I’ve always had a thing for underdogs. I think many Americans do. It’s inherent in our culture to want to root for those who may not be the very best, but have heart and conviction nonetheless. Upon receiving a few new releases and comps to review of some pop metal bands of yore, it got me to thinking about something. Why for some two decades has pop metal been such a glutton for scorn and punishment? From critics, to fellow musicians, forums and even the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, pop metal has been marginalized and ignored, evoking what’s akin to pure hatred in certain circles. What was once an aspirational musical genre inspiring multitudes of would-be teenage musicians to practice guitar for hours on end, had become the true bastard underdog of the music scene for much of the ’90s and 2000s.
As has been widely circulated over the past couple of decades, there’s a myth that Nirvana and grunge killed pop metal and related genres back at the dawn of the ’90s. But in reality, as often happens with scenes and trends, ’80s hard rock got overexposed and just kind of petered out. Grunge and what was then termed as “alternative music” was the new flavor, and had what metal largely didn’t—critical support. It’s no secret that mainstream critics have generally despised heavy metal, especially the more colorful, pop variety that is naturally an easy target. Per that, terms like “hair metal” started to surface after the fact as a way of marginalizing the more image-conscious pop metal bands of the ’80s. But does pop metal or “hair metal” deserve all of the ridicule heaped upon its backcombed façade? Frankly no. And there are several valid reasons why.
One thing to think about is the approach itself. Like the early rock ‘n’ roll of Jerry Lee Lewis and original glam rocker Little Richard, pop metal revels in escapism; whether that entails singing about the opposite sex, parties, booze or just the music itself (KISS’s “Rock and Roll All Nite” quickly comes to mind). Sure, it may often lack the subtleties or nuance of the art-house set, but sometimes you’re just in the mood for a quick, greasy burger as opposed to Asian-fusion tapas. And there’s nothing wrong with that. An anthemic, fist-pumping chorus can do wonders for a dreary day, and you’re gonna be hard-pressed to find one at the Lilith Fair.
What is and isn’t pop metal?
With roots dating back to back to ’70s arena rock, bands like KISS and Thin Lizzy began to sow the seeds of the coming storm with simple-but-effective hits like “Shout It Out Loud” and “The Boys Are Back In Town.” But no band did more to define the early genre than Van Halen. From Eddie Van Halen’s flashy, innovative guitar playing to David Lee Roth’s flamboyant stage antics, the band’s storming 1978 debut album virtually defined the blueprint in one fell swoop. And consequently, it would go on to have a major influence—in of way or another—over all of the burgeoning hard rock and heavy metal scenes to follow during the next few years. Realistically, Van Halen’s trailblazing originality and unique delivery place it in a category all its own and thus, it has never really has fit neatly within the confines of pop metal. But for many of the bands that emulated and copied the mighty VH’s style, it’s a different story (Ratt, Poison, et. al.).
Another interesting anomaly in the early days of ’80s metal would be Mötley Crüe’s first release, Too Fast For Love. Released on the band’s own Leathür Records label in 1981, Too Fast was more of a pop-punk/bubble gum record than anything slick and polished like some of the band’s later releases. Truly a DIY affair, the band marketed and sold the album themselves, while building a following in the LA clubs before finally scoring a deal—all this at a time when new wave and power pop were the only things getting signed out of LA. While later Crüe releases would help to fortify pop-metal parameters in spades, the early band was too scrappy and unpolished to really qualify.
The other main exclusion would be come a few years later in the form of Guns N’ Roses. Similar to Van Halen, GN’R’s sound was rooted in classic rock ‘n’ roll, but the band also had a strong penchant for punk (Duff McKagen was once a member of Seattle legends The Fastbacks) and a knack for almost poetic, streetwise lyrics that still have yet to be surpassed. Again, though, while bands like Guns N’ Roses, Van Halen and early Mötley Crüe deserve to be held up as trailblazers, the bands that copied them tend to fit squarely fit within the pop metal label.
Aside from a few oddballs that often get lobbed into the mix, another common misconception is that of glam rock and its connection. True, hordes of pop metal bands came decked out in flashy stage clothes and makeup, enter the term: “glam metal.” But the original glam rock scene of the ’70s had more to do with self-expression, art, theater and general deviancy, than merely slapping on a costume to keep up with trends. While many of the ’80s pop metal bands wore costumes and smeared eyeliner onstage, their connection to early glam pioneers like David Bowie, Marc Bolan and Brian Ferry was minimal at best. In reality, many of these bands were just latching on to a trend that had gone global, a trend that influenced artists even outside the genre. Just look at shots of early Pantera and Slayer, or traditional metal merchants like Ozzy Osbourne and Judas Priest for proof—makeup and costumes were the order of the day.
