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Nothin’ But A Good Time: When Hair Metal Ruled The Sunset Strip

A word-of-mouth scene generated on the streets of LA, hair metal might have cleaned up its act, but it retains a swagger that has timeless appeal.

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Hair Metal On The Sunset Strip
Photos: courtesy of the artist (Def Leppard), Annnamaria DiSanto (Poison)

On the Sunset Strip, everything was tight: the jeans, the torn T-shirts, the hooks and the drum fills. And of the iconic club where it all went down, the Whisky A Go Go, each night was packed with voracious fans looking to feast their eyes upon who may be the next great heavy slayers of hair metal.

Hair metal was a scene, born from word of mouth and generating real heat on the streets of Los Angeles. It was a heat that could be felt worldwide – one that rebellious youth could warm their cold hands on. Young men and women heard the siren’s call and knew that someone out there, far off in the streets of Los Angeles, knew exactly the medicine they needed. And what was that medicine? To party. Party like the walls of society were crumbling around you; and with each rumbling pillar that rolled to your feet, you would let out a rebel yell, throw the devil horns into the air and… Bang. Your. Head.

Welcome to the jungle

In 1975, Randy Rhoads, arguably one of the greatest heavy metal guitarists of all time, laid down the foundation of a wall that his contemporary, Eddie Van Halen, would have to hurdle every night. The band Rhoads wailed for was Quiet Riot and they had the best gig in Los Angeles, opening for David Lee Roth and Van Halen. Both bands owed plenty to a handful of glamorous predecessors, including New York Dolls, Alice Cooper and KISS, and were accomplished, driven musicians who cared more about the music than they did the fame. Well, at least the bands did. Their lead singers may have had different points of view.

Van Halen found success early, but Quiet Riot floundered for nearly eight years, later landing a recording contract that would only release their music in Japan until, finally, their career-making album, Metal Health, arrived in 1983. It was the first heavy metal album that went No.1 on the Billboard charts and it would change the Sunset Strip, music, the hairspray industry, and spandex production forever.

Out for blood

Between 1983 and 1986, “heavy metal” – as it was called before the distinction was made between the bands who played to angry young male crowds versus those who catered to the young women in attendance – ruled the world. In 1983 alone, Mötley Crüe released their second album, Shout At The Devil; Kix released their sophomore effort, Cool Kids; Lita Ford proved ladies could thrash when she released Out For Blood; and even KISS dropped their action-figure act from the 70s, lost the make-up and unleashed Lick It Up on a metal-hungry music scene.

It was a free-for-all in Los Angeles at venues such as The Whisky, The Trip and The Starwood. For a while, it seemed like anyone armed with a hair dryer and a seemingly unlimited supply of hairspray could vault their way onto the cover of Rolling Stone overnight. As with most scenes, hair metals rise to prominence was an organic one. The more bands that popped up, the more venues opened and the more deals were signed.

Vices started out simple at first; however, it was the 80s and stimulants were rarely in short supply. Before too long, things got frantic. Stories surfaced of hotel room blowouts, wrecked sports cars and, sadly, overdoses. But through it all, the music remained key to the movement’s success. With bands such as Ratt, Great White, and Autograph rising to the top of the scene, and stalwarts the likes of Quiet Riot, Dokken, and Mötley Crüe finding themselves in heavy rotation on MTV, there seemed to be no end in sight.

It’s so easy

There is no better testament to the power of hair metal than this: a Christian band could get kids to headbang to songs about Christ when, just the night before, they were singing along to Crüe’s ‘Shout At The Devil’. With their signature striped latex outfits, Stryper had enough of the darkness in the music they loved and (with God on their side) hit the scene running and didn’t look back. On MTV the hair metal scene was christened with its own show, Headbanger’s Ball. It was a monstrous success with the ratings and gave an entire country of disenfranchised youth a place and time to huddle around the TV together. And it was there, in the many homes across America, that hair metal was equally celebrated and torn apart.

Headbanger’s Ball gave the scene its first legitimate home and helped it reach a wider audience than it had ever enjoyed before, catapulting hair metal acts from dive bars to stadiums worldwide. But it also put the music under a microscope. Less talented bands would be picked apart by a more active and knowledgeable fan base. Acts would appear on the charts then disappear overnight when it became clear they were nothing more than a studio creation, put together by labels for a quick cash grab.

But still, well-traveled bands bloomed. Mötley Crüe released Dr Feelgood, arguably the greatest hair metal album of all time. Bon Jovi gave us Slippery When Wet and became bigger than Michael Jackson for a period. And a little band named Guns N’ Roses hit the scene with Appetite For Destruction.

Cry tough

Notable bands who were lumped into of the hair metal genre but never really felt comfortable with the pigeonholing are Def Leppard, Guns N’ Roses, Bon Jovi and, later, Winger. Coming from different parts of the country (and, in Leppard’s case, the world) these bands may have dabbled in the excess of the LA scene when they passed through but, in later years, would do their best to keep the similarities at arm’s length.

While two of Guns N’ Roses’ members hailed from the LA-based bands LA Guns and Hollywood Roses, and they cut their teeth on the same stages as Poison and Faster Pussycat, there was always something heavier about what GNR were doing, both musically and lyrically.

