Back when both the music and hair were big, you could swing your long locks while playing air guitar well before the game Guitar Hero came along. That was the ‘80s, and they’re back and coming through your town.
Any night at a karaoke bar from Tokyo to Timbuktu to Toronto, you’re bound to catch a singer living the ‘80s hair-band dream. They’re giving their all interpreting Bon Jovi or Guns N' Roses—you know the songs, no need to name them. Or there’s a gang belting out an EPIC hair ballad like Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” or Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again”.
Superstars Bon Jovi will tour through a few major Canadian cities in the coming weeks, while Guns N’ Roses continue their Not in This Lifetime Tour after raking in $300 million so far. Ratt will play Heavy Montreal on July 28. And winding through the States on summer tours are Whitesnake and Poison, still rocking it out!
It’s a shame that Mötley Crüe, the band that launched hair metal, retired two years ago on New Year’s Eve 2016, a night when Tommy Lee’s famous revolving drum riser got stuck.
Drinking in LA
The Sunset Strip was the place to be at the beginning of the ‘80s, as the famous Whiskey a Go Go had decided to stop booking punk bands. Punk fans just did too much damage. This left room for the young local metal bands to play for cheap. Mötley Crüe came together around bassist Nikki Sixx and drummer Tommy Lee, played the Whiskey often, and released the albums Too Fast for Love and Shout at the Devil. Their style was as fast and frenetic as punk, and possibly as satanic as metal. However, coming from a showbiz town, Tommy and his crüe had the nerve to blow-dry and hair-spray their hair and put on make-up: heavy metal through a Hollywood filter.
(photo: Motley Crue, "Too Young to Fall in Love", © Master 2008 LLC. 1983)
Also at the Whiskey were Ratt, Dokken, Stryper and Poison, who had driven from Pennsylvania and lived in their van while trying to make it. As Poison’s drummer Rikki Rocket had been a hairdresser, he gave the band the biggest, teasiest hair in LA. They knew the other bands on the Sunset Strip hated them for this, but in the end, they were perfect for MTV.
Vancouver gets slippery when wet
While the hair was getting bigger in LA, way up the west coast the sound was getting cleaner thanks to producer Bruce Fairbairn and his protégé Bob Rock at Little Mountain Studios.
On the metal scene in the first half of the decade, Bon Jovi had already made a name for themselves—not a bad name, but not great either. So their label sent them with a hired songwriter to Vancouver for six months to write radio-ready hits and bring back a polished third album. When not at the studio recording, Jon Bon Jovi and his band spent a lot of time at another Vancouver institution: the No. 5 Orange strip club, which was well-known for having a shower on stage. This is where they came up with the name for the album that launched them into worldwide fame: Slippery When Wet.
Eventually, Whitesnake, Warrant, and Skid Row also turned to Fairbairn or Rock for their slick production treatment, as did AC/DC, Metallica and Van Halen.
(photo: Bon Jovi, "You Give Love a Bad Name", © Universal / Island Def Jam. 1986)
Supermodels at the headbanger’s ball
By the mid-‘80s, when music videos had changed pop music, hair metal came up from underground and fine-tuned its leather-hair-makeup look enough for MTV and MuchMusic. Metalheads regularly tuned to the stations’ respective metal shows “The Headbanger’s Ball” and “The Pepsi Power Hour”. As the clips began to get mainstream play, it seemed that every music video of the genre glorified strippers and models in some way. When the camera cut between the hair-swinging musicians and the dancing girls, you could understand parents saying, “I can’t tell if that’s a boy or a girl.” That was, in fact, the intention.
This was also the decade that gave us the term “supermodel”. On magazine stands, Cindy Crawford and Christie Brinkley made the cover of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue, while metal bands graced the cover of Rolling Stone. Suddenly, the new rock stars and the models were getting together. Whitesnake’s singer David Coverdale married Tawny Kitaen, the star of their 1987 breakout “Here I Go Again” video, then she writhed her way through another four Whitesnake clips. Mötley Crüe’s singer Vince Neil married the star of their 1987 video “Girls, Girls, Girls”. Warrant‘s singer Jani Lane married Bobbie Brown, the star of their 1990 hit “Cherry Pie”. Meanwhile, Tommy Lee went on to marry Heather Locklear, then later hooked up with Vancouver Island’s greatest export Pamela Anderson.
(photo: Motley Crue, "Dr. Feelgood", © 11-7 Recording. 1989)
Curiously, if it were not for MTV, Guns N' Roses may have never made it. Their album Appetite for Destruction was going nowhere fast until they shot the “Welcome to the Jungle” video as a live performance at the Whiskey a Go Go. The clip didn’t rely on trashy girls, rather it was Axl Rose’s unique dance moves and authentic style that touched a nerve. The kids of the MTV Generation called in and lit up the switchboards after the video’s very first play.
Time to get grungy again
Big hair had been around for nearly a decade by the time “Cherry Pie” made Warrant big in 1990. Perhaps it was the lyrical descent into ever-worse sexual euphemisms that started to bore listeners and viewers. Or it could have been the legendary decadence (read the biographies of Tommy Lee, Vince Neill, Slash and so on for the dirt). As often happens, fame took its toll. Poison’s world tour with Warrant ended early in January 1991 after a conflict between the two bands over stage room. And when Jon Bon Jovi put his band on hiatus the same year, he made a very personal change: he cut his hair and the story made headlines around the world.
Radio and television stations buffed up the dirty metal that began in the Seventies until it became a caricature—an evolution hilariously dissected in the mockumentary Spinal Tap. As the ‘90s moved on, the torch was passed to a new and more authentic rock and roll underground that had already begun up the coast in Seattle. Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love would soon reluctantly make the cover of Rolling Stone. With grunge, listeners were ready to get back to rock and roll basics.