Metal Evolution Ep 5 – The Second Life of a Rock Star
From the backseat of a leopard print limo cruising the streets of Los Angeles, Sam Dunn does his due diligence as a director in this episode of Metal Evolution and makes his personal bias against glam metal known from the very beginning. Although glam metal lacks the intensity and aggression that resonates with him as a metal fan, Dunn still recognizes the fact that the rise and fall of glam metal is an important branch in the heavy metal family tree. After all, just because a piece of history happens to wear more makeup than your sister doesn’t mean it’s any less important than the other siblings. (Watch this episode of Metal Evolution HERE, if you haven’t already.)
Honestly, we should all be thankful that Dunn took the time to explore this chapter of metal’s history because it’s FASCINATING. Glam metal (or “hair metal” as it’s also referred to) exploded from a Sunset Strip phenomenon into a global movement in the 80s, but its peroxide-blonde roots can be traced back to the late 70s. At the time, Los Angeles was vibing to the sounds of David Bowie and Ziggy Stardust. Along came Van Halen, a rock band that incorporated an elaborate visual aesthetic with their sound (aka huge, feathered hair and mass sex appeal), laying the foundation on Sunset Strip upon which glam metal would begin to build.
Inspired by Van Halen, and fueled by a friendship between Vince Neil and David Lee Roth, it was Mötley Crüe who sent the glam metal movement into high gear. Vince Neil (vocals), Nikki Six (bass) and Tommy Lee (drums) were the essence of glam metal in its early stages. All living together in L.A. and struggling for money, they would use their boyish good looks and rock star potential to get cash from girls.
Nikki Six believed that the music itself wasn’t enough, that the band needed an unforgettable visual presentation as well. He conceptualized a theatrical, no holds barred image that translated onto the stage as a pyrotechnic spectacle complete with over-the-knee leather platform boots. When Mötley Crüe landed a spot playing in front of hundreds of thousands of fans at the 1983 US Festival, they stole the spotlight along with fellow glam metal band Quiet Riot. The music industry smelled money and began to pay attention. After Quiet Riot hit the number one spot on the Billboard chart with their album “Metal Health” the L.A. glam metal scene on Sunset Strip went spiraling into a blur of sex, drugs and decadence.
Sensing the opportunities available to them in California, Brett Michaels and friends packed up (into an old ambulance, of all things) and headed west from Pennsylvania to the Sunset Strip and unleashed Poison upon the glam metal scene. They were the kings of promotion, coercing large crowds to follow them with the age-old tactics of free beer and hot chicks. And this is the moment in the episode where the realization dawns on you, that it wasn’t the men in the bands who controlled the glam metal scene: it was the women.
Girls loved “hair metal” because the guys in the bands acted just like them, according to Deena Weinstein, a professor from DePaul University. And she’s right. They spent hours on their hair, meticulously put on their makeup and agonized over outfit choices. So if your boyfriend was into glam metal, the two of you could get ready for a show together. How cool is that? Women began flocking to shows on Sunset Strip and we all know that where the women go, the men are sure to follow, regardless of whether they liked the music or not. As Rikki Rockett (drums) from Poison articulately states: “People either wanted to f*** us or fight us. And we were proud of that.” Even Scott Ian from the legendary trash metal band Anthrax admits that they saw the “headbands” as their nemesis but they still went to glam metal shows all the time because “the girls were there.”
Glam metal was taking over the music scene in America partly because its upbeat sound and flamboyant visual aesthetic appealed to the female demographic that heavy metal had previously left relatively untouched. But the rise of a new medium would also play a pivotal part in take glam metal from Sunset Strip and sending it out across the globe: the music video had arrived. MTV and glam metal were a match made in heaven. The genre inherently blended the senses of sound and sight, which was a perfect fit for the visual medium of television. MTV was becoming the defining voice of pop culture, rewarding anything that was a spectacle, so it’s a no-brainer that the station would embrace the mass appeal of glam metal. It was pop dressed as metal, family-friendly power ballads that captured both male and female audiences. For the first time there was a genuine crossover between the genres of pop and rock and the experience of sound and sight but most importantly, it was now available to audiences worldwide.
In the late 80s, glam metal reached its tipping point. Both the music and the look became over-the-top and sensationalized, widening the gap between substance and style. From the depths of this void, the Seattle grunge scene began to trickle down from the northwest to the rest of the country, as a band from within L.A. emerged from the glittery smoke and hairspray fumes of the glam metal scene and changed everything. Amongst the saturated glam metal scene, Guns N’ Roses were a down-to-earth and authentic breath of fresh air with a stripped-down sensibility and a focus on music rather than image. Along with Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam to name a few, Guns N’ Roses were leaders in the new wave of hard rock and grunge that would ultimately send the glam metal movement out to sea.
So what’s a former glam metal god to do in the early 90s? Some got out of music entirely, opting to buy businesses and fill vending machines (seriously), while others slid into emotional and financial difficulties. But we also meet up with other former glam metal stars from Warrant and Poison who stayed true to their passion for music and have found other outlets for their craft: working in high-end guitar shops and running drum workshops. Still, watching this episode, one can’t help but feel sorry for some of them. They were simply young dudes who were capitalizing on an opportunity of circumstance and timing, only to be chewed up and spit out by record labels and the public in the backlash of the genre’s downfall. That hasn’t stopped many of them, though. Nostalgic glam metal festivals are continuing to provide paycheques and since television has always been a natural fit for the extravagance of glam metal, reality shows have proven to be a goldmine for stars such as Brett Michaels (Rock of Love). Call it the second life of a rock star.
This episode of Metal Evolution may be one of my favourites so far. Towards the end of this episode, Sam Dunn has a bit of a personal revelation. Although he was dismissive of the glam metal genre in the past, he now recognizes that many of these bands weren’t just in it for the look and the lifestyle, they had a vision. It just happened to wear eyeliner. After meeting these musicians, he admits to gaining a new respect for the genre and the role it played in the evolution of metal. And I have a new respect for you, Sam.
But let’s not get too mushy. Thrash metal is up next. Catch the next episode of Metal Evolution on Friday at 10ET/7PT.