Once in every scant blue moon comes along a band that completely defiles the natural order of things. And when that happens, everything that we thought we knew will forever warrant further scrutiny from there on forward. Hanoi Rocks has always been one of those bands for me, and I’m guessing for a fair amount of others as well. For those who found themselves desegregated, appreciating the likes of punk, metal, and other vintage sounds of yore without embarrassment or issue, Hanoi Rocks had it all—the driving beat, twisted guitars, and infectious choruses notwithstanding. Were they post-punk deviants jacked up on speed with a penchant for street poetry? Or, dolled-up rock stars in waiting; spinning tales of excess and life on Mars? Yes. To both. Hanoi Rocks were the bridge from vintage punk to stadium-sized hard rock.
Now, with a sweet new box set, The Days We Spent Underground 1981-1984, plus reunion events, reissues, solo comebacks, and more, Hanoi Rocks is back in the public eye, and it’s high time.
At the tail end of the ‘70s, I’m sure few could imagine that a quintet of punk cast-offs from Finland would have such an impact and influence on artists and scenes to follow, but such was the case. And in spite of never breaking big into the mainstream like some of their followers eventually would, the band’s name continues to simmer just under the surface, for new generations in search of something a bit different.
We all know about early punk/metal crossover bands such as DRI, Discharge, and Corrosion of Conformity that helped forge new sub-genres and influenced hordes of new hybrid bands. Hanoi Rocks were on a similar level, melding the old-school punk sounds of bands such as Generation X, The Damned, and the Sex Pistols with the hard- and classic-rock stylings of Aerosmith, The Rolling Stones and Alice Cooper. On the surface, the band’s tattered glam look may have obvious connections to forebears The New York Dolls. But Hanoi was more aggressive at its core and far less showbiz-y, although Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders’ street persona was obviously a big influence on Hanoi guitarist Andy McCoy. In the wake of the original punk scene that the Dolls laid the blueprint for, Hanoi Rocks had obviously been influenced by the attitude, the speed, and the DIY ethic, but had the audacity to mix it with the swagger and excess of ‘70s arena rock.
The finishing touch would be the band’s image. A salty concoction of vintage- and cow-punk staples—creepers, spiked belts, and cowboy hats—poetically unmatched with thrift-store suits, flashy scarves, gaudy jewelry, and Victorian-era ruffled shirts. Embellished with makeup and exaggerated hair, the band’s somewhat freakish vagabond look suited it whether on the stage or the street. This convergence of styles that on the surface didn’t go together would later become in vogue across various musical genres, the fashion world, and beyond. Vocalist Michael Monroe was the most flamboyant of all. This deviant dandy with the bleached baritone could’ve easily been the bastard love child of Iggy Pop and Jayne Mansfield. On stage, Monroe was unhinged; an emaciated alien being with a penchant for preening, pouting, and conjuring up the most ungodly notes imaginable on the saxophone. But as a whole, the band’s look alone was enough to endear them to the underground, and it would feature on many a concert bill with all manner of goth, punk, garage, and hard rock bands in tow.
The band came together around 1979 when scrappy young guitarist and veteran punk McCoy met Monroe. McCoy already had quite a following of his own having spent time as a teenager in groundbreaking Finnish punk bands Briard and Pelle Miljoona Oy. The two set about putting together a straightforward rock ‘n’ roll band at a time when the trends favored synth-driven new wave combos or scruffy heavy metal bands. The band was rounded out by Sam Yaffa on bass, Nasty Suicide on rhythm guitar, and Gyp Casino on drums, later replaced by Nicholas “Razzle” Dingley of early British punks The Dark.
