In times of turmoil and stress, one sure-fire way to perk up is to revisit some of the feel-good stuff of yore. There’s something comforting about the classics, no matter the media, that brings a sense of familiarity to the fore, helping us to unwind when the shit gets real. In this particular case, I’m referring to one of the more popular, but often most maligned sub-strains of popular music, that of the pop-metal variety. Now, often referred to as “Hair Metal,” some of this stuff has continued to survive well past its initial shelf life, managing to somehow endure the likes of grunge, elitist critics, major label indifference and an overall level of musical and cultural snobbery that was far disproportionate in its virulence against the music.
The irony of it all?
Pop metal is the new punk rock in some ways. Diehard fans are looked down upon, as denizens of the low-brow; or as posers who aren’t hip enough to mingle with the barista set, yet also lack the underground sensibilities to be accepted into more avant-garde metal circles. No matter how many downloads it generates, how many successful tours it undertakes, how much it’s become part of American pop culture, it still remains the bastard musical stepchild of the past 20-30 years.
A few years back, I wrote a history of sorts on the genre to coincide with some new reissues in this same fine rag, and I got loads of responses from folks who agreed that pop metal often gets an undeserved bad rap. While by no means do I contend that all of it was great—in my mind, after the first wave or so, much of it is redundant, corny, vacuous, and comical at times. But, isn’t that often the case with just about every possible musical genre, once it becomes trendy and the copycats jump the train?
It’s also fair to say that from a purely musical standpoint, many in the pop metal set had superior chops, especially when compared to players from some of the other popular genres at the time, especially when it came to the guitars. Just compare George Lynch of Dokken’s solo in “Tooth and Nail” to just about anything coming out of the thrash scene at the time. The dexterity and precision in Lynch’s playing would be hard to rival in any genre. Since many of the axemen of the pop metal bands from the ‘80s aspired to be Eddie Van Halen or Randy Rhodes, they obviously put in a lot of hours to get it done. Since there’s no glamour to sequestering one’s self and practicing for hours on end, the poser label simply doesn’t apply.
Two of the premier acts from the first wave of pop metal have new retrospective box sets out, and seeing as the level of stress we’ve all been dealing with has been taking its toll on so many folks, now is as good of a time as any to break out the ear candy.
Aside from the likes of Van Halen, Mötley Crüe and Guns ’N Roses—none of whom would officially fall into the traditional pop-metal camp—Ratt was one of the most successful of all the Hollywood exports. Starting off during the late ‘70s on the heavier side as Mickey Ratt in San Diego, the band found its footing when it infested Hollywood in the early ‘80s and solidified its lineup with vocalist Stephen Pearcy, guitarist Warren DeMartini, guitarist Robbin Crosby, bassist Juan Croucier and drummer Bobby Blotzer. Selling out clubs across Southern California, the metal scene in LA was still in its early stages, and thus, less segregated than it would eventually become, where the pop- and thrash-metal bands planted themselves firmly at opposite ends of the spectrum.
The band’s brand of metal was obviously influenced by the arena rock of Van Halen—especially with DeMartini’s guitar acrobatics in tow—balanced with subtle touches of Aerosmith’s gypsy swagger, and some UK metal elements as in the dual lead guitars of Judas Priest. The balance of its unique sound with the strong presence and personality of its players made the band a stand-out on the scene. In fact, the band would be included on 1982’s legendary Metal Massacre compilation for Metal Blade Records, alongside Metallica. The band would also play shows with some of the heavier bands of the scene at the same time. Ratt would soon release its eponymous, independent EP in 1983, which boasted fan favorites “You Think You’re Tough” and “Tell the World.”
A major record deal with Atlantic Records would soon be forthcoming and the band would release its most noteworthy album, the multi-platinum Out of the Cellar in 1984. A slickly produced affair, by soon-to-be hitmaker Beau Hill, the album was rife with big riffs, killer hooks and DeMartini’s guitar heroics, which fit perfectly within the new guitar hero era of the 1980s. Pearcy’s uniquely strained vocals could definitely be an acquired taste, but fit well within the songs. Hill’s polished production makes virtually every song a standout—from the slow-burn of opener “Wanted Man,” to the jungle rhythms of “You’re In Trouble,” the chain-gang refrain of “Lack of Communication,” and finally, the top-20 single “Round and Round.” One of pop metal’s defining moments, “Round and Round” set the standard for the genre with its driving riffs, rhythmic verse, and infectious chorus, all made punchier by Hill’s meticulous production that featured an innovative, delayed vocal effect to launch the main refrain, which would become its signature. The song has gone on to become part of American culture, having found its place in movies, shows, video games, and a recent commercial for Geico.
