Fabulously Flamboyant Fridays: Hair Metal

Greetings pop pickers and welcome to this week’s Fabulously Flamboyant Friday – our weekly tribute to the rainbow and glitter world of music produced by artistes who are simply fabulous darling.

This week we travel back in time to take a Silvikrin-drenched look at that most ’80s of rock genres. The legs were skinny, the bottoms were pert, the Spandex was tight and the hair was BIG! Oh, yes indeedy – this week we examine the hedonistic, kitsch and camp offspring of glam rock and heavy metal; a frenzied coupling that produced a bounteous outpouring of beautifully coiffured hairy monsters of rock. Laydees and gentlebodies, FFF proudly presents quite possibly the greatest threat to the ozone layer since the invention of flatulence – 80s Hair Metal!

Variously called hair rock, poodle rock, glam metal, pop rock and many other (mostly pejorative) terms, this week’s hairy rock episode owes it’s existence to two Puffins of repute: It’s All So Clucking Tiresome and Upset. Cluckers complained about a lack of metal bands in my scribblings and quite correctly reminded me that – despite their often rampantly hedonistic weapons-grade heterosexuality – the LA hair bands of the ’80s were often camper than a row of pink tents. Subsequently, Uppers posted a video of The Tubes performing a superb cover of Captain Beefheart’s “My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains”. This track served to remind me of the important role that artists like The Tubes, Kiss and Alice Cooper played in the evolution of 80s hair metal, and thus this meandering article was born.

So let’s define our topic: ’80s hair metal was a genre of rock music that became popular in the United States during the early 1980s and is particularly associated with the clubs and music scene of Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. The genre achieved massive commercial success from approximately 1983 to 1991 and stylistically was characterised by bombastic studio production, slick videos, guitar-driven mid-tempo rock, over-the-top power ballads, gentlemen in makeup, an androgynous aesthetic and big, BIG HAIR. There were not too many Bobby Charlton comb-overs on show in this genre and the beer-stained (and often beer-bellied) double-denim of 70s heavy rock bands was quickly replaced by spandex, leather, lace and big, BIG HAIR (did I mention the BIG HAIR?).

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. To begin our story we need to leave the 80s and travel further back in time to Blighty in March 1971, and in particular to Studio One of the BBC Television Centre in White City, where Marc Bolan (with a little help from his fabulously flamboyant friend on the ol’ joanna) would deliver a performance that is widely regarded as the birth of the glam rock.

Glam rock was a peculiarly British style of pop and rock music that was typically performed by musicians in outrageous costumes, lots of makeup, a selection of ill-advised haircuts, platform shoes and lots and lots of glitter. Glam rock drew as much on bubblegum pop and cabaret as it did on rock and roll. The flamboyant clothing and visual styles were often camp or androgynous, and the genre felt like a push-back from the pop and rock of the late ’60s, which, in many cases, was beginning to take itself far too seriously.

However, just as late-60s rock looked like it was heading for the independent art house theatre prior to disappearing up its own fundament, pop music decided it was having none of that nonsense, headed straight to the pub for a ruddy good knees-up and glam rock was born.

And very successful it was too. From ’71 to ’75, the UK’s music charts were inundated with glam rock acts such as David Bowie, Sweet, Slade, Mud, Roxy Music and *ahem* Gary Glitter. Those not central to the genre very quickly saw their opportunity and jumped on board to cash in on the glitter boom. Slade and Sweet were perfect examples of this opportunistic manoeuvring. Slade were a hard rocking skinhead band from Wolverhampton who quite frankly looked like a bunch of brickies’ hod carriers. Nevertheless, after a quick coat of glitter, they reinvented themselves and enjoyed some serious chart success throughout the glam rock period.

Sweet, for their part (originally known as Sweetshop – what idiot came up with that idea for a name!) were bloody good musicians who seemed quite content to make a decent living out of bubblegum pop and later out of glam rock. Once they’d teamed up with the songwriting partnership of Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn (two characters who probably deserve a FFF all to themselves), Sweet went on to achieve significant chart success with over a dozen top 10 UK hits. Sweet, who were a very big influence on Freddie Mercury and Queen, were never really able to disguise the fact that beneath the surface of their bubblegum and glitter exterior there lurked a genuinely talented rock band of no small skill.

