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Hair Metal: the rough guide


I think I'm actually in fairly serious breach of copyright calling this page "The Rough Guide", so if the web site suddenly disappears, you know what happened! Anyway, this is my little potted history of hair metal, and anything else which doesn't really fit anywhere else on the site.

What is hair metal?
Actually hair metal is an insult. In the '80s, bands playing pop-influenced hard rock were very popular, particularly in America. Most of them had ridiculous image and big hair -- hair metal, aka glam metal and love metal.

History
     Everyone has their influences, right? All the hair bands were influenced by one or more of these bands: Def Leppard, Motley Crue, and Van Halen. Those bands in turn have their own influences: Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper, Kiss, Aerosmith, Cheap Trick, Sweet, David Bowie, the Ramones, and Hanoi Rocks were some important ones. Van Halen, Motley Crue, and Def Leppard were to blame for the whole thing, which is pretty unfortunate for them, really.
   First came Van Halen with their 10 million selling debut album. Anyone who knows anything will tell you that Eddie totally revolutionised guitar playing, and basically every rock guitarist of the 1980s wanted to be Edward Van Halen. Motley's
Too Fast for Love took the early '80s LA scene overground, and then Def Leppard totally moved the goalposts for what rock should be with Pyromania. Those three albums have sold in excess of 21 million in the US alone and they set the stage for the whole thing.
     The way I see it, hair metal happened in waves. Wave one was the initial three bands starting it off. Wave 2 was the bands that immediately followed in their wake: Ratt, Quiet Riot, Twisted Sister, Dokken. In the early days, the hair metal sound was much heavier, and still quite removed from the slick pop-rock we heard by the end of the decade. At this point, it still sounded like metal for the most part, but with more commercial appeal.
     The third wave must have started sometime around '87 although you could see it on the horizon when Poison arrived around 1986; it's hard to pinpoint exactly. But the third wave was when it got really silly. Bon Jovi's
Slippery When Wet was the biggest selling rock album of 1987. In 1988, "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" and "Love Bites" became their first power ballads to be US #1 singles in the '80s. At this point, the world and its dog jumped on the bandwagon and just everyone was trying to get a piece of the action. Traditional European hard rock bands like Whitesnake and the Scorpions turned themselves into hair bands. This is when it got a lot less metal and a lot more hair: Winger, Warrant, Trixter, Slaughter, and White Lion started happening around this time. Overload set in, and hair metal's decline began by the start of the '90s.
   Motley's Nikki Sixx doesn't have much to say for those bands: "They all made me f***ing sick. I didn't want anybody copying me. I didn't want anyone paying homage to me or complimenting me. We were rebelling against the fact that there were all these bad bands coming out of LA copping out look. We thought, 'Man, we're not responsible for this, are we?' Most of them were nothing but opportunist poseurs. If the circus had come to town, they would have been wearing f***ing clown suits instead of spandex."
   It's funny, but Def Leppard's
Hysteria was not only their greatest success but also their undoing. For a start, everything they've released since has been under the shadow of Hysteria's towering perfection. On top of that, the thousand inferior power-ballading clones who followed in its wake led to the public getting sick of Def Leppard's sound and rejecting them in favour of grunge.

So were they hair bands?
     Talk to any rock band who made it in the '80s and they will strenuously deny that they have ever been a hair band. The reason for this is simple: it's a pejorative term. Every time you call someone a hair band, you're saying they suck, and that they exist only for their hair. That's why the term was coined. No one wants to accept this term.
     The thing is, some bands deserve it. Some bands were only chasing the trend. Trail-blazing bands who not only set the trend but also maintained their edge in terms of quality (read: Def Leppard and Van Halen) were not about the hair; Poison unashamedly were. So it depends how blanket you want to be with the term. If by "hair metal" you mean any band around in the '80s with a mullet then Tesla are just as much a hair band as Winger. But if you mean the bands who were mainly in it because they thought that by pouting a lot and wearing hairspray they could get girls, then you're limiting the field. Bon Jovi deny it massively, but they're pretty much the definitive hair band. Image has always been everything for them. Jon says that because they wrote great songs, that proves they weren't a hair band, but Jon himself has candidly explained that he got into it for the girls. The second it was out of fashion, they ditched the look and the scene and have been trying to distance themselves from it ever since, conclusively proving they were only in it while there was money and fame to be had. In the '90s, they allied themselves to the then-fashionable gloom train with
These Days. Who is really more of a hair band -- them, or Poison, who have never wavered from their glam image? You decide.

Why do you like hair metal so much?
There are a few things I want my music to do, and it does all of them. I like happy, catchy tunes. I like my choruses to feature massive vocal harmonies. I want fist pumping, anthemic choruses which release a ton of endorphins and adrenaline into my system. I like hard rock, with massive guitars, but at the same time I like pop, and hair metal at its best effortlessly combines the two without seeming to compromise either. I like the silliness of the lyrics; they amuse me. It is often cheesy, but that doesn't bother me in the slightest. I also like the seriously cool guitar solos you sometimes hear in good '80s rocků it has it all.

See also my Hair Metal A-Z
Articles