They were gaudy. They were loud — in all senses of the word. And 20 years ago, they were pretty much inescapable.
Who were “they?” They were the “hair bands” of the 1980s that dominated MTV, filled concert halls, and offended the sensibilities of a lot of rock critics. Back in 1989, rap and R&B had yet to dominate the mainstream, and instead of hip-hop, kids were listening to Bon Jovi, Great White, Warrant, White Lion, Tesla, L.A. Guns and Skid Row.
Album covers offered outlandish images of the massively coiffed musicians in bands such as Winger, Poison, Europe, Cinderella, Slaughter, Vixen, Whitesnake, Faster Pussycat, Black ’n Blue and Britny Fox (a band, not a porn star). And then there were the bands that just managed to elude the “hair” tag, but were beloved by the same audience, such as Guns N’ Roses, Motley Crue and Def Leppard.
Some of these bands were heavy metal lite, others were glam metal and still others were closer to hard rock. No matter. What all these bands had in common, of course, was hair, so they were lumped into the same category — the same way the Rolling Stones and Herman’s Hermits got categorized as British Invasion bands because they both wore bangs.
The hair bands also all had something else in common that really united them: a keen pop sensibility. They made singles that were as well-crafted as they were underappreciated. Sure, these aforementioned bands aren’t all brilliant, but when examined collectively, the amount of great songs from that era is staggering (Google any of the above bands and you’re bound to be directed to at least one fantastic half-forgotten hit on YouTube).
When grunge music came into vogue in late 1991, almost all of these bands went out of style instantly. Few critics shed tears.
Grunge bands, after all, didn’t objectify women like Motley Crue did in “Girls, Girls, Girls.” Grunge musicians might have done drugs, but they didn’t flaunt it as a glamorous lifestyle. And they didn’t go around wearing T-shirts with offensive slogans like “AIDS: Kills Fags Dead.” They also wrote more thoughtful lyrics, and critics tend to give lyrics far more importance than music (a good example being Ron Rosenbaum’s recent Slate takedown of Billy Joel, which assails Joel’s lyrics but never even mentions the actual music).
Two decades on, it looks like the critics were wrong about the hair bands. So what if they were distasteful? Rock ’n’ roll started out offending polite society, after all. Looking back at the massive number of hair band hits, it’s evident these bands were better pop craftsmen than many of the rock artists who followed. Their fist-raising choruses, ripping lead guitars and unappreciated funky rhythm sections often produced rock of the highest order. The turgid, hyper-serious hits by Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and, yes, Nirvana might mean more lyrically, but are musically less interesting, especially when removed from the context of those bands’ careers. Hair band music actually now seems more potent outside of its element.
And when it comes down to it, you can’t hum a lyrical idea. Bands like Whitesnake weren’t afraid to put some pop in their rock, which is what separated them from their metal elders and most of the grunge acts that followed.
Metal’s dark roots
Go back to the beginnings of heavy metal, says critic Chuck Eddy, and you get bands who drew from the blues, like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. Fast forward to the second wave of metal, and you’ll find bands like Judas Priest, AC/DC and Iron Maiden, who ratcheted up the noise factor.
But in that second wave of metal came a band from California that perhaps inadvertently epitomized the pop history of its home state. “The real band that made hard rock be this kind of poppy, sunny stuff was Van Halen,” Eddy explains. “It was like they crossed Deep Purple and the Beach Boys. They had an idea that you could make hard, hard, hard rock that’s also pop music.”
Van Halen’s musical influence and the somewhat ironic lyrical posturing of lead singer David Lee Roth weren’t lost on the bands that followed. Toward the end of that second wave, American acts Twisted Sister and Quiet Riot, and the young British group Def Leppard proved metal could be pop-friendly and play well on MTV.
“The L.A. glam scene informed metal and they fused themselves together,” explains Donna Gaines, a Columbia University professor who examined the subculture of heavy metal fans in her book “Teenage Wasteland: Suburbia’s Dead End Kids.” “So these pretty boy bands emerged from it. I think that the glam aesthetics also brought in girl fans, who had been marginalized in the earliest metal scenes.”
But as the butch posturing of earlier metal forms were giving way to more pop-friendly sounds out west, something entirely different was brewing on the East Coast. With a little help from songwriter-for-hire Desmond Child, Bon Jovi’s 1986 sophomore album, “Slippery When Wet,” became a mega-hit and arguably the most influential hair band record of all time. It’s telling that the roots of the songs are not in metal — or even hard rock.
“When I was writing the songs I was writing I wasn’t writing for a genre,” explains Child, who co-wrote the smashes “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “You Give Love a Bad Name,” among many others. Child says he brought in influences “from the singer-songwriter music of Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell, Elton John, Carole King and Stevie Wonder and put them into hard rock.”
Jon Bon Jovi’s jovial image also helped metal become friendlier to the masses. When the singer smiled in his videos (a surprising thing at the time), he made it OK for metalers to be cute instead of threatening. The stage was set for toothful singers like Warrant’s Jani Lane and Skid Row’s Sebastian Bach, both of whom could never have fit into any scene that included Iron Maiden.
The songs, not the singer
But then, Iron Maiden never came up with Top 40 hooks as beguiling as those in Skid Row’s “I’ll Remember You,” a song that could probably work in most any style. Second wave metalers also didn’t do many ballads, and it’s here the hair bands cornered the market with a subgenre called (brace yourselves) the power ballad.
Depending who you believe, this subgenre had its origins in the music of Journey and Foreigner or the Beatles’ “Hey Jude.” Whatever the case, power ballads gave hair bands some of their most enduring hits, like “Every Rose Has its Thorn,” “Wanted: Dead or Alive” and “When the Children Cry.” These songs were considered marketing ploys to bring in female fans, but Gaines notes that a lot of her guy friends genuinely “connected with these songs” in a way they didn’t with the rockers.
Eddy says the power ballads have had a lasting influence on music, but not in the place you’d expect. While hard rock bands these days take their cue from Nirvana or even the Beastie Boys, country performers have copped the power ballad style (with Rascal Flatts’ recent “Here Comes Goodbye” a good example).
“There’s no question that a country station today does not sound like a country station did 15 or 20 years ago,” Eddy notes. “Part of that is you have all these power ballads. I mean, Carrie Underwood had a hit with a Motley Cure cover recently (“Home Sweet Home”). I think that started probably with Garth Brooks being into KISS.”
It makes sense, then, Eddy says, that Brett Michaels of Poison, Tom Keifer of Cinderella and Jon Bon Jovi have all recorded in Nashville recently. Former hair band musicians probably also feel an affinity with country audiences because, like country, metal in all its forms primarily drew a blue collar fan base (Deanna Weinstein noted in her book about the subject).
And this may be the main reason hair bands get so little respect (well, that and the ridiculous hair). Back when Warrant and company were ruling the mainstream airwaves, the place they weren’t getting played was college radio. College radio was mostly listened to by people who went to college, hence its name. Since most rock critics went to college, they came out of a somewhat elitist culture where hair metal was disdained as music listened to by the unwashed, uncultured masses (confession: I was a product of the very culture I’m now calling elitist).
But 20 years later, all of this is academic — pardon the pun. Hair bands might have been trashed by reviewers (check the Rolling Stone Record Guides for proof), but good songs win out regardless of genre, which is why radio stations play disco on Saturday nights. When more and more kids get to hear catchy songs like Poison’s “Nothin’ But a Good Time” on Internet stations without knowing hair metal’s bad rep, odds are this much-maligned genre will prove it can stand the test of time as well.