However, although glam rock artists did hugely well in the UK and had decent success in mainland Europe, they never really cracked the US market. By the mid-70s, the disco boom was booming, punk was rearing its pierced and spittle-stained head and glam rock began to fade away. It’s still with us, but the glory days were over and most exponents of the genre either tried to move on (e.g. Slade) or settled for the cabaret and scampi-in-a-basket club and holiday camp circuit (e.g. Mud). Some of course went on to have very substantial international careers.

But some North American artists (e.g. Kiss, Alice Cooper) had been paying attention and had more success moulding the ethos of glam rock into something more suited to the US market. Foremost amongst these artists were The Tubes – a band whose glam and theatrical influence in the US far outstripped their commercial success. When they first rocked up in the UK at the height of the punk and new wave movement, they very wisely ensured maximum publicity and (just as Alice Cooper had done before them) provoked howls of outrage from morality campaigner Mary Whitehouse by delivering a stage show that contained plenty of simulated nookie, lots of strappingly splendid bondage, and what was described at the time as “deeply offensive debauchery” – sounds like a splendid night out! Anyway, here are The Tubes performing on The Old Grey Whistle Test, with Frontman Fee Waybill displaying his bottom in the kind of fabulously flamboyant stage costume that would very soon break his leg on stage in Leicester.

As U.S. glam artists began to influence the musical landscape of north America, some began to explore the UK roots of the glam rock movement. As a result, artists such as Marc Bolan, Slade and many others began to gain status. Marc Bolan has been cited as an influence by several ’80s hair bands and to say that L.A. rockers Quiet Riot were influenced by Slade is something of an understatement.

And just like its UK counterpart, the US glam and hair metal movements never took themselves too seriously, with camp comedy and slapstick always waiting in the wings. If UK glam rockers were influenced by theatre and panto, their US counterparts absorbed elements of vaudeville into their performances. This can be seen in the work of bands such as Aerosmith and Van Halen and can be clearly illustrated by the ’80s solo work of David Lee Roth.

But, although north American rock was clearly becoming increasingly flamboyant, it wasn’t yet the distinctive brand of ’80s hair rock that would prove to be so fabulously flamboyant. For that to occur, another ingredient was needed, and to examine it we need to travel back in time once more. This time to the mid-60s, to take a look at the son of the inventor of Tippex.

Our interest here is guitarist and composer Mike Nesmith, the son of Bette Nesmith, the inventor of typewriter correction fluid (known as liquid paper in the U.S. and Tippex (the German version) in Europe). By the mid-1960s Mike Nesmith was building a decent reputation as a jobbing songwriter. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Frankie Laine, Linda Ronstadt, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the Stone Poneys and the Monkees would all go on to record Nesmith’s compositions. The Monkees would of course achieve enormous international fame and success and, perhaps unsurprisingly, by the time he left the Pre-Fab Four, Nesmith had become convinced of the value of television when it came to the business of flogging music to the masses.

Accordingly, in the late-70s, Nesmith created a music video program called PopClips for the Nickelodeon cable network. The massive Time Warner/Amex consortium was suitably impressed by his development of this format, they bought PopClips outright, gave it a quick polish, threw a shed-load of cash at it and in 1981 MTV Television was launched.

MTV was an enormous success. Record companies quickly realised the cash generating power of music videos and were delighted to discover that teenage girls – a demographic who up to this point had largely ignored heavy rock music – were suddenly watching in substantial numbers. Metal bands quickly realised they needed to lose the beer-stained denim, change their socks, start using deodorant and make damn sure they looked pretty for the girls. In what seemed like a flash, the radical makeovers were in place and ’80s hair metal was born. Initially I’m sure the makeup teams at the TV and video companies must have looked upon the material they had to work with and despaired. However, these noble (and often fabulously flamboyant) few did their very best and under their caring ministrations vast swathes of previously unwholesome rock bands just seemed to get prettier and prettier and prettier.

Unfortunately of course, some artists were utterly irredeemable: too old, too ugly or just too damn hairy, and absolutely no amount of rolling them in glitter was ever going to help. Under these circumstances the priority was to avoid startling the horses, so the best course of action was to surround the band with pretty young things and reduce the musicians to dimly lit bit-part players in their own videos.