The early ’80s scene
So when did pop metal really find its feet? While Def Leppard’s second album High and Dry (1981) did feature the epic power ballad “Bringin’ On the Heartbreak,” it was largely still rooted in the sounds of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) that produced the likes of Iron Maiden, with a heavy dose of dirty, AC/DC-style hard rock. (The band’s next album, 1983’s Pyromania would change all of that and become a genre milestone.) While High and Dry came first, it was really The Scorpions’ breakthrough album Blackout in early 1982 that opened the floodgates.
Ditching their long, jammy esoteric songs for snappy melodic rockers, this showy German export lit the charts on fire with the album’s breakout single “No One Like You” showing the world that a gaggle of German men in spandex could also be quite sensitive. From there on out, the US scene took over, producing the likes of Quiet Riot (scoring the first chart-topping #1 metal record ever with Metal Health in 1983), Ratt, Dokken, Bon Jovi, KISS (without makeup) and Night Ranger, plus hordes of others with varying degrees of success. This would continue in waves until around 1993, when the public had finally moved on.
What about the music?
Beyond appearances, the level of musicianship within pop metal circles was unsurpassed at the time, and even outshines most of what’s come forth in the 25 years or so since. With the advent of Eddie Van Halen and soon after, Randy Rhoads (who technically would fit into the “hair metal” category due to his epic coifs and stage digs alone), would come a wave of technically superior guitarists that still command respect in guitar circles. Players like George Lynch (Dokken, Lynch Mob), Warren DeMartini (Ratt), Jake E. Lee (Ozzy, Badlands), Paul Gilbert (Racer X, Mr. Big), Tracii Guns (LA Guns), Nuno Bettencourt (Extreme), Brad Gillis and Jeff Watson (Night Ranger), Zakk Wylde (Ozzy, Pride & Glory) and even Swedish shredder Yngwie Malmsteen (Steeler, Alcatrazz, solo), could play circles around much of their thrash- and death-metal brethren of the time. While players like Poison’s CC DeVille or the guys from Warrant have been maligned for their lack of chops on the axe, in reality, they were the exception, not the rule.
But most of all, what about the songs? Now that’s a tough one, because it’s all purely subjective. While I can personally appreciate the lyrical dexterity of Morrissey or the spare atmosphere of the early Cure, that certainly can’t be said for all, and there’s a solid chance that some diehard pop metal fans might not share my views. But, there is a general consensus around music that stands the test of time. I recently heard both Cinderella’s “Gypsy Road” and Ratt’s “Round and Round” back to back on the radio while waiting for my car to get smogged. Both sounded refreshingly good. And just about everyone in my general vicinity perked up when the music came on. There’s something to be said for that. When was the last time Mudhoney got played…anywhere? I’m a fan of Mudhoney, but there’s a definite irony to be had with bands that supposedly ooze credibility, but fail to resonate beyond a few core fans.
Aside from the A-list set that still enjoy a certain level of airplay or exposure, there were quite a few bands that boasted solid song-craft, including the likes of Kix, Enuff Z’Nuff, Life Sex and Death, TNT, Electric Angels, War Babies, Shark Island and others that deserve further examination. Then, there’s always Mötley Crüe’s Nikki Sixx, who could do marvels with four chords and a catchphrase—1983’s Shout At the Devil being a prime example.
There’s always this thing with critics that something has to have “credibility” in order to be viable. But where does credibility come from? Is REM credible because there’s a certain set of critics that think so? Or, is it because the band was a staple on the college radio scene during the ’80s, when mainstream radio and MTV had no interest? That would certainly qualify for me, but some definitions of “credibility” merely stem from personal opinion.
Due to an overall lack of industry interest and media indifference, early ’80s metal bands oozed street credibility. Mötley Crüe’s early private pressing of Too Fast for Love and the single “Stick To Your Guns” were marketed and sold by the band on its own. The same could be said for future-stars Ratt, plus hordes of lesser-known bands trying to forge an identity in a less-than-welcoming industry. Local-level bands like Teeze, Max Havoc (with Bill Ward from Black Sabbath!), Sin, Kery Doll and loads of others put out their own DIY releases, or got their music out via tiny independent labels while promoting it all themselves.