UK reissue label Cherry Red has released the band’s most coveted albums as part of The Atlantic Years 1984-1990. The 5-CD set comes packaged in a glossy, clamshell box and includes all of the band’s major-label releases in mini-LP style sleeves, along with bonus tracks for each album.
On the other side of the pond, Def Leppard would go on to be even bigger than their Sunset Strip cousins, and even bigger still than most other artists the world over. Def Leppard also started out in the late ‘70s, and would soon be leading lights of the burgeoning New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) alongside the likes of Iron Maiden and Saxon. The band’s determination, tight approach and knack for killer hooks helped distinguish it from many of the also-rans of the scene. The band’s key lineup, featuring Joe Elliott on vocals, Rick Savage on bass, Rick Allen on drums, and Steve Clark and Pete Willis on guitars respectively, would go on to become one of the highest-selling rock bands in history.
The difference between Def Leppard and many of their early NWOBHM brethren when contrasted against some of the early LA metal bands was the lack of Van Halen influence. Both scenes were obviously influenced by the likes of Led Zeppelin, UFO and Thin Lizzy, but whereas the LA bands would be heavily into the staccato riffs of Eddie Van Halen and animal antics of David Lee Roth, the Brits were far less animated and more rooted in the heavy blues and acid rock of their forefathers. So, while Def Leppard and Ratt would share similarities during their commercial heydays, in actuality, they came from very different places. But like Ratt, Def Leppard would also release an independent slab of vinyl, in the form of The Def Leppard E.P. in 1979.
The band’s live draw and distinctive personality would soon help it procure a major label deal with Mercury Records, who would release its debut On Through the Night in 1980. A scrappy hard rock affair, the album seemingly caught the band between eras—at the juncture of its heavy-rocking pub roots and its obvious aspirations to conquer America, via the hooky “Hello America” and the pop-flavored “Rock Brigade.” While still heavy in many spots—especially in the excellent “Wasted”—elements of the band’s original audience were none too pleased with its commercial leanings. The album was nonetheless a success and would years later reach platinum status. And what it may have lacked in sophistication, it more than made up for in its spirited performances.
Released in 1981, the band’s next album High ‘n’ Dry could potentially be the first official and solidified pop-metal album. I tend to go back and forth between it and Blackout by The Scorpions (1982). The only reason for any hesitation is that Leppard’s offering still displays many nods to the old school in its AC/DC-like production—courtesy of Mutt Lange, who would soon make both Def Leppard and AC/DC mega-stars—and its lack of the polish that would later epitomize the genre.
High ‘n’ Dry saw Def Leppard scale new heights both sonically and creatively. The guitars were edgier, the songs more structured and Joe Elliot’s vocals were far more pushed to the limits, channeling the likes of Bon Scott and Robert Plant in the process. The slight amateurishness—which added to the charm—of the earlier outings was now long gone and numbers such as “Let It Go,” “Another Hit and Run” and the title track are both heavy but hook-laden at the same time. “Bringin’ On the Heartbreak” is not your typical ‘80s power ballad. Its eerie riffs and dark chorus make it a bit of an anomaly; an anti-hit dressed up with heavy guitars and twisted harmonies. The album would set the stage for Def Leppard to soon conquer these shores and soon the world with its next two releases Pyromania (1983) and Hysteria (1987).
Def Leppard’s first two major releases are now part of a massive box set, The Early Years 79-81 (Universal). Executive produced by Joe Elliott, the set includes five CDs, which includes the albums in remastered form, along with several hours’ worth of extras—B-sides, live tracks, losts sessions, outtakes and an alternate version of “Wasted” which has been missing for years. The set comes packed in a substantial, hardbound box, with a history of the band’s early years included. For fans of the pop metal genre and Def Leppard completists, this is the real deal. It also offers a key look into the development of the band from tenacious teen noisemakers to mega rock stars in a matter of just a couple of years.
For questions, comments or something you’d like to see, drop me a note at Retrohead77@yahoo.com. Cheers, Kaz