It wasn’t all pretty boys, of course. With lots of girls watching MTV, the ’80s were a truly great time for ladies of a rocking persuasion. Numerous successful careers were launched, but an interesting feature of this period was the number female artists with record sales on a downward trajectory who suddenly found their careers fully revived by a highly successful second spin on the rockin’ roller-coaster. Artists such as Grace Slick, Tina Turner, Ann & Nancy Wilson (of Heart) are all perfect examples of this phenomenon, as is of course a very neatly trimmed Cher.

And we can’t talk about ’80s hair rock without mentioning the ubiquitous power ballad. These mid-tempo, rocked-up and often emotionally overwrought ballads were a dominant feature of the genre. Almost every hair band produced them, the ladies loved them, cigarette lighters were held aloft for them, and record company executives rejoiced as they sold by the truckload. Essentially a pop ballad in rock clothing, the development of the power ballad is credited to several artists, but more than a few will cheerfully point the finger of blame (or credit – depending on your point of view) at the late, great, American guitarist Tony Peluso.  His mid-70s guitar and production work, most notably with Richard and Karen Carpenter, and in particular his iconic guitar solo at the conclusion of their 1972 single “Goodbye To Love”, is often sited as birth of the power ballad as a distinct species of pop song. As a producer he worked with artists such as Smokey Robinson, The Temptations, the Four Tops and Michael Jackson, but here is is doing what he did best – spanking his plank on stage with the Carpenters.

And no discussion of ’80s hair metal would be complete with mentioning the ultimate masters of over-the-top devastation, destruction and debauchery – Mötley Crüe. Here they are with a sweetly romantic little number about their favourite brothels.

Formed in Hollywood, California in 1981, Mötley Crüe – the self-styled “world’s most notorious rock band” – would come to personify the hedonistic reputation of ’80s hair rock. Quite probably the only band on the planet who could possibly have provoked John Bonham to point an angry finger and say “you need to calm the **** down, lads”, check out their biography (The Dirt) if you want to delve into the truly astonishing lifestyle of this band. But if drugs, debauchery, addiction, alcoholism, doomed celebrity marriages, sex-tapes, death, recovering from death (I kid you not), vehicular manslaughter, staggering levels of hedonistic self-indulgence and rampant heterosexuality are your thing – Mötley Crüe are the band for you.

Of course it couldn’t last. Rock and roll has always been about rebellion. Hair metal was king of the hill, so it was always going to be toppled; and toppled it was – in quite spectacular fashion. Some bands who were late to the party and some who were  unfairly tagged with the hair metal label were able to escape the now fast-approaching crash.  Guns & Roses are a very good example of this. Always more of a traditional ’70s style rock band than a hair metal band, they rode the collapse without noticeable damage and then set about imploding anyway.

But most hair metal acts were not so lucky. In truth, most of the genre’s wounds were self-inflicted, but just as the scene looked like it was flagging, grunge came charging out of the Pacific Northwest to deliver a seismic blow. In what seemed like the blink of the eye, the hair metal scene was severely wounded and would never recover. Quite simply, grunge made hair metal look ridiculous; made it look ludicrous, made it look old – and very soon it was swept away.

Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam were the primary bands to make an impact. With scruffy clothes, messy hair and a downbeat attitude of gloom, doom and teenage angst, grunge was perceived as pretty much the exact opposite of what hair metal had become. Hairspray sales collapsed, the ozone layer was saved and hair bands that had been playing to 10,000 fans a night, quickly found themselves back where many had begun, playing in nightclubs to 500 people or less. The party was over, Spandex manufacturers wept and rock ‘n’ roll moved on.

Of course, not everyone was swept away by the grunge onslaught. Indeed, some of the biggest names of the 80s simply rocked and rolled with the punches and went on to much bigger and better things. And we’ll end tonight’s festivities with a perfect example of one such band. For many, the greatest rock ‘n’ roll exponents of the big hairy decade – Bon Jovi.

Anyway, that’s yer lot for this week’s Silvikrin ‘n’ Spandex episode of Fabulously Flamboyant Fridays. TTFN Puffins – not ‘arf!

Featured Image: Metal magazine, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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