Almost as a reaction to the new direction GNR were talking the scene, other bands strived to explore material beyond “pullin’ the pin of their love grenade”. And thus, the hair metal power ballad was born. At the pinnacle of this hair metal tradition is Poison’s ‘Every Rose Has Its Thorn’, an acoustic strummer that became the band’s biggest hit. After Poison’s success, every band sought out their sensitive side to have a power ballad of their own that could crossover into mainstream radio. Soon, ballad after ballad appeared on once edgy, hedonistic and party-hearty tracklists. In short, the genre was no longer dictating to the audience but catering to it. And with any musical movement that experiences this role reversal, that was the beginning of the end.

Look what the cat dragged in

In the decades since, the Sunset Strip has cleaned up, got a job and only wears eyeliner on the weekends. The venues are still there, playing host to reunion shows, new hard rock acts and those looking to reminisce over sparkling water on their lost weekends on the Strip. Meanwhile, the hair metal acts that defined the scene still play to packed stadiums on lucrative world tours. The audiences (like the band) are just a little older and (maybe) wiser.

While the fashions have come and gone, hair metal’s shredding guitar licks, triumphant drum solos and swaggering frontmen (and women) are timeless.

Def Leppard – Volume 2 can be bought here.

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Johnny ivy

    September 25, 2018 at 9:27 am

    Yeah I grew up on the 80’s and love the music back then it was better this music we listen to now it is overrated and plus you didn’t have all these commercials like you do now they would play 8 or 9 songs back to back and a commercial and then play it over again instead of 3 or 4 minutes of commercial s and then a song sucks now and they had dial in the radio stations and vote for the top ten songs of the day and ballads where it if you had a girlfriend or lady you liked you called the radio stations and request a song and they would play it for you and your woman to show her you cared for and you got lucky but now every body is on these cell phones wished they would have never made them at all and downloading causing the music industry to quit selling CD’s or music and everybody is ripping off the music industry and I am old fashioned I believe that if a song or album comes out or single you go and buy and don’t download it unless you buy it first and then download it on your phone or computer but still keep the music industry alive and well instead of closing them down and letting them go out of business it should be a law against it happening or charging the download sites fees and paying the record companies a fee or roylities so we came injoy the music and voting on the hit song they play on the radio stations and calling in listing to the top ten that was voting on that day it was more cooler then that it is now just telling you like it used to be and it sucks now and MTV was better then and sucks now it was called music then instead of reality show now should drop the MTV and make it reality TV or RTV instead music television made it’s bread and butter and that’s when 80’s hair metal ruled TV and now it sucks balls grudge came in and killed the music seen and killed itself just like that and music is about dead and the record stores are all gone not many left to go shop and buy stuff at and the malls are all about gone to the where the place to go on the weekend’s and then you party and listen to the song and music when it was alive and well instead everybody has to order online and instead of going to the mall and shopping in the record stores and walk around and exercise instead sitting on the couch and getting fat and blaming the fast food restaurants for there over weight problems and hanging out like it used to be and injoying life and being happy but what do I know more than you think just saying metal is still alive and well today if you don’t believe me go to frontier records and see all the old 80’s hair bands with new albums out like winger, stryper, great white, warrant bonfire, L.A. guns, Babylon A.D. Enuf z nuff, Bulletboys and so on don’t download them just buy them and saved the music industry before they are a thing of the past and believe me what I am telling you is true and you would be glad you did because I am old fashioned if I wanted to download the CD I would have to have the words to the songs and jewel case and original CD to make me satisfied so that’s why I don’t buy a downloaded song or CD unless it is original maybe download it on your phone or computer but buy original it will out last the downloaded one at least it will to me just saying peace out and remember to buy original instead of downloading it will save the music industry or it will be gone before you know it and you would wished you had when you can’t find the music you once loved lol

  2. Sandy Blast

    September 25, 2018 at 4:23 pm

    I’m the drummer for Sneak Attack. We were a Metal band based in Hollywood and played the circuit numerous times in the late 80s. We catered to the darker, more ominous side of the Metal onslaught, blasting out favorites like
    “ The Warlock,” “ Energy Vampires,” and “ Into The Night.”
    Unfortunately we arrived at the tail end of the era.
    I remember I was at our managers house in Laurel Canyon, drinking Jack Daniels and ingesting some other illicit substances when his cousin came by and started raving about this new band that was being played all the time on MTV. So we turned it on and sure enough there was Nirvana. The song was “ Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The video was mesmerizing, but it wasn’t Metal. It was punk but it was controlled punk. It had dynamics. Kurt’s vocal was haunting. The band was trashy but super tight. No power chords, no virtuoso lead solo. No pretty boy lead singer…..” What do they call this music?” I asked.
    “ They call it Grunge, It’s the Seattle Sound,” he answered. It’s over, I thought. I was right.

  3. SeanX

    September 25, 2018 at 4:36 pm

    75 % of this article IS WRONG….pertaining to the timeline, guitarists,etc…

    • Charlie Switzer

      September 25, 2018 at 10:24 pm

      SeanX…..tell it like it is !!
      I want the truth

    • Jed Turner

      September 28, 2018 at 10:30 am

      What is wrong then?!?
      I was there and this looks perfectly cool to me!

  4. P. DArcangelis

    April 12, 2019 at 3:17 pm

    http://arcg.is/1rO4SS

    Hair Metal Map with info and some clickables.

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