Previously in this series, I talked about how hair metal came to take the mainstream world by storm in the 1980s with tremendous, stadium-sized pop choruses, enough guitar chops to have some crossover appeal towards metal fans, and themes of decadence and partying. I wasn’t there, but by all accounts this stuff was unstoppable.
Even some of the old soldiers of the heavy metal world got in on the glam game.
David Coverdale at one point was the lead singer of Deep Purple, one of the premier hard rock bands in the world and still a major draw in the 1980s. Capitalizing on his success and acclaim, Coverdale launched an iconic hair metal group called Whitesnake and promptly began scoring hits left and right, including “Still Of the Night,” carrying enough of a double dose of Led Zeppelin to make both avowed headbangers and mainstream listeners proud. Reaching back to the sweaty, Memphis soul records that had influenced his singing growing up, David Coverdale had gotten his groove back.
Another band becoming popular at the time was Dokken, who unfortunately became just as famous for a media-fueled feud between singer Don Dokken and lead guitarist George Lynch. Guitar geeks couldn’t get enough of Lynch’s six-stringed heroics, best exemplified by the hit instrumental “Mr. Scary.” At some point he started working the F minor chord and just went nuts from there. Even the mighty Eddie Van Halen may have had to work to keep up with him.
But where people really started to lose patience with glam metal was with the much-maligned power ballads.
Motley Crue had the first one, a Top 10 hit called “Home Sweet Home” in 1985—but, the record industry being what it is, soon every hair metal group had to show its softer side at some point or most of the big labels wouldn’t be interested.
Plus chicks dug it.
Pretty soon, power ballads were all over the place, and if you checked the top 40 at any point and looked at the top 3 songs that week, chances were there was at least one on there somewhere. It didn’t seem possible to get too cheesy or sappy—but people loved it.
The success was really starting to get to the bands’ heads, and perhaps the best example of this (by his own admission) was Motley Crue bassist Nikki Sixx, by this time a jaded heroin addict. On the surface, it seemed as though all was well in the world of Motley Crue: they were wildly successful, drummer Tommy Lee was married to Heather Locklear, and partying was all they seemed to do.
But such a lifestyle has its effects on the human body and the human psyche, and on December 23rd 1987, Sixx overdosed on heroin in his Los Angeles home and was rushed into an ambulance, where his heart stopped. He was officially dead for two full minutes.
According to “The Dirt” autobiography, supposedly one of the medics noticed the flat-line and yelled, “Nobody’s dying in my f*ckin’ ambulance!” and injected two full shots of adrenaline into Sixx’s heart, from which he amazingly recovered. It was a miracle; he was lucky to be alive. Surely he had a change of heart after this, curtailed his lifestyle, and went back onstage as a changed man?
Nah—he celebrated by promptly shooting up more heroin. But Motley Crue got a big hit out of the incident, so that was something:
Motley Crue celebrated 1989 with a number one album, “Dr. Feelgood,” but at this point the hair metal subgenre was starting to get long in the tooth. Mainstream support for heavy metal music has ebbed and flowed quite a bit over its forty-year-plus history—this may have been the high point of its popular success (though that may be changing today…stay tuned). The sales and promotions were even spilling over into other more traditional metal groups like Judas Priest, who created their most pop-friendly song to date, “Parental Guidance.”
The year 1990 was the endgame for hair metal; although it wasn’t clear at the time, a new generation of musicians had grown up in its shadow and become disillusioned with the big stadium sound and over-the-top spectacle that the 1980s embodied. They found it alienating, and this frustration carried through in the music they were creating in their Seattle-area garages.
By this time the scene had gotten truly ridiculous, practically a parody of itself, to the point where a song with sexual innuendo about baked goods could become a hit (that girl is a beauty, though):
To be sure, there were other groups who truly enjoyed what they were doing and were still producing rowdy, quality barroom shout-alongs even until the end. Skid Row is sometimes considered the last hurrah for the hair metal movement. Sebastian Bach could scream and yell with the best of them, and in 1989 many a defiant fist were raised in the air to their signature song, “Youth Gone Wild.”
The true end of hair metal in the mainstream came in 1991 with the arrival of grunge music, a fuzzy, detuned, angst-ridden brand of hard rock out of Seattle. It may have marked the last time the entire music industry shifted because of one band.
That band, of course, was Nirvana, slated to be inducted into the 2014 Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame.
Metalheads can get a healthy debate going over whether grunge is considered heavy metal per se. Since it’s basically an umbrella term for a group of very different-sounding bands coming from Seattle, there is room to slice and dice over which of these groups is closest to what can be considered “metal” in the traditional sense. If I was writing a general history of rock music, grunge would be worthy of its own section easily, but my personal opinion is that it is a separate (but still excellent) brand of hard rock, same as Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and many of the earliest bands.
Metal or not, Nirvana popped the entire 80s hair-metal balloon with its iconic music video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and the hair bands found themselves out of a job. The shift was almost complete, as if most of the bands had never even existed in the first place. It was truly the madness of crowds from one extreme to the other. The 90s had begun.
Today, some of the big ones still tour and make a decent living. But hair metal is largely ignored and dismissed these days, especially by fans of more extreme metal. Nevertheless, it is part of metal history and marks a fascinating and bizarre high point of mainstream success (and excess).
While all the partying was going on down on the Sunset Strip, other heavy metal groups were reacting against it in a new and aggressive way. So far we’ve looked at what dominated the mainstream in the 1980s; next time on Metal History we’ll start the long discussion on what was going on in the underground.
Written by Matt P