Prior to MTV’s adoption of pop metal, mainstream support was slim, so promotion was truly grass roots, which meant seriously hustling at clubs, record stores and concert venues, and plastering the city with flyers—requiring a lot more actual footwork than posting an event on Facebook. And since “pay-to-play” policies were in full effect in many cities, bands would also have to deal with the oft-impossible task of selling tickets for their club shows, in order to contractually pay the club several hundred bucks just to be able to play a shitty early slot on the bill. The practice still exists in different places, but was absolutely rampant during the ’80s, in popular music cities like LA and San Francisco.
The Demise…and MTV’s Role In It
Part of the issue with pop metal is that it hasn’t all aged very well from a visual sense. Sure, bands like Quiet Riot, Twisted Sister, Poison and Ratt benefitted greatly from the likes of MTV, but it was that exact medium that ironically helped to do the scene in. But to be fair, it’s not just the “hair bands” that suffered. A lot of videos from the era just look corny as hell today. Whether it’s the production values, the fashion or choreography, many ’80s videos just look plain dated—check out videos from heavier bands like Manowar, Candlemass and Grim Reaper for proof.
Pop metal videos tended to have a few requisite clichés in place—prim poses, outlandish production values, buxom blondes and smug expressions oozing with pomposity. Because of this, some of the cockier bands paid dearly in the years to come. One such example was Winger. While the band was a virtual super group of virtuoso session players, its front man Kip Winger looked akin to a frosted-haired Patrick Swayze in tights, with a permanent condescending smile that showed off his bleached choppers. When the band’s video was lampooned on MTV’s Beavis and Butthead, it triggered a backlash that still haunts the band—and the man. It also pointed out some of the more ridiculous aspects of the overblown ‘80s rock video that was part and parcel of all mainstream music at the time.
Outlasting the naysayers
Getting back to my original point, it wasn’t Nirvana, grunge or the latest wave of alternative pop that killed off pop metal. It was cyclical change that was going to happen anyway. The political and pop-culture landscape was shifting and the flash of the ’80s and the “Me” decade had lost much of its luster. Pop metal was not the only casualty of the bunch. Heavy metal of all stripes suffered during the Lollapalooza heyday of the mid-to-late ’90s. Nirvana’s Nevermind was released in 1991, and while it turned more than a few heads in its back-to-basics approach and more serious aura, pop metal was still very much alive, and one only need to look at the flurry of releases that came out between then and 1993 for proof. True, sales for the average bands were in decline, but bands like Guns N’ Roses and Mötley Crüe were still big, while bands like Extreme, Mr. Big and Skid Row wracked up massive hits during the period.
There’s also the issue of critics. While the true purpose of music critics is to educate, inform and provide key insights into nuances we might not otherwise catch, many that inhabit the upper echelons of the music press obviously have an axe to grind, and pop metal makes for easy prey. Maybe they got bullied by the stoner down the street while wearing a Talking Heads shirt and haven’t been able to move past it? Either way, some just come across as mean-spirited. While there is a stereotype that rock and metal fans are closed-minded and rigid in their views, in true tit-for-tat fashion, many critics come across equally brazen as musical snobs and elitists, unwilling to give anything a fair shake unless it’s an ultra-limited release by a one-armed, political polka band from Peru. Again, I go back to my greasy burger analogy. I grew up liking both The Cure and The Crüe, and there’s certainly enough room for both.
All in all, pop metal’s original run lasted for a solid 10 years at least (early ’80s to early/mid ’90s), outlasting grunge by several years and outdrawing most alternative scenes in the process. But most importantly, the music is still very much alive on what’s often referred to as “Classic Rock” radio, resonating with new generations who appreciate the energy and spirit of a well-crafted anthem.
The New Breed
When pop metal bit the dust in the mid ’90s, there were still plenty of the old-guard bands still carrying the torch. And surprisingly, there were even a few new faces on the scene. The most successful of the bunch was LA’s Buckcherry. Out of the ashes of some of Hollywood’s more accomplished club bands, the group had shorter hair and played a slightly grittier version of the traditional stuff. But the common threads were the infectious, fist-pumping anthems and front man Josh Todd’s rousing stage presence.
Around the same time, Sweden’s Backyard Babies hit the scene with a punkier take on the original blueprint, channeling Social Distortion along with Hanoi Rocks and early KISS for an in-your-face approach that was extra effective on the band’s 2001 album, Making Enemies Is Good. The UK’s The Darkness and Finland’s HIM also had an impact in their own ways, both incorporating big hooks and loud guitars into the mix. The biggest by far of the new breed of rock-based bands of the 2000s was super group Velvet Revolver. The irony of it all was that while it featured ex-GN’R members as its core, its front man was none other than former Stone Temple Pilot Scott Weiland, who was part of the early ’90s quasi-grunge wave that grabbed the attention of the masses as metal declined. And let’s not forget Steel Panther, who’ve made a career in parodying pop metal while secretly wishing they’d made it back in the day in their original bands. But true to fashion, they’re highly skilled players with a knack for crafting memorable anthems.