The band released its debut album Bangkok Shocks, Saigon Shakes, Hanoi Rocks in 1981. Reaching the top of the charts in Finland, the album had elements of hard rock, calypso, reggae, and punk within its seamy grooves. 1982 saw the release of Oriental Beat, the record that broke the band into further markets such as the UK, Europe, and Japan, The band had now relocated to London and had been warmly embraced by the press as a soon-to-be breakout act. Next up was the compilation album Self Destruction Blues (1982). While more of a collection than a traditional studio album, the album stands as my personal favorite. Opener “Love’s An Injection” is strange, dark, and endlessly infectious, down to its piano-driven refrain and melancholy verses. “Taxi Driver,” is a slow-burner with its sludgy surf riff recalling “Brand New Cadillac” by 50’s rockabilly obscurities Vince Taylor and His Playboys. Other standouts include “Cafe Avenue,” which has a snarky power-pop feel à la Cheap Trick, while “Kill City Kills” recalls the cocaine disco of the late ’70s Stones and Eagles, featuring a hip-shaking groove and killer guitar licks.
Back To Mystery City (1983) was another game-changing moment for the band. Its boldest studio album to date, it was a raucous affair with numbers such as “Malibu Beach Nightmare” and the title track. But there was a lot of nuance happening as well. “Tooting Bec Wreck” is strange, melodic and psychedelic all at once—its off-kilter mid-section and animal sounds only add to the insanity. ”Mental Beat” follows suit in similar fashion, but is much heavier, with a slow plodding groove that pounds the psyche. The album would chart in Finland, the UK, and Japan.
By now, momentum had shifted in the band’s favor, and with highly image-conscious, pop-metal bands gathering steam in the US, the band’s appeal began to expand, although its style was still far off from the likes of the more basic and accessible Ratt or Twisted Sister. Live album All Those Wasted Years (1984) would capture the band at the peak of its powers and soon major labels would begin falling in line. The band would soon sign with CBS Records and hit the studio with high-concept producer Bob Ezrin (Alice Cooper, Lou Reed, Pink Floyd) and a far-bigger budget.
Two Steps From the Move (1984) captured the band’s raw, creative spirit and gave it a slightly heavier sheen, most likely sensing that slick hard rock was an easier sell in the US than, say, cross-dressing esoterics with spiky hair and punchy guitars. But even with the glossier production and tighter songs, it was still very much Hanoi Rocks and the album began to pick up steam in these parts. The song “Underwater World” would prove highly influential to a certain young upstart band a year or two later with its prophetic line “Welcome to the jungle, deep inside of me.” If you guessed Guns N’ Roses, you wouldn’t be wrong, and that band’s guitarist Izzy Stradlin was obviously heavily influenced, down to his look, playing style, and songwriting. Many critics predicted a huge breakthrough with this album and US tour; and it was evident that fans did, too, as early US dates were all sold out, with a healthy mix of mohawks and heshers in attendance at the shows.
But, later that year, it all came crashing down when one night, while partying as guests of Mötley Crüe, drummer Razzle made the unfortunate decision to jump into Crüe vocalist Vince Neil’s car for a beer run. The intoxicated vocalist would crash the car and kill Razzle in the process while permanently injuring those in another vehicle. Overcome with grief, the band attempted to soldier one, but would ultimately call it a day a few months later.
Ironically, the Hanoi Rocks’ legacy would heavily resonate with pop-metal bands in LA and everywhere else across the globe. Guns N’ Roses would champion them in interviews, while thousands of other bands would pilfer the style but miss the point around the eclectic and unique sounds the band had created. Again, this was true crossover music, uniting an underground of those looking for something different, but ultimately would get exploited to some degree by basic unimaginative bands without a vision…or a clue.
To help set things right with the legacy, HNE Recordings’ killer new box set hits the spot. This 5-CD set includes every early release up to Two Steps From the Move. Each title comes in a mini-LP cardboard sleeve that emulates the original record jackets, along with remastered sound and a book filled with photos, memorabilia, and more. It all comes in a svelte, compact case and is an excellent artifact of true crossover music at its very essence.
For questions, comments, or something you’d like to see, drop me a line. @JimKaz1