The music of the NWOBHM inspired a new generation of artists in the States, and American bands would dominate metal through the 80′s and well beyond. Some artists in San Francisco took the punky rhythms and textures explored by the likes of Motörhead, and beefed up the presentation; we shall explore their work in my next entry. But for now, let’s turn to Los Angeles, where music’s biggest party was getting underway.
LA’s Sunset Strip was the epicenter of so-called “hair metal,” a.k.a. “cock rock” and “glam metal.” For the sake of objectivity, I prefer “pop metal.” It is debatable whether you might even dare to call some of these acts “metal.” For some who played in these clubs hoping to be the next MTV sensation, the music was little more than an excuse to party hard, in every sense of the word.
Although it is easy to criticize pop metal for its superficiality, there arose among its legions a new musical archetype — the guitarist who is too good for his surroundings. So many pop metal acts — Dokken, Extreme, Winger, Van Halen, the David Lee Roth Group — balanced a pandering to the lowest common denominator with highly artful guitar work.
Ratt’s “Round and Round” is one of my favorite pop metal tunes, for not only showcasing Warren DeMartini’s slick leads, but also being a quite well-crafted tune. Here is an ideal pop metal song if there ever was one, appealing to the masses with its catchiness, without sacrificing musicianship.
Thanks to their having balanced pop banality with strong musical craftsmanship, or at least a rough enough image to pass as “metal enough”, some groups maintained respect among the more sincere metalheads. One such group is Quiet Riot, whose Metal Health album became the first metal album to reach #1 on the American Billboard pop album charts. The industry began signing everyone who wore long hair and carried a superstrat, and our airwaves became flooded with pure drivel.
During this era, filmmaker Penelope Spheeris produced an exposé of the Sunset Boulevard scene entitled The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years. In the interviews she compiled, we hear LA veterans and rising stars alike confessing to the most depraved and misogynistic behavior. Seen through Spheeris’s lens, the typical metal musician is a societal leech at his best, a dead-end drunk at his worst. Members of Poison gleefully relate their hedonistic exploits, W.A.S.P.’s Chris Holmes chugs an entire bottle of vodka in front of his mother, and KISS singer Paul Stanley smugly encourages any who would be rock stars to go for broke. But near the end, a scowling, makeup-free Dave Mustaine answers the question, “What do you have to say to kids who want to make it as a rock star?” with a blunt, “Dont.”
Stay tuned to learn what Mustaine and the other half of American metalheads were doing in the 80′s. It was pretty big. In the meantime, watch The Metal Years in its entirety on YouTube while you can.