Sweden has also been instrumental in cranking out pop metal bands with tight bonds to the past. Hardcore Superstar, Vains of Jenna and Crashdiet all stick a little closer to the original blueprint, with a toxic combination of flashy riffs, big choruses and attitude to burn. Interestingly, there have been rumors that Crashdiet may have even spawned a key member of masked Swedish superstars, Ghost B.C., who also have a hair metal element to their style and sound.
Perhaps the most unpredictable approximation of the original ’80s pop metal scene has come from the emo/post-hardcore side of the fence. Over the past several years the scene has produced a clutch of shaggy-haired, makeup clad malcontents with a hankering for brash sing-a-long choruses and technically impressive guitar solos.
Avenged Sevenfold incorporates a healthy dose of traditional metal—including Iron Maiden-style dual guitars, lavish video and stage sets and more. Black Veil Brides wears its love of Mötley Crüe on its tatted sleeve, playing an amped-up version of ’80s metal with a positive lyrical slant. My Chemical Romance may not have quite the technical chops of the aforementioned bands, but certainly understands the power of an epic chorus and high production values, as evidenced in its theatrically flavored The Black Parade album.
The most controversial of the bunch is ever-colorful Falling In Reverse. Led by the often-contentious Ronnie Radke, the band’s sound is a hybrid of metal, pop punk, post-hardcore and, um…rap. The combination of this along with the band’s glammy looks and Radke’s exploits puts them on par with Poison some two and a half decades earlier. But the band’s lead axe-man Jacky Vincent is as dexterous on the fret board as many of the ’80s players.
A few releases of late…
Rock ‘n’ Roll Rebels & the Sunset Strip, Volume 1
This is the release that inspired this month’s column. What we get here is four mammoth discs of mostly unsigned LA bands from the ’80s, with 72 studio tracks all in remastered form, plus insightful essays and notes. What makes this set special is the breadth of styles and scenes it covers. There are Strip headliners like Paradise and Shake City, funk-rock players The Wild (who once featured future GN’R keyboard player Dizzy Reed), underground lounge lizards The Mimes, Stones worshipers Rattlesnake Shake, the punk-infused New Improved God and the power-pop flavored Blackboard Jungle just to name a few.
For those interested in the real Sunset Strip of the ’80s and early ’90s and all of its different facets, Rock ‘n’ Roll Rebels & the Sunset Strip is a great place to start.
Live at Tokyo Dome
The band that started it all finally treats its fans to a new release in the form of this massive live set. Recorded during the summer of 2013, Live at Tokyo Dome
features the almost-original Van Halen in fine form and sounding energized and alive. And there’s a great set list to be had including the hits, plus a few deeper cuts we don’t hear as much of—“Unchained,” “I’m The One,” “Hear About It Later” and “Women In Love.”
While the band sounds exceptionally tight and Eddie Van Halen is in top form, Roth’s showbiz antics and improvisation are all over the map, to the point where you’d be hard-pressed to find a number where he actually sticks to the original melody. It’s strange, but never dull. Live at Tokyo Dome comes complete in a couple of different packages—a deluxe 2-CD digipack and an amazing 4-LP box on thick vinyl with all the trimmings. (Rhino)
Live at the Roxy 09.25.14
Last fall, Slash and his cohorts played a rare, sold-out club show at the Roxy in Hollywood, just after the release of the World On Fire album. The results have now been captured in this raucous live document. While it’s not GN’R, Slash has seemingly found his happy place with his band that includes Myles Kennedy & The Conspirators, and it truly shows—on both of his studio efforts with the band and this live outing. GN’R tracks like “Nightrain” and “Paradise City” are vibrant and tight, and the fans are seemingly eating out of the hatted one’s hand. Slash tracks like “World On Fire” and “Halo” are also quite effective in this high-end live outing. (Armoury Records)
The BulletBoys have always been a curious bunch. Hitting the scene in 1988, the band’s singer was a dead ringer for David Lee Roth image-wise, but that’s just the beginning. The band also had Van Halen’s producer, record label and some of its quirky sense of humor. But while their biggest hit had the somewhat un-subtle title of “Smooth Up In Ya,” this was no bonehead band. Besides being masters at their instruments, BulletBoys had a creative streak that elevated it above most of its pop metal brethren. Case in point, it’s choice of cover songs: The O’Jays’ funk hit “For the Love of Money” and an eerie cover of Tom Waits’ “Hang on St. Christopher.” Both covers did a fine job of re-inventing the originals—no small feat when jumping genres this much. And although the band did display its share of trite party rock-isms, it mashed it all up with enough grit and eeriness to make things interesting.
