made millions two years prior. They missed the signing spree, and the multi-platinum awards for any band who could string together a halfway decent heavy metal ballad. They missed the crucial money making part of the era by two years.

For those of us who were young, easily-influenced teenagers during this era, the polished pop metal to heavy metal music produced during this era will always be “ours”. It seduced us into believing life could be fun, and it could be one big party that doesn’t have to end. Logic dictates that everything has to end, however, and there came a point where glam metal needed to die. An era defined by excess eventually became so excessive that it became a parody of itself, and those of us who once loved it developed a love/hate relationship that eventually came to an end, until someone reminded us how fun the music from the era was. Even with that, however, some of the artists interviewed in the book Nothin’ But a Good Time now admit that it became obnoxiously excessive, and it had to die under its own weight. Someone had to come along and burn the field to prepare for the harvest of something different and new. These facts about life and art can be as hard to accept as they are to deny, and as the book lists a number of bands who have experienced on nostalgia/reunion tours that some of them claim are as financially successful as those they did in their heyday. 

“Write jokes, get paid,” was the philosophy Jay Leno followed throughout his career in comedy. He said this to his fellow comedians who thought they could use comedy to change the world. The glam metal of the ’80’s followed Jay’s philosophy. They wrote fun, little meaningless songs that they hoped young people would buy, and we did, by the millions. The music was not important, vital, or consequential, but for those of us who lived through the era remember it as a lot of fun. When we comb through music timelines, with critics who write such things, we’ll see the lists of the seminal artists who defined an era and helped change the world, and we won’t find any of 80’s artists on those lists. Those of us who lived through the era know what a ridiculous time it was in music, in terms defined by music critics, but if we were to write a eulogy on the time period, we might say something like, “I don’t care what you write, or what you say, it was music that was fun to crank at parties and in our car, and you can take all of your self-indulgent clap trap about vital, important, and consequential music and shove it.” 

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