Metal History – Hair Metal, Part 1: The Explosion

December 8, 2013 — Leave a comment

“When you start this blog, are you gonna write about the dark ages of metal?” a friend asked me once.


“You know, the uh…the hair bands.” He shuddered at the thought, as though referring to a gruesome, unspeakable medical procedure.

Hair bands are some of the most maligned music in history; many metalheads regard them with derision and scorn. They regard hair metal as sellout, airbrushed, mainstream garbage, dated 80s nostalgia in which guys dressed like girls and the hairspray, the drugs, and the general overexposure reached absurd levels. I personally never understood the hate, but I guess I wasn’t there.

In my view, hair metal ought to be regarded as an integral part of metal’s history, and for those who couldn’t stand it (sonically, visually, or otherwise), it provided an important reason for other, more extreme versions of heavy metal to develop as a counterweight. More on that when I start on the history of thrash metal, but even if hair metal’s greatest contribution to metal was to be everyone else’s punching bag, it still serves a purpose.

And the stereotype at first glance may seem to confirm that. One of the most enduring images of the hair metal era of the 1980s is of Dee Snider, from the American band Twisted Sister, dressing like a woman and writing songs of youthful rebellion that caught on with an emerging MTV audience.

But how did it develop?

Having an androgynous appearance, flashy outfits and wearing makeup and eyeliner onstage was nothing new by the time Twisted Sister hit it big in 1984. David Bowie, Lou Reed, and KISS were doing it long before, and hardly anyone complained about them.

What became known as “hair metal” developed with a heavy influence from these glam rock acts, which also included groups like T-Rex. Glam rock was always more popular in the United Kingdom than in the United States, which probably explains why it took a little while to score hits.

The blend of melodic pop hooks and hard rock chops, washed down with a dose of flashy guitar wizardry, became the signature sound of hair metal. And this model was first developed by Van Halen starting in the late 1970s. Although they would eventually become one of the most popular rock groups in the world, it took a few years for their first LP, now considered a classic, to start selling. And sell it eventually did, to the tune of more than 10 million copies in the United States alone.

So, if Van Halen was responsible for laying the blueprint with the fun, party-hearty songwriting and the finger-tapping ecstatic soloing of Eddie Van Halen, who kick-started hair metal with its first number-one album?

The first big hit for a hair metal band of any kind in the United States was done by a band called Quiet Riot, who were to record a cover of a song called “Cum On Feel the Noize” by glam rock band Slade.

According to legend, Quiet Riot wasn’t thrilled to be performing it—in fact, they planned to perform the song horribly. But, drummer Frankie Banali just started booming away with a kick-drum intro, which sounded…well, at least good enough for them to put on tape.

The song hit number 5 on the US Billboard, and the Quiet Riot album Metal Health became the first of many number one albums for the hair metal subgenre. It was 1983 when this happened, and the nationwide spotlight descended upon the center of the new glam and hair metal scene: the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles.

Today, Sunset Strip is just another expensive area of LA, and most shows there are mainstream music industry showcases. But in the 1970s and especially the 80s, it became the epicenter of every single stereotypical 1980’s excess you could imagine: cars, chicas, flash (as they said in Scarface). Glitz, glamour, partying, and of course, cocaine.

“Sunset Strip would just be packed, wall to wall people,” Vince Neil, lead singer of Motley Crue, recalls in Sam Dunn’s documentary Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey. “Guys looking like girls, girls looking like guys, sex, drugs, and rock and roll…it was nuts.” And as hair metal developed, if you took that entire scene and made it into music, that was how it would sound—an over-the-top 80s party where nothing went undone.

As the accolades and sales (and by extension, the inevitable drugs and craziness that resulted), more and more bands joined in on the party on the Sunset strip. If you want an excellent document of just what was going on at the time and the effect it had on everyone, I can’t recommend Motley Crue’s book, “The Dirt,” enough. Some of the stuff in there is enough to make Tucker Max blush. Read my review of it here.

By the end of 1983, Van Halen’s long-overdue superstardom became theirs, with the synthesizer-laced hook of “Jump” propelling David Lee Roth and company to multiplatinum superstars. And yet, incredibly, at the height of their success, the band split with beloved frontman David Lee Roth in a highly-publicized falling out. If you wanted to get a microcosm of what would happen to most of the 80s hair bands, with the ego and the money just getting to be too much for it to work any longer, Van Halen is (unfortunately) a prime example.

But damn, that synth is still making people dance today, so they must have done something right.

After Van Halen split (Dave’s throne filled by the capable Sammy Hagar in the meantime), the time was ripe for another huge band to lay claim to superstar status. It’s the answer to the following joke told at the time:

“What has 10 legs, 9 arms, and sucks?”

“Def Leppard.”

In case you’re wondering, one-armed drummer Rick Allen lost it in a car accident, but just like Tony Iommi overcame his own injury to his hand, he powered on through it, learning how to drum one-handed and with both feet.

By the time Def Leppard conquered the world in 1987 with the above song, it seemed as if there was no stopping hair metal. It was on top of the world and outsold pretty much everything else. Nothing else could compete with it, and like a bubble that just kept on inflating until you wonder if it will ever pop, the entire excessive scene would blow itself up in spectacular fashion as the 80s drew to a close.

More on that next time, when we look at the end of the reign of hair and the new, aggressive, underground sounds that were now reacting against it.

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