Now, vocalist Marq Torien returns with a new version of the band and a slightly more solitary take on the music. The overall sound is more rootsy and organic than prior offerings (and there’s little Van Halen to be found), but Torien’s bluesy voice still sounds vital on tracks like “Rollover” and “Symphony,” where the lyrics are introspective as opposed to in your face. If the Wallflowers went metal, it might sound something like Elefanté, and for this stage in the BulletBoys’ career, it marks an interesting new chapter. (Cleopatra)
As one half of the creative team behind late ’80s Chicago pop-metallers Enuff Z’Nuff, the cleverly named Chip Z’Nuff was majorly responsible for cranking out some of the band’s insidiously catchy, Beatleseque numbers—mostly during the ’90s of all things.
Strange Time sees the bassist/vocalist veering heavily into psychedelic-flavored pop, à la Revolver, as evidenced in the lazy-hazy “Sunshine,” and the single “Rockstar.” The title track keeps the flow intact, while its hypnotic groove adds a heavier feel to the proceedings. Things pick up at the end with a rousing cover of the Kinks’ “All Day and All of the Night” featuring Cheap Trick’s Robin Zander. Overall it’s an impressive solo effort, with a high THC quotient—except for the truly strange “F..Mary..Kill,” which riffs off of Steve Miller’s “Fly Like An Eagle” to less-than-stellar results. (Cleopatra)
For pop metal and virtually every other ’80s subgenre, Cleopatra Records is the go-to label for unearthing rarities and reissuing lost classics. Toronto 1990 captures LA Guns live at the top of its game. For fans, the set list includes highlights from the band’s first two—and best—albums, including “Slap In The Face,” “Electric Gypsy” and “Rip And Tear.” The only drawback is the somewhat patchy sound quality, which feels as if it was culled from a cassette tape. But in some cases, it actually enhances the sleazy, street-rock sounds of this seamy and beloved combo. (Cleopatra)
Take the World By Storm
What Do You Know About Rock ‘n’ Roll?
For metal collectors, having the two major-label Slave Raider albums on CD has been akin to finding the Holy Grail. Since neither offering from the costumed Minnesotans sold a lick on CD, finding a copy would typically cost a collector a small fortune. Now, after almost 30 years since its major-label debut Take the World By Storm was released, you can get both albums for a song, courtesy of the sage pop metal purveyors at Divebomb Records.
Both Take the World By Storm and What Do You Know About Rock ‘n’ Roll? include remastered versions and expanded artwork. Like Kix on the East Coast and Y&T in Northern California, Slave Raider’s core fan base was in the Twin Cities, and thus, their over-the-top image was easily drowned out by more popular national acts like Twisted Sister and WASP. Nevetheless, the song “Take the World by Storm” is still a burner to this day, and sounds good in this new CD package. (Divebomb)
Heavy Metal USA: The Complete Recordings
While not technically pop metal in the customary sense, August Redmoon was at the forefront of the burgeoning LA metal scene at the dawn of the ’80s. Inspired by the UK scene (NWOBHM) with dashes of Van Halen and Aerosmith, August Redmoon was the go-to band in the clubs, when finding a live metal show was virtually impossible. The band released its sole offering Fools Are Never Alone in 1982 (an ultra-rare piece of vinyl that fetches high dollar these days), only to break up as the scene broke big.
Now you can own the band’s entire recorded output on this killer comp, including Fools Are Never Alone, plus demos, rehearsals and liner notes by metal expert, Bob Nalbandian. (Cherry Red)
Directly From My Heart
You’re right. He’s not metal, nor even pop in the same sense of what’s been covered above. But, I couldn’t resist, because, if it weren’t for Little Richard and his proto-glam antics, we may not have had future deviants such as the New York Dolls and onward. So in a way, it makes really good sense to include this new release.
This 3-disc set includes remastered versions of key tracks from the era including “Tutti Frutti,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” and “Lucille,” as well as an informative book. This is rock ‘n’ roll in its truest sense—wild, loud and totally unhinged…the way it was meant to be. And, on that note, it’s the perfect exit for this feature, until next month. (Specialty/Concord)
For questions, comments or something you’d like to see, drop me a note at Retrohead77@yahoo.com. Cheers, JK